My friend Shylock Humes and I sat in the four-wheeler, in the inky-shadowed street outside the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers and host of the Annual Convention of Not-Quite Correct Things.
We waited on the arrival of Inspector Arbuthnot Williams of Scotland Yard, who ought by now to have been relieved from his vigil at 345 Bombay Road by Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley, also of Scotland Yard. The latter had been instructed by Humes to apprehend Jephro Mooncalfe the noted thespian, alias Jonty Middlemass the small-time petty larcenist and exponent of the musical saw, who Humes believed to be attempting to purloin Lady Mandible's Red Emerald, the world-famous gemstone that had gone missing from Lady Mandible's rooms at the Rottingdean Arms.
I had a question for Humes.
"Humes", I questioned, "this is all very extraordinary. In fact, you would almost think the whole thing was a mere rigmarole."
Then, realising at once that that was not a proper question, I had a further question for Humes.
"Humes", I further questioned, "we know that the red emerald is missing, and has almost certainly been stolen. Is it your theory that this Mooncalfe fellow is about to steal it a second time, as it were? And how do you know that the emerald is at 345 Bombay Road?"
Shylock Humes sat as erect as a Burmese Peacock. "Ah, Flotsam, I knew it was mere pish, tosh and nonsense from the very start, my dear fellow. It is nothing more than a gallimaufry of taradiddle intended to bewilder the simple-minded and the unwary.
"It smacks of whimsy, Flotsam, but whimsy most foul. And that is by far the worst kind of whimsy. Foul whimsy is far worse than whimsical foulness.
"Yes, whimsy most foul is the worst kind, for its very foulness betrays the evil nature of its author.
"That our esteemed vicar has been wont to display amorous tendencies, well, that much is true enough. The fellow deserves to be unfrocked, lest he unfrock his hapless parishioners, and to that end, I have sent a telegram to the Bishop. Mrs Dudson and her fellow victims will no more feel the shame of his unpriestly ministrations."
"That is good news indeed, Humes", I said. "But surely you said it was all a gillim, a gullim, a..."
"A gallimaufry, yes. You did say that, though I shall never understand why you used such a quaint colloquialism of the North country. You also spoke of taradiddle. And yet now you tell me it really did happen. The vicar actually committed those reprehensible acts. My head is spinning, Humes."
Humes smiled, and blew concentric smoke rings in the gaslight. He was insufferably smug at times. He was the only man I had ever seen who knew how to smoke a streetlamp.
"Ah, my dear doctor, that is the fiendish genius of the scheme, and it is here that we feel the fingers of our friend Hercule Leitmotif.
"You see", he went on, his face like the harvest moon rising above the frozen turnip fields, "no doubt his agents had kept him abreast of the dubious activities of the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson. They would hardly be likely to miss such a cock pheasant as that. They would have him marked down as prime gull material."
I frowned. Well, it felt like I was frowning. Obviously, I was unable to see my face directly; - but nevertheless, I am almost certain that was what I was doing.
"All this talk of cock pheasants and gulls is beyond me, Humes: for goodness' sake explain what you are talking about", I adjured. Good grief, I had already adjured in Part I of this adventure, and here I was, adjuring again in Part VI. It was getting to be just like the old days in the Adjuring Club at Medical School. I will never forget the day I was made Adjurer General. You should have seen Blessington's face when they put the Adjurer General's Hat on my head. He had been certain that the position was his for the taking.
Shylock Humes continued to smile inscrutably like the Mona Lisa and the Buddha and Mr Chow from the Chinese Laundry combined. It was maddening, it reminded me that my Harris Tweed Duck-Shooting Outfit was still at the laundry. "My dear Flotsam, I mean to say that they would have the Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson on their list of valuable pawns.
"They will have blackmailed him into allowing Jephro Mooncalfe to impersonate him on certain of his Christmas visits to his parishioners."
"But why, Humes?" I asked.
"Is it not obvious, Flotsam?" asked Humes, his voice like the piping breeze that ruffles the feathers of the reed warbler and plays the surface of the sombre lake like an ethereal harp. "Does that not suggest anything to you?"
"I confess I am all at sea, Humes."
"Tush, Flotsam. You have studied my methods. But never mind. Let me make all clear. I have discovered that the Red Emerald was stolen from the Rottingdean Arms by Jephro Mooncalfe in the guise of Jawny Whackstraw, an itinerant chimney-sweep and bagpipes repairer.
"Leitmotif has a long reach, as you should by now be aware, and he no doubt had an agent among the servants of Lady Mandible, the Mutton Pie Heiress. Failing that, he would have some hold over certain of the hotel staff.
