“Uncle Peter! Uncle Peter!” Charles Peter Parker, who preferred to be called Charlie to distinguish him from his father and his uncle, sounded urgent.
“What is it, youngster?” Lord Peter Wimsey put down his book and screwed in his monocle, pretending to scrutinise his nephew.
“Will you come and talk to me while I have my bath?”
“I have to get changed myself, you know! But if I’m changed in time – and you are not to dawdle in your bath – I’ll come and find you. But you’re coming back downstairs in your dressing-gown, aren’t you, to have your bread-and-milk while we grown-ups have drinks?”
“Bread-and-milk! Yuck!” Charlie was pink with indignation. “We have milk and biscuits, and sometimes even cocoa! But I want to talk to you rather specially privately.”
Peter laughed. “Well, cut along and have your bath and I’ll come and find you when I’m ready!”
The two families were staying at the Dower House in Duke’s Denver, fulfilling the Duchess’ desire to be seen to be entertaining her family, while keeping them at the arms’ length she preferred. They were all invited to Christmas Dinner, but expected to keep their distance at other times. The Dowager Duchess was only too glad to welcome her daughter and younger son and their families, and the house party was going with a swing. The adults were amused that the Dowager’s elderly cat, Ahasuerus, who was mostly prone to scratch anybody who took the slightest bit of notice of him, had taken an enormous liking to Charlie, and he to him.
Peter hurried through changing, and, dropping a kiss on his wife’s head as she fed their infant son, Bredon, went off in search of his nephew.
“So what is it, young man?”
“Look here, Uncle Peter, is it true about Father Christmas? I mean, how can he possibly visit all children everywhere in one night?”
Peter thought fast. “What do you think?” he asked.
Charlie pondered that for a moment. “I think he can’t really be real, and after all, Daddy never talks about him, he just asks what we got in our stockings.”
“You’re right in one way,” said Peter, “but quite wrong in another. You see, in a way Father Christmas – or Santa Claus, in America – represents the spirit of Christmas, of love and giving presents and things. But as you say, quite impossible to visit every child everywhere, so your parents fill your stockings on their behalf, as it were.”
“I thought so!” said Charlie. “But I can still have a stocking, can’t I, even though I know the truth?”
“Oh yes,” said Peter. “We are never really too old for stockings, although mostly we stop having them when we start going to the midnight service! Sometimes I wish I still had a Christmas stocking! Oh, and by the way, don’t tell Polly unless she asks.”
“I won’t! But Uncle Peter, what if they are poor families that can’t afford to give their children presents?”
“Then, sadly, the children have to go without. There are charities whose job it is to provide at least one present for such children – you see what I mean about the spirit of Christmas – but they only can if they know where their help is wanted, and if lucky people like you give them some money to help each year.”
“Do you give them some money?” asked Charlie, seriously.
“Not a question to ask, I’m afraid,” replied his uncle. “You see, people’s giving is a private thing, so you don’t ask about it.”
“Oh, sorry, I didn’t know that. Will you tell Mummy I know she and Daddy fill our stockings?”
“Yes, if you like. And maybe tomorrow Aunt Harriet will tell you about the real Santa Claus – his origins are slightly different from Father Christmas, but it comes down to the same thing in the end.”
Uncle and nephew went downstairs hand-in-hand, where they were joined by the rest of the family. Charlie and Polly sat by the fire and ate biscuits and drank cocoa, while the adults enjoyed a drink. When they had finished, Lady Mary Parker produced two large stockings.
“Grandmamma has borrowed two of Uncle Gerald’s shooting stockings, for you to put on the end of your beds for Father Christmas. So come along to bed now, as it’s getting late. And no, Charlie, you may not take Ahasuerus with you! Cats stay downstairs, please.”
“How he does love that cat,” said the Dowager Duchess with a laugh. “And it seems to be reciprocated – he never scratches or bites him, unlike the rest of us! Come and kiss me goodnight, children, and when we next meet it will be Christmas Day.”
After dinner, the adults gathered in the drawing-room again while Mary produced a pile of presents and the twin of the stockings she had given their children earlier. Peter and Harriet were roped in to help wrap them in tissue paper, and Peter produced a couple of penny whistles and small drums to add to the pile.
“Oh Peter,” exclaimed his sister, “That’s going to be lovely at 5 o’clock in the morning!”
“It’s Christmas! Just for once it won’t matter, and our dear Mamma can always sleep in the afternoon,” replied the unrepentant brother.
“Of course I can,” said the Dowager Duchess. “When are they going to have their main presents? Gerald wants us to go straight to the big house after Church, in time to have a drink before lunch.”
“Oh bother Gerald!” said his ungracious sister. “I’d hoped they could have them between church and going over for lunch, but there won’t be time now. Well, they will just have to wait until teatime – it won’t do them any harm, and they will have had their stockings to keep them going!”
“Actually,” said Harriet, “It can’t be done. I’m going to have to come back here after Church to feed Bredon so that, with any luck, he’ll sleep through lunch. You could let the children have their presents then, and go over when we are all ready.”
