During the earliest years of my friendship with Mr. Sherlock Holmes, when he had not yet been recognized by the broader public for his unique genius, and I was still dependent upon my wound pension for my needs, there were a number of occasions when either he or I found ourselves unfortunately light in the pocket. He because of a lack of cases and therefore income, and I because, despite my best intentions, money had a tendency to slip through my fingers whenever I was at loose ends. Still, for some time it chanced that our periods of insolvency failed to coincide, and between us we managed to pay Mrs. Hudson for our room and board each quarter, each of us making up the difference as necessary with the certainty that the other would pay him back as soon as either work or wound pension became available.
Having failed to recover my health sufficiently for a return to my duties, either as a soldier or as a doctor, my one useful occupation soon became accompanying Holmes upon his investigations and taking notes in the background, so as to leave him free to perform without interruption. When he lacked cases, I lacked occupation, and not infrequently his malodorous chemical investigations or silent brooding drove me back to my haunts near the Criterion and the wastrel habits I had tried to forswear. Naturally, this meant that when he was idle, I was increasingly likely to be impecunious, and it was on the 21st of our second December at Baker Street that the hammer finally fell. Holmes had not had a case since Guy Fawkes Night and I, in a disastrous attempt to recoup my finances before the holiday season, had allowed myself to be inveigled by an acquaintance into a notorious gambling hell, wherein I proceeded to lose the remains of my meager savings, my watch, my cufflinks, and my fare to Baker Street. And this with the rent coming due on Christmas Day!
As I trudged home through a freezing rain I contemplated my options. Holmes, I knew, was low in funds, or he would not have allowed his tobacco pouch to grow so disastrously flat. An appeal to Mrs. Hudson's better nature was precluded by the cost of the impending coal bill, or so I told myself. I'd had too much to drink, and my pride was as sore as my head. I was not yet so low as to give the river more than a passing thought, and any chance of vanishing into the anonymity of the gutter was precluded by the certainty that Holmes and his Irregulars would find me no matter where in London I might try to hide. Still, I had yet a few possessions which I could pledge until the New Year brought my stipend and I might by a stricter exercise of economy redeem them.
Resigned to the loss, however temporary, of my winter coat and my books, I turned the corner onto Baker Street, and discovered Holmes outside our door in his dressing gown, wielding a large umbrella and ushering our landlady into a cab despite the hour being well past midnight.
"Ah, there you are Watson!" he called as I approached. "You see, Mrs. Hudson, you can set your mind at rest."
"Doctor!" Mrs. Hudson cried in a distracted tone, stepping away from the cab to come and take my hands in hers. "You're sopping wet. And you're shivering. Whyever didn't you get a cab home?"
"I... I felt like walking," I stammered, having made no plan to excuse my condition. Fortunately, our good landlady didn’t press me for a better explanation.
"You must take him upstairs and stir up the fire straightaway, Mr. Holmes," she ordered my fellow lodger, as imperious as any Duchess. "The water in the kitchen boiler should still be warm, have Polly... oh, bother," she interrupted herself. "Polly's gone off to see her mother."
"And you must be off to see to your daughter," Holmes interrupted, steering her once again towards the hansom cab. By a tip of his head he invited me to assist him in handing her up to the seat, all the while assuring her that he and I would be more than capable of tending ourselves until the maid returned upon the morrow, and reminding her that if she delayed her first grandchild would be in Croydon before her.
I took up the thread, no longer baffled by this midnight departure. Mrs. Hudson's daughter had been expecting to deliver on or near Twelfth Night, and in the usual way of things our good landlady would have departed Baker Street on Boxing Day, leaving us in the care of her cousin, Mrs. Turner. But the child, as children are wont to do, was arriving early, throwing all of Mrs. Hudson's plans into disarray. Despite the potential for concern that must attach to a premature birth, I felt nothing but relief. Once in Croydon, Mrs. Hudson would no doubt stay for the entire Christmas season, and I might never need explain the gaps in my closet and shelves. "There's nothing so joyous as a Christmas baby," I said, settling the rug over Mrs. Hudson's lap. "You'll be able to have a nice visit and save your daughter the cooking."
"Oh, good heavens, the cooking!" It was only my hand upon her sleeve which kept her from leaping up again. "I forgot all about the cooking!"
"Polly can manage for a few days," Holmes said, with utter confidence. "And if she does not provide the feasts which would have come from your hands, I assure you our suppers will still be a vast improvement upon the meals I suffered when I was at Montague Street."
"Her cooking is getting better," Mrs. Hudson agreed, as if mesmerized by Holmes's assertion. "And she can always consult Mrs. Beeton."
"There, you see? All will be well. And now I need to get Dr. Watson inside before he shivers himself out of his skin." Holmes stepped back, drawing me with him. "Give our best to your family!" he called to her and "Drive on!" to the cabby, who snapped his whip. The horse, glad to move again in the relentless wind, stepped off briskly, and all Mrs. Hudson could do was wave a last farewell before the night and rain obscured her from our view.
