20 December 2022



by Philip Purser-Hallard


‘You don’t seem overjoyed by the company of our new room-mate,’ I admonished my friend cheerfully, as I hung another bauble upon the stout Douglas fir that stood in the corner of our sitting-room at 221B Baker Street.

‘I merely remarked, Watson,’ said Sherlock Holmes, with a placid puff upon his pipe, ‘that if the architect of this house had intended us to use it as an arboretum, he would have provided us with a roof that was in some manner porous, to permit the ingress of light and rain. An interstitial layer of soil between the floors, to allow an adequate root system, would also have been advisable.’

‘Well, I’m delighted with it,’ I riposted, ripping open a box of bonbons threaded with silver cord and beginning to hang these, too, upon the prickly branches. ‘I’ve never persuaded Mrs Hudson to let us have one before.’

‘She knows only too well which of us three will end up sweeping needles from the carpet,’ Holmes observed drily. ‘Still, I fear your incessant pleading upon the topic has worn down her defences. She is a sentimentalist at heart.’

‘Pish, Holmes,’ I replied, ‘she’s one of the most level-headed women I know. Almost as sensible as you, in fact – although it doesn’t seem to prevent her from entertaining the spirit of Christmas,’ I added pointedly.

‘Indeed, Watson,’ Holmes sighed. ‘Your own zest for the season leaves her little leeway for such an option.’ He took another deep draught of smoke from his pipe, and let it out slowly. ‘Have I ever told you,’ he asked me, ‘of my own encounter with the Spirit of Christmas?’

‘I don’t believe you have,’ I answered, wondering what he might mean.

‘It was an intriguing little affair,’ he told me. ‘Perhaps you would care to hear about it while you… work?’

Truth be told, the business of hanging decorations onto a tree leaves something to be desired in terms of mental stimulation, so I assented gladly to my friend’s proposal.

‘It was,’ he began, ‘some little time before you and I met, my dear fellow. I had but lately moved to London and was endeavouring to make my name and reputation as a consulting detective. This was after the affair of the Gloria Scott, of course, and that unresolved matter of the disappearance of Edwin Drood, but before my involvement in the Musgrave Ritual, or the singular business of the three barbers’ chairs.

‘In those days I lodged in Montague Street, in the house of one Philip Pirrip and his wife. My hostess had been a great beauty in her day, and her husband something of a gentleman about town, but by the time I knew them they had quite settled down. Mr Pirrip had, I believe, gained and lost a fortune in his youth, but left with no such expectations he had made a great success of himself in business, and had founded a charitable organisation known as the Harmonious Blacksmiths. Like many of those connected with this case, he was an enthusiast for the Yuletide season, and so I remember quite clearly that the events in question began on Christmas Eve, between distracting bouts of carol-singing.

‘I was engaged in an experiment to determine the chemical composition of a particular variety of mincemeat that I had been given in a pie, when I was interrupted by an urgent knocking at the door of my rooms. I opened it and a well-dressed stranger limped in.

‘Though lame, he was an energetic man in early middle age, with an honest, friendly face, now furrowed with concern. I could see at once that he had grown up in poverty, but was now well-to-do, though generous with his wealth.’

‘How could you tell?’ I asked Holmes, surreptitiously slipping one of the bonbons into my mouth.

He said, ‘From his gait it was clear that he had suffered from rickets as a child. He was expensively dressed, however, in fine clothes that fitted him well. He wore the lapel-pin of the Harmonious Blacksmiths, which told me the nature of his connection with the household. He had in his pocket a bundle of Christmas cards with the ribbon untied, suggesting that he had been engaged in delivering them in person when something had alarmed him and he had rushed straight to see me. I could only assume that he was concerned for the safety of a friend, and had remembered my name mentioned by my hosts as one with a professional interest in such matters.

‘I told him calmly of these conclusions, omitting as is my habit the line of reasoning that had led me there, and his eyes widened. “God bless us!” he exclaimed.’

‘You don’t need to do the voice, Holmes,’ I sighed, but my friend pressed on undeterred.

