Having clambered down from the scaffolding, I made my way to the window, where my friend Shylock Humes was looking out onto a wintry Candlestick Maker Street.
"Yes, doctor", said Humes, "this is the carriage I was expecting."
"But there is something amiss here!" I ejaculated, and immediately regretted it. Mrs Dudson was away visiting her cousin Effie at Ecclefechan. How would we clear up in the absence of Mrs Dudson's cloth? The stand-in housekeeper, Mrs Judson, was efficient, but she would surely baulk at dealing with our ejaculations.
Between Dudson and Judson there was but one letter. But one letter can be so crucial, as my accountant Mr Thaddeus Facking-Clunt is always telling me.
"What is amiss, my dear fellow?" smiled Humes.
"Why, Humes, surely you know!" I exclaimed (I was treading carefully now). "A brougham such as that one is normally drawn by one horse, but this one has two. A two-horse brougham is quite out of the ordinary."
"Excellent, Flotsam!" cried Humes. "You have hit upon it exactly. All is not as folk would normally expect. And yet, all is exactly as we would expect, eh, my friend?"
"I am afraid that I am quite in the dark, Humes", I expostulated (that was close; I was walking an exclamatory tightrope in Mrs Dudson's absence).
"Then let me bring light into your darkness", said Shylock Humes, lighting the gas and moving swiftly to his fireside chair like a panther going to ground. I could never - but let me not hamper the elegant progress of the narrative by yet another hackneyed reference to the bizarre tastes of Shylock Humes when it came to chairs shaped like panthers.
At that instant the doorbell rang. It was reminiscent of the peal of the bourdon bell, named Emmanuel, at Notre Dame cathedral. Humes has acquired the souvenir during his autumnal sojourn in Paris on The Adventure Of The One-Legged Can-Can Dancer.
"That bell is dreadful, Humes", I protested. "It makes the whole house shake. Why should you want such a melodramatic bell?"
"Ah, my dear chap", smiled Humes, as I sat on the sofa (I was certainly not going to climb up the scaffolding into my usual chair a second time), "I had a hunch that you would not like my Notre Dame souvenir! But there Hugo! To the victor the spoils, eh, Flotsam? Heh, heh!"
I had no idea what he was talking about. Was he trying to be funny? I wished that he would not. It was like trying to analyse Shakespeare's jokes at school.
"But let us be quick", he whispered, knocking out his pipe against the mantelpiece (he could as easily have knocked it out with a left uppercut, but he was clearly saving his energies for the case). "There is just enough time to bring you up to date with the case so far, before we receive our visitor.
"You see, my dear Flotsam..." he began.
"Humes", I interrupted. "Why are you whispering?"
"Sorry, Flotsam", said Humes. "I keep thinking that I am in Notre Dame cathedral. But let me expound.
"Since I learned that our vicar, the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson, had been in the habit of goosing Mrs Dudson each Christmas Eve, but had failed to repeat the performance this year, I have made what can only be described as enquiries into the affair.
"These enquiries have furnished me with..."
"Investigations?" I asked.
"What?" said Shylock Humes.
"You said they could only be described as enquiries. Surely they could also be termed investigations. They might also be called explorations, if it comes to that."
He glared at me, and continued. "As I was saying, I have found out that poor Mrs Dudson is by no means the only person who has been subject to the unwanted attentions of the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson."
"You mean there are other ladies...?"
"Men too, I am afraid, my dear Flotsam."
"But this is surely beyond the pale! The fellow ought to be defrocked, he should be...!"
"Ah, Flotsam", soothed Humes. "Your indignation hits the nail squarely enough. My enquiries furnished me with 26 recipients of these gentle ministrations: six housekeepers, five chamber maids, three personal maids, a nanny, a governess, three footmen, two butlers, an under-gardener and a curate among them."
"But what about the other four?" I asked.
"Three, Flotsam", corrected Humes. Mental arithmetic was not my strongest suit. That would be my Harris Tweed duck-shooting outfit. I made a mental note to chase up the Chinese Laundry: what were they doing with it? Mental notes, I was good at. They were more in my line than mental arithmetic.