"Come inside," Holmes said, tugging at my arm as if I might be reluctant to obey. "I want to get out of these wet slippers. Did you have any supper in your wanderings tonight?"
"Yes." Bread and a bit of cheese, to go with the wine still muddling my head, and hours past, but Holmes did not enquire after details. After securing the front door, he merely stopped to light his candle at the gas fixture still burning in the hallway and then led me back to the darkened kitchen. I stumbled after him, wondering why I was shivering all the harder now that I was inside, and tightening my jaw to keep my teeth from chattering.
"Even with the fire banked, the kitchen is warmer than every other room in the house," Holmes said, as he reached up to drop a penny in the box for the kitchen gaslight. "And as there's not a female in the place, you can bathe right next to the stove. Much simpler than carrying the tub and water upstairs to our sitting room, don't you agree?" He turned in the blossom of light and his manner changed as he cast his suddenly sharpened gaze over me. "Oh, Doctor. You have had a night of it, haven't you? Even your cabfare?"
"I was winning," I protested as I felt my cheeks heat with shame. I should have realized how impossible it was to keep my impoverished state from Sherlock Holmes's notice.
"Yes, and then you were losing." He made a moue of frustration. "I take it that it would be futile of me to apply to you for assistance in paying my share of this quarter's rent?"
"I shan't be able to pay even my share without pawning half my wardrobe," I admitted. "I shouldn't have taken my cheque book with me."
Holmes waved away the consideration with one fine sweep of his hand. "And I shouldn't have turned down that case from Gregson," he confessed. He thrust his fists into his pockets and scowled at the floor. "Mrs. Hudson is not going to be pleased with either of us. But it sounded so confoundedly dull."
For a moment we both sulked like schoolboys waiting to be dressed down by the teacher, but then a stray thought occurred to me and I found myself trying not to laugh.
"What?" Holmes asked, looking up with an answering smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
"Father Christmas is going to be terribly disappointed with us."
Holmes laughed with me and held up one sodden foot. "Father Christmas wouldn’t want to touch these long enough to put in the coal," he said. "Here, Watson, you stir up the fire in the stove and strip off those wet things, and I'll fill the tub from the boiler and then fetch down some dry things for you and some dry stockings for me."
Come morning the rataplan of rain against the windowpanes had been replaced by the hiss of driven snow and the whistle of the wind down my chimney. A perfect day to stay abed, had not the aches in my head and my wound combined with the harsh jangling of the bell below to drive me out into the sullen grey light. I threw on my dressing gown and slippers and stumbled downstairs, but Holmes had also been roused, and he was sufficiently ahead of me that I heard him answering the door to the messenger boy even before I reached the first floor landing. A moment later he came bounding up the stairs, the telegram in his hand.
"Word from Mrs. Hudson?"
"A girl child, safely delivered, and weighing six pounds, three ounces," Holmes said, "and we are to remind Polly that she should do the laundry on Sunday if she wishes to enjoy Christmas Monday."
I rubbed at my arms, hoping to counter the bitter cold in the hall. "Where is Polly?" I asked. "Shouldn't she have answered the door?"
"Delayed by the storm, no doubt," Holmes said. "She'll turn up. In the meantime see what you can do about warming up the sitting room while I investigate the larder."
I fussed with the leavings of the sitting room coal scuttle and the clinkers from the night before, but I am the first to admit it was not my best work. Not that Holmes did much better in the kitchen! He and I breakfasted together next to a meager fire in our sitting room, toasting bread cut from the end of the loaf, spooning out the remainder of a jar of plum jam, and drinking tea brewed strong enough for a brave man to walk on. Holmes sipped at his cupful with a dubious expression, but I had tasted far worse in my time in the Army and was only grateful for the chance to sweeten my drink with a dollop of the jam.
"I think I put in too many leaves," Holmes decided, after another assay.
"That or we let it steep too long," I said. Brewing tea seemed sufficiently like making an infusion of medicine that I thought I could diagnose the error. "Haven't you kept the preparation of a proper pot of tea in your brain attic?"
"Why should I?" Holmes said. "Mrs. Hudson is a mistress of the art. And if Polly proves not to have acquired the skill, then we can find out which of our neighbors is this Mrs. Beeton to supply the deficiency."
I could not help but laugh. Holmes's odd gaps in what was otherwise an extensive body of knowledge occasionally gave me the advantage, and I was quick to use it. "Mrs. Beeton is not a neighbor, Holmes, she's a book. Or rather an author, who has written a book of cookery and household management." At his look of inquiry I added, "I've often seen it at the bookshop. It's practically a standard reference on the topic."
"It must be, for a bachelor like yourself to know of it," Holmes said. He set aside his teacup, still mostly full, and leaned on his elbows, steepling his fingers before his face as he mused. "Mrs Hudson must have a copy of it, then, somewhere in the house."
"Presumably," I agreed. I drank off the rest of my tea quickly, wanting the stimulation, but having no desire to savour the drink itself.