“Helen won’t like that,” said the Dowager, “But then, Helen would find fault whatever we did, such an irritating habit of hers, rather like that man in the Bible, or do I mean Shakespeare, which I probably do, because all quotations seem to be from the Bible or from Shakespeare”
“What man?” asked Peter, amused. But his mother-in-law didn’t seem to know, so Peter continued:
“Charlie has twigged about stockings, you know! He asked me earlier, and I asked what he thought. So I ended up telling him that Father Christmas or Santa Claus, as I hear he is called in America, is the Spirit of Christmas, and that you fill their stockings on his behalf.”
“Oh Peter,” said Harriet. “Was he much upset?”
“Only about poor children whose parents can’t afford to buy presents for them. I’m surprised he thought of that, though – I’m sure I wouldn’t have at his age.”
“Oh, we’ve been talking about poor people ever since he started to take an interest in my job, and why sometimes there are burglaries, and so on. I’ve probably been a bit simplistic, but if it has brought him to think of others, then I’m glad.” Thus Chief Inspector Parker, who was known to read New Testament commentaries for light relief.
“He said, by the way, that you never mentioned Father Christmas when talking of stockings, which was one reason he started being suspicious.”
“No, I didn’t. I don’t want to be a killjoy, but I don’t like telling children what is essentially a lie. I’m glad he knows the truth, and I hope Polly will learn it soon. They can still enjoy pretending, after all!”
At this point, the men decided to attend Midnight service, although all the women declined – the Dowager citing age, Harriet her small baby and Mary, who was expecting again, fatigue. They went off to bed, but when they returned, Mary was still awake and looking worried.
“I’ve put the children’s stockings on their beds, and here is Polly’s original one, but I couldn’t find Charlie’s anywhere. I can’t think what has happened to it. I did look under his bed, but couldn’t see it.”
“Oh well, don’t worry about it now,” replied her husband. “I’m sure it will turn up, and if Charlie finds it before we do, he will realise what has happened.”
Christmas Day dawned all too early from the adults’ point of view, with Charlie and Polly, deciding that everybody had slept quite long enough, playing their penny-whistles and drums as loudly as they could from about 7:00 am.
“Wretched children!” exclaimed their father, but nobody could be really cross with them. Chased out of all the adults’ bedrooms, they ended up in the kitchen trying to play carols to the servants who were busy trying to organise breakfast an hour earlier than usual, since the whole household was awake.
As it turned out, there was time to open presents before Church, since breakfast had been early, and everybody received at least one present that delighted them. Christmas Day wound on its predictable way; lunch was somewhat of an endurance test, but everybody survived, and eventually the adults of the Dower House party found themselves back in the pretty Inigo Jones drawing-room enjoying a cup of tea and a slice of Christmas cake. The children were having theirs in the kitchen with Bunter and the Dower House servants.
Franklin, the Dowager Duchess’ elderly maid, came in carrying a very tattered piece of fabric, which proved, on closer investigation, to be the remnants of the missing shooting stocking!
“Wherever did you find it,” asked Lady Mary. “I was looking for it all over, last night.”
“It was in the cat’s basket, your ladyship,” replied the maid.
“Oh dear,” said the Dowager, “Ahasuerus does love stockings, and will chew them if he gets a chance. I don’t know what Gerald will say to me – I didn’t exactly ask if I could borrow his stockings for the children.”
“What I want to know,” said Lady Mary, “Is how the cat got hold of it in the first place. I told Peter – Charlie – specifically not to take him up to bed, but that stocking was definitely on his bed the last time I saw it.”
“Well let’s have him in and ask him,” said Charles.
Charlie was sent for, and came in, looking shame-faced.
“Do you know how Ahasuerus could have got hold of this?” asked Parker, gently.
“I didn’t take him up to bed, honest I didn’t,” exclaimed Charlie.
“Nobody thinks you did, old son,” interposed Peter. “But look, here’s your chance to play detective and find out what actually happened.”
Charlie stopped looking apprehensive, and smiled faintly.
“Tell me, did Ahasuerus come in to your bedroom after you’d gone to bed?” asked Peter.
“Yes, he did. I know Mummy had said I wasn’t to take him up to bed, and I didn’t, but he just came. So I gave him a cuddle and told him to go away, and then I went to sleep and didn’t see what happened.”
“Well, what do you think could have happened?”
“Could he have got his claws caught in the stocking when he jumped off my bed?”
“He could have done. Good thinking. And then what?”
“And then he took it with him downstairs? Wouldn’t he have slipped?”
“Not necessarily,” said the Dowager. “He’s done that with socks and stockings before. I should probably have warned you, that he has a positive fetish for them, and not to let him see yours. Or rather, your Uncle Gerald’s. Oh dear, I really don’t know what he is going to say to me, they were a new pair of stockings I only knitted him last month.”
“Only one thing for it, Mamma,” laughed Peter. “You’ll just have to knit him another pair!”