Disclaimers: Sherlock Holmes belongs to the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mary Russell belongs to Laurie R. King (as does the mention of the Chair Scene!!!), and the Dower House, the Dowager Duchess, Helen and Gerald Denver, Ahasuerus the demon cat, and of course, Lord Peter Wimsey belong to the estate of Dorothy L. Sayers. Not mine. I make no money off of this.
Author's Note: This is a slightly unorthodox take on our Favorite Consulting Detective. It's based loosely on Baring-Gould's biography of said detective -- *very* loosely.
Peter came rushing out of the Dower House as I climbed out of the car with Holmes. "Holmes! Mary!"
I laughed as he clasped my hand. "You're looking wonderful, Peter. Thank you so much for inviting us here."
Holmes looked on the distant Bredon Hall at Duke's Denver with an easy, not-quite-delighted eye. I smiled at him, wondering if this would be the first traditional Christmas he'd had since he was a boy - dissecting things with me on the holiday certainly didn't count as traditional.
Peter looked at the heavy sky. "I shouldn't wonder if we had some snow by nightfall," he said. And then he seemed to remember that it was cold outside, being late December in East Anglia. He promptly ushered us inside, where we were greeted warmly by Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess. Holmes kissed her hand gravely, the perfect gentleman. "My dear lady, it is a pleasure to see you again."
The good lady smiled at Holmes. "Oh, likewise, Sherlock. You look wonderful."
It always gave me a start to hear anyone address Holmes by his first name - even Mycroft. Although I shouldn't have been too surprised - the Dowager Duchess and Holmes were closer in age than Holmes and I were.
As it was time for tea, we were escorted to the drawing room and stuffed with muffins and crumpets while we discussed politics and detecting. When we were bursting with breadstuffs, Peter settled into the sofa with a sigh and said regretfully, "I suppose we'll have to run over and see Helen and Gerald."
I sighed inwardly, finding it hard to make conversation with the Duke, and I very much disliked Helen - as did most everyone else she came in contact with. However, the Dowager rescued me by saying, "Oh, I wouldn't worry about them - I told Helen that Sherlock and Mary weren't coming in until late tomorrow night and she said - rather huffily, I might add; she'll end up with high blood pressure one of these days, and that's really a shame, no matter who it happens to - that we might as well wait to come over for Christmas dinner, and I wasn't about to argue. The main Hall is really so chilly during these events - I wonder that Gerald hasn't had something done about it, like an extra fireplace. At any rate, we don't have to show up until the day after tomorrow."
I smiled at that incredible lady, having caught the general gist of what she was trying to say. "Thank you, madam."
She reflected my smile. "Oh, think nothing of it - it was as much for me as it was for the two of you, and I'm afraid Helen isn't very much in the Christmas spirit, for all she tries to act so cheerful. A shame, too - one can't really enjoy the Christmas cookies when one is so sour."
I laughed delightedly as she rose and continued, "Now come along, dear - I'll show you and Sherlock your room, and I've made sure that it's not drafty - nothing worse than having a burst of cold air around your feet suddenly at all hours of the night when you're trying to sleep, after all."
Peter piped up, "I'll just skedaddle along to the kitchen and see how the aforementioned baked goods are coming along, shall I?"
"Suit yourself - but mind you don't spoil your dinner," his mother added severely. She then sailed out of the room with Holmes and me in tow, leaving Peter to his own devices.
As was typical, the room was beautiful, with a large, four-poster, canopied bed with curtains. After making sure everything was in order, the Dowager Duchess swept out of the room with the promise to send a servant an hour before dinner was to began, and I sat on the bed and looked at Holmes. "Well, husband?"
He was staring out the window. His pipe was out of his pocket, and he fiddled with it unconsciously.
He started, and then turned to look at me with an odd, dissatisfied glint in his eye. "Yes, Russell?"
"I think I shall take a nap."
He made no response and instead headed for the door. I watched him warily. "Where are you going, Holmes?"
His one-word answer was punctuated by the slam of the door. "Out."
I sighed and turned to my repose, but it was a good while before I could convince myself to attempt to fall asleep. I was, admittedly, concerned about Holmes - when we had first arrived, he had seemed in relatively good spirits. I did not quite know what to think, so I replayed his actions in my mind. It seemed that his mood had changed when he was staring out the window, and he had obviously been deep in thought when he was doing so.
I got up. There was no way I could sleep, and Holmes was too much of an enigma to be fathomed at the moment. Instead, I rose, went to our baggage, unpacked quickly, set aside the dress I'd be wearing to dinner, and withdrew from my valise a book by Maimonides. I sat in the lovely overstuffed armchair at the end of the room and began to read.
