Baker Street Christmas Carol
With apologies to not only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but also to Charles Dickens, particularly for all the bits which have been lovingly (albeit somewhat irreverently) lifted from his well-loved and deeply respected classic of similar title. I don’t own any of these characters, or this plotline, or even most of these words, but as I’m going to get coal in my stocking anyway …
Cubitt was dead, to begin with, there is no doubt whatever about that. The cause of his death had been predicted by the consulting detective he had hired, and the detective had not been able to prevent that death. Sherlock Holmes had failed. And Sherlock Holmes could not have failed; his name was good upon Scotland Yard for anything he chose to put his hand to.
And yet Hilton Cubitt was as dead as a door-nail.
Mind! I don’t mean to say, of my own knowledge, that Holmes blamed himself for it. Holmes knew he was dead? Of course he did. He was the sole investigator for his client’s case. Holmes was not dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but on the very day of the funeral, and for months afterward, he found himself arguing once more with his dear friend Watson, defending his choice to mope about nothing whatsoever.
Even upon Christmas Eve, they fell to arguing about it over their supper.
“Admit it, Holmes,” Watson persisted. “You are still blaming yourself for Cubitt’s death. I’ve told you before –”
Homes spun around to face him indignantly. “Watson, do you blame me for Cubitt’s death?”
“Certainly not, but –”
“And would you consider me mentally inferior to you?”
“Heavens, no! Quite the op–”
“So, then, why would you think that I should be unable to come to the same conclusion as you have, that is, that I did what I could given the facts to hand, and that Cubitt’s death was an unfortunate occurrence.”
“One that you failed to prevent.”
Holmes regarded his friend critically. “Honestly, Watson, I do not see where your persistent gainsaying is benefiting anyone. If I say that I am not blaming myself for the death of Mr. Hilton Cubitt, then you may rest assured –”
“Holmes, if you are not blaming yourself,” Watson said solemnly, “then why did you refuse to go to the funeral? You were invited as an honoured guest.”
“I did not take the case to be honoured. In any case, I have no need such emotional displays as funerals. The dead cannot be helped by it, and the living should accept their loss and move on.”
“My dear Holmes!”
“Pshaw, man, by now you should know me well enough to know that I abhor sentimentality. The softer emotions are a liability to the true student of logic.”
“Holmes, you honestly don’t –” Watson’s words were interrupted by the bell. Holmes swept over to the bow-window, gazing down at the street below.
“Well, it seems friend Lestrade is calling to give us the compliments of the season. Come in, Inspector! I can see that our criminal classes have been sadly inactive today, but your superiors have not. Paperwork is the scourge of all professions, is it not?”
Inspector Lestrade merely smiled in reply; he had, in fact, been buried in paperwork all morning, but was well used to Holmes’ deductions and was no longer surprised to hear the events of his day reported to him whenever he visited his friends at Baker Street. He shook off his overcoat and hung it upon the rack before taking his accustomed seat.
“I came to wish you –”
“—the compliments of the season, yes,” Holmes interrupted. “And we regret that we must decline your offer to accompany you to Scotland Yard to watch London’s finest grow steadily drunk upon eggnog and brandied pudding.”
Lestrade frowned sharply at Holmes, and Watson rose from his seat, casting his friend a disgusted look.
“Holmes is speaking out of turn,” said he. “I should be honoured to attend your celebration. It will certainly be more convivial company than I have here,” he added acidly as he took his own coat from the back of the door. “We’d best go now,” he continued, ignoring Holmes’ scowl. “The great detective has no need for emotional displays, and if I stay here much longer, I might let loose with a very emotional display indeed, as well as some words my dear mother would have been shocked to hear me say.”
Sherlock Holmes watched his friends leave in mild puzzlement; although he could tell everywhere they had been and everything they had done in a single glance, he found himself unable to understand the importance they seemed to place upon their feelings. Certainly they could see that these inconvenient and irrational emotions were clouding their intellect; he had informed them both many times of the deleterious effect of the softer emotions. And yet, the two men for whom he had the most respect – his flatmate and the inspector – did not seem to care that they were ruining otherwise promising brains with absurd and outmoded feelings.
He sighed wearily and picked up his violin. He had been planning a quiet evening at home with Watson, but he could just as easily have a quiet evening alone. After all, if all emotional attachments were rubbish, then Watson should mean no more to him then the Stradivarius he held in his hands.
And yet – with an impatient ejaculation, he threw the violin aside and snatched up a newspaper. There was nothing here to hold him, either. He tossed the paper into the grate and watched it burn merrily before realizing that Watson had not read that section. He turned for the door; he could still go to the newsagent’s and purchase a copy.
No. He smiled to himself bitterly. He would not let himself fall prey to the tedious conventions of polite behaviour; if Watson wanted to read that section, then, by Jove, he could go to the newsagent himself and get a copy.
Holmes tapped irritably upon the mantel, scowling about the room. It infuriated him that he could not seem to keep himself rational when thinking about Watson. He had long ago forsworn such frivolities as affection; why, then, did this half-pay army surgeon mean so much to him?
He turned to bank the fire, and was shocked to see Hilton Cubitt’s face upon the gas-jet by the mantel. Now it is a fact that there was nothing at all particular about this gas-jet, except that it was very large. It is also a fact that Holmes had seen it, night and morning, during his whole residence at that place; also that Holmes had as little of what is called fancy about him as any man in the City of London. And then let any man explain to me, if he can, how it happened that Holmes, having his hand upon the mantel, saw in the gas-jet, without its undergoing any intermediate process of change – not a gas-jet, but Cubitt’s face.
Cubitt’s face. It was not burning, like the newspaper upon the grate, but had a dismal light about it, like a bad lobster in a dark cellar. It was not angry or ferocious, but looked at Holmes as Cubitt had last looked: with a mild expression of confusion upon his noble face.
As Holmes looked fixedly upon this phenomenon it was a gas-jet again. He shook himself, and chuckled a little, before deciding that it were high time he quit the sitting room for his bed. He calmly banked the fire and shut the door behind him, sealing himself in his still, cold, and lonely bedroom, laying himself down upon the small hard bed.
The silence did not last long; soon he heard a clanking noise, deep down below, as if some person were dragging a heavy chain over the seventeen steps up to the sitting room, passing that door, and coming straight to his bedroom door.
“Humbug,” Holmes muttered. “I won’t believe it.” His colour changed though, when it came through the door and stood before him. Hilton Cubitt, in his Saville Row suit, a trilby perched upon his head, all completely transparent so that Holmes could see both front and back buttons and nothing in between.
“How now!” said Holmes, caustic and cold as ever. “What do you want with me?”
“Much!” – Cubitt’s voice, no doubt about it.
“Who are you?”
“Ask me who I was.”
“Who were you then?”
“In life, I was Hilton Cubitt, your client.”
“Can you sit down?
“Do it, then.”
“You don’t believe in me,” observed the ghost.
“I don’t,” said Holmes.
“Why do you doubt your own senses?”
“Because,” said Holmes, “a little thing affects them. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are.”
At this the spirit raised a frightful cry, and bellowed with such a dismal and appalling noise, that Holmes sat up in bed, his hands over his ears. “Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?” he cried.