‘“God bless us!” he exclaimed,’ Holmes continued with satisfaction, ‘in a voice that, beneath its air of gentle refinement, bore the undeniable traces of a cockney upbringing. “I see that Mr Pirrip did not exaggerate when he called you a marvel, Mr Holmes. And you had better be, I’m afraid, for the matter I am bringing to you is most delicate and troubling.”

‘I begged him to elaborate, and he continued, “My name is Cratchit, sir, Timothy Cratchit, and I am one of the partners at Scrooge and Cratchit’s Bank. You judge correctly that my origins were not elevated ones; my dear old father was a clerk at the same bank, and when I was just a tiny crippled lad, his employer, good old Mr Ebenezer Scrooge, took me under his wing. He has been dead now for many a year, I’m sorry to say, and his place at the bank has passed to his nephew, Frederick Gladlove, though we keep the old name out of respect to him. It used to be Scrooge and Marley’s at one time, but Marley died long before Mr Scrooge.”

‘I said, “You digress, Mr Cratchit. I cannot believe that this history is of the essence in a matter of such urgency as that on which you wish to consult me.”

‘Gravely, he replied, “It may be more to the point than you imagine, Mr Holmes. But you are right that I should stick to the present for now. Fred Gladlove is a kind, good-natured man, full of laughter and generous to a fault. These last few days, however, as Christmas has approached, he has seemed out of sorts. He has been quiet, as if preoccupied, and far from his usual self, although Christmas is usually a time of year that fills him with the utmost joy. I ask him if there is anything the matter, and he tells me that all is well, and makes to cheer himself up, but I can see that his heart is elsewhere.

‘“I have thought little enough of it, supposing that he has perhaps been missing his poor late wife, but this evening – as I have been doing my rounds with my Christmas cards, just as you said – I called upon him at home, and found him in a state of the most abject terror. He told me, if you please, that he had seen his uncle, Mr Scrooge.”

‘“His late uncle?” I pointed out sceptically, and Cratchit nodded with great vigour.

‘“Exactly, Mr Holmes. He told me that he had seen his face in the gas-light fitting. And this was peculiarly upsetting to him, you see, beyond even what it might have been for you or me. For the same thing happened to the uncle himself, one Christmas Eve more than thirty years ago.”

‘“Ebenezer Scrooge saw his own face in a gas-fitting?” I asked, my scepticism increasing by the moment.

‘“No, but he always maintained that he had seen the face of his dead partner, Jacob Marley, in a door-knocker.”

‘I sighed. “I perceive that the history may be of the essence after all, Mr Cratchit. Pray proceed.”

‘Cratchit told me that Scrooge had been at one time a notorious misanthrope and miser, almost a hermit – but that he had, all of a sudden, changed his mind, his ways and perhaps his personality, becoming sociable, charitable and free in the extreme with the abundant funds he had formerly hoarded. This reformation the old man attributed, to any who would listen, to a series of supernatural occurrences he believed he had experienced one Christmas Eve, beginning with this apparition of his late colleague. “It was the Spirit of Christmas that changed him, Mr Holmes, or so he always said,” said Cratchit, “and hence he always blessed this season especially, and observed it with the most assiduous goodwill.”

‘“I see,” I said. “And now his nephew Mr Gladlove expects a similar encounter?”

‘“That was the sense of it, as much as I could have from him,” said Cratchit.

‘In truth I was not especially interested in the matter, which seemed to me a clear case of delusion, perhaps connected to some hereditary tendency to madness. However, I knew that if I remained in my rooms I would be pressed repeatedly by Mr Pirrip to join him and Mrs Pirrip for mulled wine and carols around their fire, and I preferred to occupy myself with work, however trivial. Accordingly, I accompanied Cratchit to the house where Fred Gladlove lived. It was a large family home, but with his wife deceased and all his children living elsewhere, Gladlove lived there quite alone, apart from his servants.

‘We found him, as Cratchit had indicated, in a state of some consternation, pacing agitatedly about his study and shooting nervous glances at the gas-light, which remained obstinately unanimated throughout my visit.

