It’s that time of year, and to celebrate Christmas I thought we’d share a couple of items.
The first is a link to an old time radio show starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson. The episode is called…
THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS
Second up is a Christmas story from December 2014, written for a Christmas reading in the Midlands.
SHERLOCK HOLMES & THE SMOKING POPE
by Adrian Middleton
Christmas. That time of year when mid-season misery needs an infusion of hope and festivity. Where days of light have given way to the dark, where the winds are bitter and the cold rain bites. The snow, when it comes, is both another hazard and a source of relief—a distraction made better by the celebrations that have taken hold of this part of the year. As I cast my eyes over the white, frosted cobbles of Baker Street, I cast my mind back to the Dickensian Christmases of my boyhood. The city came to life back then, and as the people moved into the gas-lit capital from the moonlit villages they struggled to build a sense of community with neighbours they barely knew, and the penny post became a way to share their love for those with whom they had been parted. I wondered, at that moment, where it might end. Would our reliance upon brightly coloured cards and the giving of gifts perhaps spell the end for the values that had spawned them?
My reverie was disturbed by the arrival of my good friend, Sherlock Holmes, who entered in his gown and bedclothes, risen late as is often his preference, while I had risen hours before, travelling by hansom from my Kensington practice, where Mrs Watson had entrusted me with a seasonal duty. She had, after some reflection, agreed to invite Holmes to join us for dinner on Christmas Eve, and I was under the strictest instructions not to brook his usual rejection.
“Good morning, Watson,” he said in a lively tone as he picked up the mail which had been left beside the untouched breakfast left for him some hours before. “I trust your message from Mrs Watson is not so glum as the frown upon your face.”
“My message? How could you possibly…”
“Come, Watson, I know that look intimately. It is an expression you use exclusively when considering the best way to tell me something you are certain will meet with my disapproval. Given that you are here a good ten minutes later than is usual for this time of year I must consider what, exactly, might have delayed you. You are keen to complain about traffic delays, and such trivia causes you to pace, so I concluded that your delay was domestic. A ten minute discussion about your meeting with me is therefore the most apposite conclusion. Ah!”
Holmes stopped abruptly. As he had been addressing me he was shuffling through the post, finally pausing at a Christmas card. Unlike the rest of the mail it was not in an envelope.
“A card from Mrs Hudson!”
“Oh?” The conversation was derailed by this. Holmes had long since impressed upon myself and the household staff that he had no truck with such greetings, and in our years together Mrs Hudson had always respected this. “It is more than just a Christmas card. It is an invitation to dinner!”
“An invitation?” My heart sank as I realised that Mrs Hudson must have similar thoughts to my dear wife. Holmes had been quite preoccupied of late, and his raised spirits were quite atypical.
“To dinner on Christmas Eve. Shall I be giving your apologies?”
“You intend to go?”
“Indeed. We are both invited, and from your face I now know that your message related to a similar invitation from Mrs Watson. You must of course have dinner with her, but I am afraid I shall have to accept this offer rather than your own.”
“What is its importance?” “Mrs Hudson has never before made such an invitation, which in itself is unusual. However, her invitation includes a list of the other dinner guests, which piques my interest yet further.”
“Why is that, Holmes?”
“Well, being Scotch like yourself, Mrs Hudson is more likely to celebrate Twelfth Night. Christmas Eve is also the anniversary of Mr Hudson’s death. Not a time that our landlady would normally choose to hold a dinner. Upon seeing who else is a guest, I must conclude that the dinner has been foisted upon her, and that the invitation is an attempt to seek my assistance.”
“Who are the guests, then?”
“The first is Mr Andrew Trelawney, of the Portman Estate. As his lessee Mrs Hudson may be currying favour, although it is also possible that she is simply balancing the numbers.”
“More likely she invited him for good luck,” said I. “It’s a Scotch tradition.”
“The second is Miss Turner, her niece. The third is Mrs Bartholomew, who runs a lodging house three doors down. Like Mrs Hudson she is a widower, and from the times of her comings and goings a devout churchgoer, although her subscription to the Two Worlds newspaper marks her as a Spiritualist.”
“How do you know what newspaper she reads?”