“Man of the worldly mind!” replied the ghost, “do you believe in me or not?”
“For the purposes of this discussion,” said Holmes, “I suppose I must concede your existence; otherwise, I am talking to myself. But why do you come to me?”
“I am here to-night to repay you for your kindness.”
“Kindness? What kindness did I show you?”
“You cleared my dear wife’s good name, and brought my murderer to justice.”
“You make too much of it, sir. ‘Twas not kindness that guided my actions, but deductive reasoning.”
“You might not have meant it as a kindness,” answered the ghost, “but as a kindness it was taken, and my return of that kindness shall be to show you the value of the love that resides in your own heart.”
“My heart? Humbug!”
Cubitt did not seem to notice Holmes’ attitude of disdain. “You will be haunted,” resumed the ghost, “by three spirits.”
Holmes’ countenance fell. “Exactly what is this exercise supposed to prove?” he demanded, in a faltering voice quite unlike his own.
“Without these visits,” said the ghost, “you cannot hope to realize the love that resides in your heart.”
“As I said before, humbug! There is no love residing in my heart.”
“All the more reason for the visits. Expect the first tomorrow, when the bell tolls one.”
“Wouldn’t it be more practical to receive them all at once, and have it over?” Holmes asked.
“Expect the second on the next night at the same hour,” the ghost replied. “The third upon the next night when the last stroke of twelve has ceased to vibrate. Look to see me no more; and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
With these parting words, the ghost of Hilton Cubitt faded from sight, and Sherlock Holmes lay back in his bed, exhausted and confused, thinking upon all he had seen and heard. The more he thought, the more perplexed he was; Cubitt’s ghost bothered him exceedingly. Every time he resolved within himself, after mature inquiry, that it was all a dream, his mind flew back again, like a strong spring released, to its first position, and presented the same problem to be worked all through, “Was it a dream or not?”
Holmes lay in this state until the chimes had gone three quarters more, when he remembered, on a sudden, that the ghost had warned him of a visitation when the bell tolled one. He resolved to lie awake until the hour was past; and, considering that he could no more go to sleep than go to Heaven, this was perhaps the wisest resolution in his power.
The quarter was so long, that he was more than once convinced he must have sunk into a doze unconsciously, and missed the clock. At length it broke upon his listening ear.
“A quarter past,” said Holmes, counting.
“Half past!” said Holmes.
“A quarter to it,” said Holmes.
“The hour itself,” said Holmes, triumphantly, “and nothing else!”
He spoke before the hour bell sounded, which it now did with a deep, dull, hollow, melancholy one. Light flashed up in the room upon the instant, and Holmes, starting up into a half-recumbent attitude, found himself face to face with an unearthly visitor: as close to it as I am now to you, and I am standing in the spirit at your elbow.
It was a strange figure – like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium, which gave him the appearance of having receded from the view, and being diminished to a child’s proportions. Its hair, which hung about its neck and down its back, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it, and the tenderest bloom was on the skin. The arms were very long and muscular; the hands the same, as if its hold were of uncommon strength. Its legs and feet, most delicately formed, were, like those upper members, bare. It wore a tunic of the purest white, and round its waist was bound a lustrous belt, the sheen of which was beautiful. It held a branch of fresh green holly in its hand; and, in singular contradiction of that wintry emblem, had its dress trimmed with summer flowers. But the strangest thing about it was, that from the crown of its head there sprung a bright clear jet of light, by which all this was visible; and which was doubtless the occasion of its using, in its duller moments, a great extinguisher for a cap, which it now held under its arm.
“Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?” asked Holmes.
“I am.” The voice was soft and gentle, and singularly low, as if instead of being so close beside him, it were at a distance.
“Who and what are you?” Holmes demanded.
“I am the ghost of Christmas Past.”
“Long past?” inquired Holmes, observant of its dwarfish stature.
“No. Your past.”
Holmes could not have told anybody why, if anybody could have asked him; but he had a special desire to see the spirit in his cap, and begged him to be covered.
“What!” exclaimed the ghost, “would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give? Is it not enough that you are one of those who through your lack of love made this cap, and force me through whole trains of years to wear it low upon my brow?”
Holmes reverently disclaimed all intention to offend or any knowledge of having wilfully bonneted the spirit at any period of his life. He then made bold to inquire what business brought him there.
“Your welfare,” said the ghost.
Holmes could not help thinking that a night of unbroken rest, or failing that, a case to occupy him, would have been more conducive to that end. The spirit must have heard him thinking, for it said immediately:
“Your reclamation, then. Take heed.” It put out its strong hand as it spoke, and clasped him gently by the arm. “Rise, and walk with me.” The grasp, though gentle as a woman’s hand, was not to be resisted. He rose: but finding that the spirit made towards the window, hung back uneasily.
“I am mortal,” Holmes remonstrated, “and liable to fall.”
“Bear but a touch of my hand there,” said the spirit, laying it upon his heart, “and you shall be upheld in more than this.”
As the words were spoken, they passed through the wall, and stood upon an open country road, with fields on either hand. The city had entirely vanished. Not a vestige of it was to be seen. The darkness and the mist had vanished with it, for it was a clear, cold, winter day, with snow upon the ground.
“Good heavens!” said Holmes, clasping his hands together, as he looked about him. “This is Sussex. I was a boy here.”
The spirit gazed upon him mildly. Its gentle touch, though it had been light and instantaneous, appeared still present to the old man’s sense of feeling. He was conscious of a thousand odours floating in the air, each one connected with a thousand thoughts, and hopes, and joys, and cares long, long, forgotten.
“You recollect the way?” inquired the spirit.
“Remember it!” cried Holmes with fervour. “I could walk it blindfolded.”
“Strange to have forgotten it for so many years,” observed the host. They walked along the road, Holmes recognising every gate, and post, and tree; until a little market-town appeared in the distance, with its bridge, its church, and winding river. Some shaggy ponies now were seen trotting towards them with boys upon their backs, who called to other boys in country gigs and carts, driven by farmers. All these boys were in great spirits, and shouted to each other, until the broad fields were so full of merry music, that the crisp air laughed to hear it.
“These are but shadows of the things that have been,” said the ghost. “They have no consciousness of us.”
The jocund travellers came on; and as they came, Holmes knew and named them every one. Why was he rejoiced beyond all bounds to see them? Why did his cold eye glisten and his heart leap up as they went past? Why was he filled with gladness when he heard them give each other merry Christmas, as they parted at cross-roads and-bye ways, for their several homes? What was such love to Holmes? Out upon it! What good had it ever done to him?
“The school is not quite deserted,” said the ghost. “A solitary child, neglected by his friends, is left there still.”
Holmes said he knew it.
They left the high-road, by a well-remembered lane, and soon approached a mansion of dull red brick, with a little weathercock-surmounted cupola, on the roof, and a bell hanging in it. There was an earthy savour in the air, a chilly bareness in the place, which associated itself somehow with too much getting up by candle-light, and not too much to eat.