‘After Cratchit had vouched for me, based on the good report he had been given by the Pirrips, Mr Gladlove confided his fears. He was a handsome, ruddy-faced man in his fifties, his eyes and mouth surrounded with wrinkles of laughter that belied his present distraught state. He was afflicted by a violent nervous twitching, which from Cratchit’s looks of concern I understood was likewise no part of his habitual demeanour.

‘Gladlove said, “I see my Uncle Scrooge’s face everywhere. He looks quite fierce. I fear he is displeased with me! All week I have heard the clanking of chains whenever I have been here in the house, and I have found nothing to explain it.”

‘“What of it, Fred?” said Cratchit reassuringly. “It is just a noise, you know.”

‘“I shall be haunted tonight,” declared Gladlove, “just as my uncle was. I know it. I fear it, Tim, I fear it most terribly.”

‘I said, “But I had understood that your late uncle saw his supernatural visitants in the light of a blessing. Why would you feel frightened by the prospect that you, too, might be so favoured?”

‘Gladlove shivered violently. “It is the worst of all fears. I fear for my soul. I have not been so generous as I should. I’ve tried to be a good man, and I dare say some of those who know me might call me a kind and charitable fellow.”

‘“And so you are, Fred,” Cratchit said stoutly, “so you are.”

‘“I doubt that Mr Mownd would grant it, for one,” replied Gladlove. “You see how I live here, Tim – I’ve this big house all to myself, and all luxuries provided by servants. Perhaps if I had comported myself in my private life more like my uncle in his years of abstemiousness, while distributing my wealth as freely as he did in his latter days, then I should not be punished by these apparitions now.

‘“My fear, Mr Holmes, is this. If my Uncle Ebenezer walks now as a spirit, like Marley before him, then his repentance of his sins has not availed his immortal soul. His long life as a miser, aloof from his fellow-man, outweighed, in the end, his shorter years of kindness and good cheer. And if I, too, am judged and found wanting, how am I to make amends? Shall I, after my death, find myself wandering the earth in chains, a dreadful warning to those who once knew me?”

‘The man’s partner did his best to reassure him, but I have never had much patience for such metaphysical speculations. I asked, “Who is this Mr Mownd you mentioned, Mr Gladlove?” Our host was one who might well be susceptible to the stirrings of a guilty conscience, and if there were someone whom he feared he had wronged, however slightly, then that could have played some part in provoking the mental aberration that had drawn us here.

‘At once he said, “Oh, a most excellent man, pious and honest. He was a clerk once, like my father, but was drawn despite his best intentions into a serious case of fraud, for which he suffered transportation to Australia. His sentence was for life, but he was granted a remission by the governor personally, in view of his absolute repentance and humility, and his exemplary behaviour. Since his return to England he has worked for the Magwitch Society, a charity for the furtherance of reformed criminals which, until quite recently, enjoyed support from Scrooge and Cratchit’s. No, Ira Mownd is an exemplary fellow, except that his manner can seem a little overfamiliar; it is his employer who causes me concern.”

‘“And who is his employer?” I asked, but at that moment a distant, chilly clattering echoed around the room. It was unmistakeably the sound of a chain being shaken.

‘“Ah, it is he!” cried Gladlove, his face going all of a sudden entirely white. “It is the spirit of my poor Uncle Scrooge, tormented still for his years of parsimony!”

‘I cannot deny, Watson, that I felt a creeping in my flesh. I am a rational man, as you know, and believed no more in ghosts then than I do now, but I was in those days less experienced in the tricks of mediums and the ways they have of mimicking supernatural manifestations. At the sound of those unseen fetters, clanking then falling silent for a few moment before they began to sound again, I confess my hairs rose.

‘I was quite determined to keep a level head, however. “Hush!” I instructed both the older men, and quickly I strode around the room, attempting to discern the source of the noise. I found that it came loudest near the fireplace, where a fire had been set but not yet lit, and I swiftly traced it to the chimney-flue.

‘“Fetch me a sweep’s lad,” I said, and though Gladlove stared at me in astonishment, Tim Cratchit caught my drift quickly enough, and limped away to find such an individual.