Lost in the wisdom of the Spaniard, it took several knocks for Franklin to startle me out of my concentration. She finally ended up poking her head in the room. "Madam?"
I jumped. "Yes?"
She said, "My lady's compliments, and dinner will be served in an hour. Is there anything you require, madam?"
"I don't think so. Thank you."
Franklin bobbed quickly and closed the door. I rose, changed into the sensible, well-tailored dark blue dress, and began the struggle with my hair. I was pinning the last ornery wisps into place when Holmes stalked in the door wordlessly, found the garments he was looking for, and left again, presumably to prepare himself. I hoped he wouldn't be like this at dinner - not only was it worrying, but it was exceedingly bad manners. After Peter and his mother had been so kind, it would be the height of rudeness to grunt monosyllabic answers to questions. But I would not worry overmuch about it - these things eventually worked themselves out sooner or later, and Peter had known Holmes longer than I had, as had his mother.
I descended the stairs into the dining room to find Peter, the Dowager, and Holmes already seated. Instead of being spread out all over the massive table, we were seated across from each other in the middle. I sat at Holmes's right across from the Dowager, and the first course began.
Contrary as ever, Holmes positively scintillated at the table, directing the conversation beautifully, allowing for each of us to put in our own word, and then expanding exponentially upon the topic until we were on another topic entirely. It wasn't unlike descriptions of Talmudic debates that I had read about in the course of my work.
Finally, we had retired to the sitting room for coffee and brandy, and the conversation abated slightly. After a few moments of not uncomfortable silence, Peter jumped up and pointed to the window. "Snow!"
We rushed to the windows, and indeed there were flakes adding to an ever-thickening blanket that I estimated to be perhaps two inches deep.
Peter's eyes shone like a small child's on Christmas morning. "Let's go out and play in it, mother!"
"I'll leave the three of you to do that," she said affably. "These old bones of mine are in no shape to go tramping about in the wet."
"I think I'll keep you company, madam," said Holmes. "We'll let the children play while they may."
I looked at him sharply, but there was nothing on his face to explain his strange comment. Instead, I turned to Peter. "Let me go up and change first, and I'll meet you outside."
He nodded, and I turned and went up the stairs and into my room.
Letting the children play while they may. Holmes was acting like a child himself. Officious old eccentric. I decided not to let him ruin my fun outside and donned trousers, white shirt, pullover, thick jacket, and gloves. As I turned to leave the room, Holmes entered the room. He did not look at me or acknowledge my presence. I simply swept out regally, returning his brush-off. Two could play at that game.
Peter met me at the bottom of the stairs, muffled, mittened, and bearing two pairs of snowshoes. I raised an eyebrow. "I don't think the snow is quite deep enough for snowshoes."
"You never know," he said airily, and opened the door. A gust of flakes blew inside, and we went outside.
Descending the stairs of the Dower House, he leaned against one of the lions that guarded the entrance and strapped on a snowshoe. "You might as well put them on, Mary. I thought we might go for a walk, and the snow is getting ever deeper."
With some foreboding - there was something in his voice that told me that he knew that there was something wrong - I obeyed, and we set off, slightly unbalanced due to the unwieldy shoes, down the drive towards the woods.
We spent some time just catching up with each other. He inquired about what was going on at the University, and that eventually led to my studies, and thus to a philosophical debate. By the time we had agreed to disagree, we had reached a quiet clearing in the forest, and the snow was deep and soft, with that quiet silence that is either peaceful or sinister, depending on one's mood. I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.
Peter toddled to the other side of the clearing, brushed off what looked like a log, and sat down, motioning me over. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a bench. I sat beside him and said nothing.
He said nothing, either, for a moment. He bent forward and began drawing patterns in the snow at his feet. A round face, whiskers, pointed ears, a body, four stick legs, and a squiggly tail - a cat. He then erased it with one swift, nearly vindictive swipe of his mitten. Abruptly, he said, "Barbara sent me a Christmas letter."
I frowned, slightly shocked, and more than a little sorry for Peter. Barbara was the ethereal young lady he'd been involved with before the war, and he had come home on leave to find that she had married a major behind his back. He had gone back to the front with a suicidal tendency - this last detail I had gleaned from Holmes. Peter, though, knew that I knew about Barbara, and thus knew that he could speak to me of such things.
Peter continued, "A house off Grosvenor Place, three apparently darling children, and a blissful marriage with her major. She deserves it." He kept his voice blank.
My heart ached for him. He was in his late thirties and had not had a serious relationship since before the war. I said quietly, "You deserve it, too. Don't forget that."