They went, the ghost and Holmes, across the hall, to a door at the back of the house. It opened before them, and disclosed a long, bare, melancholy room, made barer still by lines of plain deal forms and desks. At one of these a lonely boy was reading near a feeble fire; and Holmes sat down upon a form, and frowned to see his poor forgotten self as he used to be.
“I wish,” Holmes muttered, looking about him, “ah, but it’s too late now.”
“What is the matter?” asked the spirit.
“Nothing,” said Holmes. “Nothing. There was a boy singing a Christmas carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”
The ghost smiled thoughtfully, and waved its hand: saying as it did so, “Let us see another Christmas!”
Holmes’ former self grew larger at the words, and the room became a little darker and more dirty. The panels shrunk, the windows cracked; fragments of plaster fell out of the ceiling, and the naked laths were shown instead; but how all this was brought about, Holmes knew no more than you do. He only knew that it was quite correct; that everything had happened so; that there he was, alone again, when all the other boys had gone home for the jolly holidays.
The young Holmes was not reading now, but walking up and down despairingly. Holmes looked at the ghost, and with a mournful shaking of his head, glanced anxiously towards the door.
It opened; and a young man, perhaps half a decade older than the boy, came darting in, and shaking him by the hand, addressed him fondly, and was answered similarly.
“I have come to bring you home, Sherlock!” said the youth, beaming widely.
“Home, Mycroft?” returned the boy.
“Yes!” said Mycroft, brimful of glee. “Home, for good and all. Home, for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home’s like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you. And you are never to come back here; but first, we’re to be together all the Christmas long, and have the merriest time in all the world.”
“You have made me the happiest lad in all of Sussex!” exclaimed the boy.
Mycroft laughed and ruffled his brother’s hair fondly. Then he began to drag him, in his youthful eagerness, towards the door; and young Sherlock, nothing loth to go, accompanied his brother.
“Such a jolly youth your brother was,” said the ghost.
“So he was,” replied Holmes. “You’re right. I’ll not gainsay it, spirit.”
“And yet he is not so jolly now, is he?”
Holmes seemed uneasy in his mind; and answered briefly, “No.”
Although they had but that moment left the school behind them, they were now in the busy thoroughfares of a city, where shadowy passengers passed and repassed; where shadowy carts and coaches battled for the way, and all the strife and tumult of a real city were. It was made plain enough, by the dressing of the shops, that here too it was Christmas time again; but it was evening, and the streets were lighted up. They walked along until they came to Baker Street, and ascended into the very apartment from where they had started their journey.
“My time grows short,” observed the spirit. “Quick!”
This was not addressed to Holmes, or to any one whom he could see, but it produced an immediate effect. For again Holmes saw himself. He was older now; a man in the prime of life. His face had not the harsh and rigid lines of later years; but it had begun to wear the signs of ennui and cynicism.
He was not alone, but sat in the bow-window, with a slightly younger John Watson standing behind him. As this Holmes stared out into the street below, the good doctor looked upon his companion, his eyes softened with some light that was quite indefinable.
“Holmes,” Watson said quietly, “do you wish to open our presents?”
The shade of Holmes did not answer, but continued staring out into the street, frowning slightly as if trying to recall some half-forgotten name.
“I heard you, Doctor. As I have already told you, the tradition of exchanging Christmas gifts is not one that I choose to observe.”
“But Holmes –”
“Doctor, we shall not discuss this further. If you insist upon presenting me with the pipe you purchased –”
“Holmes, how could you –”
“Honestly, Watson! It was a simple enough deduction.”
Watson took a deep breath, his face reddening somewhat. “That is not what I meant, Holmes. I meant how could you be so unfeeling?”
Holmes did not turn around, but still glared out of the window. “You know my methods, Watson. Emotions are a liability –”
But Watson had heard enough. He turned upon his heel and strode to the sitting-room door, slamming it behind him with enough force to rattle the pictures upon the wall.
The Holmes who watched alongside the spirit shook his head sadly. “Even then, he did not understand me.” And yet, his voice held an uncertain tone quite unfamiliar to him.
“I should think,” the spirit answered evenly, “that he understands you better than you think.”
Sherlock Holmes regarded the spirit critically. “Exactly what do you mean by that?” he asked slowly.
“He alone, of all those around you, can see in your eyes the boy you were.”
“Bah! Stuff and nonsense!” Holmes said, and yet there was a gleam in his eye that said otherwise. “In any case, what do I matter to him?”
The spirit said nothing, but waved its hand.
In a shimmering of air, the sitting-room vanished and they were in Watson’s second-story bedroom, with the cheerful sailing prints upon the walls and the high window looking out into the back yard of the house, where the solitary plane tree stood covered in snow.
John Watson sat at his desk, his back to them. He was busy at something, his head bowed over his work, and Holmes had to edge forward to see that the doctor had his service pistol out and was cleaning it.
“He is always so responsible with his firearms,” Holmes said with no little pride.
“You are fond of your friend.”
Holmes frowned at the ghost. “I know what you are trying for, spirit, and I do not appreciate such obvious manipulation. You are trying to tell me that my affection for this man –” the words dried in his mouth, however, as Watson finished cleaning the pistol and, pulling a box of bullets out of a drawer, solemnly loaded it with a single bullet before spinning the chamber and placing the muzzle in his mouth.
“Watson!” Holmes yelled. “Watson, what do you –”
“He cannot see or hear you,” the spirit said calmly.
“But he is about to –” Holmes watched helplessly as Watson pulled the trigger, producing only a sharp click from the firearm. The doctor threw the weapon aside and collapsed upon the desk, his shoulders shaking in silent sobs.
Holmes watched this spectacle, the skin upon his neck tingling unpleasantly. “Watson, why?” he whispered.
“I think you know the answer to that,” the spirit replied gently. “He believes that the one person he cares for most in all the world cares nothing for him.”
“But that is preposterous! I care for him. Why, only the other day –”
“You do not show your affection for him.”
“I am a man of rational intellect. I have no use for …” Holmes looked again at the trembling shoulders of his friend and wondered exactly what he had refused in turning away from this man.
“Spirit!” said Holmes in a broken voice, “remove me from this place.”
“I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,” said the ghost. “That they are what they are, do not blame me!”
“Remove me!” Holmes exclaimed, “I cannot bear it!”
He turned upon the ghost, and seeing that it looked upon him with a face, in which in some strange way there were fragments of all the faces it had shown him, wrestled with it.
“Leave me! Take me back. Haunt me no longer!”
In the struggle, if that can be called a struggle in which the ghost with no visible resistance on its own part was undisturbed by any effort of its adversary, Holmes observed that its light was burning high and bright; and dimly connecting that with its influence over him, he seized the extinguisher-cap, and by a sudden action pressed it down upon its head.
The spirit dropped beneath it, so that the extinguisher covered its whole form; but though Holmes pressed it down with all his force, he could not hide the light, which streamed from under it, in an unbroken flood upon the ground.
He was conscious of being exhausted, and overcome by an irresistible drowsiness; and, further, of being in his own bedroom. He gave the cap a parting squeeze, in which his hand relaxed; and had barely time to reel to bed, before he sank into a heavy sleep.