‘We waited. The eerie jangling of the chains continued, with the same unnerving regularity, and Gladlove was darting glances about him with increasing concern, wincing and grimacing. Occasionally he said, “Do you see? His face –” and then fell silent. Sometimes he pointed. I was never able to discern anything unusual, although the dragging of those fetters continued to unsettle me.

‘I endeavoured to distract him from his fears. “What had you for luncheon today, Mr Gladlove?” I asked him.

‘He frowned at me, and said, “I luncheoned at work, as often I do. I partook of a beef sandwich, a cup of broth and some cold plum-pudding. I fear indeed that one or other of them has given me some distemper in my stomach,” he added, with another grimace of pain.

‘“I see,” I said. “That is most interesting.”

‘“I think you must be mocking me, Mr Holmes,” he said morosely. “When I am my usual self I can take a joke as well as the next man, but just now I am not in the jovial mood.”

‘“I rarely joke,” I assured him, “and I am, I can assure you, quite serious now.”

‘Gladlove said, “Surely, though, no disorder of the stomach, no undigested rye-seed or plum-skin or fragment of beef, could account for such sights as I have seen. Besides, you hear that sound as well as I.”

‘I confessed that I could, and we waited for a while, listening to the horrid dragging sound as it started and stopped, started and stopped.

‘I had begun to think, though, that perhaps I recognised the rhythm, and from a rather surprising place.

‘In a very short time, Tim Cratchit returned with a young boy, scrawny and ill-fed. His clothes were ragged and smeared, like his face, a uniform dark grey. “I had remarkable luck,” Cratchit said cheerfully. “I might have had some trouble, I dare say, finding a chimney-sweep on Christmas Eve, had I not run into this lad just a few streets away.”

‘“Are you a sweep, boy?” I asked, and he nodded enthusiastically.

‘“That’s me, guv’nor,” he said. “Been sweeping my whole life, I has.”’

Brushing some pine-needles from the arm of my jacket, I interrupted my friend’s story again. ‘For pity’s sake, Holmes, must you insist on the voices? I know you pride yourself on your talents as an actor, but there are times when they are surplus to requirements.’ I had now finished hanging the boxes both of baubles and of sweets, and had moved on to mounting candles upon the firmest of the branches.

Holmes smiled languidly. ‘Oh, but this voice is an important one, Watson. Indulge me, please.

‘I said to the boy, “There’s a shilling in it for you, if you find out what’s making that sound in the chimney.”

‘“Right you are, mister,” said he, and up the flue he went. We waited and listened, and a few minutes later heard his piping laugh. “Well, here’s a rum to-do,” he said, his voice muffled and echoing like the sound of the chains themselves.

‘He wriggled and squirmed, legs first, out of the chimney, and when his hands emerged above his head, they were clutching, of all things, a middling-sized tortoise. Its scales and shell were filthy with soot, and a length of iron chain had been attached to one of its rear legs. We all stared as the boy set it on the floor and it set off determinedly towards the door, leaving a trail of smuts as it went, and dragging the chain behind it in that same discontinuous rhythm.

‘“God bless us,” Tim Cratchit said again in wonder.

‘“A shrewd choice of creature for the purpose,” I said. “At this time of the year it would be hibernating, so easy enough to chain and install in its place. Once roused by the warmth of the flue, its movements would be intermittent and unhurried, and it would be unlikely to escape or starve during the period when its services were required.”

‘“But why should anybody do such a thing to a poor creature?” Gladlove asked, aghast. “And still, it cannot account for –” he broke off, staring again in horror at the light-fitting, where I am sure he once again saw his dead uncle’s visage.

‘“These things are beginning to become clear to me,” I informed him. “You would not know, I suppose, what your uncle Mr Scrooge ate before his own spectral experience?”

‘“Whatever is this obsession of yours with food, Mr Holmes?” he demanded, in great frustration. But seeing that I was implacable, he sighed, and trembled violently again. “He often told the story, so as it happens I do. My uncle had a head-cold at the time, and took a bowl of gruel.”

‘“Was the gruel made with rye, like the bread in your sandwich?” I asked. “You alluded to the seeds earlier.”

