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The Case of the Six Marmalades

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1.

When Watson came to breakfast, he found a small, white ceramic pot by his place. Holmes was already in his seat, reading the paper, apparently untroubled by the new item on the table.

"What's this?" Watson asked, taking up the pot. "Non Pareil Fresh Marmalade," he read out. “Fortnum & Mason.”

“That seems clear enough," Holmes answered from behind his paper.

"Well, yes. But what is it doing here?"

"What is marmalade doing at the breakfast table? What, indeed?"

“Yes, but… Marmalade usually comes in a bowl."

“I have it on good authority that marmalade originates in pots, not bowls."

Watson cast his friend an unamused glance. “And it usually sits by your place, not mine. And this has a…" Watson eyed the misshapen bit of ribbon and hazarded a guess. “A bow."

Holmes laid his newspaper aside. "I suppose it was rather crass, my leaving it in the pot."

"Holmes. You're giving me… marmalade?"

"A thank you for the Peterson case. I never would have solved that without you, you know."

"You're too kind," Watson demurred, still frowning at the pot.

"The new crop of bitter oranges just came in from Seville, and I thought, 'What better gift than marmalade?'"

"What indeed," Watson murmured to himself, taking his seat. "Marmalade."

"What's that?"

"Ah, nothing," Watson said, and poured their tea.

They breakfasted in silence, Holmes smiling to himself, Watson occasionally frowning at the marmalade pot. Watson had eaten everything but his toast when he finally unlidded his gift.

"Oh, you can spread it more generously than that," Holmes commented. "The fresh stuff doesn't keep; there's really no point in trying to save it back."

With a glance at Holmes, Watson added another gingerly dab from the pot. He took a wary bite.

"Well, how is it?" Holmes asked, his eyes alight with anticipation.

Watson took a sip of his tea.

And a second sip.

Holmes waited patiently.

"It's very…" Watson searched for a word. "Marmaladey."

"Ah, I had hoped it would be!"

"Here, you must have some!” Watson said, perking up somewhat. He took up a new slice and spread it lavishly. "It wouldn't be right to keep this all to myself."

"Well, if you insist," Holmes said, casting a longing glance at the generously-spread slice Watson had placed on his plate.

“Oh, I do."

Holmes took a bite. His eyes drifted shut. "Oh, that is good. That is very good."

Watson smiled. "Yes, I thought you might like that. It was kindly thought, Holmes."

"It was my pleasure.”

“Hrm, yes. Another slice?" Watson dug deep into the pot. "Please, I won’t take no for an answer.”

 

2.

A week later, there was another small pot by Watson's place at the breakfast table.

"Whisky Marmalade," Watson read out this time. "Strachan and Ross, Dundee. Holmes?"

"Oh, just a whim. I was passing by the shop, and it made me think of you."

"Of me?"

"That's as Scots as marmalade gets, I should think. It struck me that it must be something like what you ate at medical school."

Watson cleared his throat. "I never ate marmalade at medical school."

Holmes stared at him. "What, never?"

"Never once," Watson assured him, placing the pot in the centre of the table, equidistant from their places.

"Oh," Holmes said, still staring at him. "I know most medical students are heathen barbarians—"

Watson laughed. “Because I never ate marmalade? That’s a bit much.”

"—but I somehow never imagined it of you."

“I like to think I was civilised enough, as medical students go.”

Holmes looked as if he doubted the claim. "Well. You eat marmalade now, so that's something."

"I… erm, yes." Watson hesitated a moment, then reached for the pot. "And what's better, I have you to share it with me! That's considerably more than something, I should think."

Holmes coloured slightly. "You really think so?"

Watson glanced up from the slice of toast he was slathering generously with marmalade. "I really do." He handed the toast across to Holmes.

Pleased, Holmes took a bite. “Oh! That's got a bit of a kick, hasn’t it?"

Watson's slice wasn't spread nearly so liberally, and yet he grimaced at his first bite. "It rather does. It’s not really appropriate for breakfast, is it?"

"I don't see why," Holmes pouted. "It's marmalade."

“Well, yes.” Watson cleared his throat. “I've never been much for drinking before noon, you know. But by all means, you have as much as you like." He slid the pot closer to Holmes.

Holmes seemed to quite enjoy the whisky marmalade. He finished the rack of toast, then importuned Mrs Hudson for a second. And a third.

"It's a shame you never ate marmalade in school, Watson," he said much later, somewhat glassy-eyed. "I hoped it would bring back some fond memories for you.”

Amused, Watson considered his friend over the top of his newspaper. "More than you might imagine. But never mind, Holmes, it's the thought that counts."