Waking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Holmes had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of one. He felt that he was restored to consciousness in the right nick of time, for the especial purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger dispatched to him through Hilton Cubitt’s intervention. But, finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder how this new spectre would greet him, established a sharp look-out all round the bed. For, he wished to challenge the spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise.
Now, I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much. Thus being prepared for almost anything, he was not by any means prepared for nothing; and, consequently, when the bell struck one, and no shape appeared, he was taken with a violent fit of trembling. Five minutes, ten minutes, a quarter of an hour went by, yet nothing came. All this time, he lay upon his bed, the very core and centre of a blaze of ruddy light, which streamed upon it when the clock proclaimed the hour; and which, being only light, was more alarming than a dozen ghosts, as he was powerless to make out what it meant, or would be at. At last, however, he began to realize that the source and secret of this ghostly light came from the adjoining room. This idea taking full possession of his mind, he got up softly and shuffled in his slippers to the door.
The moment Holmes’s hand was on the lock, a strange voice called him by his name, and bade him enter. He obeyed.
It was his own sitting-room. There was no doubt about that. But it had undergone a surprising transformation. The walls and ceiling were so hung with living green, that it looked a perfect grove; from every part of which, bright gleaming berries glistened. The crisp leaves of holly, mistletoe, and ivy reflected back the light, as if so many little mirrors had been scattered there; and such a mighty blaze went roaring up the chimney, as that dull petrifaction of a hearth had never known in Holmes’ time, or for many and many a winter season gone. Heaped up on the floor, to form a kind of throne, were turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, great joints of meat, sucking-pigs, long wreaths of sausages, mince-pies, plum-puddings, barrels of oysters, red-hot chestnuts, cherry-cheeked apples, juicy oranges, luscious pears, immense twelfth-cakes, and seething bowls of punch, that made the chamber dim with their delicious steam. In easy state upon this couch, there sat a jolly giant, glorious to see, who bore a glowing torch, in shape not unlike Plenty’s horn, and held it up, high up, to shed its light on Holmes, as he came peeping round the door.
“Come in!” exclaimed the ghost. “Come in, and know me better, man.”
Holmes entered timidly, and hung his head before this spirit. He was not the fiery and independent soul he had been; and though the spirit’s eyes were clear and kind, he did not like to meet them.
“I am the Ghost of Christmas Present,” said the spirit. “Look upon me.”
Holmes reverently did so. It was clothed in one simple green robe, or mantle, bordered with white fur. This garment hung so loosely on the figure, that its capacious breast was bare, as if disdaining to be warded or concealed by any artifice. Its feet, observable beneath the ample folds of the garment, were also bare; and on its head it wore no other covering than a holly wreath, set here and there with shining icicles. Its dark brown curls were long and free; free as its genial face, its sparkling eye, its open hand, its cheery voice, its unconstrained demeanour, and its joyful air. Girded round its middle was an antique scabbard; but no sword was in it, and the ancient sheath was eaten up with rust.
“You have never seen the like of me before?” exclaimed the spirit.
“Never,” Holmes answered.
“Have you never walked forth with the younger members of my family; meaning (for I am very young) my elder brothers born in these later years?” pursued the phantom.
“I don’t think I have,” said Holmes. “Have you had many brothers, spirit?”
“Almost nineteen hundred,” said the ghost.
“A tremendous family to provide for,” muttered Holmes.
The Ghost of Christmas Present rose.
“Spirit,” said Holmes in a submissive manner quite unlike his own, “conduct me where you will. I went forth last night on compulsion, and I learnt a lesson which is working now. To-night, if you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.”
“Touch my robe.”
Holmes did as he was told, and held it fast.
Holly, mistletoe, red berries, ivy, turkeys, geese, game, poultry, brawn, meat, pigs, sausages, oysters, pies, puddings, fruit, and punch, all vanished instantly. So did the room, the fire, the ruddy glow, the hour of night, and they stood in the city streets on Christmas morning, where (for the weather was severe) the people made a rough, but brisk and not unpleasant kind of music, in scraping the snow from the pavement in front of their dwellings, and from the tops of their houses, whence it was mad delight to the boys to see it come plumping down into the road below, and splitting into artificial little snow-storms.
But soon the steeples called good people all, to church and chapel, and away they came, flocking through the streets in their best clothes, and with their gayest faces. And at the same time there emerged from scores of bye-streets, lanes, and nameless turnings, innumerable people, carrying their dinners to the bakers’ shops. The sight of these poor revellers appeared to interest the Spirit very much, for he stood with Holmes beside him in a baker’s doorway, and taking off the covers as their bearers passed, sprinkled incense on their dinners from his torch. And it was a very uncommon kind of torch, for once or twice when there were angry words between some dinner-carriers who had jostled each other, he shed a few drops of water on them from it, and their good humour was restored directly. For they said, it was a shame to quarrel upon Christmas Day. And so it was. God love it, so it was.
In time the bells ceased, and the bakers were shut up; and yet there was a genial shadowing forth of all these dinners and the progress of their cooking, in the thawed blotch of wet above each baker’s oven; where the pavement smoked as if its stones were cooking too.
“Is there a peculiar flavour in what you sprinkle from your torch?” asked Holmes.
“There is. My own.”
“Would it apply to any kind of dinner on this day?” asked Holmes.
“To any kindly given.”
So they went on, invisible, as they had been before, into the centre of the town. It was a remarkable quality of the ghost, that notwithstanding his gigantic size, he could accommodate himself to any place with ease; and that he stood beneath a low roof quite as gracefully and like a supernatural creature, as it was possible he could have done in any lofty hall.
And perhaps it was the pleasure the good spirit had in showing off this power of his, or else it was his own kind, generous, hearty nature, and his sympathy with all men, that led him straight to Scotland Yard; for there he went, and took Holmes with him, holding to his robe; and on the threshold of the door the spirit smiled, and stopped to bless the station-house with the sprinkling of his torch.
Inside, the main report-room was lit with a thousand lamps and be-decked with garlands of holly and ivy, and although there were only a few scattered women among the throngs of men in uniform, there was, nevertheless, a sprig of mistletoe hung by every doorway, and much jest and sport made upon it as the gathered constables and inspectors passed beneath.
At one end of this cavernous room, a darts board had been hung upon the wall, and it was there that the ghost led Holmes, there to see Doctor Watson engaged in a game of darts with Inspectors Bradstreet and Lestrade, as well as little Billy Wiggins, captain de facto of the Baker Street Irregulars.
“I just wish that Mr. Holmes could have been here with us,” Billy said wistfully. “I have a present for him, which I made myself.”
“Mr. Holmes does not believe in Christmas gifts,” Watson said, and it seemed to Holmes that he threw the darts a mite harder than necessary as he said so.
“Does Mr. Holmes not believe in Christmas?” Billy asked.
“Not just Christmas, but love, affection, kindness, or any of the softer emotions,” Watson said morosely, going to retrieve the darts from the board. “He believes them to be detrimental to the intellectual process.”
“If love is a detriment to intellect, then I’d rather be the stupidest man upon the planet,” Lestrade grinned, taking the darts from the doctor. “I should not like to think what I would do without the love of my dear Alice.”
