Mary Russell seems to have had a happy childhood before the events that overtook her family in the fall of 1914 (The Beekeeper’s Apprentice; Locked Rooms). It was also anything but conventional, as one might expect of an American Christian father and English Jewish mother who are raising two terrifyingly intelligent children in homes on two continents. A typical eccentricity is the gift young Mary receives—-and carries into her adult years—-that becomes her iconic equivalent of Holmes’ deerstalker hat: the throwing knife she wears in her boot.
# # #
Every little girl should have an Uncle Jake.
The black sheep, the family rogue, whose exploits filled my childhood with admonitions over the dire and delicious consequences of misbehaviour. When Uncle Jake wandered away from a family train-trip at the age of four, he was taken by Indians. When an adolescent Uncle Jake ran away to join the circus, he was nearly eaten by the lion. When Uncle Jake received a col- lection of Sherlock Holmes stories for his fourteenth birthday and began following suspected criminals around Boston, one of them turned his pistol on the boy at his heels.
Most astounding of all, every one of these cautionary tales turned out to be true.
# # #
“Russell, I find that difficult to believe.”
I blinked, pulling my gaze from the fire to the man slumped into the basket chair across the hearth. “Lower your eyebrow, Holmes. All those stories were quite true. At least, they all had factual elements.”
“Why have I never heard of this mythic uncle before this?” “And how many years did you know Watson before you told him you had a brother?”
“That is not at all the same thing.”
“No, of course not. Perhaps I wished to be certain you could not flee in horror, and needed to wait until you had made an honest woman of me.”
At that, his other eyebrow went up, either at the idea of Sherlock Holmes fleeing in horror, or at my being made honest. I relented.
“Jake’s been gone a long time. And I suppose…well, I tend not to dwell on things that remind me of my parents.”
He returned to the pipe he had been filling before my thoughts had broken into the amiable murmur of the evening fire.
“Although I’ll admit,” I continued, “you may be right to some degree: I have little way of knowing if all the stories told about Jake were completely true. But I did confirm some of them, and I did know the man. Little about him would surprise me.” Holmes dropped his spent match into the pieced-together Roman bowl that Old Will had dug up in the garden. “He died?” “I think so.” The outstretched hand paused, the right eyebrow quirking upward again. “Jake loved me. I can imagine nothing short of death that would keep him from coming to see me.” “Truly? There could be any number—”
“Yes, I know. And it’s true, prison is by no means impossible.
Perhaps I should simply tell you about him.”
The basket chair emitted a symphony of creaks as he stretched his long legs towards the fire. He threaded his fingers together across the front of his once-bright dressing gown, preparing to listen. However, once interrupted, my tongue hesitated to go on. What could I say about my father’s brother that did not come back to: “He left me, too”? Uncle Jake had tried hard to keep me from pain, but in the end…
“So,” prodded Holmes, “did those stories about the lad’s troubles help to keep you in line?”
I had to smile at the thought.
# # #
The cautionary tales about Jake’s near-disasters had quite the opposite effect on my impressionable mind: namely, the temp- tation to follow in his footsteps became irresistible. Especially after he was banned from family mention in 1908, following an episode too shocking for consideration—“family” meaning, in the hearing of my grandparents.
For some reason, my mother had a soft place for her brother- in-law. His few actual appearances were memorable—no doubt explaining why they were few. I could have been no older than seven or eight when he arrived on a summer breeze, borne across the Channel to Sussex in an air balloon. He even managed to come down a) on dry land and b) within a mile of the house.
