It was upon the second morning after the first Christmas since my first marriage that I had called upon my friend Shylock Humes in order to wish him the compliments of the season.
There had been a hard frost overnight, which had given the fresh snow of Boxing day the character of sugar icing. The vile alleys were full of frozen drunkards and perished prostitutes, and the urchin children begged for coppers in the comfortless gleam of the winter sunshine, their little hands and faces turning blue as I passed swiftly by.
"As pretty as a Christmas Card", I thought, as I stepped over a vomiting match-girl and made my way to 221b Candlestick Maker Street, and the rooms of my friend.
I hesitated at the door of the sitting-room. Shylock Humes was wont to eschew the yuletide festival. His bohemian soul cried out against what he called "the vacuous befuddled tomfoolery of it all".
But I found my friend in uncharacteristically jovial spirits.
He was lounging on the sofa like a hibernating bear smoking a cigarette and wearing an oriental silk smoking jacket. I never could understand how he could so much as sit on a sofa shaped like a hibernating bear, never mind lounge upon it with such luxuriance.
He blew smoke rings and stared meditatively into the fireplace like some brooding Sultan. His taste in fireplaces was as outre as his preference for furniture.
"I see you are engaged", said I. "Perhaps I should not interrupt your cogitations."
"On the contrary, my dear Flotsam", cried Shylock Humes, "I am glad to have a friend with whom to discuss my conclusions. Pray take a chair, dear fellow, and tell me what you make of it."
A few minutes later, I was none the wiser. "I think I have taken this chair as far as I dare!" I called from the pavement, to the astonishment of a passing butcher's boy and an old bewhiskered knife-grinder. "And I can make very little of it. I think I have safely identified Queen Anne legs on the police constable standing outside the pawnbrokers, but as for the chair..."
"No, my dear chap", called my friend from the open window. "Please come back up, Flotsam, and bring your chair up to the fire."
Sweating from my exertions (it was a steep staircase at any time and doubly so carrying a chair), I sat by the crackling fire. Shylock Humes had moved to his favourite fireside armchair, and was now smoking his old clay pipe.
"Good old Flotsam", he smiled. "You always did keep us four-square on the ground. But in this case I think you must admit that you have been a touch too literal in your interpretation."
Before I could retort, he continued, blowing great black clouds of smoke up to the ceiling, curled deep into his chair like a spider at the heart of its web. But let me not dwell on the shape of his furniture a jot more. The narrative cries out for release.
He glanced at the Christmas present I had left on the welsh dresser. "I am afraid I did not get you anything, my dear chap. You know how my bohemian soul cries..."
"It's for Mrs Dudson", I interrupted (I had already covered all that bohemian business). "I knew you would not want anything."
"Why thank you, Flotsam" said Humes, as he puffed on his pipe (he would have made a master ventriloquist, had he not chosen to specialise in the magic lantern). "Indeed, I am happy as I am."
"I must admit", I said, "that your happiness does surprise me a little."
"But why?" asked my friend (it would have seemed odd if I had asked myself the question, so I was relieved that my friend was perspicacious enough to ask it himself and save me the trouble of trying to make intelligible a conversation with myself).
"Well, Humes", I replied, "I had expected to find you in a brown study at this time of year."
"Ah, Flotsam", sighed Shylock Humes, "I have just had the brown study dismantled and removed. Hence the scaffolding that is very much still chez moi."
"I wondered why that was here", I remarked. "I had the devil of a job getting that chair past it just now."
"I can only apologise, my dear fellow", Humes replied, as he drew long and deep on his pipe and blew out great blasts of smoke (yes, he would have made a wonderful ventriloquist; though, not for the first time, I wished that he would use his artist's sketch pad to draw on instead of the clay pipe).
"But my esteemed housekeeper is not here. She has gone to stay with her cousin Effie in Ecclefechan."
"Never mind", I smiled. "She can relish my present when she returns from her happy festive visit!"
Shylock Humes grimaced. "Alas, this is no holiday, my dear Flotsam. In fact, with your usual pertinacity, you have steered us to the very heart of the matter in hand. For it is indeed upon the small but wiry frame of Mrs Dudson that the darkly-woven tapestry of what promises to be one of the most singular cases I have ever investigated promises to hang.
"I am afraid that Mrs Dudson left me in something of a brown study", explained Humes, refilling his pipe with Nelson's Navy Cut Extra Rough Shag. "In a way, this was fortunate, for it meant she could use the brown study I had just had dismantled, and it saved a cab fare at an expensive time of year. But yet, it is most troublesome, I fear, my dear Flotsam."
"What do you mean, Humes?" I shouted down at him. I ought to have mentioned that the chair I was in was fixed atop a piece of scaffolding; well, you know now. "And why is this chair on top of this scaffolding?"
Shylock Humes rubbed his hands together. "Well, well, my dear chap, this is quite the cross examination! But let me try to make things clear.
"As for the chair, well, you know that I always do try to make the most of circumstances. I have been researching the effects of opium smoking on the ability to juggle live chickens at altitude, as it bears upon a case I have been asked to look into by my brother Pycroft.
"And, to return to the subject at hand, my housekeeper was upset by all this business of the scaffolding. You see, when I decided to get rid of the brown study, I instructed Mrs Dudson to engage Rafferty, Mulligan and O'Hanrahan, a firm of builders who are nothing if not unimpeachable when it comes to providing an excellent service in the way of making good after a job.
"Unfortunately, Mrs Dudson - no doubt with an eye to the domestic balance sheet - decided to engage Messrs. Raftery, Milligan and O'Hanrahanrahanrahan, who, notwithstanding the nearness of their names to the firm I had favoured, have proved to be positively antipodean in their proximity when it comes to the crucial business of making good.