“You are many things, Lestrade, but stupid is not one of them,” Watson replied. “In fact, I should say that to have no use for love is stupidity itself. Are you all right?” he continued with some concern, as the boy coughed.
“I’m fine,” Billy replied. “I just caught a little chill on the East End.”
“That doesn’t sound like a little chill to me,” Watson frowned. “Come round to Baker Street tomorrow, so that I may examine you.”
“But Doctor,” the lad protested, “I cannot afford –”
“Afford, nothing,” Watson said firmly. “I only wish all the poor children of London could get adequate medical treatment. Come round tomorrow and we will see what we may do for you. Good shot,” he finished, as one of Lestrade’s darts hit upon the bull’s-eye.
“A lucky shot,” Bradstreet laughed. “But Lestrade is one of the luckiest men I have ever met.”
“Lucky?” Holmes sneered, all unheard. “He has been wounded in the line of duty no less than five times in the years I have known him, and although he makes as much as any inspector, he is always giving away so much of his salary to the Policeman’s Widows and Orphans Fund, so that he has to scrape by from pay-day to pay-day each month.”
“He has a wife who loves him, three beautiful children who dote upon him, and he is well-respected and liked by his fellows,” the spirit replied. “Do you not think of that as fortunate?”
“Lestrade is a fool,” Holmes growled, looking as another uncanny shot landed upon very centre of the board.
“He is not as intelligent as you, perhaps,” the ghost conceded, “but very few men are. In his own way, he is quite –”
“Yes, yes, I know,” grumbled Holmes, a trifle peevishly. “He is certainly more intelligent than old Grumauer.” For sure enough, that man himself was descending from his office even as they spoke; with the help of two of the more distinguished constables, the commissioner stepped atop a nearby desk to better address the force.
“Could we have everyone’s attention?” Commissioner Grumauer called over the heads of the assembled policemen and their guests.
“No!” a happy reveller replied, and a ripple of laughter (but none, I think, laughed louder than old Grumauer himself) rang throughout the room.
“I’ll not speak long,” Grumauer continued, “for I know many of you lads are anxious to get out upon the beat.” Here another wave of chuckles greeted this remark, which the commissioner waved aside. “I want you all to remember tonight why you joined. It wasn’t for the prestige, or for the money; if it was, none of you would be here, eh? You are here to protect and to serve. Let us all remember, upon this day of joy, that every man out there is your brother, and every woman your sister. Remember to keep them – and yourselves – safe. Let’s make sure that everyone gets home for Christmas this year, and God bless us.”
Which all the room re-echoed: “God bless us!”
“God bless us every one!” said Billy Wiggins, the last of all.
“Spirit,” said Holmes, with an interest he had never felt before, “young Wiggins’ cough: it is just a chill, is it something worse?”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the future,” replied the ghost, “the child will die.”
“No, no,” said Holmes. “Say he will be spared.”
“If these shadows remain unaltered by the future,” returned the Ghost, “none other of my race will find him here. What of it? The living should accept their loss and move on.”
Holmes hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.
“In any case,” continued the spirit, “you seem overly concerned for a man who considers the softer emotions so scornfully.”
“He is useful to me,” Holmes answered, reddening a little.
“And were he not, would he be more deserving to die?” the ghost asked severely.
“Of course not,” Holmes answered, his face growing hot. “It’s just that I’ve grown used to having the boy around.”
“You mean you have grown fond of him.”
“Yes,” Holmes admitted quietly with a sigh. “Although I would never marry, I have often wondered what it would be like to have a son.” He watched Billy for a while; the darts game had ended and the boy was now chatting gaily with Lestrade and a constable Holmes did not recognize. “I say, where’s Watson gotten to?” he said.
“Do you wish to see?” the ghost asked.
And the scene vanished, and Holmes recognized Bradstreet’s office, where Watson and the inspector sat, silently passing a bottle of gin back and forth, with melancholy looks upon their faces. It seemed odd to Holmes that they were not sitting across the desk from each other, but huddled together in one corner, as if for warmth, although the stove in the opposite corner poured out a tropical heat. He had not time to think upon it, however, for Watson, in taking too large a swig from the bottle, coughed and sputtered.
“Easy, John,” Bradstreet said, clapping him upon the back. “This is strong stuff.”
Holmes’ jaw dropped at the inspector’s use of his friend’s Christian name, but his surprise was nothing to what he felt when Bradstreet’s arm wrapped further around Watson’s shoulders, and the policeman drew the doctor into a fervent embrace. Holmes watched in dumb shock as the two men kissed each other passionately, drinking of each others’ lips as deeply as they had been drinking the gin.
Watson pulled away. “No, Stephen,” he said sadly. “I cannot do this.”
“John, you can’t keep waiting for him.”
“I love him.”
“He’s incapable of love; you told me yourself,” Bradstreet admonished, touching Watson’s cheek. “It’s foolish to remain faithful to a man who doesn’t even know how you feel about him.”
“I know,” Watson sighed. “But speaking of remaining faithful, aren’t you still with Peter?”
“He’s in France for a year,” Bradstreet replied, taking a long draught from the bottle and passing it to Watson. “In the meantime, he doesn’t mind if I comfort an old friend.” He leaned over and kissed the doctor’s forehead, stroking his russet hair.
Holmes felt his fists clench, and shook his head in confusion; what was this feeling arising in his breast? He resolved to himself that he would understand these new feelings growing within him, for when he looked upon his friends’ embrace, he felt, not the guilt that his conditioning brought, but a strange new feeling, or perhaps an old one; a feeling of longing that set his heart to nearly burst.
“You are not shocked to see two men engaging in such an act?” the spirit asked mildly.
“They do not seem to be harming anyone,” Holmes muttered, quite flustered now.
“But they are risking imprisonment and ruin,” the ghost countered.
“Men have done worse things for love,” Holmes said quietly. Watson and Bradstreet had fallen to their embrace again, exchanging slow languorous kisses.
“Your friend does not love the inspector.”
“Lust, then,” Holmes said quickly, blushing not a little. And yet, the caresses he was witnessing seemed too tender for simple lust. He wondered, fleetingly, if Watson, with his eyes closed, was thinking of another man.
“Do you not know who it is the doctor loves?” the ghost asked, as if reading his thoughts.
Holmes looked down to the floor. “Surely that is his business.”
“And the business of the man he loves,” the spirit answered.
Watson pulled away from Bradstreet once more. “We should get back to the party,” said he.
“Come home with me tonight,” Bradstreet murmured.
“I need to get back to Baker Street. Holmes will be expecting me.”
“No he won’t.”
Watson sighed heavily. “No, I suppose he won’t.”
“Yes, he will,” Holmes whispered.
“What was that?” asked the ghost.
“Nothing,” Holmes coughed.
Bradstreet cupped Watson’s chin in his hands, smiling gently at him. “John, how can you love the man? He’s a twisted, empty-hearted, clockwork man, with a barren soul and – I say!” he ejaculated, for Watson had risen from his seat, tearing away from his arms and barrelling toward the door.
“John, wait: I’m sorry,” Bradstreet said, and Watson stopped, his head hanging upon his chest.