He smiled bleakly. "I suppose I'm just a confirmed bachelor. It's all right."
I held my breath briefly, the phrase getting to me - as Peter no doubt knew it would. He waited a few seconds before speaking again.
"Mary, despite his near-convincing act at the dinner table tonight, it is quite easy to see that something is wrong."
I sighed and rested my chin in my hands, giving over to the inevitable conversation. "What gave it away?"
"Holmes never spoke to you directly, never looked at you, never picked up on a thread of yours to continue the conversation. It's not hard to notice, even if you're not the world's most famous consulting detective."
I stared at a bush, watching snowflakes fall softly onto the prickly leaves. "I don't know what brought it on, but he's been short with me ever since we arrived. Ignoring me. I suppose it could just be one of his moods - he hasn't had one in a while, and he's due for another."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Peter watching me with a mixture of envy and pity. I could understand the envy. What I couldn't take was the pity.
I jumped up, swaying a bit due to the snowshoes. "It's getting late - your mother will be sending out the cat after us."
He rose slowly. "My mother's cat is a lazy ass, the forsaken animal. And I damn well don't like the little devil crawling all over me every time he sees me." At this brief, irate oration, he set off through the clearing and down the path, and I followed him. There was little conversation on the way back, and once we crossed the threshold and abandoned our snowshoes, we went our separate ways and into our respective bedrooms.
Holmes was curled in the armchair I had occupied earlier that evening, smoking his foulest blend of shag and staring severely into space. I did not speak to him. I instead fetched my nightgown, went into the dressing-room and changed - if he was going to act like a child, I certainly was not going to give him the privilege of his own private cabaret show - and crawled under the coverlet.
He did not come to bed that night.
The next morning being Sunday and Christmas Eve, we went to church. The sermon was, of course, oriented to the holiday, and there was to be a recital given by the organist after the service. Peter and his mother seemed inclined to stay for it, and Holmes raised no objections, so I hung on gamely, sitting in between Holmes and the Dowager Duchess. I was apparently supposed to be listening to the organist's "impassioned" rendering of Bach, but due to my tin ear for such things, I could not sit and enjoy it as Holmes, the Dowager Duchess, and Peter, sitting on the other side of his mother, appeared to be doing.
Holmes's attitude towards me hadn't improved very much - he had not spoken to me this morning during breakfast, and did not open the car door for me, a slight which Peter noticed, but did not comment upon.
I risked a glance at Holmes. He was glaring at the high altar, though whether it was in concentration or malaise I could not tell. As, though, the organist had lifted his hands from the keys and Holmes was still glaring, I was relatively sure it was the latter. When I nudged him, he jumped, looked about him, and started to applaud politely - but he never once looked at me.
I suddenly felt cramped, near claustrophobic, and I had to get out of the church. I elbowed my way past Holmes - none too gently - and walked quickly down the side aisle and out of the church.
Once out of doors, I began to breathe again, only to have tears rise to my eyes. I sat on the cold stone steps, disregarding my skirts, and prepared to have a good cry in front of the good constituents of Duke's Denver, God, and everybody.
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and Peter dropped to sit by my side, concern evident in his face. I could not look at him for more than a brief second.
I took a moment in which to make sure I was composed enough to speak, and then I said, "It's not one of his moods."
"He would have acknowledged me this morning. And then there was the car door. And he - he didn't come to bed last night. If it were one of his moods, he would still be speaking to me - snapping at me. That would be bearable. But to have him not even acknowledge my existence…" My voice trailed off, and I had to pause for a moment to gather myself together. "I am his partner and his wife, and God help me, I love him. I don't know what I did to upset him, if anything, but I want him to be happy, especially at this time of year."
I stopped to wipe away a rogue teardrop, and I laughed desperately. "And what you must think of us as guests, I don't know…"
Peter smiled, rose, and gave me a hand up. "I'd rather this happen here than anywhere else - Lord knows we don't get any excitement around here anyway. Come on in for a minute while I get your wrap, and we'll drive on home."
"But what about your mother - and..."
He cut me off gently. "I'll come back for them - Mother knows."
I blushed and nodded, letting him guide me inside and out to the car. He sang some obscure carol on the way back so as to keep me from having to talk, and I appreciated that.
Back at the Dower House, he saw me upstairs. "You just get back in bed and stay there for a while - let Mother and me deal with Holmes. People will be around if you need anything. Would you like me to send Franklin up?"
"No, thank you - I'm all right."
He smiled and headed down the stairs. "See you when I see you, then."
He stopped halfway down and turned with that funny lopsided smile. "Yes?"
I did my best to generate a genuine smile. "Thank you."