 

3.

The next time a marmalade pot appeared beside Watson's plate, Watson spotted it from across the sitting room. He came to a sudden stop.

“Just a little token of appreciation for your efforts on the Murphy case,” Holmes called from his seat.

Watson's smile was strained. "You really didn't have to."

"Oh, but I did. Your handling of the widow was very deft, and that right cross at the end, when the brother tried to surprise you? Positively inspirational." Holmes twisted around in his chair to look at his friend. "What ever are you doing?”

"Erm, nothing. Good morning, Holmes.” Watson came and took his seat at the table.

"Good morning. For a moment there, I thought you were going to say you didn't have time for breakfast."

Watson paused in putting his serviette across his lap. "The thought hadn't occurred," he said ruefully. He picked up the marmalade pot with a determined smile. "So, what is it this morning? Fortnum & Mason, Ribbon-Cut Marmalade and Honey. Vienna Prize 1888, The Only International Prize for Marmalade. Well, then!”

"Honey marmalade! I was quite pleased to find it! I do like bees."

Watson gave him a strange look. "No one likes bees, Holmes."

"Surely apiarists like bees?"

"I suppose they might." Watson attempted to hand Holmes a slice of toast, heavily laden with the golden preserve, but Holmes waved it off.

“Absolutely not. I ate nearly all of the last pot myself, when it was meant to be yours."

"I truly didn't mind.”

“No, no, this is all yours. Well, go on then!" Holmes fluttered his hands in encouragement. "How is it?"

With a sigh, Watson took a bite. He frowned in surprise, then chewed thoughtfully.

"That's…" Watson looked puzzled. "I wasn't expecting that."

“Well?”

“It has quite a light flavour," Watson approved.

Holmes frowned.

"Sweet, even!"

Holmes gave the marmalade pot a stern look .

"Really, it's very nearly like jam."

"Like jam." Holmes scowled. He plucked the toast from Watson's hand and, taking up the butter knife, picked through the thick layer of golden jelly. "Oh, look at this! I know it says 'ribbon-cut,' but really! Ribbon-cut means the pith sliced thin, not no pith to speak of." He held the toast up to his nose and sniffed at it.

"I thought it wasn't bad,” Watson said.

Holmes gave his friend a stern look. “There's no need to be polite about it, Watson.” He took a bite and immediately made a face. “Vienna Prize,” he muttered, once he had swallowed. “I should have known better. What do the Viennese know about marmalade?"

"I really couldn't say."

"Not much, if this is anything to go by. One really expects better of Fortnum’s.” Holmes discarded the slice in the wastebin, dusting his hands. "I apologise, my dear boy. Not quite the thing, is it?" Standing, he doffed his dressing gown and reached for his jacket.

"Holmes. Where are you going? And what about breakfast?"

Holmes scooped up the marmalade pot and reattached its lid. "Fortnum’s. Here, I know strawberry jam's a poor second, but at least it’s meant to be jam," he said, and moved the bowl closer to Watson.

He took up his coat and was gone, shutting the door firmly behind him.

Watson sat alone at the breakfast table. He shrugged and helped himself to the jam. "I really thought it wasn't bad," he said to no one at all.

 

4.

The next morning, Watson cautiously entered the sitting room. Careful inspection revealed no mysterious pots on the breakfast table, nor was Holmes present. Indeed, the absence of his overcoat suggested he had already gone out.

Watson had just seated himself and taken up the teapot when a windblown seaman came in without even a by-your-leave. Watson paused, eyeing the man.

"Ah, Watson!" the seaman exclaimed. “I’m not too late for breakfast, I see. I'll join you in just a moment!"

"Good morning, Holmes," Watson returned. The seaman disappeared into Holmes’ room. Watson poured two cups of tea and added milk to them both. He took a slice of toast and reached for the bowl of strawberry jam.

“No need for that this morning!" Holmes said cheerily, emerging from his room. He carried with him a small glass jar with a crumpled bow. With a flourish, he set it in front of Watson. "To make up for yesterday!”

Still holding his bowl of jam, Watson eyed the jar. It bore a Fortnum’s label. Its contents were a dark, murky brown.

"That really isn't necessary," he protested, not relinquishing his jam. "It was the thought that counted.”

"Nonsense! You can't top your toast with thoughts," Holmes chided, taking his seat.

"No, I can top it with jam."

Holmes uncapped the marmalade pot and rooted about inside it with a knife. “Just look at this, Watson! Thick-cut, heavy on the oranges. Now this is a marmalade to put hair on your chest!"

