Child in the Chimney
Child in the Chimney
by Helen Watson*
* It should be noted that this story was written during a period when dualist Helen Watson was still using their guise of John H. (for Helen) Watson to move unencumbered through the London literary world and presenting themself as their own wife when they were out in the world presenting as female. 221B Baker Street was a much more complex place than most casual fans of Sherlock Holmes might consider.
My husband, John H. Watson* M.D., always received many letters regarding the details of his stories in the Strand Magazine. These would range in subject from the most inconsiderate inquiries as to his personal life to missives filled with outrage at some combination of words that would seem innocuous to the average reader. It was the latter category which brought us one of the strangest events of our long association with Mr. Sherlock Holmes.
“What do you make of this, Watson?” he asked one December morning and tossed a freshly crumpled ball of paper my way.
“I would first deduce that you have a lack of respect for your correspondents,” I answered. “Somebody worked hard with pen and ink to create this letter, only to have you treat it so.”
“No disrespect intended, my dear Watson! I could never have tossed it the needed distance to reach you without crumpling it into a more aerodynamic ball form. In addition, I enjoy speculating on whether or not you are going to catch a given toss.”
I gave a quiet, lady-like “harumph” and un-crumpled the letter to read it.
“Dear Mr. Watson,” it began. “In the most recent of your reports in the Strand Magazine, I was stunned to see you comparing the sound of the September gales to that of a sobbing child in your chimney. I found this quite disturbing, as I know of several chimney sweeps who force children into their service and your words seemed to indicate that you had one such sweep in your employ. I will be calling upon you to find out the name of this sweep, so my club can setting about liberating this poor traumatized child with all haste.”
I dropped the letter immediately. “Holmes, this is outrageous!”
“Personally, I’m glad that the woman decided to make you her target this time, rather than me. I’m not if the habit of opening your mail, of course, but upon recognizing the handwriting upon the envelope, I opened it without a thought.”
I looked at the letter’s signature: “Eleanor Withersby, LVLL.”
“LCLL?” I questioned.
“Ladies Vigilance League of London. They carefully comb every publication available for wrongs to right from their clubhouse base in Gorblemoor Square. I have had to visit them on several occasions as my Baker Street irregulars tread far too close to their level of comfort.”
“Well, you are using children to find murderers,” I observed.
“Eleanor Withersby has never come to Baker Street before, however, and her motivation would seem on the surface to be a simple awkward metaphor. I suspect there is more to it than that.”
“Do you think I should put the moustache on for her?” I asked.
“I have seen Miss Withersby in her native environment, Watson, and I suspect she would be more pleased with your feminine aspect. Are you looking to add one more to your long list of ‘experience of women,’ my dear?”
“Someone has to make up for your lack of interest in romance,” I told him. “And, in any case, I’d like to meet this person first. Give me some credit for discretion.”
“Always, Watson, always.”
It was later that afternoon when Eleanor Withersby arrived at our sitting room, which Holmes had managed to poison with the thickest cloud of Turkish tobacco smoke he could produce.
“Mrs. Watson . . .” Miss Withersby started, plainly discomfited by my presence, rather than that of John H. Watson. “I had hoped to address your husband directly.”
“You can trust Helen Watson as you would John,” Sherlock Holmes assured her. “She is just as much a part of his work as he is. And much easier to get along with.”
Holmes’s wry smirk went unnoticed by our visitor, who was running her eyes over me as if looking for the answer to an unspoken question.
“Just let me tell you a little story,” I told her. Withersby was an irregularly attractive woman in her middle thirties, and I had unspoken questions as well.
“There are certain matters that Mr. Sherlock Holmes is privileged to that most citizens of the Empire are not. One of these is, believe it or not, Father Christmas.”
Miss Withersby coughed. “Are you playing me for a fool, Mrs. Watson?”
“I would not, Miss Withersby. I know it’s quite unbelievable. I refused to believe it myself until the chldren started coming down the chimney.”
Eleanor Withersby’s face dropped.
“It’s in the name. Father Christmas is definitely no priest. He’s had so many children that no one even knows his first name any more, and every one of them is trained in the family business from an early age. Part of that training is a course of specific London chimneys of various shapes and sizes whose owners have agreed to allow Father Christmas’s children to come down their chimney on certain days of the year. Number 221 Baker Street has been on that training route for as long as our landlady has owned this house, and as long as the owner before that as well.”
Our visitor looked at Sherlock Holmes, who nodded in a resigned fashion.
“Sometimes the children have been intimidated as they come down our chimney, due to some villain raging loudly in our sitting room, as happens from time to time, especially when they stand near the fireplace and start bending the tools there. On at least two notable occasions, a child has stopped halfway down out chimney and gave themselves over to quietly sobbing in their reluctance to come the rest of the way.”
“Why . . . that could even be more terrible than the chimney sweep practice of using the little ones!” Elinor Withersby exclaimed, her anger rising. “I can’t believe you’d try to excuse yourselves from guilt in being accomplices to one horror by confessing to being a part of an even worse offense!”
“The simple truth is all we have to offer,” I told her in my calmest, most patient-sooting voice. “I know how preposterous it sounds, but let me assure you that I am not treating you as a child to be placated with fairy tales. If you’d care to stay for supper and spend the evening, there’s a strong probability that one of Father Christmas’s offspring will be paying us a visit. You can speak with them and see for yourself that they are, as a group, happy with their lot. We have an especially nice Beaune planned to go with supper tonight, too, so it should not be an unpleasant way to pass an evening.”
“Well, I . . . I imagine that might be a . . .” her green eyes drifted away in thought for a moment, then returned to focus in on mine, “an acceptable solution. One would hate to just call you a liar and storm off.”
Sherlock Holmes cleared his throat, reminding me that he was in the room.
“I regret to say that that old miser Michael Croft has some problem with his club that he has asked me to look into tonight,” Holmes stated, “so I will not be able to join you for what I’m sure will be a most delightful meal. It has been pleasant to see you again Miss Withersby, and I hope everything turns out to your satisfaction.”
With that Sherlock Holmes found his hat, coat, and stick and was out the door.
Although Miss Eleanor Withersby visited 221B on several subsequent occasions, the matter of children and chimneys was not among the reasons for any of those visits.