‘“For aught that I know, it was,” he said, utterly perplexed. “But whatever is the matter here, Mr Holmes? Is rye associated with visions of the life to come?”

‘“It can be,” I said, “if it has become tainted with a particular fungus, called ergot. In small enough quantities, ergotic rye will often generate hallucinations, along with stomach cramps and bodily spasms. In larger doses it can be very painful, and even fatal. Whether your uncle’s visions arose from contaminated gruel, Mr Gladlove, I cannot determine at this remove, but I believe that the effect has been induced quite carefully in your own case. The intent is to deceive you into believing yourself haunted. The family legend, together with the sound of chains, has suggested to you the form that your hallucinations are taking.”

‘“Good Heavens!” Gladlove declared, with another violent shudder and cringe. “But who would do such a thing?”

‘“To answer that, I must put to you another question. Who is Ira Mownd’s employer at the Magwitch Society, whose character concerns you so much that you withdrew the support of Scrooge and Cratchit’s from the body he represents?”

‘“Oh, my.” Gladlove looked quite shocked. “The man’s name is Jack Dawkins, and he is also a returned transportee. I have heard disquieting things of him, that convince me he is by no means as reformed as he gives out. I believe that the use he has been making of our funds is not at all so honest nor so charitable as we had been led to understand.”

‘“I see,” I said. “Then thank you for your helpful answers, Mr Gladlove. And now I must leave you, I’m afraid. I propose,” I added over their voluble protests, “that Mr Cratchit remains with you here for a little while, then that he, too, goes on his way. By then, however, you will have let me back in through a rear window, along with a confederate whom I shall summon.”

‘“But you said that Fred has been poisoned, Mr Holmes!” Cratchit insisted indignantly. “We must get him to a doctor at once.”

‘“We shall certainly do so, as soon as it is safe. But I do not believe that that will be the case until we have our hands on those responsible for this bizarre imposition upon his health and mental balance. For that, Mr Gladlove, you must be seen to have been left alone, for I believe that there are further manifestations to come that will not occur while you are in company. I shall leave visibly, by the front door, and Mr Cratchit after me. That reptile had better go back in the chimney for now,” I added. “We can recover it later.”

‘Reluctantly, both men assented to my plan. I left them together, Cratchit gingerly hoisting the tortoise into the space above the fireplace. I took the filthy boy with me, clutching his shilling.

‘As soon as we were outside, I said to the child, “You are no sweep, my lad. I know what soot looks like, and I know what street-dirt looks like. You heard Mr Cratchit asking for a sweep, and you blacked yourself up in a hurry, hoping that there would be money in it for you.”

‘The boy gave me a cheeky grin, and hid the shilling somewhere inside his clothes, where I should not have cared to rummage for it. “Too right, mister,” he said. “Got the job done, though, didn’t I?”

‘I said, “You did indeed. And not just that job. I saw the expression on your face when Mr Gladlove mentioned the name of Mr Jack Dawkins.”

‘At once the lad made to bolt, but I was ready for him, and had my hand upon his collar before he had moved six inches. I said, “I knew that there must be someone watching the house. It is ingenious of Mr Dawkins to use street urchins as his intelligence agents. I might learn from him in that respect. No, I shan’t be taking away your shilling. You earned it fairly and squarely. What is your name, boy?”

‘The lad said, “I’m Wiggins,”’ Holmes reported, with a knowing glance in my direction.

Sighing, I lit the first of the little candles on the Christmas tree. ‘Oh, so you were imitating Wiggins’ voice,’ I said. ‘It didn’t sound much like it.’

Holmes looked annoyed. ‘Well, it has broken since. But that was the first time he and I met, and it was the occasion that inspired me to recruit him and the other Baker Street Irregulars into my service. Indeed, I asked him on the spot to call his friend – for he had a friend nearby, of course – and send him at once to Scotland Yard, to summon the help of my associate of the time on the detective force.

‘This done, I asked him, “Wiggins, what do you know of this Jack Dawkins?”