I was interrupted from my reverie by Shylock Humes, his voice like the screech of the marmoset in the terrible yellow twilight of the Paraguayan forests. I recalled my recent conversation with Dr Ulysses Ningo, at my club, in which he fascinated me with a summary of recent scientific developments that have revealed that the marmoset almost always gives birth to fraternal twins.
I was interrupted a second time from this embedded or nested reverie by Shylock Humes. His voice rang out like the howl of the cat-footed panda-bear marauding through the bamboo thickets of Burma in search of jackdaw eggs.
"Flotsam, man! What are you doing?" he howled.
"Sorry, Humes", I apologised, "I was wool-gathering."
"This is no time for wool-gathering, Flotsam", he cried. "Were the balaclava and mittens you received from Mrs Flotsam this Christmas not enough for you?"
"Well", I admitted. "I was rather hoping for a Christmas woollen novelty item. I had asked Mary to knit me a woollen Isambard Kingdom Brunel Top Hat. However, what with the tree to source and all the cards to write, there just was not enough time for her to..."
"My dear chap!" Humes ejaculated. Damn! But it could not be helped. "My dear Flotsam, we have only seconds to spare. Pray allow me to finish my expounding."
"Sorry, Humes", I said. "Please carry on."
"Well, I seem to have lost my..." he began.
"Thread? Of wool, perhaps?" I offered, with a glint in my eye. I wished that Humes would use the fireguard. I was always getting these glints in my eyes.
He stared at me. If looks could kill, well, I should not have survived, and all the foregoing would never have been written, and who is to gainsay the fact that the world would have been a better and a more peaceful place? Not I.
"To continue", Humes said. "I have discovered two salient facts, Flotsam. Firstly, it is apparent that our vicar does not strike home every Christmas, and nor does he strike in every place every year. In short, his attacks are somewhat random in their occurence. This is the first year that Mrs Dudson has not received her customary seasonal gift, but I have found others who have missed out on more than one occasion. And, though five of my sample have not been goosed this year, all the rest have. So far, so much of a muchness.
"But here is a most significant second fact, my dear doctor. From my interviews, I have found out that, though in previous years the good Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson was always wont to strike wherever an opportunity presented itself, this year has witnessed a new coherence, a fresh ordering in his presentation.
"This Christmas, each of the attacks took place by the household Christmas tree. And each victim was at pains to relate that the clerical gentleman seemed as interested in the tree itself as in their own person.
"Indeed, as a chambermaid told me, 'it were as if he was just tryin' ter git past me and 'ave a right good go at the tree, sir'!"
"How extraordinary, Humes!" I exclaimed (no need for a cloth there).
"Extraordinary enough, my friend", Humes grimaced. Had he just got a glint in his own eye? It would have served him right if he had. Perhaps it would teach him to use the fireguard more often. "But surely you see the significance of these revelations? You can see what it means?"
I pondered. "The man's a Christmas tree fetishist!" I cried. "Yes, I remember a similar case when I was a boy. Old Doctor Hacksawe used to let me tag along on his rounds. There was this farmer out on the Downs who had a tree fixation. He had an affair with an elm, as I recall. Well, it was a terribly cold morning when we visited, and the man had got frozen to the elm's trunk. It was dreadful. Old Doctor Hacksawe had to use molasses and gunpowder and a patent leather shoehorn to..."
"No, no, it won't do, Flotsam!" countered Humes. "All this talk of Christmas tree fetishes and farmers and elms and molasses and patent leather shoehorns fails to get to the root of the matter. But here, if I am not mistaken, is our visitor!"
The sitting-room door opened. Well, to be more accurate, the door was opened by the stand-in housekeeper, Mrs Judson. It would have been alarming if the door had opened itself.
Mrs Judson stood, breathing like a Nile hippopotamous in the long watches of the night. I had heard these huge creatures breathing in the long watches of the night, when I was stationed by the Nile. Why they had employed me to build railway stations along the Nile, I never could discover. I was a doctor, not an engineer. I knew the project was doomed to failure when I learned that we were building the stations before the track was laid. "How are we supposed to know where to lay the platforms?" I asked them, but it was as a cry in the wilderness. These were the only railway stations I have ever seen with crocodile-infested waiting-rooms and no trains. Apart from Leamington Spa, that is, and even that was an alligator.