"I wasn't aware that my chest needed—"

Holmes looked up with interest.

"That is… Erm."

"Here, allow me," Holmes said, and taking a slice of toast from the rack, he spread it liberally with the dark, chunky stuff. He exchanged the bare slice on Watson's plate with the marmaladen one. "Just try that," he urged.

Watson reluctantly put down his bowl of jam.

"Invigorating," he pronounced after he had swallowed a cautious bite and also half his tea.

“Oh, excellent,” Holmes declared. “No need to share, I have a second jar for myself.”

 

5.

The next week, late in the morning and with the breakfast things long since cleared away, Mrs Hudson brought up a pot of tea. Watson greeted its arrival with enthusiasm and poured for them both.

“Oh, that’s just the thing,” Holmes declared, taking a sip. He wandered back to his chemical table, setting his cup down among the labware.

"Holmes," Watson reproved. "I've told you not to eat and drink at your chemical table."

“Pish-tosh,” Holmes said, waving off Watson's concern. “I know what I’m doing.”

"It's unhygienic,” Watson insisted, taking up his cup. “You’re risking contaminating your tea with—"

Watson abruptly choked on the sip from his own cup. A fine mist of liquid sprayed his paper.

"Marmalade," he finished with a gasp.

“Now why would I worry about contaminating my tea with marmalade?"

"My tea," Watson protested.

"Nice, isn't it?"

With a glare for Holmes, Watson stiffly put down his teacup and crossed to the sideboard.

"The tannins mix very well with the pithy notes, don't you think? They really bring out the best in each other."

Watson poured himself a brandy and knocked it back. Making a face, he scraped his tongue against his teeth.

"And the addition of heat really makes the marmalade sing,” Holmes continued blithely. “There are flavours in here I never noticed before.”

Watson poured himself a second measure of brandy and knocked it back as quickly as the first.

"Watson? Are you quite all right? I thought you didn't like to drink before noon."

"You put marmalade in my tea," Watson accused.

"Of course I didn’t. I've been up here all morning. You were here with me.”

"Marmalade, Holmes. In my tea."

“Isn’t it nice? It's all the rage. Easy to see why." Holmes took a contented sip from his cup.

“Holmes! A man's tea is sacred!”

“You know, that's exactly what Mrs Hudson said when I gave her the recipe. She was quite adamant."

"As well she should be!"

"But I assured her you quite like marmalade—"

“I don’t,” Watson interrupted.

Holmes turned an expression of polite interest on Watson. “I’m sorry, you don't what?"

"Like marmalade."

Holmes looked blankly at his friend. With a sigh, Watson poured himself a third brandy.

"You don't like marmalade?"

"I'm sorry, old man, I hoped it wouldn't come to this, but you put the stuff in my tea. There really are limits.”

Holmes frowned down at his teacup. “I suppose a milder—"

"Holmes," Watson interrupted. "I don't like marmalade."

"What, not at all?"

“It's vile, nasty stuff. It’s a wonder to me that you can’t taste it.”

"Well, I know that the honey marmalade—"

"Was the best of a bad lot,” Watson interrupted again.

Holmes blinked at him. “But it was barely marmalade at all.”

"Precisely. I’m sorry, Holmes, but I really can't abide the stuff. Never have.”

Holmes frowned. "So all this time…?" He glanced at the breakfast table.

Watson sighed. “I’m a civilised man. I didn't decorate my tutors' rooms with human intestines, and I don't rebuff a kindly-meant gift. And they were kindly meant."

Holmes looked forlorn.

"I appreciate the intent. I know how much you like the stuff."

Holmes did not seem comforted.

"It's not like you ever gifted Lestrade with a pot of marmalade, now is it?"

"I see,” Holmes said, composing himself. He retrieved the teapot from its table. "Well! I'll just finish this off myself, then, shall I?"

"Holmes.”

Holmes brushed past Watson and opened the door. He bellowed down the stairs for a fresh pot — just the usual, this time, please — and took the rejected marmalade tea back to his chemical table.

“Holmes, not at your chemical table, please."

“And why not? This pot is already contaminated, you were very clear."

"Holmes,” Watson tried again. “They really were lovely gifts. In their way."

But Holmes fixed his attention on his researches, as if Watson had not spoken at all.

 

+ 1

Over the next several days, Holmes remained cool toward Watson. He was often absent from breakfast, or took only tea and dry toast on his way out the door.

The fifth morning, Mrs Hudson clucked over Holmes’ untouched plate while she cleared the dishes. “It was really very badly done, Dr Watson. Toying with his feelings like that.”

“I was trying to spare his feelings,” Watson protested.