Because there was the other thing about Uncle Jake: even my mother, who had theological objections to the concept, was forced to agree that Jake possessed a guardian angel. The Indians returned him, the lion did not like the taste of his shoes, the criminal’s hand was stayed by young Jake’s blond, blue-eyed innocence—and, years later, the changeable breeze of the Channel held steady for the requisite hours of the crossing. By the time the dot on the horizon had grown, neared, become recognisable, then begun to descend, half the population of East Dean was scurrying along below, eyes lifted and feet stumbling. Had this been 1914, he’d have been shot down. But war was half a dozen years away, as far off as any tragedy could be, and so the amateur aeronaut came down towards the earth, skip- ping over rooftops, narrowly missing a collision with the church tower. The basket snagged among the tops of the trees along the Eastbourne road, shook itself free without quite coming to grief, and cleared a very solid wall by the breadth of a hair before the great bag collapsed, its basket thumping down in the Padgetts’ front garden. It would be hard to say who had the widest grin: the small man who climbed out of the wicker gondola, or the children bouncing around him like an overturned bucket of hard-rubber balls. Even my father, attempting an expression of adult disapproval, found it difficult to keep his mouth under control. Uncle Jake pressed through the front row of witnesses, patting excited heads all the way, to come to a halt at the toes of the taller, older man. My father stood firm, enforcing the scowl on his face. Uncle Jake cocked his head, the mischief on his face only growing, until Papa gave up, meeting his brother in a hard embrace.
Jake stayed with us for a week that time, teaching us how to make those miniature hot-air balloons called sky lanterns, foot-wide paper shells lifted by the heat of a tiny flame: it was pure magic, watching a glowing orb lift into the night sky and meander away. For the rest of that summer (which, fortunately for the fields and thatch rooftops, saw regular rain) it was difficult to find a candle in any shop of the South Downs.
Then on the eighth day—again, typical of Jake—he was gone, leaving behind the folded-up balloon, a community of fervent young lantern-makers, and a wistful awareness of having been the recipients of a Visit.
Still, my brother and I were more able to absorb the disappointment than others because it was already nearly September, which meant that Christmas was only a few pages away on the calendar.
Some explanation may be required. Levi and I were Jewish, because Mother was. Papa’s American Christianity rode lightly on his shoulders, so that when the two were married—or long before, if I know Mama—he freely agreed that any children from their union would be raised according to her traditions, not his. Except when it came to Christmas. He did not mind what the holiday was called—generally, Mama termed it “Winter Solstice” in private and “the holidays” when talking to others, although she had been known to slip and give December 25th its traditional name—but he did insist on most of the trappings: roast goose, mince tarts, mistletoe sprigs, and morning presents—everything short of church services and the more religious carols.
It was, for children, the best of both worlds. Better still, in order to celebrate far from the eye of Mama’s rabbinical father, we quietly took ourselves from London to our holiday home on the South Downs for the entire month, there to decorate a tree, fill the house with delicious smells, and wait for Papa to arrive. You see, we went long periods during my childhood without our father. My mother, my brother, and I had left our home in San Francisco for England (the full reasons for this I was not to understand until much later) a few months after the 1906 earthquake and fire. Until 1912, when we returned to the Pacific Coast, England was where the three of us lived, while my father, tied to family business interests in California and Boston, would make the trip across a continent and an ocean twice a year: for the long summer holiday, and for a too-brief winter visit.
Thus, even without Uncle Jake’s contribution, December was a period rich with significance. As the year faded, anticipation grew. In early December, our tutors were dismissed, our trunks dispatched, and we boarded a southbound train for Eastbourne. Sometimes, packages were already waiting for us, collected by the village woman who kept the house both when we were there and in our absence: packages large and small, with numerous stamps or none at all, bearing return addresses from London, from America, or from the world beyond. The tidiest—always rectangular—were from our grandmother in Boston, predict- ably ill-suited for our age (the toys), our bodies (clothing), or our interests (books). Only slightly less boring would be those from the London shops, purchased by Mother, who never really understood that Christmas was about thrill, and thus could be depended on to produce the next book in a series, a packet of our respectively preferred sweets, and any piece of clothing or equipment we had taken care to mention to her in November.
Father’s were considerably better, although they were as apt to be puzzling as exciting (such as the year he decided I might enjoy learning to fly-fish) and often did not reach us until we had returned to London in the new year.