‘He looked cautious. “Well, mister, I wouldn’t want to say too much about him. He ain’t kind to narks, from what I hear. But you heard the gentleman in there say as he’d come back from transportation, so I suppose that’s no secret. They says he was one of us in the old days, a kid on the streets, and proper artful in the picking of pockets, by all accounts. These days he runs other kinds of dodge.”

‘“Do they include this Magwitch Society?” I wondered.

‘“I don’t know nothing about that, guv’nor. All I know is he paid me to watch the gentleman’s house, and send a message once I seen he was alone.”

‘“Very well, then,” I told him. “You must do the job you have been given, then, to the letter. There will be considerably more than a shilling for you, if you do not mention what goes on out of your sight behind the house.”

‘“Always glad to make an extra…” Wiggins performed a quick mental calculation, “…four bob, sir?” he suggested hopefully. I nodded. “Well, then, you can rely on me.” And thus began a very satisfactory partnership.

‘I was joined shortly afterward by Inspector Bucket, my friend in the detective branch. I do not believe that you have met Bucket, Watson – by then he was in his sixties, and was to retire shortly afterwards, before friend Stamford introduced you to me. The Inspector and I had collaborated on a case or so already, and I had found him a very able man for a Scotland Yarder. For his part I think he had been impressed by the skills that I had already acquired, though he told me rightly that I had much still to learn.

‘Quickly I told him of Gladlove’s history and situation, and of my plan.

‘“You always do love your drama, young Holmes,” he told me, shaking his head. He was a calm and stolid man, with steel-grey hair and penetrating eyes. “Altogether too fond of the dramatic, that’s how you are.”

‘“In this case, it seems our opponents share my predilection,” I reminded him. He sighed bleakly, and turned towards the house.

‘Accordingly, therefore, we tapped at the study window and were admitted by Gladlove and Cratchit. I had cautioned them that some of the servants, at least, must be in on Dawkins’ scheme. Gladlove by now was quaking like a sapling in the wind, although he knew as well as I the source of the ghostly clanking that still haunted the study.

‘“I see my uncle still, Mr Holmes,” he confided. “I see him everywhere. You say that it is but a deceitful vision, but his face is always before my eyes. Perhaps this ergot you mentioned shows me truth, not lies. Perhaps it was no living man that chained that poor beast. Let us finish this quickly, I beg you.”

‘Inspector Bucket gave me a look of very deep concern, but I pointed to the screen in the corner where we were to hide, and he acquiesced. Reluctantly Cratchit left us, with some warm words of encouragement to his friend. We covered our lantern and settled in to wait.

‘Out of compassion to the tortoise, Gladlove had refused to have the fire lit, and the room was chill as well as dark. The metallic dragging of the chains echoed about the room, as the creature receded into the depths of the chimney and Gladlove sat shivering in his chair. Every so often Inspector Bucket looked at his pocket-watch and sighed.

‘And then the ringing of all the servants’ bells at once came from downstairs – a trivial enough effect, but startling in that eerie and expectant quiet. It was followed shortly after by another sound, a dragging of fetters like that from the chimney, but louder, and then louder still, approaching us slowly along the corridor outside the open door.

‘And then the ghost came. It was dressed in white – an old-fashioned nightcap and nightgown, much worn, and elderly bedroom slippers. It carried a small candle in a holder, and all its limbs were hung about with lengths of iron chain. At the sight of it, Gladlove quailed.

‘How similar this apparition was in truth to the late Ebenezer Scrooge, I cannot say. It was certainly cadaverous and pale enough for a ghost, its white hair close-cropped and, when it came to the brows and lashes surrounding its red-rimmed eyes, all but invisible. But if Fred Gladlove, in the throes of ergotic poisoning, could perceive Ebenezer Scrooge’s face in a gas-lamp, then I had no doubt that he saw it here.

‘“Uncle!” he cried, confirming my suspicions, and Bucket’s concerns. It was most urgent that Gladlove should visit a doctor as soon as our business here was done.

‘The spectre spoke in a wheedling tone. “Fred, my boy. My nephew. My poor wayward lad. You see the pass I’ve come to, for all the good I did in life.”

‘“Uncle Scrooge, what do you want with me?” Gladlove asked tremulously.