"Lady Mandible was carrying a bagpipes, a birthday gift for the McShagnasty of McShagnasty, with whom she was to spend a subsequent holiday. I have no doubt that it was this agent of Leitmotif's who engineered the bagpipes emergency which afforded Mooncalfe - alias Whackstraw - the ingress which he sought.
"Enter Mooncalfe with bagpipes repair kit; exit Mooncalfe with Red Emerald. It is a familiar tale, where Jephro Mooncalfe is concerned."
Still I was not satisfied. "But you have yet to explain why this Mooncalfe fellow was trying to steal the Emerald a second time, Humes", I said.
The brow of Shylock Humes was tightly knitted. I admired his sensible taste in headgear: a balaclava was the thinking man's choice in this weather. "Ah, Flotsam", he sighed. "Here we discover the weakness in their scheme. Mooncalfe passed the gem on to another agent, who passed it on to yet another, and so on.
"This is what we call the Passing On Method in the trade.
"The Red Emerald finished up in the possession of Walter Windibank, a clerk at Utterbridge & Fopjolly."
"Utterbridge & Fopjolly of Oxford Street?" I asked.
"Quite so, my dear Flotsam", confirmed Humes. "This clerk took possession of the stone and hid it inside a Christmas bauble. Of course he chose a unique item for a hiding place: a miniature glass Oscar Wilde In Gaol ornament, of which only seven were stocked. He marked the box and noted the location of the stock, and would have fancied the gem safely secreted."
"Don't tell me!", I called out. "This Windibank is yet another alias of Jephro Mooncalfe!"
"Very well, Flotsam", replied Humes. "I shall not tell you that. Walter Windibank is no alias. He is quite a study in himself. He is quite the most cold-hearted villain I have ever known to work for a major London Department Store."
I whistled. "That is saying something, Humes." Then, realising the futility of attempting to communicate with Humes by whistles alone, and finding no fellow-whistlers in that inky-shadowed street, I resolved to try again, using words this time.
"That is saying something, Humes", I said, using words this time. "There are some real crooks in these stores. The trouble I have had buying storage jars for the fruit-bottling. The prices they charge. Only the other..."
"This is no time to be talking about the price of storage jars, Flotsam", said Humes. "These are deep waters.
"As I was saying", said Humes, his ominous voice like the solitary rook perched upon the crippled wheelbarrow at Michaelmas, "Windibank concealed the Red Emerald within a box of Christmas baubles, in the belief that he would have plenty of time to retrieve it before the decorations found their way onto the shelf. Unfortunately for these criminals, and fortunately for those of us who work in the cause of Justice, there was an unexpected rush on baubles at the store, mainly due to the fire at their rivals, Quimber & Gamp, which destroyed a large part of the rivals' stocks.
"The box of baubles containing the Red Emerald was sold while Windibank was out stocktaking at a Unicorn Street warehouse."
I began to glimpse the dreadful truth. "I begin to glimpse the dreadful truth, Humes", I said. "Mooncalfe impersonated the vicar in a desperate attempt to discover the household that had bought the box of baubles containing the Emerald."
"Quite so, Flotsam", confirmed Humes. "How you scintillate tonight. Windibank no doubt combed the ledgers to ascertain the addresses of the customers who had purchased these kinds of baubles, and passed the details on to Mooncalfe.
"The pantomime of the goosing vicar was the result. Mooncalfe has been visiting all the purchasers. The goosings have been a mere blind, to distract the victims and afford our friend an opportunity to scour their Christmas trees in search of the particular bauble.
"He would be able to tell by the merest touch that the bauble contained the Emerald."
"Mrs Dudson didn't buy the Oscar Wilde decoration", I said, as the truth continued to flood in like a, well, like a flood of truth. "She was quite disgusted by it, in fact. That is why she was not goosed."
I blew a sharp breath into the harsh night air. "What damnable villainy, Humes!" I hissed. "To use an innocent Christmas bauble and innocent domestic happiness in such a fashion is quite appalling."
"These are the men we are about to confront", said Humes, his mouth set tight. The ventriloquial talents of my friend knew no bounds. "They think nothing of misusing the trappings of simple family pleasure for their infamous ends. I shall not rest until I have struck a blow for Justice and the innocent Christmas bauble.
"But soft, Flotsam! Here, unless I am mistaken, is the good Inspector. At last we shall have our denouement, and an episode full of action."
"Thank God!" I cried. No doubt our 'episode full of action' would prove to be an absurd, Alice In Wonderland farce, but that did not signify. Anything rather than yet another dreadful episode of conversational back-story.