He bowed formally. "Damsels in distress my specialty, madam. Now go to bed like a good child."
I laughed and closed the door, sliding back into my nightgown and into the bed. As I had gotten little sleep the previous night, I more than made up for it, sleeping straight through until nine that evening, when I woke with a start, staring into a furry, benevolent face.
It seemed that the Dowager's "little devil" Ahasuerus had nosed his way into my room and was now investigating the warm lump under the bed. I laughed, moved the cat off my chest, and got out of the bed. The room was dark, and I felt around for the vestas in the drawer of the bedside table. Once located, I used one to light the candle on the table, thus shedding light where before there had been none. I pulled on a dressing gown and my spectacles and, taking my candle with me, went downstairs in search of something to eat - I had had nothing since a quick breakfast before church that morning.
I was stopped by voices coming from the library. The Dowager Duchess, Peter, and Holmes. I stayed away from the door, but paused in the hall so I could hear.
The Dowager was apparently telling a convoluted story of one of Peter's Christmas escapades as a child. I smiled and continued down the hall, unseen, to the kitchen.
After settling my appetite with muffins and Christmas cookies, I decided to join the seemingly happy group in the library. However, as I approached, I heard the Dowager give her good nights, and for some reason, something kept me back in the shadows. I snuffed my candle for good measure.
There was silence for a good thirty seconds, and then I heard Peter say, "Holmes, about Mary - "
I heard him cut Peter off. "I don't wish to discuss it."
"She's your wife - it's Christmas - "
Holmes gave a great sigh. "Wimsey, I appreciate your hospitality and kindness, but keep your bloody nose out of my business."
I recoiled in shock. This wasn't the Holmes I knew. The Holmes I knew would be sarcastic in his refusal to talk, and he certainly wouldn't be that rude to his host. Peter was evidently as shocked as I was, for no noise came out of the library for a good many seconds. When Peter did speak, he was quietly adamant. "Holmes, as I stated, it is Christmas, and I would rather not argue with you. I will thus leave and take myself to my bed, but keep this in mind. Mary is devastated. Hurt beyond all belief. You at least owe her an explanation if you love her at all - no, you owe her an explanation because she is a person, and thus deserving of at least a modicum of respect. As a gentleman, I am left aghast at your treatment of this woman - this lady - and…for God's sake, Holmes, she's your wife. Even if your relationship isn't the most conventional one, it's plain to see that you love - loved her. You owe her at least an explanation, if not an apology."
I heard Peter sigh. "Good night, Holmes, and merry Christmas."
I pulled back further as Peter stalked out of the library, up the stairs, and into his room. I sank down against the wall and sat on the floor. I wanted to go in and talk to Holmes, no, scream at him, demand an explanation -
And then I heard him rise. I heard footsteps, latches snapping, and a return to a chair. Four soft, plucked notes from a violin. And finally, a soft, mournful rendering of Greensleeves, degenerating into simply miserable minor melody.
That music told me more about what was going on with him than anything I had deduced from his behavior. It told me that I was wrong - it wasn't something I had done. Indeed, the sounds emanating from his violin told me that it was an inner problem, and it was one that I wanted to help him solve. He might have been unspeakably offensive to me in the past few days, but as Peter said, I was his wife. And I loved him. "Down in the dumps for days", forsooth.
I got up slowly, brushing against a table as I did so. On the table, I saw a cable with Peter's name on it, and with Mycroft's name at the bottom. Gazing at it, I saw this:
REGARDING SHERLOCK ADVISE ASKING ABOUT EARLY YEARS STOP ROOT OF PROBLEM IS THERE STOP PLEASE CONSIDER JOB I MENTIONED PREVIOUSLY STOP A GOOD SERVICE FOR YOUR COUNTRY STOP GIVE REGARDS TO MARY AND YOUR MOTHER STOP BEST OF THE SEASON TO YOU AND YOURS STOP
Putting it down, I moved into the room, where a dying fire cast its last lingering shadows over four armchairs. One of these chairs was occupied, and it was from this chair that the soft music was coming from. I approached this chair from behind, treading as softly as possible, and lay one hand gently on Holmes's shoulder.
Immediately, his hands stopped, and he lowered the violin and bow to his lap. Getting up, he replaced the violin in its case, and pointed to the chair. "Sit."
He took the chair next to mine. "Did Peter send you down here?"
My voice was steady. "No."
"Were you listening outside the door?"
He steepled his fingers, looking for all the world like a vindictive old bird of prey. "And do you think I owe you an explanation?"
I did not answer him.
Incredibly, Holmes smiled and moved over in his chair. "Come sit here beside me, Russell."
