More seasonal fluff...
THE BEST LAID PLANS…
"No!" exclaimed Sherlock Holmes, flinging the letter he had spent an incredulous few moments reading into the fire. "Never! Absolutely and emphatically not!"
"It seems like a rather good idea to me," I remarked. Watching him from the corner of my eye, I poured us both a second cup of coffee. "Honestly, old man, an innocent offer of Christmas hospitality is hardly deserving of such a reaction. Whatever is the matter?"
"It is Cressida's offer of hospitality, that is what. And it will not be innocently made. She has some ulterior motive, depend upon it," Holmes declared, snatching up his cigarette case and returning to the breakfast table. After having learnt of her existence a few years ago, and finally met the lady herself the previous summer, I was well aware of the animosity that existed between my friend and his cousin, but had thought that they were on rather better terms in recent months. Evidently I was wrong.
"Why the devil should she?" I enquired. "Christmas is a time for family, after all, and it is only natural that she should want her children to know their relations. I am rather flattered that she had included me in her invitation."
"Anyone would think that we were an old married couple, or a pair of spinsters, the one never seen or invited without the other," Holmes muttered.
I pushed his coffee cup towards him. "What exactly is so objectionable about your family?"
"Beyond the fact that they exist? You have met Cressida, Watson, surely you can reason from the example she presents that it is better to prevent any reunion of the Holmes clan from occurring."
"I don't find her all that bad," I said, and he threw back his head and laughed. "In fact," I added, "there are times when she reminds me of you."
Holmes sobered immediately. "Don't be ridiculous."
"You have allowed me to get to know Cressida," I continued, hiding my smile at his discomfiture behind the rim of my cup. "Why is there such a problem with my meeting the rest of your family?"
He took a long draw on his cigarette and shot me a sidelong glance. "Because," he said eventually, "I have no desire to relive the Christmases of my youth, and I would certainly not inflict that kind of torture upon you, my dear fellow. Believe me, my family and I get along far better when we are – preferably a few hundred – miles apart."
There was little I could say in response to such a pronouncement, so I returned my attention to my cooling breakfast. Holmes sat across the table, silently smoking, a frown embedded between his eyebrows. In truth, I was not entirely surprised that he would wish to avoid any gathering of his family. The haughty Cressida was thawing a little towards me now that we had met upon several occasions, but if the rest of Holmes's relatives were anything like her I could imagine that a few hours spent in their company would be something of a trial for anyone. The knowledge did not, however, stop me being curious about them, and I could not help hoping that for once my friend might change his mind.
It appeared that Cressida thought that same, for she did not accept Holmes's refusal to grace her planned reunion with his presence.
She wrote to her cousin no fewer than three times following her first letter, even going to the lengths of enclosing a heartfelt plea for attendance from the children, which he dismissed as "emotional blackmail. She is evidently becoming desperate if she has to stoop to such tactics." He stood firm in the face of all entreaties, reiterating his intention that we should have our usual quiet Christmas, away from the onslaught of festive cheer and sentimentality which he disliked so much about the season. I often thought that, were it not for my influence, Holmes would have shut himself up in the house with his violin and copious quantities of tobacco at the beginning of December, and not opened the front door again until New Year.
A complicated case kept us busy until Christmas Eve, much to his delight. Caught up as we were in the initially inexplicable abductions of several department store Father Christmases, it was not until we stood in the manager's office of one of the biggest shops on Oxford Street as evening drew in on the twenty fourth that I realised we had had no time in which to purchase gifts for one another. When the grateful man had ceased wringing an increasingly uncomfortable Holmes by the hand, I suggested that we take the opportunity to look for something suitable. Though he disliked the stores intensely he reluctantly agreed, and together we descended to the bustling sales floor below, Holmes remarking that his willingness to brave the hordes in such an establishment should prove beyond all reasonable doubt his continued regard for me. "I would endure this for no one else," he told me as we emerged from the lift into the hot, heady festive atmosphere.
We agreed to split up and meet half an hour later near the main doors. I thankfully completely my mission to find yet another Christmas gift for Holmes in record time, and idled in the foyer while I waited for him, admiring the sprawling model village which encircled the enormous Christmas tree. The roofs of the houses were dusted with artificial snow, glinting in the coloured light from the new-fangled electric bulbs which dangled from the branches, while a miniature railway snaked between them pulling a load of gaily-wrapped parcels. As I stood there, occasionally scanning the faces in the crowd for any sign of Holmes, I was taken aback when I glanced up as the doors opened to see instead the portly form of his elder brother enter the store, puffing from the exertion. I must have called his name in my surprise, for he turned and flapped a huge hand in my direction.