"Inspector Stanley-Livingstone Stanley, gentlemen", quoth Mrs Judson. She was a stolid woman, with a face like a blancmange. Either that, or a stolid blancmange, with a face like a woman.
Ushering in the policeman (she had all the ushering certificates), she looked at Humes. "Will sir be wantin' 'is supper early or late tonight?"
"Hmmm. I think late, my dear Mrs Judson", said Humes, glancing at Inspector Livingstone-Stanley. "Tell, me do you still have the cod's head and shoulders?"
"Why yes sir", replied the stand-in blancmange, sorry, housekeeper. "I still 'ave it. My appointiment with th' lady what does my hair bein' cancelled, I still 'as th' old hairstyle, though there is hopes of a himprovmint as I have booked another appointimint tomorrow."
And with that, she was off, like the Fighting Temeraire being tugged to her last berth.
"Well, well, Inspector!" said Humes, rubbing his hands. It was one of his more bohemian habits, this rubbing of other people's hands. But soon he stopped, and began rubbing his own, so it was all right, though it's not the same: when you rub your own hands, you are somewhat hampered by the fact that you have to use your own hands to rub themselves.
"Good day, gentlemen", said Inspector Livingstone-Stanley. "It's never taken me so long to get up a flight of stairs. You really must get rid of all that scaffolding, Mr Humes, it's a health and safety nightmare. And as for my means of transport, I've never travelled in a two-horse brougham before, nor do I ever wish to again. The looks I was getting from the street."
"Ha!" laughed Shylock Humes. "Never mind, Inspector, think of it as experience. Better, think of it as a somewhat recherche, though quite infallible, route to the solution of one of the more scandalous of the current problems afflicting Scotland Yard."
"There he goes again, waxing lyrical, doctor", said Livingstone-Stanley. ""Like this telegram what I received not an hour ago."
He handed me the missive. I read.
Bring two horse brougham from Brisket Rd to 221b. We seek red emrld. Vicar not himself. Cnl Clavicord's thespian connectns final link. SH
The Inspector and I exchanged conspiratorial winks. Well, I hoped they were conspiratorial. "Maybe he'll let us know exactly what's going on during the journey, doctor. Though I'm not going to hold my breath, eh?"
"I should think not, Inspector, as that would be bad for your health, as you surely know." I replied, though why I said such a pointless thing I will never know. Perhaps I ought to have left it out? No, it shall remain, its pedestrian futility perhaps serving to bring out the brilliance of the plot only the more.
"So you really think we're on the trail of the red emerald, Mr Humes?" Livingstone-Stanley asked of the empty chair. Quicksilver and will-o-the-wisp to the core, Shylock Humes was already in his bedroom shaving, putting on his Ulster, and getting his heavy stick. The last time he tried all that at once, he ruined a razor and sharpened an expensive malacca cane to a point, but surely he had learned since then.
"Blast!" he cried from his bedroom. "I have shaved off my moustache!"
Horrified, I answered: "But you have no moustache!"
"Thank God for that!" Humes cried. "I knew I could rely upon you, Flotsam, to keep us on the path. But hurry, my friend: get into your coat, and get your revolver, for we have work ahead of us.
"These are deep waters", he continued. "It would be no exaggeration to say that this promises to be one of the most remarkable cases that I have ever looked into."
"But you always say that, Humes", I said. "And still no one reads this rubbish. Why waste energy trying to dress it up? Save your energy for the denouement, if there is one."
"No, Flotsam", he corrected. "I meant this new shaving-case that my brother Pycroft got me for Christmas. Of course, I was wont to refuse a present, since my very bohemian soul cried out at the very thought of the wretched falsehood and excess of the yuletide festival, but he insisted. And it's simply beautiful, fashioned from Sudanese calfskin with a Peking silk lining. It really is most remarkable.
"As far as the case of the missing Christmas goose is concerned, that is all rather straightforward, though I will admit that there are one or two singular features that lift it above the commonplace."
I looked at Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley. Inspector Livingstone-Stanley looked at me. He winked conspiratorially, as if to say "there he goes again, eh doctor?"
At least, I hoped it was conspiratorial.