I did as he asked, squeezing in beside him, remembering a similar occasion very shortly after we were married. To add insult to injury, he took my hand and held it with both of his, although he did not proceed to do what he did upon that previous occasion. Rather, he began to speak.
"Russell, Peter is quite correct in saying that I owe you an apology. I apologize heartily for my actions, and hope that you can forgive this crusty old man his rudeness, which is uncalled for in anyone."
I nodded, but I had not fully forgiven him, and would not until he had proffered an explanation. Perhaps not even then.
He brought my palm to rest against the side of his face gently, holding it there for a moment, then lowered it back to his lap. "Ah, Russell, what a tangled web we weave."
"Indeed," I said.
With a dry chuckle, he settled back in the chair as best he could, and seemed inclined to remain silent.
Remembering Mycroft's cable, I said, "Holmes?"
"Tell me what Christmas was like for you as a child."
He let loose another dry chuckle, but this one had a slightly bitter tinge. "As a family, we were on the go a lot. On the Continent, Mycroft and myself away at school, Sherrinford at University…my esteemed parents didn't worry much about Christmas."
"What was your best Christmas like?"
"As a child?"
He thought for a moment. "When I was eleven, I was gravely ill. My mother thoroughly spoiled me that year, glad that I had survived. Mycroft came home from school, and the three of us spent the day outside, playing in the snow - much like you and Peter, I imagine."
"Where was your father?"
Holmes stiffened. "Away on a trip."
"He wasn't home for Christmas?"
"No, Russell, he was not."
"Why wasn't he home?"
"I don't recall."
I let him stew for a moment before asking my next question. "What about your worst Christmas?"
He snorted. "I was fourteen. We had journeyed to France. By this time, Sherrinford was out of sight, Mycroft was at University, and I was left alone with my parents. My mother was ill and I could not see her, and my father completely forgot about it. I spent the day moping about our hotel suite."
"Your father doesn't seem much like the type to care about holidays."
"An excellent deduction, Russell - he was not 'the type', as you so eloquently put it."
I had touched a nerve - he was becoming sarcastic. "Did he just not care?"
Holmes was quiet for a moment. "I suppose he didn't."
I didn't say anything, leaving the floor open for him to continue. And he did.
"He did not care. I can only remember him being present during the opening of packages and during the dinner - never lingering to speak with any of us, especially my mother. That hurt her greatly. I was the youngest, her favorite - I tried to make up for it, but I wasn't enough." He was speaking so frankly. I was amazed.
Holmes continued, "One year, when I was home from Oxford and Mycroft was absent, he didn't come down at all. My mother sent me up to check on him, and I found him dead. He had ingested a lethal dose of strychnine purposely. He left a note to my mother, which I delivered and read after she had fainted. It said that - " here his voice shook a bit - "that he could not bear to live among his family any longer, and his mistress would not have him. My mother ended up going to live by the sea, where she died. On Christmas. I was with her.
"So you see, Russell, that this holiday is not one of the most auspicious dates for your husband, and perhaps you now understand why he has been so perfectly foul in the last few days. He also hopes beyond hope that you will forgive him."
In response, I settled my head against his shoulder and murmured, "Let him know that all is well, and that his wife hopes that this Christmas will be better than those in the past."
He rested an arm about my shoulders. "It is already better, my dear Russell, because you are here with me."
So we remained for a good long while. However, the fire eventually sighed its last, and the room got cold. I shoved a gentle elbow into Holmes's ribs. He awoke with a start. "Yes, Russell?"
"The fire is dead, the chill enters, and I should like a more comfortable bed than this chair."
He rose, pulling me up with him. "Let us retire to our room upstairs, then." Keeping my arm entwined with his, he led the way upstairs and into our bed, where we settled comfortably, his arm around me and his voice soft in my ear. "Merry Christmas, Russell."
"Merry Christmas, Holmes."
We awoke the next morning and went downstairs together for breakfast. Peter, ever vigilant, noticed Holmes pulling out my chair for me and smiled.
After the church service, Peter suggested a frolic in the snow. Holmes and I accepted, and the three of us, dare I say it, cavorted about until Peter got "cold" and went inside. I rather suspected that he simply wanted to give us time alone, but I was not going to argue.
I fetched the snowshoes that Peter and I had used two nights before and proposed a walk. Holmes was interested, and I thus took him out to the clearing where Peter and I had had our conversation. I shall not go into our activities there, for some of them are not quite seemly, but suffice it to say that one Sherlock Holmes was the recipient of a snowball in the face, and he did not mind one bit. Indeed, I was glad to give him incentive to forget, if only briefly, about his past - and an opportunity to focus on retaliation in the immediate future.