THE BEST LAID PLANS
Holmes stared at his brother in horror. "You have to be joking, Mycroft."
"I most certainly am not," Mycroft replied in a tone which suggested that joking was the very last thing on his mind. He turned to me. "Desperate times call for desperate measures, eh, Doctor Watson?"
I could see that Holmes was about to argue, and so said quickly, "Yes. Yes, indeed."
"Watson!" my friend exclaimed, outraged that I was siding with the enemy.
"It is the lesser of two evils, Holmes," I told him. "Christmas won't be any fun with just the two of us and whatever we can scrounge from the pantry, will it?"
Holmes's chin tilted defiantly. "Indeed it will!" he cried. "What could be more appropriate than two old friends sharing the day? Anything must be better than spending it with the bores and misfits Cressida will have gathered together. And as for Cressida herself…"
Mycroft sighed, sharply. "Sherlock, do grow up. You and Cressida have been like two cats fighting over territory since you were both in leading strings. She has invited you to her home, and the very least you can do is endure her company for a few hours. If not for yourself, then make the sacrifice for the Doctor and I – just because you have no love for the season that does not give you the right to deny us a decent Christmas."
"Mycroft, I am thinking of Watson - no one should have to spend five minutes in the company of Wolfram and Igphenia. And as for Theophilus - "
"We are going, Sherlock, and that is my final word on the subject," Mycroft interrupted as only an older brother can, fixing his sibling with a stern glare. "Get your things together – we will leave in ten minutes."
Holmes's mouth worked silently for a few moments, before - much to my surprise - he scowled, turned and flung into his bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
Mycroft gave me a satisfied smile. "He'll come," he said, in answer to my unasked question. "Even Sherlock would not choose to spend Christmas Day alone with only a boiled egg for company." He glanced at the empty fireplace, shivered and ambled towards the door. "It's damnably cold in here – I'll wait in the cab."
"Should we not wire Mrs Cunningham to warn her of our arrival?" I queried.
He waved a hand dismissively. "If she is putting up the rest of the family, I dare say it will be easy enough to squeeze us in." There came the sound of banging drawers and cupboards in Holmes's bedroom, and Mycroft called, "You have five minutes, Sherlock! No more!" His brother's reply, muffled by the thick wood of the door, was curt, and rather rude.
"Well," I said, "We will have to make a return visit to Oxford Street on the way to the station."
Mycroft frowned in confusion. "Whatever for?"
"Is it not traditional for the three wise men to come bearing gifts?"
In the event, it was nearly two hours later that we arrived at Cressida's large house in Harrow.
Our second, somewhat more desperate, shopping trip of the day had been swift for I was designated by a majority vote (two against one) the best person to choose suitable gifts for the Cunningham family. I ignored Holmes's suggestion of a bottle of hemlock for his cousin, my eye alighting upon a shimmering scarf with which I hoped the lady in question would be pleased. For Xanthe I found a prettily-dressed doll, and the colonel a very fine ash walking stick, but when it came to a present for Master Ptolemy I was unable to dissuade Holmes from the purchase of a chemistry set. I only hoped that the lad's mother would know upon whom to lay the blame for the havoc such a gift would doubtless create.
We were just in time to catch the last train out of Marylebone, and, after waiting at Mycroft's insistence for a cab to present itself at Harrow station, reached the front door just as the church clock on the hill was striking nine. It was cold and crisp, the clouds lowering overhead and threatening snow. Above us I caught a glimpse of a curtain being twitched aside, but though there was light trickling through the gaps in the heavy drapes downstairs I could discern no evidence of a party or gathering taking place within. The house seemed incredibly quiet, and I remarked as much to Holmes, who grunted and said,
"No doubt they are all studiously ignoring each other. Mycroft is not unique amongst our relations in his refusal to be sociable."
As his brother dragged his feet down the path, Mycroft reached the door first and rang the bell. We waited for some moments before the door opened to reveal the nervous maid Cressida employed. Whether she was nervous by nature or purely due to the temperament of her mistress I was unsure, though Holmes claimed it to be the latter. She looked at us very much like a frightened rabbit, flustered by the appearance of three unannounced gentlemen on the doorstep at so late an hour.
Mycroft smiled genially and produced his card. "Would you tell the lady of the house that we are here? She is not expecting us, but I am sure that will not matter."
Wordlessly, the girl took the card, bobbed a hurried curtsy and vanished into the house, leaving us in the cold. With a snort of impatience, Holmes manoeuvred past his brother's bulk and strode into the hall. I glanced at Mycroft, who shrugged, and so we both followed, closing the door behind us and shutting out the chill of the evening.
The spacious hall had been decorated with winter greenery – ivy wound up the banisters, holly framed the portrait of the forbidding Holmes family matriarch, the late great aunt Sophronia, and in the centre of the room stood a large fir tree twinkling with lights. There was a cheerful fire in the grate, and Mycroft drew near, rubbing his hands to restore the circulation while his brother prowled the perimeter of the room. He had completed one circuit and was embarking upon another when the door to the drawing room opened and Cressida emerged. She stood there with her arms folded across her chest, an ice queen in pale blue satin, her incredibly fair hair piled on her head. Regarding us balefully, she said,
"I had no idea that carol singing had become an indoor pastime. You may perform one song, and I expect to hear all the verses or I shall not part with a penny."