“She is quite the gossip-monger, and often accosts the postman on the street so that she may extract whatever useful news she can from him. He has, on occasion, reported some of her gossip to me. She is of the view that your comings and goings—along with the many visits I receive from telegraph boys and the occasional Irregular—are not respectable, and that we may be performing unnatural acts that the police have chosen to turn a blind eye to.”
“Good lord!” I ejaculated. “Why on earth would Mrs Hudson have anything to do with such a woman?”
“I doubt she would share such confidences with our landlady. Pay it no heed, Watson. Idle gossip is for poets and actors, and your accounts of our exploits in the Strand are more than enough to set the record straight.”
“Then I am glad I shall not be attending,” said I. “And I am glad that Mrs Watson shall not be joining you. She was also to be invited, and I have no doubt she would have brained the woman for suggesting she were married to a sodomite.”
“Who else is on the list?”
“Just two more. Mrs Barnard, another widow of the landlady’s acquaintance, and a Brother Makary, of whom I have read before. He is a Caucasian monk and a renowned medium on a tour of the country. I should be able to find a review of his method in one of the spiritualist papers. His invitation is almost certainly at Mrs Bartholomew’s insistence, and without a doubt the reason that Mrs Hudson is appealing for my assistance.”
“Appealing? I should say it is a little more discrete than that.”
“Indeed. Were this a proper case I should have no hesitation in exposing the man as a fraud in direct and unequivocal circumstances. On this occasion, however, we need to be more subtle. The man may well be a charlatan, but we have received no complaint and he has committed no crime. I shall therefore have to be more circumspect.”
“In that case,” said I, “would you accept a friend in my place?”
“A friend? This is a day for the unusual. It is rare for you to share an acquaintance with me. “Well, he—”
“Tsh!” Holmes raised a finger to stop me. “Let me deduce it. If your friend wished merely to meet with me, you would have already raised the matter. It could be the opportunity to see a séance, but that seems unlikely unless it is to see me involved in a séance. Given you had no awareness of the other guests, the other possibility is the desire to meet with Mrs Hudson. Again, you would have raised the matter with her directly, so I must conclude that it is someone who wishes to meet both Mrs Hudson and myself, and who may wish to see my method in action. It therefore relates to your stories in the Strand—so, your publisher or your editor. A publisher would have foisted himself upon you long ago, which leaves your editor. As a fellow author and a medical man it is likely that you are better acquainted with Conan Doyle, and that he must be your proposed substitute.”
“Astounding, Holmes. Doyle wanted to meet you both and to witness your method so he could gain a better perspective of my stories.”
“Then he is welcome to join me,” said Holmes, taking up the bell and summoning the page boy. “In the mean time I shall dress, for we have a gift to secure for Mrs Hudson. Be sure to instruct Billy that I shall be glad to accept the invitation, and that Dr. Doyle will also be invited.”
The acquisition of a gift for Mrs Hudson was an unusual matter that had taken us to an old curiosity shop to the rear of Westminster’s Black Jack Inn. It was dark when we arrived, and closing time loomed. Here Holmes picked through a variety of odds and ends like a hawk seeking its prey. He finally descended upon a corner of the shop filled with what could best be described as alchemical paraphernalia. Here he picked out a weathered retort and a thick glass boiling flask with three stoppered necks.
“Excellent!” he said, examining the object for any cracks. “This will do perfectly.”
With our acquisition wrapped, Holmes led me back to Baker Street, stopping off to collect various ingredients—sour oranges, lemons, cloves, cinnamon, mace, ginger and a bottle of Burgundy, with which he announced his intention to make a celebratory concoction known as a Smoking Pope. When I reported the day’s events to Mrs Watson, I could see that she was relieved that my friend had declined to join us. The next day I arranged to meet with Dr. Conan Doyle, who was eager to accept the invitation, while Holmes disappeared for an appointment at Kew Gardens. I did not see him again until after Christmas, although his account of the evening’s events—along with that of Dr. Doyle—provided me with more than enough information to recount them here.
As the nearest guest Holmes was certain to arrive last. He was genial upon his arrival, carrying with him the boiling flask which he set upon the retort, and setting a candle beneath it while insisting that his gift would be ready to consume by the end of the evening. Mrs Hudson seemed quite taken with the gesture, and as part of his introduction Holmes chose to tell what can best be described as a tall tale.
