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Oxford to Baker Street, 3 p.m.
Snow descended on London, swirling in on brisk winds, catching the pale yellow glare of the streetlights as it laid its ghostly white upon our familiar haunts. I stood at our window overlooking deserted Baker Street, marveling on the rare London snow and savoring the strange quiet.
Christmas morning had come and gone, and Holmes was clearly relieved the dreaded festival was almost over. We had just this afternoon returned from Oxford, where Holmes had tried, and singularly failed, to hide away in the Bodleian Library, studying the ancient, musty musical manuscripts he so loved. Instead, we had been dragged into the tinseled maw of a perplexing domestic drama in the home of Holmes's old tutor, now master of St. Mark's. Hailing a hansom cab at Euston Station upon our return to London from Oxford, we hastened straight back to our rooms, thoroughly exhausted.
After a brief rest, a shave, and a light repast of strong coffee, eggs, and kippers, provided by Mrs. Hudson, we were now sharing a convivial silence on this winter's approaching night. In the inner reflection upon the window glass, I could see Holmes as he placidly sat pasting newspaper crime articles into his vast alphabetized volumes, his lean face partially obscured with pipe smoke.
Against the storm, the warmth and light of our apartment seemed a stay against the chaos of city life, whose dirty, coal-smudged tracks, mud, and grime were being sheeted by the innocence of white. From the distance, I heard the faint tinkling of horses' bells as hansoms traversed the oddly muffled streets.
"Yes, Watson, indeed the rose is the most beautifulof the flowers."?
"Good God, Holmes, you have been playing this trick upon me for a good many years, and still leave me dumbfounded."? I turned to face my old companion. "How in heaven's name could you read this in my manner, for I surely betrayed no sign of such a thought?"
He leaned back and sucked in upon his brier-wood pipe, eyeing me merrily. "I have indeed been reading the Book of Watson for some time, the purity of my observations augmented by close familiarity. I saw you set down that book by your chair, page faceup, as you rose, and it opened naturally to a poem most precious to you."?
"Yes, Lodge's â€˜When I Admire the Rose,â€™ but surelyâ€”â€?
"Ah, follow the mind under suggestion. You passed our mantel, where you set our few Christmas postcards, two of which are adorned with roses blooming in winter, one of the glories of our clime. Then, as you stood at the window you absently placed your hands in your pockets, and as you did I could see, reflected in the glass, a look of melancholy cross your face. You were, I believe, touching the rosary that you carry in your pocket, given to you by your late wife, Mary.â€? He paused. â€œI believe that was the trail of your thoughts. It seemed natural to bring these mental fragments together, the term â€˜rosaryâ€™ coming from the rose garden,"? said Holmes, setting aside his glue pot and heavy book. He went to the mantel to poke at his pipe, adding a little shag tobacco.
I sat down in my chair across from him. "Yes, Holmes, that was precisely the gathering of my emotions. You know I am not a religious man; I carry her rosary not out of any feeling of faith but because she held it once."?
"A twelfth-century Persian poet said, â€˜Mystery glows in the rose bed, the secret is hidden in the rose.â€™ â€? He leaned back in his old velvet chair dreamily, his eyes half closed, as if he were listening to a piece of favorite music at the Royal Hall. â€œThink of how much of our lives, Watson, we have pursued such secrets, sub rosa.â€?
I had a little secret of my own from him.
I wondered if this was to be the last Christmas season we would share in our old comfortable digs. My proposal of marriage to a remarkable young woman, a lovely nurse in training I met on rounds at St. Bartâ€™s, had been recently accepted. Since she was with her parents in Essex for the holidays, I had more or less invited myself along on Holmesâ€™s recent college expedition. Though impatient to be married again after so many years, I also harbored a certain nostalgia for these years of bachelor conviviality that were to end in the autumn. I dreaded informing Holmes about my approaching marriage; I knew he would greet this news with his typical asperity and a sharp comment or two. Oh, our long friendship would go on, but subtly changed, more distant, haphazard.
"You know, Watson, it might amuse your readers to some-day record our little Oxford adventure.â€? He shrugged, and added with a sardonic touch, â€œThe incident illustrates the lesson I have tried to impart to you through the years: that close observation of minute details, not grand theorizing, is the key to revelation.â€?
As he languidly waved his match out, he gave me an amused look signaling both permission for me to write up the case and, at the same time, a bemused dismissal of my literary efforts.
â€œIt really was a remarkable red ruby sapphire, Holmes, was it not?â€?
â€œYes, it was. You owe it to your readers, Watson, to fully describe it, especially after having confused them years ago with your Yuletide tale of the famed blue carbuncleâ€”only that blue gems of that variety do not exist.â€?