He stood in silence for a long while thus, and Holmes dearly wished that he could have been able to step forward and give his friend some comfort, so sad did he look; but he realized that he knew not how to give comfort or affection.
“You are right,” Watson said eventually. “Sherlock Holmes is a cold man, most likely with a lump of coal where his heart should be. But be that as it may, my love for him is as much a part of me as the water is part of the ocean; without him, I am lost.”
Bradstreet stood up and crossed to Watson, laying a hand upon his shoulder. “You are a good man, John. You deserve to be loved as deeply as you love.”
“I cannot help whom I love. I can only love him the more.”
The meaning of their words had been slowly dawning upon him, and now he gaped at Watson in numb disbelief, unsure what to think or how to feel.
And as Holmes gazed upon him, the bell struck twelve, and the room dissolved before his eyes.
Holmes looked about him for the ghost, and saw it not. As the last stroke ceased to vibrate, he remembered the prediction of Hilton Cubitt, and lifting up his eyes, beheld a solemn Phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came, Holmes bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.
It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand. But for this it would have been difficult to detach its figure from the night, and separate it from the darkness by which it was surrounded.
He felt that it was tall and stately when it came beside him, and that its mysterious presence filled him with a solemn dread. He knew no more, for the spirit neither spoke nor moved.
“I am in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come?” said Holmes.
The spirit answered not, but pointed downward with its hand.
“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” Holmes pursued. “Is that so, spirit?”
The upper portion of the garment was contracted for an instant in its folds, as if the spirit had inclined its head. That was the only answer he received.
It thrilled him with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the dusky shroud there were ghostly eyes intently fixed upon him, while he, though he stretched his own to the utmost, could see nothing but a spectral hand and one great heap of black.
“Ghost of the Future!” he exclaimed, “I fear you more than any spectre I have seen. But as I know your purpose is to do me good, and as I hope to live to be another man from what I was, I am prepared to bear you company, and do it with a thankful heart. Will you not speak to me?”
It gave him no reply. The hand was pointed straight before them.
“Lead on,” said Holmes. “Lead on. The night is waning fast, and it is precious time to me, I know. Lead on, spirit.”
The phantom moved away as it had come towards him. Holmes followed in the shadow of its dress, which bore him up, he thought, and carried him along.
They scarcely seemed to enter the city; for the city rather seemed to spring up about them, and encompass them of its own act. But there they were, in the heart of it; at Scotland Yard again, amongst the policemen; who hurried up and down, as this was the change of shift. They bustled and chatted and so forth, as Holmes had seen them often.
The spirit stopped beside one little knot of constables who had paused to exchange some gossip. Observing that the hand was pointed to them, Holmes advanced to listen to their talk.
“No,” said a great fat detective with a monstrous chin, “I don’t know much about it, either way. I only know he’s dead, and, contrary to general expectation, in his own bed.”
“When did he die?” inquired another.
“Last night, I believe.”
“Why, what was the matter with him?” asked a third.
“God knows,” said the first, with a yawn.
“Well, what did his doctor friend say?” asked a red-faced gentleman with a pendulous excrescence on the end of his nose that shook like the gills of a turkey-cock.
“Didn’t you hear? That one is breaking rocks in Reading.”
“Oh, I remember now. Raid on a bath-house, wasn’t it?”
“Well, what do you expect? Look at the company he kept.”
This pleasantry was received with a general laugh.
Speakers and listeners strolled away, and mixed with other groups. Holmes knew the men, and looked towards the spirit for an explanation.
The phantom glided on into a street. Its finger pointed to two persons meeting. Holmes listened again, thinking that the explanation might lie here.
He knew these men, also, perfectly. They were well-known criminals: very dangerous, and of great importance in the underworld.
“How are you?” said one.
“How are you?” returned the other.
“Well!” said the first. “Well, our friend has got his own at last, hey.”
“So I am told,” returned the second. “Cold, isn’t it?”
“Seasonable for Christmas time. You’re not a skater, I suppose?”
“No. No. Something else to think of. Good morning.”
Not another word. That was their meeting, their conversation, and their parting.
Holmes was at first inclined to be surprised that the spirit should attach importance to conversations apparently so trivial; but feeling assured that they must have some hidden purpose, he set himself to consider what it was likely to be. They could scarcely be supposed to have any bearing on the death of Cubitt, his old client, for they did not know him; and furthermore, that was past, and this ghost’s province was the future. Nor could he think of any one immediately connected with himself, to whom he could apply these conversations. But nothing doubting that to whomsoever they applied they had some latent moral for his own improvement, he resolved to treasure up every word he heard, and everything he saw; and especially to observe the shadow of himself when it appeared. For he had an expectation that the conduct of his future self would give him the clue he missed, and would render the solution of these riddles easy.
Quiet and dark, beside him stood the phantom, with its outstretched hand. When he roused himself from his thoughtful quest, he fancied from the turn of the hand, and its situation in reference to himself, that the Unseen Eyes were looking at him keenly. It made him shudder, and feel very cold.
They left the busy scene, and went into an obscure part of the town, where Holmes had often been before, in pursuit of his quarry. The ways were foul and narrow; the shops and houses wretched; the people half-naked, drunken, slipshod, ugly. Alleys and archways, like so many cesspools, disgorged their offences of smell, and dirt, and life, upon the straggling streets; and the whole quarter reeked with crime, with filth, and misery.
Far in this den of infamous resort, there was a low-browed, beetling shop, below a pent-house roof, where iron, old rags, bottles, bones, and greasy offal, were bought. Upon the floor within, were piled up heaps of rusty keys, nails, chains, hinges, files, scales, weights, and refuse iron of all kinds. Secrets that few would like to scrutinise were bred and hidden in mountains of unseemly rags, masses of corrupted fat, and sepulchres of bones. Sitting in among the wares he dealt in, by a charcoal stove, made of old bricks, was a grey-haired rascal, nearly seventy years of age; who had screened himself from the cold air without, by a frowsy curtaining of miscellaneous tatters, hung upon a line; and smoked his pipe in all the luxury of calm retirement.
Holmes and the phantom came into the presence of this man, just as a woman with a heavy bundle slunk into the shop. But she had scarcely entered, when another woman, similarly laden, came in too; and she was closely followed by a man in faded black, who was no less startled by the sight of them, than they had been upon the recognition of each other. After a short period of blank astonishment, in which the old man with the pipe had joined them, they all three burst into a laugh.
“Let the charwoman alone to be the first,” cried she who had entered first. “Let the laundress alone to be the second; and let the undertaker’s man alone to be the third. Look here, old Joe, here’s a chance. If we haven’t all three met here without meaning it!”
“You couldn’t have met in a better place,” said old Joe, removing his pipe from his mouth. “Come into the parlour. You were made free of it long ago, you know; and the other two an’t strangers. Stop till I shut the door of the shop. Ah. How it skreeks. There an’t such a rusty bit of metal in the place as its own hinges, I believe; and I’m sure there’s no such old bones here, as mine. Ha, ha! We’re all suitable to our calling, we’re well matched. Come into the parlour. Come into the parlour.”