"So, dear Flotsam, Mrs Dudson and I had an infernal argument. And this it was that, along with the effects of something that came up during our heated discussions, has rendered yours truly bereft of a housekeeper though, sadly, very much not bereft of ill-constructed scaffolding."
Humes paused, while I tried to digest these appallingly-constructed sentences. They were almost as badly constructed as the scaffolding, I mused, swaying precariously above the fireside rug in my chair, with two chickens and an opium pipe in my lap.
My reverie was interrupted by Shylock Humes. He had leapt to his feet. A small leap, but significant, as it meant he was no longer sitting down. He spoke. His voice was like the quicksilver voice of the robin, as it calls across the bleak fenlands in January. Unfortunately, this was London in December.
"Speak up, Humes", I adjured. It wasn't easy. I hadn't adjured for a long time. I was in the Adjuring Club at Medical School, and I had kept it up for a few years after that (there used to be a club in Ball Bearing Lane, above a Gin Shop), but you know how it is. Life gets in the way.
Anyway, "speak up, Humes", I cried. "I can't hear you up here. I think the opium fumes have inebriated these chickens: they're making a most frightful noise!"
Humes called up, his voice like the thunder that comes out of a purple sky over the Bay of Bengal.
"I can't hear you above those blasted chickens, Flotsam! What on earth are you doing to them?"
But once I had thrown the chickens overboard, Humes - his voice now like the roar of the tapir in the lush jungles of Amazonia - explained what it was that had driven Mrs Dudson to her sister Effie in Ecclefechan.
"It's a matter of a missing Christmas goose, Flotsam", he said.
"But does this mean you had to go without your Christmas dinner, Humes?" I yelled.
"Oh no, my dear fellow, these are dark waters, and they run deeper than that.
"I fear you are being too literal again, my friend. We are not dealing with the kind of unimpeachable goose that is served upon a groaning Christmas table. We are dealing with a far more questionable variety. And what is worse, we have sailed into ecclesiastical waters. You see, it concerns the local Vicar, the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson. For apparently, the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson is wont to visit Mrs Dudson every Christmas Eve on his rounds of the parish and to offer her what she calls 'a right good goose' while he is about it."
"About what", I shouted. I was going to be quite hoarse later on at this rate.
"Exactly, my dear Flotsam. You hit the nail squarely on its head as ever. What exactly is the good Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson about, travelling around his parish on Christmas Eve, presenting his middle-aged female parishioners with geese of the non-feathered variety?"
"But Humes", I rasped from the scaffolding (the hoarseness was coming sooner even than I had feared), "what on earth do you mean, 'geese of the non-feathered variety'?"
"Ah, my dear Flotsam, your honest indignant innocence does you credit", cried Humes, groping inside the Wellington boot where he kept his tobacco. "But you must know that though we are not dealing with what we might call a living example of the anser genera, crop, feathers and all, we are nevertheless staring foul play in its pitiless face. Is it becoming clear, my dear chap?"
"It's all dark to me!" I yelled.
"Tush, Flotsam", hissed Humes, his voice like the Nile cobra as it stalks the fatted calf. "Tush, man! Perhaps if I use the phrase 'the vicar goosed Mrs Dudson', rather than 'the vicar offered her a goose', you might finally fasten upon my meaning!"
I quailed. I hadn't quailed since '76, when I had gone quailing with my friend Farquharson from Medical School. But this was a bird of a different feather! "The blaggard, Humes, the absolute bounder!" My dander was up now. There I was, up there on the scaffolding, my dander and I. "Hah! Fowl play indeed, Humes!" I screeched. My throat was really bad now.
"Why would a man of the cloth behave in such a dastardly fashion, Humes?" I asked, incredulous.
My friend Shylock Humes stood erect, like a mighty bird of prey as it surveys its quarry far below. It was an odd view for me, since I was above him, and not many people can say they have sat in a chair atop some rickety scaffolding looking down upon a mighty bird of prey as it surveys its quarry far below, but I have written the simile down now, and I am desperate to finish this rubbish, so, gentle reader, you must bear with it. Courage, all will soon be over (until the next instalment).
"Flotsam, the question is not, 'why did the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson goose Mrs Dudson this Christmas?' The question, my dear chap, is 'why did the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson not goose Mrs Dudson this Christmas?"
"He didn't?" I yelled.
"He did not", said Humes. "And that, my dear Flotsam, is the mystery at the very core of this affair."
I had a flash of inspiration. "Like the dog that did nothing in the night time, Humes?" I shouted.
"Quite so, my dear chap", mouthed Humes, sucking at his amber-stemmed meerschaum (oh yes, he could have been quite a hit as a ventriloquist, playing the bugle while singing Schubert Songs: it would have raised the trade into the realms of high art): "substitute a silent dog for the non-existent goose and a Dartmoor racing stables for a housekeeper's parlour, and we are getting somewhere with our exemplars. But hark, Flotsam!" And he was off to the window.
"Ah! The brougham I expected has arrived!" he cried. "And the horses are as tired as I had predicted."
"How do you know they are so tired?" I asked.
"They are wearing their nightshirts, my dear Flotsam!" cried Humes, with a laugh like the eruption of Krakatoa. But whether he was joking, or whether the horses really were wearing nightshirts, I could not tell, for Shylock Humes was hunched, rubbing his hands in anticipation as he gazed out of the window like Uriah Heep.
His taste in windows was no better than his dreadful taste in furniture and fireplaces.
One question burned like molten lava from Krakatoa in my brain.
How was I going to get down from all this ludicrous scaffolding?