Holmes seemed content to let his cup grow cold. “Cookery book or no, I think we shall find ourselves missing Mrs Hudson before long. Still, perhaps we should be glad that we've been granted a kind of reprieve. I doubt she will come all the way back to Baker Street to collect the rent money before the New Year. You'll have received your wound pension by then."
"And you'll have solved that case for Inspector Gregson," I said. "But Holmes, shouldn't we be prepared to pay her on Christmas Day, regardless? She might send her son-in-law, even if she doesn't come herself."
He nodded agreement. "Indeed we should. Fortunately, I have made a study of the pawnbrokers of London, and I think, if you'll entrust the errand to me, I know where we might best pledge those of our belongings we are willing to do without for the most profit."
"Temporary profit," I amended. For all that the ache had diminished, my head was still not right and I propped it up with one hand as I doggedly finished my tea. "And how on earth are you to reach the pawnshops with that going on?" I waved a hand at the window, where the snow was rapidly accumulating on the sill.
"Oh, the Underground should be running," said he. "And I'll recruit a few of my Irregulars to help carry. It will make a pleasant change for them from sweeping the snow for pennies."
"But if you keep them from earning pennies, how will you recompense them?" I asked.
"With a share of our Christmas goose, what else?" His eyes twinkled merrily at the thought.
I stared at him, wondering if I had missed some essential part of the conversation. "We have a goose?"
"We have a goose." He got to his feet. "Come, Doctor. I'll show you."
I followed him to the larder, where a magnificent fowl dangled in all its wingspread glory from the highest hook.
"Good heavens," said I, blinking up at it. "Mrs Hudson must have been planning quite a feast. Or do you think she meant to take it with her to Croydon?"
Holmes made gesture of irritation. "Doubtful. Despite the chill, there's no reason to believe that the bird will be in any condition to be consumed by the New Year, much less Twelfth Night. No, Watson, it is our own Christmas dinner you see before us, and more than enough to share with any of the lads who might come to our assistance. After all, Mrs. Hudson isn't here to scandalize. And I doubt Polly will object to their company."
"Not if young Robinson is among them," I had to agree. Polly, at that time, had not yet celebrated her sixteenth birthday, and while diligent in her duties and of real assistance to Mrs. Hudson in the kitchen, like many another young servant, she was always happier in the company of her peers than in the presence of her employers. I had often heard her in early morning conversation with one or another of Holmes's street Arabs whilst she beat out the rugs beneath the plane tree outside my window. I should perhaps note that Robinson was not in any way her particular amour, being not yet four feet tall. But he was a cheerful little fellow, and often turned up in a useful way when Polly had work to be done outside as much because he liked her as for the sake of the ginger biscuits she kept in her apron pocket.
His plans made, Holmes repaired to his room to dress and to assemble the belongings he meant to pawn. I made a similar foray up to the chill of my bedroom, but found the pickings slender. I have never been a man who bedecks himself with extraneous jewelry, and such tiepins and cufflinks as I still owned were rather plain. The curiously carved box in which I kept them – one of my few possessions to survive the siege of Candahar – seemed to me to be more valuable than its contents, even with my watch to supplement them. My evening wear and heavy winter coat were still dripping from the previous night, so I left them on the clothes horse, and drew out my summer linens and the new tweeds I had bought in a burst of profligracy the previous September. I was staring hopelessly at the bookshelves, wondering which volumes might be of interest to anyone but myself, when Holmes came clattering up the stairs with a half-filled valise in one hand. “Here you go, doctor. If I’m to pawn the case, it can at least do its duty first.”
I glanced at the contents as I began to add my own belongings. “Your microscope, Holmes?”
He settled onto the bed and began folding the linen suit. “I doubt I shall need it. Any clues Gregson has failed to observe are going to be blazingly obvious or already obliterated by police boots.”
“What shall you do if he’s already solved it?” I asked, placing some books around the microscope case to add a layer of protection. Scientific instruments, as I knew all too well, were susceptible to damage when being transported from place to another. My time in Afghanistan had seen the demise of my own microscope during a storm much like the one which still raged outside our window. “Gregson won’t pay you if he doesn’t need your help.”
“Then I shall find the correct solution,” Holmes said airily. “And save some poor soul the ignominy of being tried for a crime he did not commit in the hopes of a modest reward.” He reached up to lay a hand on my arm. “Don’t fret, Doctor. If by some chance I can’t get a fee from Gregson before Christmas, I’ll borrow the sum required.”
That hardly seemed fair. “And pay some outrageous rate of interest? If it comes to that, I’ll go to the moneylenders myself. After all, it was my foolishness that landed us in these straits.” I could feel myself beginning to tremble at the thought of it. Debts he could not afford to redeem has sent my brother on his downward path, and I had no desire to emulate him.
Holmes frowned and stood, resting one pale hand on my forehead for a moment. “I don’t think you should go out in this weather, Watson,” he said. “You don’t feel feverish, but I think that long walk in the pouring rain did you little good last night. Then again, it’s so cold in this room I’m not sure you’d feel warm even if you did have a fever.” He waved at the ice which had formed on my washbasin.