"Doctor Watson," he rumbled, unwinding the thick muffler from his neck, for it was uncomfortably warm inside the store. "What brings you to this infernal place?"
I indicated the parcel under my arm. "I could ask you the same question."
Mycroft grimaced. "Oh, it is my housekeeper. She discovered that it was my secretary who purchased her gift rather than myself, and now the wretched woman is reproaching me for putting no thought into it. I ask you – Jenkins knows far more about choosing presents from females than I, but one must not argue with the holder of the key to the larder," he said with feeling.
"You are not here to buy a gift for your brother, then?"
"Good God, no. Sherlock and I have not exchanged Christmas gifts since he presented me with a box of frogs when he was ten. The abominable creature got hold of the gold watch our father had promised me and made a substitution. It took me all day to get over the shock – could hardly eat anything for dinner." Eyeing the package I held, he added, "I take it that is for Sherlock? He will not deserve it, whatever it is. You would be better off saving your money."
The subject of our conversation arrived at that moment, also carrying a parcel. He blinked in surprise upon seeing his brother, but merely said, "Doing your own shopping, Mycroft? Has Jenkins come down with influenza, or did he finally tell you to buy your own Christmas presents?"
"My staff would never be so insufferably impertinent," Mycroft retorted. "It is a shame one cannot say the same for relations. By the by, will you be attending Cressida's little gathering tomorrow?"
Holmes arched an eyebrow. "Will you?"
His brother shuddered. "Good Lord, no. She is persistent, I will give her that. Also optimistic, if she thinks she can drag everyone together."
"And quite insane that she should wish to," Holmes said tartly.
"It certainly does seem rather odd. I had thought that Cressida wanted as little to do with them as you or I – after all, none of us have ever been exactly close."
"For good reason. One eccentric in a family is just tolerable – a dozen is absolutely unbearable."
Mycroft glanced at me and raised his brows, indicating his brother with his eyes. I hurriedly turned my laugh into a cough when Holmes glared.
"Well," Mycroft said, ignoring his sibling's annoyance, "I must be off. The necessity of my being forced to make his expedition means that for once I am able to wish you the compliments of the season in person, Sherlock. I will leave it up to you to decide whether or not that is a good thing."
"Thank you, brother mine. I return, I offer the information that they are handing out samples of mince pies and sherry in the food hall," said Holmes. "If you hurry, you may get there before it is all gone."
Mycroft's watery grey eyes lit up at the mention of food. "I shall indeed make my way there. Perhaps Mrs Wyndham will be pacified with a bottle of port. Merry Christmas to you both - the festive season is all the better without the caprices of one's relatives to spoil it." This pronouncement made, he lumbered off in search of mince pies.
"Well, well, well," said Holmes as we reached our front door some minutes later, "Mycroft in a departmental store. Wonders will never cease!"
"Is your family really all that bad?" I asked, following him up the stairs.
"Worse. My great uncle Didymus expressly forbade everyone from attending his funeral, claiming that as he couldn't stand the sight of any one of us when he was alive, the last thing he wanted was us all gathering to see him into the hereafter. Of course, he probably never considered that some might have wanted to go purely to make sure that he actually was dead."
"Holmes, you are saying these things purely to shock me."
He laughed, and threw his hat and coat in the direction of the stand on the landing. "Ah, Watson, you are lucky enough to have had a normal family," he said, striding into the sitting room. His eye falling on the little potted Christmas tree I had bought despite his objections a few days before, he peered at it and observed, "This pathetic specimen of Picea abies will be dead before tomorrow morning if we do not take drastic action."
"Mrs Hudson promised me that she would water it," I began, and stopped as I glanced around the room and suddenly noticed the absence of a fire in the grate and the presence of the luncheon things upon the table several hours after our hurried meal. "Where is Mrs Hudson?"
Holmes frowned. For our meticulous landlady to leave dirty plates was unheard of. "It would appear that some investigation is in order. Come, Watson."
He led the way back down the stairs. Rarely did we have occasion to venture into Mrs Hudson's domain – upon the one time I dared to enter the kitchen in the early days of our tenancy with the intention of making myself a sandwich, she ran me out again with a scolding worthy of my own mother. This time, the kitchen was empty and so we tried the parlour – Holmes knocked upon the door, and when we received no reply, turned the handle. By this time I was more than half expecting the worst and so was uncommonly relieved to see the good lady hale and hearty and packing a carpet bag rather than unconscious upon the floor. She was caught up in her task and had evidently not heard our entrance, and so Holmes knocked again on the door frame.