Holmes smiled thinly. "And a merry Christmas to you too, Cressida."
"We do apologise for this intrusion, Mrs Cunningham," I interjected before they could begin their customary bickering.
"So I should think," she replied frostily. Her eye fell upon the bulk of her elder cousin by the fire and her lashes fluttered in a brief expression of surprise. "Good God, Mycroft, it really is you! I thought the card was just Sherlock trying to be funny. Has the Diogenes burned down?"
"Not quite," muttered Holmes.
Mycroft dragged himself away from the fire and gave Cressida an affable smile. "Good evening, my dear cousin. You are looking well. It is true that we have all suffered calamity today, and so we hoped that you might be able to accommodate three weary travellers. We have come bearing suitable festive offerings - is that not right, Doctor Watson?"
Before I could even open my mouth to agree, Cressida shook her head. "Unfortunately, that will not be possible. There is no room at the inn. You will have to go somewhere else for your dinner."
Holmes's mouth twitched. "She has your measure, Mycroft."
"And precisely why are you here, Sherlock?" she demanded, rounding on him. "You saw fit to turn down my offer of hospitality four times, the last in the strongest terms!"
"Given the company you were proposing, I do not see why it should have come as a surprise," he shot back. "If you can endure Wolfram's presence, then surely you can put up with mine for a few hours."
"I would be more inclined to throw you out in the street!"
"Children, please," said Mycroft, exasperated. "Can you not call a truce, just until Boxing Day? It is the season of goodwill, after all."
Ignoring his brother, Holmes bristled defensively. "If that is what you wish, I shall return to Baker Street," he said. "I only came here under duress."
"If that is the case then go home by all means!" Cressida snapped. "I have - "
She was prevented from continuing by the pattering of feet on the stairs, and two small figures in wraps and nightgowns tumbled into the hall.
"We saw you from the window!"
"Mama said you weren't coming!"
"Have you brought us presents?"
Holmes looked rather disconcerted to find Xanthe, dark curls askew, suddenly clinging to his legs. Ptolemy, as befitted his status as elder brother, confined himself to merely tugging enthusiastically on my sleeve. They chattered on, talking over each other in their excitement, until Cressida called for quiet.
"The two of you should be in bed," she scolded. "Where is Frost?"
"Fallen asleep," said Ptolemy.
His mother frowned. "I will be having words with her later. It is past your bedtime – if you are not under the covers in the next five minutes, Father Christmas will not be coming to this house tonight."
"He's here already!" Xanthe announced, peering round Holmes with wide eyes. We all looked at each other in confusion until she pointed to Mycroft. "See!"
I tried not to laugh. With his rotund figure, white whiskers and bright red scarf, it was true that the elder Holmes did bear at least a passing resemblance to Father Christmas. Sherlock showed no such restraint, throwing back his head and barking his amusement before directing an apologetic look at his brother when Mycroft glared at him.
Xanthe blinked in confusion. "You are Father Christmas, aren't you?"
"Of course he's not!" said Ptolemy loftily. "Don't be such a goose, Xanth."
"Well, he looks like Father Christmas."
"Perhaps a change of career is on the horizon, Mycroft," Holmes said with a snigger.
"Thank you, Sherlock," Mycroft replied. He bent down with a great effort to be more on Xanthe's level, and said, "I regret that I am not Father Christmas, my dear. He will be arriving much later this evening."
"This is cousin Sherlock's brother," I told the children.
They both stared at Mycroft, and then at Holmes. Ptolemy frowned. "I don't believe you."
Mycroft straightened. "And why ever not?"
The lad waved a hand, encompassing them both. "Well, you don't look like each other."
Holmes tried to suppress a smile. "You do not look much like your sister."
"Oh, that's different," said Ptolemy. "She's a girl. I mean, you're so thin and he's - "
Thankfully we were spared this revelation by the drawing room door opening once more, resulting in the addition of Colonel Charles Cunningham to our little party in the hall.
"Cressy, what the devil is going on? Is it – oh, hello. It is you," he said upon seeing us. He glanced at his wife. "I thought you told me no one was - "
"We have fallen upon hard times, Charles, and have come to trespass upon your hospitality," Mycroft explained before Cressida could speak.
"Ah, I see. Good show." Cunningham frowned. "Why are we all standing in the hall?"
"The guardian of the gate will not allow us to pass," said Holmes, and Cressida scowled.
"Really? How strange. She was only just now complaining that we had all this food and no one to eat it. The rest of the family cried off, you see," the colonel said, apparently oblivious to the murderous looks his wife was now directing at his back.
Holmes arched an eyebrow, turning to his cousin. "Did they now? How interesting."
There was a silence. From Cressida's expression it was clear that she could not decide whether to throttle Holmes or her husband first. The children looked confused, and I felt rather like a man who is unsure whether the bomb he has just come across is live or not. Eventually, Mycroft clapped his hands together and asked,
"As this is evidently going to be a long evening, would there be the slightest chance of a glass of sherry?"