She sniffed. “I said very badly done, and very badly done I meant.” She gave him a withering look as she took up the tray. “I expected better of you.”

“Fine,” he sighed. “Fortnum’s it is, then.”

 

Watson did not return that night, nor the next. But the very next morning he paced the sitting room while breakfast cooled on the table.

“Holmes! Good morning!” Watson greeted his friend when Holmes finally emerged from his room. Holmes was fully dressed, just belting his Norfolk jacket.

“Watson,” Holmes returned evenly. “Thank you for the telegram, it saved me setting Scotland Yard after you. Came in on the milk-train, I see.”

Watson smoothed his hands over his waistcoat, attempting to erase the travel creases. “Scotland Yard? I would like to think that if I went missing, you’d find me yourself.”

Holmes shrugged; the brittleness of the gesture belied its offhandedness. “It seems I haven’t been as perceptive lately as I might. Perhaps it would be for the best to leave it to the Yard.” Watson winced, but Holmes didn’t seem to notice. “What ever were you doing in Cumbria? No, forgive me, it’s not my business.” He reached for his overcoat. “I’m glad you’re back; perhaps I’ll see you at tea.”

“I had an interview with the buyer at Fortnum’s,” Watson blurted.

Holmes paused.

Watson leapt for the breakfast table and pulled out Holmes’ chair. “Won’t you join me for breakfast?”

Holmes looked at Watson and the proffered chair. His eyes landed on a neatly-wrapped parcel at Holmes’ plate.

“Please, Holmes,” Watson beseeched.

Holmes returned his coat to the tree. “Fortnum’s doesn’t have an outpost in Cumbria.” He approached the table. “And that’s not from Fortnum’s.”

“Trust you to know the shape of every Fortnum’s pot and jar by sight," Watson said with a fond smile. "No, I was rather hoping it’s better than Fortnum’s.”

“Better than Fortnum’s? That seems unlikely.”

But Holmes took his seat, and Watson hastily joined him.

“Go ahead, open it,” Watson urged. He took up the teapot and poured for them both.

Holmes cut the string and peeled back the paper to reveal a jar of darkly golden preserve. He looked at Watson, then tugged the paper further down to see the label. “Wild Crop Honey Marmalade, Turvey and Sons, Penrith.”

“I was chatting with the buyer at Fortnum’s,” Watson said nervously, “and he mentioned Turvey as making a marmalade that he personally liked very well. Fortnum’s doesn’t carry it — it’s too challenging for their usual clientèle. It's better than fifty percent bitter oranges, it seemed right up your alley.”

“At the risk of being blunt, Watson, honey marmalade was to your taste, not mine.” Holmes attempted to hand the jar to Watson.

But Watson firmly pushed it back. “That other stuff was cut with honey, of course you found it a disappointment. This, the makers replaced a portion of the sugar with honey. Which, yes, in some hands might make it too sweet,” Watson lectured, warming to his topic. “But in this case, they used that extra concentration of sweetness to push the orange content higher.”

“And the Fortnum’s buyer specifically recommended this to you,” Holmes said, still eyeing the jar doubtfully.

Watson cleared his throat. “Ah, no, actually. I tried the one he recommended, of course, plus this and a few others. I thought you would like this one best.”

Holmes’ attention was all on Watson. “You selected this?”

“I flatter myself that I have some experience of your preferences in marmalade,” Watson dared to tease. Holmes blushed. “I do think you’ll like it. It’s vile, of course, but vile in a complex, sophisticated way.”

Still watching Watson, Holmes opened the jar and tasted an experimental finger-full of the stuff. His eyes drifted shut.

“Goodness,” he breathed, when he had recovered himself. “That is… fascinating.”

Watson smiled. “Wild crop, the oranges and the honey both. That’s another reason Fortnum’s doesn’t carry it — the flavour can be a bit unpredictable from batch to batch. But I thought that might appeal to you.”

Holmes took a second finger-full.

Watson harrumphed and passed him the toast-rack. “Good god, Holmes, someone might mistake you for a medical student. What do you make of the honey? I was concerned it might colour the flavour too much.”

Holmes hummed, considering. “Well, I do like bees.”

“He likes bees,” Watson said to himself, but turned his attention to breakfast. “Perhaps we’d best leave the bees to the apiarists, hm?”

Holmes gave him a sudden, bright smile. “Oh, that’s an excellent idea, Watson. Bees are best left to apiarists.”

Something made Watson cut him a sharp glance, but Holmes was the picture of contented innocence, humming to himself while he spread his toast thick with marmalade.

Watson smiled and reached for the strawberry jam.