The parlour was the space behind the screen of rags. The old man raked the fire together with an old stair-rod, and having trimmed his smoky lamp (for it was night), with the stem of his pipe, put it in his mouth again.
While he did this, the woman who had already spoken threw her bundle on the floor, and sat down in a flaunting manner on a stool; crossing her elbows on her knees, and looking with a bold defiance at the other two.
“What odds then. What odds, Mrs Dilber.” said the woman. “Every person has a right to take care of themselves. He always did. Especially once that landlady of his got shut of him and he bought the house from her. He drove her out of London with his horrible ways, he did. He was a wicked one, he was.”
“That’s true, indeed,” said the laundress. “No man more so.”
“Why then, don’t stand staring as if you was afraid, woman; who’s the wiser? We’re not going to pick holes in each other’s coats, I suppose?”
“No, indeed,” said Mrs Dilber and the man together. “We should hope not.”
“Very well, then!” cried the woman. “That’s enough. Who’s the worse for the loss of a few things like these? Not a dead man, I suppose.”
“No, indeed,” said Mrs Dilber, laughing.
“If he wanted to keep them after he was dead, a wicked old screw,” pursued the woman, “why wasn’t he natural in his lifetime? If he had been, he’d have had somebody to look after him when he was struck with Death, instead of lying gasping out his last there, alone by himself.”
“It’s the truest word that ever was spoke,” said Mrs Dilber. “It’s a judgment on him.”
“I wish it was a little heavier judgment,” replied the woman; “and it should have been, you may depend upon it, if I could have laid my hands on anything else. Open that bundle, old Joe, and let me know the value of it. Speak out plain. I’m not afraid to be the first, nor afraid for them to see it. We know pretty well that we were helping ourselves, before we met here, I believe. It’s no sin. Open the bundle, Joe.”
But the gallantry of her friends would not allow of this; and the man in faded black, mounting the breach first, produced his plunder. A silver snuff-box with a great amethyst, a diamond ring, and a pearl tie-pin were among the treasure. They were severally examined and appraised by old Joe, who chalked the sums he was disposed to give for each upon the wall, and added them up into a total when he found there was nothing more to come.
“That’s your account,” said Joe, “and I wouldn’t give another sixpence, if I was to be boiled for not doing it. Who’s next?”
Mrs Dilber was next. Sheets and towels, an old violin, a syringe in a red morocco box, and a few rare books. Her account was stated on the wall in the same manner.
“I always give too much to ladies. It’s a weakness of mine, and that’s the way I ruin myself,” said old Joe. “That’s your account. If you asked me for another penny, and made it an open question, I’d repent of being so liberal and knock off half-a-crown.”
“And now undo my bundle, Joe,” said the first woman.
Joe went down on his knees for the greater convenience of opening it, and having unfastened a great many knots, dragged out a large and heavy roll of some dark stuff.
“What do you call this?” said Joe. “A dressing-gown?”
“Ah!” returned the woman, laughing and leaning forward on her crossed arms. “A dressing-gown.”
“You don’t mean to say you took it off him, with him growing stiff?” said Joe.
“Yes I do,” replied the woman. “Why not?”
“You were born to make your fortune,” said Joe, “and you’ll certainly do it.”
“I certainly shan’t hold my hand, when I can get anything in it by reaching it out, for the sake of such a man as he was, I promise you, Joe,” returned the woman coolly. “Don’t drop that oil upon the blankets, now.”
“His blankets?” asked Joe.
“Whose else’s do you think?” replied the woman. “He isn’t likely to take cold without them, I dare say.”
“I hope he didn’t die of any thing catching. Eh?” said old Joe, stopping in his work, and looking up.
“Don’t you be afraid of that,” returned the woman. “I an’t so fond of his company that I’d loiter about him for such things, if he did. Ah. you may look through that shirt till your eyes ache; but you won’t find a hole in it, nor a threadbare place. It’s the best he had, and a fine one too. They’d have wasted it, if it hadn’t been for me.”
“What do you call wasting of it?” asked old Joe.
“Putting it on him to be buried in, to be sure,” replied the woman with a laugh. “Somebody was fool enough to do it, but I took it off again. If calico an’t good enough for such a purpose, it isn’t good enough for anything. It’s quite as becoming to the body. He can’t look uglier than he did in that one.”
Holmes listened to this dialogue in horror. As they sat grouped about their spoil, in the scanty light afforded by the old man’s lamp, he viewed them with a detestation and disgust, which could hardly have been greater, though they were demons, marketing the corpse itself.
“Ha, ha!” laughed the same woman, when old Joe, producing a flannel bag with money in it, told out their several gains upon the ground. “This is the end of it, you see. He frightened every one away from him when he was alive, to profit us when he was dead. Ha, ha, ha!”
“Spirit,” said Holmes, shuddering from head to foot. “I see, I see. The case of this unhappy man might be my own. My life tends that way, now. Merciful Heaven, what is this?”
He recoiled in terror, for the scene had changed, and now he almost touched a bed: a bare, narrow bed: on which, beneath a ragged sheet, there lay a something covered up, which, though it was dumb, announced itself in awful language.
The room was very dark, too dark to be observed with any accuracy, though Holmes glanced round it in obedience to a secret impulse, anxious to know what kind of room it was. A pale light, rising in the outer air, fell straight upon the bed; and on it, plundered and bereft, unwatched, unwept, uncared for, was the body of this man.
Holmes glanced towards the phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Holmes’s part, would have disclosed the face. He thought of it, felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.
He lay, in the dark empty house, with not a man, a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Holmes did not dare to think.
“Spirit,” he said, “this is a fearful place. In leaving it, I shall not leave its lesson, trust me. Let us go.”
Still the Ghost pointed with an unmoved finger to the head.
“I understand you,” Holmes returned, “and I would do it, if I could. But I have not the power, Spirit. I have not the power.”
Again it seemed to look upon him.
“If there is any person in the town, who feels emotion caused by this man’s death,” said Holmes quite agonised, “show that person to me, Spirit, I beseech you.”
The Phantom spread its dark robe before him for a moment, like a wing; and withdrawing it, revealed a cell in Reading Prison, where John Watson sat in candlelight, calmly writing at a battered desk. Presently he laid his pen aside and rose from his seat, crossing to a hard-looking bunk with a moth-eaten mattress. Here he knelt, and reaching underneath, withdrew two of the metal slats. He sat upon the bed and began scraping them against each other, humming a cheerful tune. Soon the humming became words, and Watson sang to himself as he sharpened one slat upon the other. The tune was a popular one, and Holmes recognized the words: “I shall be joining you soon, my darling, soon shall we meet again, my love.”
Watson broke off singing and began to laugh.
For some reason he could not fathom, Holmes suddenly wished to be anywhere but this cell with this softly laughing man who still scraped one bed slat upon another, the metal against metal producing an ominous hiss.
“Spectre,” said Holmes uneasily, “something informs me that our parting moment is at hand. I know it, but I know not how. Tell me what man that was whom we saw lying dead.”