“I’m not sick,” I told him brusquely. After all, I was the one with the medical degree. “I just have a headache. A few more hours sleep will put me right.”
“If you insist. But take your nap in the sitting room, by the fire,” Holmes said, and turned to finish packing the valise. I silently took out my carpet bag and filled it with my other gleanings, trying to overcome the mulish desire to ignore Holmes’s peremptory advice and take whatever sleep I needed in my own bed, however cold.
I did sleep in the sitting room. I told myself that it was because my wound ached from the cold, and I didn’t wish to climb another flight of stairs after helping Holmes carry everything we meant to pawn down to the front door. But Holmes had been right. It was much warmer there. And in the end it was just as well. I doubt the snowballs that thudded on the windowpane to waken me could have reached much higher.
I stumbled to the window and looked out find Baker Street deserted but for a messenger boy, muffled to the ears, and standing in snow nearly up to his knees. He waved a mitten hopefully, and I threw open the sash. Before I could ask what he meant by attacking our windows he called up, “Sorry about the snowball, mister, but the bell ain’t working, and I saw the light up there. I got a message for a Missus Hudson at this address.” He dug a slip of paper out of his pocket to show me. “Could you get her to come to the door?”
“She’s not here,” I said. “She’s in Croydon.”
“Croydon?” the lad stared at me in disbelief and dismay. “I ain’t got the fare to get to Croydon.”
“Wait,” I told the boy. “I’ll come down to the door.”
I closed the window and went to the mantelpiece, feeling like a scoundrel as I tipped out the vase where Holmes sometimes deposited the contents of his pockets. I found a glass eye, a broken blade from a folding knife, an assortment of crumpled papers, and at the very bottom, a tarnished sixpence. It would have to do.
The hall outside our sitting room was so cold I could see my breath, and the banister so icy that I made my way down our stairs without its assistance. The doorknob gave me pause, but I pulled my handkerchief from my sleeve to protect my hand from the cold metal. Even so I had to tug hard to get the door open. There was ice in the gap between the door and the jamb, and ice on the doorbell wire.
The boy was waiting on the step, hugging himself and jigging up and down to combat the snow-laden wind. “Come in,” I told him, having no desire to conduct our transaction with the snow piling up on Mrs Hudson’s carpet.
“Thanks, mister,” he said, and stepped inside. He started to unfold and then wrapped his arms back up. “Cor, it ain’t half cold in here. Didn’t the coal man make it before the snow?”
“I don’t know,” I said. It was never warm in the hallway in the winter, but it was seldom this cold. “I’ll have to ask the maid.”
“Her name Polly Hunter, by any chance?”
I felt a sense of foreboding, quite as cold as the atmosphere in that hallway, come over me. “It is,” I said, and waited for the blow.
Holmes, still bundled up against the snow, his face white and his lips blue with the cold, found me in the coal cellar, refilling the scuttle. I had stirred up the kitchen fire by then, which had ameliorated conditions somewhat, but the stove was a voracious beast, and it was in need of another feeding. My fellow lodger took the heavy scuttle from me without a word. It wasn’t until we were both settled in the kitchen, and I had supplied Holmes with a portion of brandy that he thawed sufficiently to ask me how long we would be without Polly’s services.
“Two weeks,” I told him, too tired to wonder how he had gone from seeing that the girl was still absent to knowing that she would not be coming at any time soon. “She’s in quarantine on the Atlas, and the rest of her family as well. Her younger brother was exposed to smallpox, along with half his school, and last night he became feverish.” I had put some potatoes on to roast, which, along with cooking fresh trout on a stick over an open fire, constituted the limits of my culinary experience. Now I tested them with a fork and finding them soft, passed one to Holmes in a bowl. "Should we send for Mrs. Turner to come early?" I asked, as I passed him the salt and pepper.
"We could," Holmes said. "But it would seriously impair our ability to meet the rent. Even with Gregson’s fee, I’ve barely ten shillings to spare. And the streets are terrible. Under the snow there is a layer of pure ice.”
“While I wouldn’t like to send for Mrs Hudson,” I said. “what else can we do? We can hardly go out to restaurants for our meals.”
Holmes stood and paced, running a hand through his hair. “That’s not the worst of it, Watson. We can eat bread and jam like half London does for a few days. But I promised the boys a Christmas goose, and I should hate to go back on my word.”
“How many boys?” I asked.
“Four. Wiggins, Robinson, Clarence, and Brown.” Holmes did another turn around the kitchen.
“You’re the one who promised it,” I pointed out. “You’ll just have to roast the goose and hope for the best.”
“Oh, no,” Holmes said. “You agreed that we should use the goose as payment for the boys.”
“That was when I though Polly would be doing the cooking!” I protested.
We discussed our quandary for some time, coming to no real agreement except that Mrs Hudson should not be disturbed. At last Holmes exploded with frustration. “This is ridiculous, Watson. We’re two intelligent men, fully grown, and experienced. One of us ought to be able to roast a fowl without feminine assistance.”