Ignoring his jocund jibe at a literary license I had taken years ago to obscure the facts of a case, I instead nodded a restrained thanks. I do indeed owe it to readers to describe our little encounter with the Scintilla Stone, because it offers a glimpse into the religious feelings of Holmes, an icy reserve rarely revealed.
In our rented Oxford rooms, I had been happily reading the holiday issue of the Illustrated London News when Holmes unexpectedly reappeared, rousing me with a bag thrown upon his bed and a resigned request: â€œCome, Watson, the past has claimed us. Gather our things, for we are due shortly at the masterâ€™s house of St. Markâ€™s College.â€? His old tutor, the Reverend Dr. Sydney Rosewater, unexpectedly encountered in the Bodleian quad at dusk, was insisting we join his familyâ€™s celebration. The detective had known in an instant that the quiet evening he had envisioned after his long day in Duke Humphreyâ€™s library was doomed.
It was a short walk from our hotel to St. Markâ€™s, our footsteps resounding along glistening stone walls. Into the bustle of Broad Street, we were greeted with a small brass band playing â€œGood King Wenceslasâ€? in front of the great stoic stone heads of the emperors.
â€œYou seldom talk about your college days, Holmes.â€?
â€œMy two years here were not stellar, Watson. In fact, when that bull pup bit my ankle on the way to chapel, I took it as a divine sign to be on my way to London.â€?
â€œI suspect that dog interrupted your last attendance at any religious service.â€?
â€œWell, with my then certain heady scientific sensibility, I determined that the compulsory chapels of my youth contained truths too fantastic for me. I am not a scoffer at religion as my brother, Mycroft, is, but I determined then that I would give my sole allegiance to facts, not faith. Yet strangely, I find I am mellowing towards religion in recent years.â€?
Hoping to keep this rare colloquy from the private Holmes flowing, as he almost never referred to his past, I inquired, â€œHow so, Holmes? I canâ€™t remember when either of us expressed the slightest interest in religion.â€?
â€œAh, well, the faith of crucifixes, stained glass, vestments, and all the paraphernalia of English faithâ€”true, that realm of faith has no appeal to me. But oddly enough, my year in Tibet and my exposure to Buddhism opened my eyes. The monks taught me to still my mind, and surprisingly, I found the rudimentary meditative techniques they gave me congenial to my austere temperament. And suddenly, the religious trappings of a foreign faith made me a trifle more open to religion as a kind of visual poetry, a universal language. Still, I sincerely dread Rosewaterâ€™s invitation.â€?
He would have been far happier if he had known that instead of sentimental piety, his old teacher would soon be giving him the present of the kind of mental puzzle he so delighted in. Soon the imposing white walls of his old college loomed before us, covered in trailing bands of ivy laced with frost. With a sigh, Holmes strode through the imposing Gothic gate. The masterâ€™s house, beyond the chapel, was lit with a benevolent yellow glow. Our knock was answered by a suave young man in formal wear, balding and lean.
â€œHolmes, is it? Come in. My brother said he had snagged you to join our rituals.â€? He extended his hand and took our bags. â€œIâ€™m Jeffrey Rosewater, up from London; your territory, Mr. Holmes. And you must be Dr. Watson.â€?
Five children ran by us in a laughing rush in the entryway. Jeffrey Rosewater rolled his eyes indulgently. The dapper man, trim black mustache giving him a military look, dabbed at his shining forehead with a handkerchief. â€œSydney insists all of us must return to Oxford, the Rosewater homestead, in honor of our deceased parents.â€?
A pretty chestnut-haired young girl, eleven or so, danced back and embraced Jeffrey, crying, â€œOh Father, come help us glue our Christmas crackers! Bring us those exploding snaps you brought us from Paris!â€?
We were then spied by the master, who joined us in the foyer. â€œWelcome, welcome,â€? cried Rosewater, small and rotund in a quaint, Pickwickian fashion. He ordered his brother to take our bags. As Jeffrey Rosewater obeyed, standing four inches over his older brother, he was sleek and fastidious compared to the slightly disheveled master. It was clear the master easily and effortlessly dominated his younger brother. It occurred to me that no one knew better than Holmes what it was like to have an impressive older brother who held tenaciously to long dominance.
The little girl interrupted us, saying that they needed to complete their Christmas crackers. This new custom of beginning a perfectly proper meal by yanking open explosive paper rolls and then putting on colored paper crowns clearly filled Holmes with despair, but I found I was enjoying being here.
Master Rosewater leaned near Holmes to whisper, â€œLovely little girl, Elizabeth. Her mother died eight years ago, and sheâ€™s not taken on Jeffreyâ€™s airs yet, thank goodness. He does the best he can, though he leaves her alone too much with all his travel.â€?