Mrs Hudson jumped, her head shot up and she stared at us for a few moments in shock before her shoulders slumped and she smiled slightly. "Mr Holmes, Doctor. I'm sorry – I had no idea you were home."
"That is quite all right, Mrs Hudson," I said. "Whatever has happened – are you going away?"
"I'm afraid so, sir. My sister - "
" – has been taken ill, or at the very least is in some need of your immediate assistance," said Holmes.
Mrs Hudson did not bat an eyelid at his immediate reading of the situation. "I received a telegram only half an hour ago. She's broken her leg, sir, and will be laid up for the next few weeks. The children are scattered now and her Henry can't look after her. I must give her what help I can."
"Indeed you must. Watson, go outside and hail a cab, there's a good chap."
"Of course," I said. "Is there anything I can do, Mrs Hudson?"
Our landlady's smile broadened, and she patted me on the arm. "Bless you, sir, but she's in good hands, being attended to by a very competent young man. I won't drag you away on Christmas Eve – oh!" Her face suddenly fell and her hand flew to her mouth. "I've got nothing prepared, no dinner for you! And tomorrow - "
"It's quite all right, Mrs Hudson," said Holmes smoothly. "We will manage. Now, if Watson will call that cab, I shall take you bag and you will be with your sister in no time."
"Holmes," I said when we had seen the good woman off in a hansom and my friend had given the driver half a crown to ensure he made all speed, "What are we going to do? About food, I mean?"
"I am sure we can manage something between us," Holmes declared. Once in the sitting room he began to search amongst the detritus on his desk for a matchbox. The air was rapidly becoming frigid, and I shivered involuntarily. "Breakfast will not take much effort if we restrain our appetites, and there must be something in the pantry to tide us over until then."
"Yes, but what about tomorrow? It's Christmas Day, after all. I've been looking forward to roast goose and plum pudding. Toast and a boiled egg isn't quite the same."
"We could always return to Lally and Willetts to purchase a pudding, supposing of course that they have one left," Holmes suggested, running an eye over the teetering stack of old newspapers beside his chair. After a moment's consideration, he rifled through them, put a couple to one side and began to crumple the rest, tossing the resulting balls into the grate.
"They still have to be steamed," I pointed out. "I have no idea how to steam a Christmas pudding. Do you?"
Holmes was distracted by his attempts to light a fire. "I regret to say that in such matters my education was sadly lacking. Perhaps Mrs Hudson has a book of household management we can peruse."
I laughed at that. "I doubt if we can learn to cook Christmas dinner by tomorrow morning, Holmes!"
"It would be a considerable challenge," he said, kneeling on the floor and discarding the tongs he had been using to add coal to the newspaper and kindling in the fireplace. He struck a match, holding it to the paper and waiting for the flame to take. "I do not see - "
He was interrupted by a sudden hammering on the front door. I glanced out of the window and saw that a cab had drawn up outside the house.
"It may be a client."
Cursing under his breath, for the kindling was stubbornly refusing to take light, Holmes shook out the match and got to his feet. He hurried down the stairs, and I heard him open the front door. A surprised exclamation followed, and a few moments later the familiar bulk of Mycroft Holmes entered the room behind his brother.
"Twice in one day, Mycroft. You are becoming a positive gadabout," Holmes said, crossing to his armchair and throwing himself into it.
"This is no time for levity, Sherlock," Mycroft snapped. "Disaster has befallen me – absolute disaster!"
Holmes raised an eyebrow. "Has the government collapsed?"
"Far, far worse than that."
"What could possibly be worse?" I wondered.
Mycroft looked extremely serious. "There has been a fire in the kitchens at the Diogenes – everything is utterly ruined. All the food is completely destroyed, reduced to cinders. And no chance of replacing it by tomorrow!"
It was plain that Holmes was trying not to laugh at the thought of his gourmand brother denied his Christmas feast. He was biting hard upon his lip, the corners of his mouth turning inexorably upwards despite his best efforts, and I sought to distract Mycroft before he could notice his brother's less than sympathetic reaction.
"How dreadful," I said. "It would seem to be a day for disasters, for you seem to be in a similar position to us."
Mycroft looked confused, and I quickly explained about Mrs Hudson's sister. "Well," he said when I had finished, "as we all seem to be somewhat adrift, I believe there is only one option under the circumstances."
Holmes's mirth vanished immediately, replaced by an appalled expression. "Mycroft, you surely don't mean…"
"I do," his brother replied. "I fear we must throw ourselves upon Cressida's mercy."