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come conveyed him, as before, to a lonesome churchyard. Here, then, the wretched man whose name he had now to learn, lay underneath the ground. It was a worthy place. Walled in by houses; overrun by grass and weeds, the growth of vegetation’s death, not life; choked up with too much burying; fat with repleted appetite. A worthy place!
The spirit stood among the graves, and pointed down to one. He advanced towards it trembling. The phantom was exactly as it had been, but he dreaded that he saw new meaning in its solemn shape.
“Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Holmes, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only?”
Still the ghost pointed downward to the grave by which it stood.
“Men’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead,” said Holmes. “But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change. Say it is thus with what you show me.”
The spirit was immovable as ever.
Holmes crept towards it, trembling as he went; and following the finger, read upon the stone of the neglected grave his own name, WILLIAM SHERLOCK HOLMES.
“Am I that man who lay upon the bed?” he cried, upon his knees.
The finger pointed from the grave to him, and back again.
“No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”
The finger still was there.
“Spirit!” he cried, tight clutching at its robe, “hear me. I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”
For the first time the hand appeared to shake.
“Good spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before it: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.”
The kind hand trembled.
“I will honour love in my heart, and I shall learn to love. I will live in the past, the present, and the future. The spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach. Oh, tell me I may sponge away the writing on this stone!”
In his agony, he caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.
Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate aye reversed, he saw an alteration in the phantom’s hood and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.
Yes! and the bedpost was his own. The bed was his own, the room was his own. Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!
“I will live in the past, the present, and the future!” Holmes repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. “The spirits of all three shall strive within me. Oh Hilton Cubitt! Heaven, Love and Christmas be praised for this. I say it on my knees, Cubitt, on my knees!”
He was so fluttered and so glowing with his good intentions, that his broken voice would scarcely answer to his call. He had been sobbing violently in his conflict with the spirit, and his face was wet with tears. He frisked into the sitting-room, and stood there a moment, perfectly winded.
“Here it is!” cried Holmes, starting off again, and frisking round the fireplace. “There’s the door, by which the ghost of Hilton Cubitt entered. There’s the corner where the Ghost of Christmas Present sat. It’s all right, it’s all true, it all happened. Ha ha ha!”
Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!
“What’s to-day?” cried Holmes, calling downward to a boy in Sunday clothes, who perhaps had loitered in to look about him.
“Eh?” returned the boy, with all his might of wonder.
“What’s to-day, my fine fellow?” said Holmes.
“To-day?” replied the boy. “Why, Christmas Day.”
“It’s Christmas Day!” said Holmes to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can. Hallo, my fine fellow!”
“Hallo!” returned the boy.
“Do you know the poulterer’s, in the next street but one, at the corner?” Holmes inquired.
“I should hope I did,” replied the lad.
“An intelligent boy!” said Holmes. “A remarkable boy! Do you know whether they’ve sold the prize turkey that was hanging up there – not the little prize turkey: the big one?”
“What, the one as big as me?” returned the boy.
“What a delightful boy!” said Holmes. “It’s a pleasure to talk to him. Yes, my buck.”
“It’s hanging there now,” replied the boy.
“Is it?” said Holmes. “Go and buy it.”
“Pull the other one!” exclaimed the boy.
“No, no,” said Holmes, “I am in earnest. Go and buy it, and tell them to bring it here, that I may give them the direction where to take it. Come back with the man, and I’ll give you a shilling. Come back with him in less than five minutes and I’ll give you half-a-crown.”
The boy was off like a shot. He must have had a steady hand at a trigger who could have got a shot off half so fast. Humming to himself, Holmes turned, and, plucking his violin from the sideboard, began playing a merry tune, and then, smiling to himself slightly, a romantic one.
As he stood there, playing his heart, the gas-jet caught his eye. He finished the song and put the violin aside.
“I shall love it, as long as I live!” cried Holmes, patting the gas-jet with his hand. “I scarcely ever looked at it before. What an honest expression it has in its face. It’s a wonderful knocker. Why here’s the turkey. Hallo! Whoop! How are you? Merry Christmas!”
It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped them short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax.
“Now you go down and wake Mrs. Hudson, and tell her to get this into the oven as quickly as possible. I must hail a cab, for I have some purchases to make.”
The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the turkey, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again.
Shaving was not an easy task, for his hand continued to shake very much; and shaving requires attention, even when you don’t dance while you are at it. But if he had cut the end of his nose off, he would have put a piece of sticking-plaster over it, and been quite satisfied.
He dressed himself all in his best, and at last got out into the streets. The people were by this time pouring forth, as he had seen them with the Ghost of Christmas Present; and walking with his hands behind him, Holmes regarded every one with a delighted smile. He looked so irresistibly pleasant, in a word, that three or four good-humoured fellows said, “Good morning, sir. A merry Christmas to you.” And Holmes said often afterwards, that of all the blithe sounds he had ever heard, those were the blithest in his ears.
He went to church, and walked about the streets, and watched the people hurrying to and fro, and patted children on the head, and questioned beggars, and looked down into the kitchens of houses, and up to the windows, and found that everything could yield him pleasure. He had never dreamed that any walk – that anything – could give him so much happiness. In the afternoon he turned his steps towards home once more, where a puzzled-looking Watson greeted him at the sitting-room door.
“What’s this about you ordering a turkey, Holmes? You’d told Mrs. Hudson –”
“Honestly, Watson,” growled Holmes, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it. “Must you pester me so? I merely changed my mind.”
Watson muttered under his breath that this was all very well and good, but did not dare speak aloud. Holmes, of course, could hear him, and suppressed a smile as he thought of the surprise in store for his dear friend. His lips tingled at the thought, and he found himself surprised – most pleasantly so – by that.
“Since you insisted upon purchasing a present for me,” he continued in his sternest voice, “I decided that I must buy you one.” Willing his hands not to shake, he thrust out a cheerily wrapped parcel.
“Really, Holmes, you didn’t have to –”
“Stop dallying and open it, Watson.”
Watson frowned, but tore open the paper and lifted the lid of the box, his frown deepening into one of confusion as he lifted the contents from the folds of tissue-paper.
“Holmes, what is this?” he whispered.
“I should think even you would recognize mistletoe, Doctor.”
“But what –”
“Hold it higher,” Holmes commanded. He knew that Watson would obey, and was not disappointed. “Higher. Right over your head,” he directed in his most imperious voice, and then, when he judged that Watson had lifted the greenery high enough, he leaned in and kissed him full upon the lips.
What sweetness was in that first kiss! What delight, when Watson, recovered from his initial shock, began to return that kiss! Their lips danced joyously together, and they tasted of each other for a delightful time before Holmes pulled gently away.
“I do not know how to love; doubtless it comes of having a lump of coal where my heart should be,” he murmured, silencing Watson’s shocked gasp with a single finger upon his lips. “But I swear, my dearest friend, that if you should wish to teach me to love, I shall regard it as an especial favour, and do my best not only to return your love, but to be a better friend to all mankind.”
Holmes was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Billy Wiggins, who did not die, he was as a father, and took him on as page-boy. He became as good a friend, and as good a lover, to Watson, as any person could have in this good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Billy Wiggins observed, God bless us, every one!
Merry Christmas from all the spirits haunting Baker Street!
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