But the very essence of Christmas throughout my childhood were the well-travelled parcels that arrived with Jake’s bold hand- writing on them. Never neat, rarely rectangular, almost always from some unexpected corner of the globe, Jake’s presents might have been specifically designed for the purpose of driving parents mad. What adult would send a collection of explosive, corrosive, and poisonous chemicals to a five-year-old boy—even if that five-year-old was Levi Russell? Or the shrunken head with the postmark from Ecuador? Or the tall crate covered with mysterious ink designs that arrived late on Christmas Eve, with my name on it, and kept me from sleep all the long night. It proved, once I had burrowed through the excelsior the next morning, to contain an antiquated Japanese air rifle, magnificently engraved, wickedly accurate. Uncle Jake’s gifts tended to mysteriously disappear soon after our return to London. A few of them turned up, years later, in a storage shed down in Eastbourne I had not known the family possessed. Others I suspected had been anonymously donated to one museum or another: one New Guinean spear in the Pitt Rivers looks remarkably familiar. But other gifts were less tan- gible, and stayed with the family forever.
For example: One snowy Christmas morning, probably 1909, a knock on our door heralded not neighbours or carollers, but a heavily wrapped individual (wrapped in woollen garments, that is, not decorative paper) with snow on his boots and a sheaf of pages clutched between his icy fingers. Mother pulled him inside, thawed him out, gave him food and a couple of powerful drinks, then sat in bemusement as the hairy young fellow rose to his feet, cleared his throat, and read to her a series of poems written on the sheets of paper. He then laid down the poems, resumed his garments, tipped his hat to her, and said, “I am asked to say that your brother-in-law wishes you many happy returns of the day, and much poetry in the coming year.” Then he trudged off through the snow in the direction of Eastbourne.
Another year, a shipment of penguins bound for the London zoo went inexplicably astray, ending up at our front door. Since it was Christmas Day, with limited trains to London, and since the poor creatures were clearly in need of both exercise and a meal, the entire village was treated to the spectacle of seventeen Antarctic natives gobbling English herring and tobogganing in their feathered evening wear along the snow-covered Downs.
# # #
“Your uncle was banned from family mention, yet your grand- parents continued to support him financially? Vintage air rifles and waylaying a flock of penguins suggest considerable resources,” Holmes commented.
“Oh, yes. Jake was as banned from the family coffers as he was from their conversations. I suspect that whatever it was he got away with in that 1908 episode might have set another man up for life, but not someone who abandons once-used hot-air balloons or gives away Rolls-Royces to a gipsy king. No, Jake lived by his wits—which, while considerable, were weighted towards the larcenous. The final straw, the event that had my mother reluctantly accepting the opinions of her parents-in-law, brought my brother and me into matters. A young introduction into a life of crime.”
“Hence your remark, long ago, that had you not met me, you might easily have become an expert forger or second-storey man. Woman.”
# # #
It began in the summer of 1911. At the time, there was nothing to suggest that this would be our last year of familial separation. It was a July like any of those previously spent beneath the Sussex sun, weeks of running wild through Downland lanes and villages. I was eleven, Levi six, and by this time we were well known to every farmer and housewife in the triangle formed by the Lewes road to the north and the Cuckmere River to the west, with the road from Eastbourne to Newhaven our southern boundary. (Thus, slightly outside the customary haunts of our famous neighbour, Sherlock Holmes.)
To most of them, we were simply two of a gang of free-ranging children—with better shoes and manners than some, perhaps, but every bit as likely to be at the centre of any complex bits of troublemaking. Some would drive us away with shouts, a few went so far as to report a misdemeanour to our parents, but most would merely shake their heads at our antics and shoo us off.