That struck a chord. “Feminine assistance!” I said, with a snap of my fingers, and “Mrs. Beeton!” we both said together.
Mrs Beeton, upon consultation (we found her in the pantry cupboard) took scarcely a page to describe the process of transforming a raw goose into our dinner. Holmes and I both took heart from that, and our discussion, which had consisted of reasons from each of us why the other should undertake to prepare the goose, became a discussion of why each of us thought that he had a likelier chance of succeeding. At last we decided that we should take turns cooking or cleaning for each of the meals which lay between us and Christmas, and whichever of us had devised the most edible portions would be the cook on Christmas day whilst the other would take on the role of scullion.
It would be kinder, perhaps, to draw a curtain over our earliest efforts. There is an art to even so simple a thing as cracking an egg, as I soon discovered; and, as Holmes demonstrated, a certain amount of time which cannot be scanted even in so minor a procedure as restoring dried peas to an edible state. But hunger is a powerful motivator, and soup is not so difficult to contrive. By the evening of the 23rd I was able to produce a meal which, although simple, could be eaten without wincing, and Holmes's riposte next day of shirred eggs and toast seemed more than adequate.
The sun had come out at last that morning, and we celebrated by breakfasting in our sitting room, with the curtains flung open to show us the rare blue of the sky. It would be my turn to carry the dishes down and wash them, but as I finished my breakfast and Holmes filled my cup, I was determined to bask as long as possible in the sunlight. There seemed every cause for optimism. Then I took a sip of my friend’s first attempt at coffee, and had to spit it back into the cup.
"I'm sorry, Watson," Holmes said, when I pulled a face over that evil brew. "But I couldn't find where you'd put the rest of the tea."
"In the tin marked 'tea'," I informed him. "Although there's very little of it left. We should probably save it for Christmas morning."
His ears reddened as he maimed his last piece of toast with fork and knife. "I'm afraid I used up the tea from the tin last night."
"All of it?" I despaired. I'd only just learned how not to ruin a potful and now there was no tea in the house.
"I was working on something!" Holmes leapt up from the table and paced over to the mantelpiece, where he had left the plugs and dottles of his previous day's pipes out to dry. He muttered something about "cluttering up his attic with Mrs Beeton's trivia" as he stuffed the wretched detritus into his morning pipe and rummaged through his pockets for his tobacco pouch. It emerged, discouragingly flat, and he waved it at me. "I don't suppose you could lend me some tobacco, Watson?" he asked. "Just a leaf or two, as leaven?"
It was my turn to get up from the table, patting at my mouth with my napkin until I felt that my expression would not give me away. Thanks to a purchase I had made before disaster struck, I did have pipe tobacco on hand, but that was not something I meant to reveal to Holmes just yet. "I've run out of Ships," I said, as I reached into the humidor on my desk. (This was true, and therefore safe to say to my very observant fellow lodger.) "But I have two cigars left. Will one of them do?"
Holmes looked at the cigar I held up wistfully. "No, no, my dear fellow, I wouldn't dream of depriving you."
"I should have to cut off the end of it anyway," I pointed out, and fetched out my pocketknife to do just that.
Holmes accepted the scrap of tobacco with a wry smile. "Thank you, Doctor."
We sat for a while, smoking in companionable silence until my curiosity got the better of me. "What kept you up all night, Holmes? Did someone bring you a case?"
"Ah! That." Holmes didn't seem certain whether to look pleased or embarrassed. "I was conducting an experiment."
"An experiment?" I glanced at the deal table, but his chemical apparatus showed no sign of having been disturbed. In fact, I could see that a fine layer of soot had accumulated on the upper surfaces of the glassware.
“Yes,” he said. “I’ve been considering the goose. We’re going to have to prepare it, of course.”
“Naturally,” I agreed.
“Well, Inspector Gregson and I once chased a murderer into a hotel kitchen, and the kitchen maid, with great presence of mind, spilled a kettle of hot water and paraffin in the man’s way. And I seem to recall that when she did so, she was sitting next to a pile of ducks and in her hand she had one duck, half-plucked.” Holmes paused to draw on his pipe again. “It occurred to me, as I was looking through Mrs Beeton last night, that the girl must have wanted the paraffin in order to complete the removal of the pin feathers.
“That seems very wasteful to me,” I said. “Surely she would want to preserve as many of the feathers as she could for use.”
“Not if speed were more important to the cook than feather pillows,” Holmes said. “In any case, in order to test the theory I needed to determine if we had paraffin, and I needed a small bird.”
I felt my eyebrow rise. Holmes had spent most of the previous day reading or puttering with his commonplace books and newspaper clippings, as housebound as I was myself. Neither of us had ventured into the wind farther than was necessary to clear the accumulation of snow from our front steps and pavement. The storm had abated by late afternoon, but Holmes had still been surrounded by paper and glue several hours later, when I retired to my bed. “And where were you going to find a small bird in the middle of the night?”
