Here it is, everyone! The long-awaited story, That Whiter Host!
A few things you may wish to know: We took the title from a poem by Emily Dickenson, and you will want to read it before the story gets too far undeway. There is a link in my profile that will take you to a copy of the poem.
Also, both PGF and I are under some crazy schedules right now, so this story will in all probability be updated every 3 days or so, until mid-June when things settle down a bit (and the cliffhangers start!); then it will be quicker.
Until then, enjoy!
"'Marley was dead, to begin with.'"
"I beg your pardon?"
I glanced up from Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol to look with amusement at Sherlock Holmes, who was rather warily eyeing the tiny Christmas tree Mrs. Hudson had placed upon our table.
"I said, 'Marley was dead, to begin with.' That's the first sentence. It should appeal to your rather twisted sense of humour," I replied with a smirk.
Holmes poked at the little tree as if seeing if it were sturdy enough to withstand living in the zoo we called a sitting room and then glanced back to me.
"I told you, no more romantic Christmas stories, Watson."
"It's not a romantic Christmas story!"
"Three spirits, a miser who changes heart, and a crippled child that goes about saying 'God bless us, every one' – and you say it is not a romantic holiday tale?" he snorted, poking the tree curiously once again.
I broke into a soft peal of laughter at the thought that Holmes sometimes rather resembled the character Ebenezer Scrooge; I had to basically coerce him into even recognizing the holiday season. He celebrated Christmas mainly because I asked him to, not because he derived much pleasure from it. Although I suspected he enjoyed himself far more than he let on, as he did a good many things in his odd life.
"Have you read it?"
"No, thank heaven. But you obviously have, and many times too. And before you ask it, no, I am not going to permit you to read it aloud tonight!"
"I wouldn't dream of it," I replied with a grin, closing the book and tossing it onto the ground by my chair, getting up and going over to the window.
A perfectly lovely snow was falling over London this Christmas Eve in 1894, large white flakes dancing past the windows and sparkling in the soft golden gas lights from the street lamps and shop windows. People were hurrying by beneath us, their arms laden with belated Christmas shopping, their hats and coats dotted with fluffy white flakes.
"What a lovely evening – look at that snow!"
Holmes snorted derisively but walked over to glance out of the window beside me with a grin.
"You're as bad as a little boy on Christmas Eve, Watson," he said fondly.
"Well it wouldn't hurt you to loosen up a bit this time of year, Holmes – you're as bad as Scrooge himself sometimes!"
"I am not!"
"I thought you said you hadn't read it – how would you know?" I asked pointedly.
Holmes's mouth opened and closed abruptly without noise, and I grinned at his face and turned back to the window to watch the late night shoppers rush and bustle about, running into each other and tipping their hats in the greetings of the season.
For once each was thinking of someone other than himself, and I was more than grateful to see it. In the line of work Holmes was in, we rarely got to view the better side of humanity, and I welcomed the holiday as a time to see it more clearly.
Somehow the warm mood had made its way through even to Sherlock Holmes's stubborn heart, however, for he leant his bony elbow casually on my shoulder there at the window and began to point out passers-by of interest down below us with the stem of his pipe, giving me full-length biographies of their homes and their intentions for the holiday season.
Mrs. Hudson interrupted our quiet talk by entering with a bottle of sherry and a cold supper, which I for one was grateful to have at least. I had been out delivering packages earlier in the evening and had missed dinner completely.
"Will you be needing anything else, gentlemen?" she asked, "I've got a lovely pudding and a goose roasting for you both tomorrow, but if you'd like something now…"
"No, no, thank you very much, Mrs. Hudson," I said hastily to the good woman, "this is very much welcomed."
"Well then, a merry Christmas to you both, gentlemen," the lady replied, nodding to me and giving Holmes a questioning look.
When I returned the compliments of the season and Holmes ignored her totally, she rolled her eyes, winked at me, and left the room, shutting the door behind her.
"No, thank you, Watson."
"Did you eat today?"
"Yes, Watson – do stop that infernal fussing!"
I snorted and started on my dinner, glancing at the clock. Nearly midnight.
Over the years, as I had practically hounded Holmes into celebrating Christmas with me, we had rather made it a tradition to stay up until around one, exchange a small token, and then retire until the next morning, when Mrs. Hudson would fix us a repast to rival any fine restaurant in the city.
I had wondered, this being the first Christmas we had spent together since his Return, if the tradition would still stand, but apparently all was as it used to be in the old days, so far at least.
I glanced a little nervously at my desk drawer, where I had wrapped Holmes's present and hidden it just an hour ago (one could not hide presents for longer than that anywhere in the sitting room, for he was most ridiculously childish about finding them and deducing what was inside if one did), wondering if he would grasp its significance and if so, would he even like it.
Holmes was pacing rather restlessly in front of the windows, and finally he seated himself across from me at the table and snatched a biscuit from the brightly-coloured Christmas platter in front of me.
