The Worst Kitten in London
Gambling, while expensive, has proven educational for me. I generally have to suffer through too much month at the end of the money, but on the other hand, I have learned to read tells.
Tells, for the benefit of those readers who do not habitually spend all evening repeatedly winning and losing the same five pounds at cards, are the unconscious gestures and mannerisms that, to one who can read them, make a player's meaning clear.
For instance, when Lestrade folds his arms just so, puts his chin on his chest and looks up, showing the whites of his eyes, it means that he will not be satisfied until whatever it is he wants done, is done. If it is not done, the blood drains from his face, his nostrils flare, and burly constables begin to cry. Then the trouble starts.
Similarly, although it is not a tell in the strictest sense, being of conscious volition, when Holmes silently and pointedly ignores the very presence of another, he makes known without saying a word that he would rather be doused with boiling molasses and staked out on an anthill than do what that person wants done.
When I observe these behaviors in conjunction, I discreetly fetch my hat and cane, and set out for my club, where I may gamble for stakes smaller than my sanity. As a rule, my associates are so engrossed in their duel that they do not so much as mark my sudden absence.
On this particular afternoon, however, I got no farther than the hat rack before, in a curious unison, they demanded to know where I thought I was going.
I hesitated only a moment before it occurred to me how I might both end the standoff and spare myself further difficulty. "Lestrade clearly wants us to go with him to his home. I was merely fetching my hat in order to do so."
"Yes," Holmes observed with a tiny bit of sarcasm. "Very considerate of you, Watson."
I thought it wise to take the middle seat in the cab, so that they might have less opportunity to strangle each other before we arrived. What would otherwise have been an excruciating ride was actually rather pleasant, as Lestrade, restored to good humor by getting his own way, passed the time in drawing me out on the subject of my recent acquaintance, Miss Mary Morstan, inquiring as to where she lived, whether she kept any pets, and so forth.
Holmes, in response to what he considered an unspeakably banal conversation, rolled his eyes, fidgeted, and several times uttered the name of God in a most irreligious manner.
For my part, I confess to having been delighted to describe Miss Morstan to an appreciative audience, and to feeling that I had been given the solution to a vexing issue. So far, of my circle of acquaintances, she had met one: Holmes. I now looked forward with relief to introducing her to friends who were not completely lacking in social graces.
With that thought, however, came one less welcome. "Lestrade," I said, "you've never before invited us to your home. In fact, as I recall, the only time we were there, you said that if we ever darkened your door again, you would cut off our heads and impale them on London Bridge."
Lestrade gave an uncomfortable little laugh. "Did I say that? You must overlook my unsociability on that occasion. After all, that is the risk one runs when one comes to my house unannounced. At a quarter after eight in the morning. On my first day off in three weeks."
I began to regret having seated myself in the middle. Perhaps the driver would permit me to join him, where it was safe.
"In any case, it's my wife who wants you to call."
"That is equally surprising." Holmes joined the conversation. "I rather had the impression—you will of course forgive an indelicate observation—that you and Mrs. Lestrade had other plans for the morning in question, and did not appreciate being interrupted in carrying them out."
"Yes. Well." Lestrade lapsed into abashed silence, as did I.
I had not been formally introduced to Mrs. Lestrade. In fact, the one time I had set eyes on her, her hair had been down, she had been wearing a dressing gown hastily tied and inside-out, and her cheeks had been flushed for reasons that might not have been entirely due to annoyance. Then she had ordered me out of her house.
On this occasion, wearing decent black, with not a hair out of place, she appeared the very picture of middle-class respectability. I could swear, though, that the room she showed us into had previously been a spotless little parlor, with knickknacks on the mantle, velveteen drapes at the window, and potted palms in the corners. Perhaps I had been mistaken, though, as window and mantle were bare, and there was but a solitary palm, and that one not looking well at all.
It also seemed to me that the settee on which she invited us to sit had once been equipped with starched antimacassars and plumped pillows, and that its upholstery, while not the finest money could buy, had not been shredded so as to allow the horsehair stuffing to protrude.
"I would offer you some refreshment, gentlemen," said Mrs. Lestrade, "but my tea service seems to be broken." With that, she produced from a corner a cardboard box filled with the sad remains of what had been middle-market Staffordshire pottery. "I used to have houseplants, too," she added. "And drapes."
Holmes examined the pink moss roses on a shard of transfer ware. "I don't quite follow, Mrs. Lestrade."
"Oh, don't you?" she exclaimed. "Must you be reminded that you gave my daughter the worst kitten in London? He's destroyed my house, it's all your fault, and you'll put it right, Mr. Holmes."
She brought from her pocket a bill for damages.
"Lestrade," Holmes appealed for help, "this wasn't your idea?"
Lestrade waved the question away. "My wife makes the household decisions. I don't interfere."
"Surely that's rather old-fashioned," Holmes said, ignoring my nudge to his ribcage. "Nowadays, husbands are allowed a say in all sorts of trivial domestic matters—the pattern of new wallpaper, where to go on holiday, who's to blame for what the cat did—Watson, mind your elbow!"
"It's hardly fair to call that old-fashioned, Holmes," I said mildly, kicking his ankle in the vain hope of shutting him up before the arch look Mrs. Lestrade directed at him turned into something more dire. "It's only common sense. Imagine the horrors that would result from a police officer being tasked with interior decoration, for example, or heaven forbid, preparing an edible meal. You've seen what the offices at Scotland Yard look like. And tasted their tea. At least, I think it was tea. It was black, with leaves suspended in it."
"You're right, Watson," Holmes said for the first time in his life. As I sat dumbstruck, he perused the list Mrs Lestrade had given him.
I might have known this was too good to last. Holmes opened his mouth again. He said, "After all, in a truly old-fashioned household, a wife would ask her husband's permission before presenting me with a bill for eighteen pounds, seven shillings, and sixpence."
"His permission?" Mrs. Lestrade sputtered, while I gasped, "Eighteen pounds?"
Lestrade found something fascinating on the ceiling and stared at it intently.
"Holmes, for goodness's sake, pay it!" I said. "You did give her the kitten, after all. Besides, it's after six o'clock, and I'm to meet Miss Morstan at half past seven."
"God forbid anything should make you late for that," Holmes muttered, but he did at least take out his checkbook.
"If the kitten is too much trouble, Lestrade..." I began. "That is, he's clearly too much trouble. We'll take him away if you like."
"That won't be necessary," Mrs. Lestrade said briskly. "I'll attend to it. That is, of course, if I don't need my husband's permission, Mr. Holmes." She gave him another look.
I attempted to advise Holmes against criticizing the marital arrangements of others, but he paid my lecture no more heed than he would the buzzing of a fly.
Having done my best, with a clear conscience I went out to dine with Mary Morstan.
"I must thank you for your generous gift," she said.
I wracked my brain. Had I given her a generous gift, and if so, what was it?
"He's lovely," Miss Morstan went on, "and the Forrester children adore him already."
Suddenly I knew exactly how Mrs. Lestrade had attended to the problem of the kitten. I also knew that Lestrade, in encouraging me to tell where Miss Morstan lived and whether she kept pets, had been acting not out of genuine concern, but the lowest form of self-interest. Just wait until the next chance I had to describe the little rat to readers of "The Strand!" He was going to be very, very sorry.