“There’s a pigeon nest under the eaves,” he said. “That was my first thought. But the route to the roof proved too icy for a night venture, and I couldn’t get quite the right angle to shoot at the nest. So I went to the Underground station and ...”
I interrupted him. “You were going to shoot at our roof?” I exclaimed.
Holmes laughed merrily. “Not with a pistol, I assure you.” He darted into his bedroom and emerged with a catapult made of india rubber on a stick. “I thought the report of a gun might cause an avalanche from the roof, and then I should never find any bird I chanced to hit until spring. In any case, I decided it was easier to look under a railway bridge.”
“So you went to the Underground Station,” I prompted him.
“Which was closed, so I climbed the gate.” He looked as pleased with that confession as any small boy might at having successfully flouted the rules. “And I came home with not one, but two birds. They’ll be our dinner if you’re willing to cook them.”
“You didn’t cook them?”
“It took me half the night to catch them and pluck them!” Holmes protested. “And it is your turn. Besides, I need to go to the shop for more paraffin. Think of it as practice for the goose.”
“Does this mean you concede the role of cook?” I asked, feigning sternness. “Because you know the scullion is going to have to peel the vegetables and pluck the goose as well as clean up after the meal.”
“I thought we might get the boys to help us,” Holmes said. “They’d be much warmer here than trying to find a corner at St. Cyprian’s. And we’ve plenty of oatmeal in the bin if they need a bite of breakfast.” He dropped back into his chair and leaned back, the very picture of satisfaction.
“And what will you be doing, while I and the boys are preparing Christmas dinner?” I asked.
“Oh, I expect you’ll still need my assistance,” Holmes said blithely, and sketched a bow before reaching for his commonplace book. “But it is clear that you are the better cook, and therefore I shall be at your command.”
“And when does this felicity begin?” I asked, for the occasions when Holmes was willing to let anyone else take charge of his affairs were vanishingly rare.
“Whenever you begin to require my services,” he said, already flipping through the pages.
I was tempted to disturb his occupation straight away, but I thought it best to refresh my memory of Mrs Beeton’s instructions and the contents of the larder before sending Holmes out to spend our remaining shillings at the bakery and the grocer. Therefore I collected the breakfast dishes onto the tray and carried them down to kitchen and scullery, to make my plans as I did the washing up.
When I ascended the stairs again with my carefully thought out list, I found Holmes asleep in his chair, with his head tipped back and his mouth hanging open. To give him his due, when I began to bark out orders like a sergeant of new recruits he did leap straight to his feet, but it was clear that the lack of sleep the night before had befuddled him, because it was a good thirty seconds before he thought to come to attention and throw me a parade ground salute. “Aye aye, Captain!”
I produced my list and handed it to him. “Here are your orders, Private Holmes!” I said, playing the game as best I could with a grin wishing to break out on my face. Holmes was not the only one who could mix a metaphor! “And when you’ve come back, you can raise the deck and swab the yardarm.”
He saluted elaborately again, and then took a look at the list and sobered. “What, no pudding?”
“I can’t see how we can afford one,” I replied. “I’m not even certain you can purchase everything on the list. Start at the top and work down, and when you’ve run out of money, stop.”
“Bread, onions, sage... no oysters either, I see.”
“We have neither the lemon rind nor the pinch of mace for that recipe.” Holmes was not the only one to regret that we could not try Mrs Beeton’s receipt for a “savoury oyster stuffing”. I had every intention of pointing out the page to Mrs Hudson some day soon, and a number of other recipes as well.
“Butter. Only half a pound?”
“That should be sufficient, if we’re careful.”
“Apples, potatoes. This will be a feast, doctor, if you intend to give us apple sauce and mashed potatoes with our goose. A quarter of a pound of currants and four oranges?” At the last two items on my list Holmes drew his eyebrows together. “Oranges for the boys, yes. Children should get oranges at Christmastide. But currants?” He looked a question at me.
“Something to set afire in lieu of a Christmas pudding,” I said. “I have a gill of brandy left for Snap Dragon.”
Holmes tucked the list into his pocket with a nod to me. “That should be interesting,” he said. “I’ve never played it, and I doubt the boys have either.”
It was my turn to be surprised. Snap Dragon had been a regular feature of my family’s Christmas celebrations, and the taste of hot brandied currants, as well as the glee of knowing that one had snatched the treat from the fire without having burned a finger, were as much a part of Christmas to me as holly and mistletoe. Not that we had holly or mistletoe. Our mantel was quite bare. I thought for a moment about asking Holmes to find some evergreens for decoration, but discarded the notion. I had a better idea. “I may take a short turn around the park,” I told Holmes, as he reached for his hat. “I’d like to enjoy the sun while it lasts.”
“Be careful, then,” Holmes ordered, in his usual commanding way, and then paused on the doorsill to bow. “Be careful then, sir,” he repeated, his obeisance undone by the amused tilt of his eyebrows. “And if you don’t wish to get caught, I suggest that you cut your branches from the cedar behind the bandstand!”