“This is no ordinary boiling flask,” he had explained. “It was once an alchemist’s homuncularium. Said to have been the property of Sir Isaac Newton himself, the homuncularium was used to mix his blood with various essential salts which, when combined and heated, are said to have formed an homunculus—a mystical spirit given material form.”
“Nonsense, of course,” said Doyle, “although it is well known that Sir Isaac did indeed pursue alchemy as a means of understanding the nature of the elements.”
“Do not be so sure, Doctor,” said Brother Makary in broken English. The monk was a portly man with a wild and ragged beard whose rural origins were reflected by the simple habit that he wore beneath a winter cloak. “As a medium I work with spirits of the earth and the air. Without their guidance I could not commune with the dead.”
“That,” said Holmes as he coughed politely, “is also the case with alchemists. The homunculus is the physical manifestation of an air-spirit known as the Soror Mystica. It is her guidance that leads the alchemist towards enlightenment.”
“It seems to have worked for Newton,” said Doyle, “although I’ll wager that a more scientific explanation will one day be forthcoming.”
“You should see the Brother at work,” said Mrs Bartholomew. “I travelled all the way to Keighley to see him perform. My own husband spoke to me—the first time any medium achieved it, for Henry had been a reluctant man in life. Only drink would entice him to the table otherwise.”
“So are we to be treated to a display of the Brother’s skills this evening?” Tremayne asked.
“Given that Mr Holmes here is London’s foremost detective I am sure it will be a challenge for you, Brother Makary. I hear that little gets past the great detective.”
“Rest assured, Mr Trelawney, I am here as a dinner guest, not as a skeptic; but I shall of course be fascinated to see how the Brother pursues his craft.”
“You surprise me, Mr Holmes,” Trelawney said. “I had expected more. Still, I have no wish to spoil the fun. I look forward to the evening’s entertainment.”
“Spiritualism is hardly a game,” said Doyle. “It is a serious religion concerned with investigating the afterlife. I have heard something of Brother Makary’s psychic gifts, and I would love to see a demonstration.”
“Thank you, Dr. Doyle,” said the Brother. “We shall see how the evening progresses. It is important to work with those who have an open mind, for the actively critical will deny all that they see, clutching at the most ridiculous excuses to justify their experience.”
Pleasant laughter followed, and with the mood settled, attention was turned towards dinner. Mrs Hudson stuck to her Scotch roots by serving up Cock-a-Leekie followed by an impressive joint of Angus Beef with all the trimmings. For dessert the guests were treated to a generously infused Cranachan and shortbread. Rather than the traditional separation of the men and women, the evening took its expected turn, and Mrs Bartholomew again pressed for Brother Makary to demonstrate his skills.
“We are three widows,” said Mrs Barnard, “surely you can entice at least one of our husbands to the table.”
Mrs Hudson, whilst smiling, was clearly nervous by this turn of events, but when the Brother, flattered, demurred, her relief was barely concealed. Mrs Bartholomew, however, had other ideas, and pressed for the monk to reconsider.
“Very well,” he agreed with faux reluctance. “We shall hold a séance. Place the candles upon the table beside the food. I shall need to leave the room to compose myself and shall return shortly. In the mean time can you douse the candles and that—thing.”
He indicated the ‘homuncularium’ in which the Smoking Pope slowly bubbled.
“I am sorry,” said Holmes. “It is a delicate mixture and the light is low. I am sure that putting out the candles will be sufficient.”
“Very well,” said Brother Makary, checking the room before making his exit.
With the lights dimmed, the room was in complete darkness but for the flickering blue light of the boiling flask. There was a pregnant pause as the guests awaited the Brother’s entrance, which was heralded by three loud taps on the door.
“Come in,” said Mrs Hudson, a nervous tremor in her voice.
The door creaked open, and Makary stepped inside. His eyes—the only visible part of his body—appeared to be glowing with a pale luminescence. Oblivious to the darkness, he returned to his seat and joined the table.