Not all. There were two or three among our neighbours to whom we gave wide berth, although we would have loved to tor- ment them, could we have been certain of anonymity. But after a conversation with our parents, Levi and I agreed that the punishment of these few villains was beyond the responsibility of minors. One of them was an old woman in East Dean with a bitter tongue and a large and vicious dog. The other was the owner of a run-down public house and inn along the Lewes road, whose threat to turn a shot-gun on miscreants was all too widely believed. This latter individual was a person with a blithe intolerance for foreigners of all stripes and newcomers to Sussex in particular, and an open abhorrence for those of the Hebrew faith. I had never been inside his place, although Uncle Jake was a regular whenever he was in Sussex—less for the company, I had figured out the previous year, than for the card games that kept the publican in business. An overheard conversation in the village shop told me that poker, exotic for rural England, was responsible for the shiny motorcars with London plates that assembled outside of the inn on the occasional Friday night: letting out rooms made it easier to get around licensing hours.
My parents had long since forbidden to us the Lewes road for a mile in either direction of the establishment, whenever we were on our own. This was easily enough done, since most of our social life lay to the south and west of where we lived, but then in the summer of 1911, this person made purchase of a motorcar, a sleek and shiny machine on which he showered all the care and attention he did not show his place of business. He drove too fast, and after rumour began to spread that he had deliberately swerved in the direction of a neighbour’s affable and arthritic dog, Mother warned us to take great care along the better-kept roads and lanes, where his tendency to speed might give two Jewish children little warning of his approach. Fortunately, the summer passed without so much as a close call, or I’d have ended up in an uncomfortable conversation with my father about a stone going through the publican’s windscreen. We returned to London for the autumn, my father sailed for America, and Mother, Levi, and I buckled down to the twelve long weeks that lay between us and our next freedom.
December came at last, and with it, a sensation I had never before felt in the Sussex air: a touch of bitter to the sweet. The next summer, we would not board the train to Sussex. We would not spend three blissful months running wild, swimming with Father at Beachy Head, picking wild berries, and transforming into brown-skinned, scabby-kneed, wild-haired urchins. Instead, Mother had agreed, after six long years, to join Father in San Francisco, reuniting our family at last.
We were overjoyed—and yet…
This December might well be our last time here, at my mother’s beloved Sussex farm.
The three of us went down a few days earlier than usual, since the prospect of an extended absence would require a lot of planning with the farm manager, Patrick Mason. Or so Mother said. It seemed to me that Patrick ran the farm quite nicely with very little advice from its owner, but I was not about to object to a few extra days in Sussex.
Perhaps Mother, too, was impelled by emotion rather than practicality.
In any event, we went early, which made it one of the years that Father was not there at the start. And because Father was not with us at the start, there were several of his usual tasks that Mother took on instead.
One of those involved a trip to the Evil Publican, to order a small barrel of beer to offer the numerous visitors entertained by both house and kitchen during the holidays. One might have thought that the Russell family would impose economic sanctions against the man, but for some reason, both parents agreed that a campaign of bland kindness might bring him around where open warfare would not. Personally, I’d have dropped rat poison in his tea-kettle, but then, I have never been a forgiving person.
Two days after we arrived, under skies leaden with the threat of snow, Mother cautiously steered the motorcar down the lane towards the main road. She was not a comfortable driver, but she believed in meeting her fears head-on, which made waiting for Father, or having Patrick drive us, unacceptable. Levi and I huddled under heavy travelling rugs in the back while she peered forward through the misty windscreen, convinced that any instant, a child on a bicycle or a straying pony would dash out before her.
Mother drove at the speed of a brisk walk.
As a part of meeting one’s fears, she also preferred to face unpleasant things immediately. So our first stop would be at the home of the Evil Publican—and, lest one think that she might believe children are to be protected, when we came to a halt, she turned and told us to come in with her.
Being a child of Judith Russell was not always an easy thing. Levi and I stayed well back as Mother walked across the saloon bar to where the publican glowered. She laid down a piece of paper with Father’s name on it and counted out the cost of the barrel, making polite conversation to his silence all the while. When the money was on the surface of the bar, she put away her purse, rested her hands on the wood, and looked expectantly at him. Levi and I held our breath, but since his choice was to take Mother’s order or lose our family’s business, he reluctantly reached down for his order book and wrote down the information.
Mother thanked him, politely added that her friends always enjoyed his winter ale, and turned to go.