I rose reluctantly on Christmas Day, as uncertainty had robbed me of sleep until well after midnight. Holmes had come home much later than I had expected the day before, and my attempt to keep his dinner warm by the oven had resulted in making his pigeon nearly inedible. Mine had been inedible, owing to my failure to identify and discard the birds’ gall bladders before attempting to make giblet gravy. Mrs Beeton had failed me there, as her instructions said merely to “empty” the birds, and I had paid insufficient attention to consider which organs could be included in the term “giblet” and which could not. I would have to do better by the goose, or we would have no gravy.
I descended to the sitting room to find Holmes kneeling on the hearth, blowing the fire back to life. He had agreed to assemble our Christmas breakfast, since we planned on nothing more than bread and jam to tide us over, and I could see it already set out upon the table. Quickly, I drew his Christmas present out of my dressing gown pocket and set it by his plate while he was still occupied. “Good morning, Holmes,” I called. “Happy Christmas to you.”
“And a happy Christmas to you, Watson,” Holmes said, rising and dusting his hands against his trousers. Far from donning “gay attire” as the old song says, he was dressed in a suit that was mostly useful as a disguise, when he wished to seem disreputable. “You’re up early.” He waved at the window, where the grey light of dawn was just showing.
“You’re earlier,” I pointed out, pulling out my chair. I discovered a package sitting on it, brown paper tied with a blue ribbon. “What’s this?”
“The fruit of my labors yesterday,” Holmes said. “And the boys. You shall have to thank them. They’re much better carolers, than I.” He came to the table and picked up the packet I had left for him.
I would be hard pressed to say which one of us unwrapped his gift first, for my cry of “Tea!” was simultaneous with Holmes’s shout of “Tobacco!” We quite forgot to thank each other, but we did share our gifts.
By nine o’clock we were in the kitchen. Holmes was making his preparations for plucking the goose, and I was distributing my pilfered evergreen branches around the room when the doorbell rang. I went to answer it and found all six of the Baker Street Irregulars, who burst into “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” the moment I opened the door. Holmes came to listen too, watching from over my shoulder. When the boys finished the first song, they went on to “The Holly and the Ivy,” and Wiggins pulled out a berryless branch of holly from behind his back and presented it to me when the song ended.
“Here, doctor. Mr. Holmes said you didn’t have no holly this year, so we brung you some. And we was wondering if we could share our dinners like with Jimmy and Billy, even if they didn’t help carryin’ acos they were sweeping snow for toffs that day and we don’t mind them eating some off’n our plates if you don’t.”
I glanced at Holmes, but he shook his head just a bit, to indicate that he bore no responsibility for the boys’ request. “You’re in charge, my dear fellow,” he murmured. “It’s up to you.”
I looked at young Smith and even younger Jones and knew that I could never be so hard hearted as to turn them away. “Very well boys,” I said, and then raised an admonishing finger before their celebrations could begin. “But, there’s one condition. You must all, every one of you, wash.”
It says much about the conditions under which our poor live that the boys had to confer before agreeing to remove the layer of dirt that they thought of as protective. And it undoubtedly complicated the process of preparing our Christmas dinner to have those six rapscallions dancing around the kitchen in Holmes’s shirts while their own clothes hung from ropes we’d strung up as clotheslines. (It was hardly worth washing the boys if we didn’t wash their clothes.) But many hands make light work, and they all pitched in with a will once we finished with the washing. There was much to be done, between plucking the flight feathers from the goose and collecting them, and putting away all of the paraphanalia of washing before bringing out the vegetables to be washed and peeled.
Holmes, true to our agreement, took his direction from me for the most part, but could no more resist taking center stage for demonstrating his paraffin method of removing pinfeathers than he could fly. I was as interested as the boys, however, and we all applauded when the paraffin, cooled by a dip into a pot of cold water, cracked away, leaving the goose’s body clean and bare.
Then it was my turn to be observed as I dismembered and gutted the goose. One or two of the boys were surprisingly knowledgeable about the viscera, having taken work now and then as scullions at the mission or workhouse, and I set them to cleaning the gizzard and digestive organs while I named the other organs for the curious. This time I made certain to dispose of the gall bladder, after letting young Robinson taste a tiny bit of the bile when he protested my wastefulness.
Holmes, in the meanwhile, had assembled the stuffing in consultation with Mrs Beeton. He read aloud the directions for beating the breastbone and skewering the bird whilst I did the work, and soon our goose was ready to be roasted. The boys raised a cheer as I set it into the oven, and I felt like cheering myself.
That was not the end of my work, of course, as I had still the gravy, the apple sauce, and the potatoes to prepare, but now I could get the boys out from underfoot. I set them small tasks of peeling or chopping, which they could do at the table, and told Holmes to find something to keep their hands and minds occupied once those tasks were complete. He chose to fetch down needles and thread to repair the worst of the rents in their clothing. By the time I had the last pot on the stove they were sufficiently absorbed to have fallen quiet. Young Clarence, usually the quietest of the lot, was handier with his needle with the rest, and as I sat down to pour myself a well-earned cup of tea he began to sing “I Saw Three Ships,” and the rest of us joined in.