‘“I come to warn you of the path you tread. A path paved with sensible concerns and reservations. A path of restraint in giving, and of tempered generosity. A path that leads only to doom and despair, to incessant wandering and misery.”

‘“I won’t hear more of this,” muttered Inspector Bucket, but I placed a restraining hand upon his arm.

‘“Please, just a moment,” I said.

‘Fred Gladlove groaned. “I have tried to be kind and charitable, Uncle – you know how I always tried, even before your own change of heart. I begrudge others nothing of the wealth you left me, nor that which I have made. I give to all.”

‘“To all?” the apparition moaned. “To all, you mean, except for those you judge beyond saving. Those who are beneath you. Those who have fallen. Those who are humble –”

‘“It is not true!” cried Gladlove. “Oh, Uncle, it is false! No man is too wanting or ignorant to need the help of others, nor to deserve it!”

‘“No?” said the figure. “Then what of the reformed sinners whom you have cast out, whom you deny the chance of grace? What of those who implore you for aid in the name of Abel Magwitch? Where is your charity to them?”

‘“I believe that that is everything we need,” I murmured, and Bucket kicked over the screen, at the same time uncovering our lantern.

‘“That’s quite enough of that, my lad,” he said. Revealed by the sudden dazzling light, the false ghost gazed at us with comical surprise, his jaw fallen almost to his chest.

‘“Mr Ira Mownd, I presume,” I ventured, but Bucket knew better than that.

‘“Oh, this isn’t a mound, young Holmes,” he said. “It’s a heap. Uriah Heep,” he added with satisfaction. “I remember the fraud against the Bank of England for which you were first transported, Uriah. Now here you are again, and blow me if it isn’t another case of fraud. And one of Artful Jack Dawkins’ dodges, too. Oh, I know him well, you can be sure of that.”

‘The man named Uriah Heep grovelled. “He’s led me astray, Mr Bucket, that he has. Astray is where I’ve been led before, so many times, and now I’ve been led there again. He told me how Mr Gladlove had hardened his heart against our poor charity, and how we needed the money to feed the wretched sinners who rely on us at Christmas. If Mr Gladlove was so obdurate, he said, we needed to teach him a lesson, and he’d heard of a family story we might use. Oh, it was all Artful Jack’s idea, gentlemen, never mine. I’m just a humble instrument, sirs, none more humble than I.” He glanced slyly at Fred as he spoke, hoping to appeal to the man’s generous nature. Even through the tremors of the poison, and his indignation at how he had been deceived, I saw the susceptible fellow’s face begin to soften.

‘But Inspector Bucket was having none of it. “That’s just what you said the last time, Uriah. You claimed then that you were reformed, but that’s not you, and it never will be. You’re a recidivist, Uriah – that’s our word for the likes of you. And now there’s no more transportation to be had, well, I dare say you’ll end your days at Newgate.”

‘Heep cringed. “I beg your pardon, Mr Bucket, and ask your indulgence most humbly.” Now that he had been caught in the act, he was quite the most spineless specimen of criminality whom I had ever seen. “Can’t you find the generosity in your heart, Mr Bucket, sir, to let in just a little of the Spirit of Christmas?”’

Sherlock Holmes fell silent then, just as I finished lighting the last of the little candles. The tree glowed now to rival the fire, its decorations glittering enticingly in the flickering flame, filling the sitting-room with the scents and warmth of Christmas Eve. I said, ‘What happened then?’

‘Oh, a great deal. Fred Gladlove made a full recovery, I am pleased to say, and kept the tortoise. His partnership with Tim Cratchit continues still. Uriah Heep was imprisoned, of course, along with two of Gladlove’s servants, but despite his professed willingness to cooperate with the police he supplied very little information of use to us in the arrest of Artful Jack Dawkins. It took Inspector Bucket and myself some time to crack that particular nut, ably assisted by young Wiggins.

‘But here comes the timely Mrs Hudson, with some generous slices of plum pudding and Christmas cake. Let us take a cup of mulled wine, Watson, and leave that story for another occasion – another Christmas Eve, perhaps.’

© Philip Purser-Hallard 2021