"You might ask me to pass them, Holmes," I teased, shoving the platter over to him.
He smirked, his mouth full of biscuit, and refrained thankfully from any further childish gestures, pouring himself a cup of now lukewarm coffee that had been in the pot since my return this afternoon.
"Sure you don't want to read A Christmas Carol tonight, Holmes?"
My dear friend nearly splattered his coffee everywhere, but I could not tell if it was in reaction to my question or the fact that it was tepid at best now. I snickered and took my glass, rising from the table and settling down comfortably into my armchair by the fire to light my pipe.
Holmes mopped up his mess, snatched the entire tray of biscuits (Mrs. Hudson would throttle him if she found out he was eating over the carpet) and a glass of his own and brought them over to the hearth, where he flung himself on the floor carelessly and idly picked up the book I had dropped there earlier, leafing carelessly through the pages.
"Ugh. Worse than one of your stories, Watson," he growled at last, scooting it across the rug back towards me and shoving another biscuit into his mouth as if to drown out the taste of the prose.
I laughed and grabbed a biscuit from the platter myself – our landlady did an enormous amount of baking during the holiday time – and for several minutes we sat in a companionable silence, during which the platter of Mrs. Hudson's sweets was considerably depleted.
I had nearly dozed off, what with the combination of the Yule Log and the sherry, when the clock struck midnight and Holmes jumped to action with an energy that surprised me.
He had scrambled to his feet with an eagerness that was unusual for his nature and was rummaging round in his bedroom, the noise accompanied by various crashes and tinklings as objects were subject to his vigourous searching. A moment later he rather shyly emerged, carrying a small package wrapped in red paper.
I felt my face crease in a wide smile – he was actually excited about giving me a Christmas present? That was a novelty – his Hiatus had changed more about him than I had realised!
I hopped up and retrieved his gift from my desk, exchanging it with him on my way back to my seat. Holmes sat cross-legged on the floor and moved nervously with suppressed energy, stuffing another biscuit into his mouth to negate his having to say anything remotely personal.
I would have laughed at his endearing nervousness had I not thought it would be a trifle demeaning to him, and so I indicated that he should go first.
"Go on, deduce away. Or are you going to be normal this year and just open the package?" I asked mischievously.
He nearly sprayed crumbs everywhere laughing, glancing over the package with a practiced eye.
"You go first, Watson," he said at last, glancing up at me.
I looked at the small parcel, a box roughly smaller than one of my journals but nowhere near as heavy as a book would have been.
"Hmm, I deduce that you did not wrap this yourself, Holmes, since you cannot cut a straight line in wrapping paper to save your life, and I can also tell that –"
"Oh, just unwrap the blasted thing!" he replied in exasperation, glaring at me.
I chuckled and undid the gold ribbon and red paper, revealing a small wooden box, which I opened. Holmes fidgeted nervously below me on the hearthrug, staring at his slippered feet as I did so, and for a moment I stared at the gift inside.
"How in the world did you know I wanted one?" I gasped at last.
"You've been poring over them every time you go into the stationers, that took no deduction whatsoever," he informed me.
"So that's why I caught Alfie and Wiggins following me three times in the last two weeks!" I said, sudden comprehension dawning – he had sent the Irregulars to spy on me to find out what I wanted for Christmas.
My friend merely grinned.
I laughed delightedly and removed the Waterman fountain pen from its wooden box.
"It's the perfect gift for a writer, Holmes, and I really have been wanting one ever since they came out a few years ago, just never got one for myself!" I went on excitedly, holding the sleek instrument up to the glowing firelight, "You have no idea how much!"
"Good. Although I don't know why I set myself up for yet more of your romantic drivel," he sighed elaborately, looking impishly at me out of the corner of his eye as he childishly tried to peek into his present.
I snorted but suddenly flushed with nervousness. "Go on, your turn, Holmes," I said, a little awkwardly, "stop peeking and open it!"
He smirked, tearing off the blue paper and the little silver bow that had taken me fifteen minutes to tie passably, lifting the object out and beginning to unwrap the white tissue paper round it.
Suddenly I felt very warm, and very nervous, and so I got up to refill my glass at the table, leaving him by the fire to open the gift.
I had not found anything in any London shop that meant quite the same as this, something I wanted to give him on our first Christmas together since his Return – something that signified cutting all ties with those painful old memories and letting the spirits of the past lie in the past.
I had taken his silver cigarette case that he had left me at the Reichenbach Falls and had it engraved with our initials and the wishes of the season, giving back to him the last remaining item I had that would possibly tie me to those painful years and the anger and hurt that went along with them.
I hoped that he would realise that, with that gift, I was relinquishing any bitterness that I still harboured over his three-year deception, that I was laying those ghosts to rest, never to rise again. I chanced a glance at him as he sat there by the fire, reading the little note that I had enclosed to that effect, and saw that he was turning the case over and over in his hands, looking at it as if it were a brand-new object.