Despite his deprecations, Holmes had a pleasant tenor that blended well with the boys’ high voices. My own baritone was rusty. I had not sung a Christmas carol since Afghanistan, had not sung at all since Maiwand, and I kept my contributions soft as we sang carol after carol. It wasn’t until “We Three Kings” that I found myself singing alone. Wiggins had sung about gold, and Holmes about frankincense, which left me myrrh, and although I got through the verse without stumbling, I found myself overwhelmed with memories that seemed to me to have no place at a Christmas celebration. As soon as the song was done I excused myself to go and stir my pots and turn and baste the goose.
The giblets needed additional water, the apple sauce as well, and the potatoes were nearly soft enough to mash. But when I opened the oven door, it was clear that the dripping pan I had chosen was going to be far too small for the amount of grease coming off the goose. I wrapped my hands in towels and began to lift it out, calling to Holmes to fetch me a substitute pan.
I had underestimated the boys’ restlessness, for three of them jumped up from their seats, volunteering to bring the pan in Holmes’s stead. Robinson, left alone on the end of a bench, suddenly had it tip up from his weight, and he gave a yell and fell off of it, rolling into my feet. I managed to avoid spilling hot grease all over him, but only by dint of letting it slop over my hand and past him onto the middle of the floor. The other boys, still barefoot, jumped up onto the table to avoid the grease, and would have tipped it too if Holmes hadn’t flung his weight onto it as counterbalance. His chair, abandoned, fell, and struck the buckets nearby spilling the larger goose feathers into the air and paraffined pinfeather lumps across the greasy floor.
Perhaps a quarter of the grease was still in the pan, and I hastily set it down on the stovetop so that I could unwrap the hot greasy towel from my hand. Robinson was squealing like a stuck pig at my feet, so I hauled him up and carried him over to the sink, where I doused us both with cold water, all the while shouting for everyone to stop making noise and sit down in terms that I blush to recall. For right in the middle of my diatribe, the door to the front passage opened up and there stood Mrs. Hudson in her coat and hat, holding a Christmas pudding still in its bag.
I think if the Irregulars had been wearing their clothes they would have run for it. I would have run for it myself, if I hadn’t just drenched half my side in cold water. Robinson, writhing with the pain of a grease-splashed shoulder, was still making a noise, but the rest of us swallowed our shouts and held still as Mrs Hudson advanced into the room.
“Doctor,” she said, as she paused at the edge of the puddle of grease. “Is the child badly hurt?”
“No,” I said, for there wasn’t any blistering I could see. “He’ll be fine.”
“Good.” Her regal gaze turned upon Holmes. “And where is Polly?” If she had been shouting, she would have seemed far less dangerous.
But Holmes collected himself and addressed the question with as much aplomb as if he weren’t being used as a hiding place by two small boys. “In quarantine, on the Atlas. Her brother was exposed to the smallpox.”
“I see. And how long ago was this?” It was my turn to be interrogated and I did not carry off my answer with nearly the same insouciance.
“The night you left us,” I said. And then, knowing it disastrous to elaborate, went on, “We thought it better not to disturb you with the news.”
“After all,” Holmes leapt into the fray. “We are two grown men, and perfectly capable.”
Mrs Hudson let her eyes turn deliberately up to the hanging clothes, and then down to the grease and flour bedecked floor.
“And we had Mrs Beeton,” I said, pointing to the book, and only just then realising that when Holmes had sat down to keep the boys amused he had been too busy to keep up with the detritus of my cooking efforts.
“A most useful volume,” Holmes carefully made his way to the stove, so as to open the oven door and display the bird inside. “And as you can see, our goose is nearly cooked.”
“No, Mr. Holmes,” Mrs Hudson said, signalling for Brown to bring her a chair. She settled into it and began to unpin her hat. “Your goose is, I assure you, entirely cooked. But since I am here to give you your pudding, I shall see that you may get the chance to eat it as well.”
“far more research than strictly necessary”:
Hospital ship "Atlas" moored at Long Reach, 17 miles down the Thames, for smallpox cases. http://www.portcities.org.uk/london/server/show/ConNarrative.68/chapterId/1651/Containing-smallpox-in-Victorian-London.html
http://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/index.html?year=1882&country=9 Christmas is a Monday.
http://www.victorianlondon.org/finance/money.htm how much did it cost?
http://honest-food.net/wild-game/duck-goose-recipes/#stufftoknow (includes video of plucking)
Watson gets 11 and six a day wound pension, that’s an income of 4088 shillings a year, slightly over 204 pounds per annum. or 194 guineas and 14 shillings (which was easier to convert than the decimal.) If he and Holmes are paying 4 guineas a week for room and board (and coal, etc.), total, that’s 2 guineas a week each, bringing Watson’s annual bill to Mrs Hudson to 104 guineas. At the quarter, he owes her 26 guineas.
http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/jan/07/brief-history-snow-britain-charlie-english has snow film from 1963 with trains