"So they all turned you down," said Sherlock Holmes two hours later, when it was nearing midnight and we all sat around the fire, basking in its glow. In the dim light the candles on the drawing room tree winked invitingly, the shadows they created dancing upon the gift wrapped parcels stacked beneath.
The children had been packed off to bed with the promise of a visit from Father Christmas, but not before they insisted upon my telling them a story. I found myself relating the case of the purloined present, an investigation from my early days with Holmes, while the man himself sat on the end of Ptolemy's bed and interpolated his own recollections of the matter, correcting me when I misremembered a fact. It made me grateful that I did not submit my writings to him before sending them for publication. At length we were chased away by Miss Frost the nanny, who had been woken from her nap by an irritated Cressida, and descended to find Mycroft snoring in the largest armchair and Colonel Cunningham offering a glass of hot punch.
It did not take long for the alcohol to reduce us all to a mellow state, even Holmes and his cousin, who had reluctantly agreed to call a truce and now sat quite companionably side by side on the sofa while the colonel and I discussed India. Before long our own conversation petered out as we listened to theirs.
"Two at the last minute," Cressida replied. "Aunt Adelphia never even replied – I doubt if she even found the letter under those hordes of cats she keeps. And as for Theophilus…my note was returned stamped 'Whereabouts Unknown'."
"The last I heard of Theophilus, he was halfway up the Amazon hoping to discover some new flora or fauna. He was not particularly bothered which, as long as he could name it after himself," Holmes said. "I would expect that there is a high chance he may have been eaten by cannibals by now."
"Holmes!" I protested. "Whether you like him or not, the man is still a relative!"
"Third cousin once removed, and even that relationship is too close."
"Even so, to speak of him in such a way - "
"It's quite all right, Doctor Watson," said Cressida. "If you had ever met Theophilus, you would know that Sherlock is joking - no discerning cannibal would touch him."
I shook my head. "I am sorry, but yours is a most peculiar family."
Holmes chuckled. "Quite so, Watson, quite so." He glanced at Cressida. "What of Wolfram and Igphenia?"
She sat back on the settee, brushing down her skirts. "They did accept - much to my surprise, I will admit. Then they received an invitation to Scotland – you know what Wolfram is like when he gets a chance to shoot at anything furry and defenceless."
He snorted. "The wonder of it is that he has never taken aim at Igphenia. She qualifies upon both counts."
I jumped as Cressida's braying laughter caught me by surprise. Her husband barely turned a hair. "Oh, she does indeed!" she exclaimed. Holmes smiled wickedly.
"Holmes," I said, my tone mildly chiding. "Goodwill to all men – and women. Remember?"
He raised his eyebrows at me over the rim of his glass. "Why did you invite any of them?" he asked his cousin. "You like them no more than I do, and the feeling is mutual. There is surely no reason to endure their company voluntarily. That is why I have avoided doing so for over twenty years."
Cressida shrugged and took a sip of punch. It was potent stuff, and I made a mental note to ask the colonel exactly what he had put into it. I refused another glass when it was offered, my eyelids already heavy from its effects. "The children deserved to have a family Christmas," she said. "I had hoped that as we were all so much older we might be able to put those excruciating times at Aunt Sophronia's behind us."
"I believe you may have hoped for too much there," Holmes muttered with a grimace. "I for one will carry those memories with me until my dying day. All of the children being cloistered together until the adults had finished their meal and deigned to allow us into the drawing room for interminable parlour games. And then when we were older she would not even allow us a glass of wine to help dull the pain!"
"We had to wait until six o'clock to open our presents, too."
"No wonder the two of you spent so much time arguing," observed the colonel, moustache twitching in amusement.
"Well, you do have a family Christmas," I pointed out, "Even if it does take disaster to bring you together."
Cressida giggled into her drink. "For our family, that is highly appropriate."
Holmes threw back his head. "Ha! Oh, Watson – you do realise that you have become an honorary member of the Holmes clan?"
"If it means a convivial Christmas, my dear fellow, I believe I can live with that," I told him. He nodded, satisfied, and then nearly leapt into the air as Cressida, eyelids drooping, listed sideways, her fair head coming to rest on his shoulder. As a very unladylike snore reached our ears it was apparent that the punch had finally had its ultimate effect on her.
Colonel Cunningham frowned and raised his glass to the light to examine the ruby red liquid it held. "Perhaps I was overgenerous with the port," he mused, and I found myself laughing. Holmes quickly followed suit, and it was not long before our mirth roused Mycroft, who sat up and demanded to know who let a pack of blasted hyenas into the room. His indignation at being awoken only increased our merriment, fuelled no doubt by the copious amount of alcohol we had consumed.
The clock struck twelve, and as the children two flights above us waited excitedly for Christmas to come, I reasoned that occasionally a disaster could be a blessing in disguise. There was really no better way to celebrate the season than with family, even if mine was a surrogate one.
A very Merry Christmas to all, and huge thanks to those who have reviewed and enjoyed my stories this year. :)