Then he rose to his feet slowly, tucking the note into the case and snapping it shut, placing it in his pocket as of old, and walking over to me at the table, the normal harshness of his grey eyes softened quite a bit.
"Thank you, my dear Watson," was the only thing he said, accompanied by a warm smile which I a little timidly returned.
I held my glass out to meet his as the clock struck the half-hour, but the clink of the crystal was lost in a pounding of feet upon the stair. I glanced at Holmes in puzzlement and was not a little pleased to see an irritated look cross his face at the idea that someone was interrupting our intimate little tête-à-tête.
But when the door flew open without preamble and a familiar little face appeared, both of our faces softened.
"Alfie, what are you doing about on such a night without a hat?" I demanded, for the little Irregular's ginger hair was completely without cap.
"Oi don' 'ave one, Doctor, not since Rat pinched it las' week when 'e went down by th' river," the lad informed me, brandishing a thick letter in Holmes's direction, "this 'ere's sent by special mess'nger, Mr. 'Olmes. Looks loike i' might be importan'."
"It had better be, to interrupt our Christmas Eve," I growled, seeing the alacrity with which Holmes opened the missive, all former softness gone from his face in the light of a possible case.
Alfie shot me a sympathetic look before skipping over to the half-eaten platter of biscuits and beginning to busily fill his pockets.
"'Ow's yer 'oliday, Doctor?" the lad asked by way of conversation, hopping to my desk to look at the assortment of greeting cards I had tacked up there.
"Wonderful, Alfie," I replied with a smile, watching his childish enthusiasm.
"Blimey, yew even got a tree!" he gasped, seeing the rather pathetic tiny thing standing on our table, "but 's a bit scrawny, don' yew think?"
"Alfie, can you take a reply back to this messenger at the office for me?" Holmes interrupted briskly.
"An' a merry Christmas t' yoo too, Mr. Scrooge."
I hastily covered my chortle in a cough as I heard the lad's muttered sentiments before he nodded cheerfully at Holmes.
My friend scribbled down a reply on a loose piece of foolscap and handed the lad a sovereign, telling him to keep the change.
The boy's eyes got round as Christmas wreaths as he stared at Holmes as if he'd gone mad.
"Cor! Thanks, Mr. 'Olmes. Guess yer not such a Scrooge after all!"
I snickered as Holmes glowered at the boy, shooing him out of the room as if he were a pesky fly.
I laughed again as Alfie stuck his tongue out at my friend and waved cheerfully to me before setting off down the stairs, no doubt to attack Mrs. Hudson's fruitcake before departing.
"That child grows more precocious every day," Holmes growled, taking up the letter and walking over to me where I still stood by the window, watching the swirling white flakes drift by.
He moved over beside me and chuckled as we watched the little Irregular reach the pavement, hurling a snowball at a tall gentleman's black top hat and neatly knocking it from his head before taking off at a run down the street.
"You've made one little boy's Christmas a very happy one, Holmes," I remarked sentimentally.
I expected some scathing retort about ridiculous romanticism, but to my surprise I heard an entirely different set of words.
"I certainly hope so, Watson."
So surprised was I that I nearly forgot about the letter until Holmes suddenly shook himself out of his reverie and showed it to me.
I took it from his hands and was immediately put in perception of the weight and thickness of the paper. Only a few times had I encountered paper similar to this…one being during the Irene Adler case. The sender was obviously wealthy to afford such stationery.
A slight foreboding gripped me as I looked down at the beautifully written lines on the page. The missive ran in this way:
Mr. Sherlock Holmes:
I am plagued by the greatest of afflictions and desire to consult with you. Being far from a matter of national or political strife, this is rather a danger which troubles me personally. My honor and future happiness and family name all rely on the outcome of this affair.
But my plea is not for myself alone but all the more for another. It is for her sake that I come to you.
If it is agreeable I will call on you tomorrow morning at nine. I apologise in advance for any disruption to your celebrations; but the matter is of the gravest urgency and cannot be delayed in being laid before you.
I give to you my wishes of happiness this holiday season.
Count Heinrich Austerlitz, Weissberg, Bavaria
"Oh, not another case – on Christmas Day?" I moaned in dismay, handing the letter back to Holmes.
Holmes looked at me pleadingly as he stuffed the rather peremptory missive into his pocket. I glared at him, refusing to smile at his begging attitude.
I just looked at him.
"You'll get a chance to take notes with your new pen…"
At that I laughed without thinking about it, and Holmes grinned, knowing I would never ask him to turn down a case, holiday or no holiday. The consequences of his boredom were far worse than any case possibly could be, Christmas or no.
He refilled his glass and topped off mine, turning back to me to finish our interrupted wish.
"A Merry Christmas, my dear Watson."
"And to you, Holmes."
"To our new client?"
"May his case be considerably less dangerous than I know you are hoping for."
To be continued...