“Now, we must form a circle by holding hands. This will enable me to tap into the psychical forces that will bring forth my spirit familiar. I must warn you, he is an unruly spirit child. Once a student of mine, his soul was displaced by the demon which now inhabits his mortal form.”
The group clasped hands, and as they did so a draught swept into the room and, one by one, the unlit candles burst into pale yellow flames. One of the ladies gasped as the Brother began a low chant in his native tongue. “Grigori, dukh proshlogo,” he began, “dvigat’sya sredi nas. We bring you gifts from life unto death. Be guided by this light to enter this world and visit upon us.”
There was another pause, followed by the sound of convulsions as Brother Makary’s hands tugged at those that gripped him. Retching, a white mass protruded from his frothing lips as he gurgitated an ectoplasmic shape into the air before him. As he did so it took physical form, shifting from a rag-like strip into the head and shoulders of a white-faced boy that floated a good foot or two above the table.
The Brother, his wretching done, whispered to the spirit. “Grigori, is that you?”
The ghost boy responded by grinning and rolling its eyes, a lascivious giggle announcing its presence as it drifted around the table, pausing at the shoulder of each member of the circle. Beside the men, he merely glanced up and down, but with the women his actions were less appropriate, smelling their hair and getting close to their necks in a sexualised fashion that threatened to break the circle.
“Grigori, vesti!” Brother Makary snapped.
“Svin’ya!” The apparition replied curtly. “Sdelat’ ikh razdevat’sya!”
“Grigori is an earth-based spirit,” said the Brother. “He invites you to explore your corporeal forms and prove to yourselves just how very real you are. This will help him to manifest, and to tune into your desires.”
On cue, Mrs Bartholomew and Mrs Barnard began to writhe, breathing heavily and squirming in their seats. Trelawney seemed bemused, while Doyle and Holmes looked on with a mixture of uncertainty and interest as the spirit child hovered over the women. Then, noting that Mrs Hudson was not similarly compliant, Grigori moved towards her. As he neared the landlady there was a loud thump in the centre of the table, which shook for a moment as the candles and the blue light of the burner guttered. A moment later there was a flash of blue light as the Smoking Bishop ignited and flooded the room with a brilliant azure light. Hands snapped open and the circle was broken. The spirit, however, was transfixed, the brilliant light exposing not just the head and shoulders but the entire body of a boy.
“Iisus Khristos!” Grigori screamed, backing away from the table on very real legs.
“Rasputin!” Shouted Brother Makary. “He is materialising. He is made real by that crazy flask. He is becoming corporeal!”
The boy bolted towards the door, tugging it open and running from the room as Brother Makary abandoned his seat and raced after him. As he disappeared onto the landing outside the sound of feet clattering on the stairs echoed around the room.
“A real boy,” said Trelawney with a trace of humour in his voice.
“Who would have thought…” Sherlock Holmes, meanwhile, erupted into laughter.
“Holmes, how could you?” I chided him as he completed his tale.
“I could hardly let that wretched boy compromise Mrs Hudson. It was as subtle an expose as I could muster, and they were all more awed by the boiling flask than by the dear departed medium and his errant ward. Especially when the light subsided and we all shared an excellent cup of mulled Burgundy.”
“How did you achieve it?”
“You will recall my visit to Kew. They have an algae there with curious properties. Quite harmless, but in the dark–when exposed to something acidic–it is prone to flaring up with a brilliantly luminous glow. While the liquid is still it is invisible, but when the water is made to suddenly ripple, as it was when I kicked the table, a chemical reaction ensues.”
“Well Dr. Doyle was quite shaken by the matter. I fear you may have spooked him a little too much.”
“Oh? I confess to being surprised by how open he was to the idea that Spiritualism might be real. I’d have expected him to see through my expose, but I rather fancy that he fell for my Newtonian lie.”
“Yes, well it might have done more harm than good. He said you were quite an insufferable fellow.”
“Oh dear,” said Holmes. “Have I soured your relationship?”
“I think you might have,” said I. “He doesn’t want to edit my stories any more. Or if he does he intends to kill you off!”
“Well that,” said Holmes, toasting me with a charged glass full of brandy, “is a gift that I might truly appreciate. A return to anonymity will do us both the power of good. Merry Christmas!”
Copyright ©2014 Adrian Middleton