My friend Shylock Humes and I were crouching on the lawn of the villa of Colonel Clavicord, late of the Bengal Dancers, waiting for our friends from Scotland Yard to gather their forces for the final push into the villa, where it was my fervent hope that we would at last encounter the denouement of The Adventure Of The Missing Christmas Goose.
Shylock Humes turned to me. In order to do this, he had had to turn full circle, since he had already been facing me before he began to turn. He had already been facing me because he had been explaining why he had only just turned full circle a minute before this latest 360 degree revolution. Therefore, I had no need of a new explanation, being confident that it was a matter of my friend's penchant for the dramatic.
Humes' face bore a look of sudden sadness. "My dear Flotsam", he said, his voice full of dolour, "I am full of dolour at this moment."
"What?" I asked. "Has that rich New England relative passed away and left you some money?"
Humes shook his head like Mark Antony standing over Caesar's corpse. "Alas, no, my friend. I am full of dolour because I fear that this will be the last adventure of Shylock Humes and Doctor Flotsam."
I was flabbergasted. "But Humes..." I spluttered.
Wiping his face with his spotted handkerchief, Shylock Humes interrupted me. "Say no more, Flotsam. Let me say only that, though Shylock Humes may not survive this denouement, his spirit will most definitely live on, and that there are sure to be further adventures for you and a future partner."
My attempt at an expostulation was stayed by the spotted handkerchief, which was waved in the air like the signal flags on HMS Victory before the Battle of Trafalgar. I could not make out the message, but, understanding its gist, I said nothing.
"Also, please remember this, my dear friend: though it may appear that we have failed in our enterprise, it is usual for the darkest hour to usher the dawn in."
With these cryptic words ringing in my ear, Humes beckoned me to follow him, and we moved to join the policemen who were spilling onto the lawn.
I remember thinking: "how stupid of them to be carrying cups of tea while they climb over a wall in the dark; no wonder they are spilling on the lawn." Curious are the thoughts that go through one's mind when you are poised on the cusp of a denouement.
Humes told Inspectors Arbuthnot Williams and Livingstone Stanley to wait outside until they should hear three blasts on the police whistle which he had secreted about him. "Ah", I thought, "that accounts for the stains."
Then without further ado, my amazing friend came across to me and hissed "follow me" in a voice like the call of an assassin in the Hindu Kush. While I was in the Hindu Kush, I never worked out why those assassins used to say that. Perhaps they were trying to lull their victims into a false sense of security. Also, the people of the Hindu Kush were always looking for leadership, and would follow anybody. That might explain it. Still, this was no time for wool-gathering.
"Flotsam", croaked Humes, like the Sumatran river-frog, "you will need all your wits about you tonight. This is no time for wool-gathering."
I followed Humes around the side of the house, until we came to a conservatory. He stopped here, and turned to me again. This time, thankfully, he did not have to describe a complete circle, though there was a decided elegant flourish in his semi-circle. "Now, Flotsam, before we go in, do you have any questions?"
"Well Humes", I said. "One thing is troubling me."
"Only one?" Humes asked, ironically, his face bearing a sardonic grin.
"Well", I replied. "Those statuettes on the lawn, on which you set such store."
"Yes. What of them?"
"Well, one would not expect to see statuettes outside on a lawn. One would normally see statuettes inside. Surely it is normal to see statues on a lawn."
"Flotsam!" cried Humes. "You scintillate tonight. You have perceived what neither of the Inspectors was able to discern."
"Thank you, Humes", I said. "But what is the explanation?"
"There are eight possible explanations", said Humes, as he examined the conservatory glass. "However, it is most likely that pygmies are involved."
"Pygmies?" I said, open-mouthed, which was not easy to do. "Pygmies, in London, at Christmas?"
"Ah, Flotsam", explained Humes. "We live in a time of change. London is infested by sea-urchins, and moles fleeing the impoverished soils of the West Country. Our redoubtable cockney poor are being forced to diversify in their efforts to earn a crust. We, too, my friend, are facing criminal masterminds whose purview and domain are spread about the globe like a flea-infested counterpane."
I shuddered, remembering the flea-infested counterpanes of my preparatory school on the Somerset Levels.
Humes continued, digging up the ground with a collapsible trowel he had taken from his pocket. "Pygmies, I am certain, if my researches at the East India Docks are any guide."
He finished digging, and pulled a filthy sack out of the ground. It would have been remarkable if it had not been filthy, given the state of that soil.
"I concealed this tool-bag here the other night", he explained. "This, Flotsam, will be our means of entry to this den of thieves", he added, standing up with an effort. Putting the effort to one side, he said, turning to me (a mere quarter circle turn this time, his extravagance clearly being curtailed by the growing tension):
"Now, my dear friend. You know how important details are to me?"
"Of course, Humes", I replied.
"Detail is of the essence", he said. "I must ask you to follow my every instruction to the letter..."
"Oh no, Humes!" I gasped. "Do not ask me to write any letters tonight, for I fear I have not brought my pen and ink. And as for stationery..."
The face of Shylock Humes was like that of Sitting Bull hearing another of Buffalo Bill's wigwam jokes. "This is no time to be talking about stationery, Flotsam", he hissed. Surely he was not developing a laryngitis? "You must promise me that you will be exact in your adherence to my every instruction. As you love me, Flotsam, this you must do."
"Of course, my friend!", I cried, emotion catching my throat. "My regard for you would not permit otherwise."
Humes smiled a thin smile. "Very good. I thought I knew my Flotsam. Then, so be it. Follow me and do whatever I say."
He began to cut a circle of glass from the conservatory door. Clearly, burglary was our game. "Damn this glass", he exclaimed, almost cutting his hand.
"I am afraid we have not achieved an auspicious beginning", I remarked. "I will not be able to fulfil that particular instruction. Surely it is only the Almighty who is able to do actual damning. Now, I could swear at it, but, seeing as how you have already..."
The look of my friend cut short my observation and left me in no doubt as to the inappropriate nature of levity at this juncture.
Then we were in. We made our way through the conservatory, marvelling at the profusion of tropical plants and the tropical heat in there, no doubt sustained by the remarkable arrangement of heating pipes threaded everywhere.
We emerged into a corridor. Shylock Humes clearly knew the layout of this dwelling already. He gestured to me to follow him and we crept along the corridor until we came to a green door. The door was locked, but Humes soon had it picked, and we entered.
The room had no lighting, so we left the door ajar, to benefit from the gas in the corridor. We were in a sort of store-room, in which were arrayed a host of costumes, as if in preparation for a fancy-dress ball or a theatre production.
I read several of the labels: "Lord Nielson"; "Mr Gladstein"; "Charles Dockins"; "Florence Passenger-Pigeon"; "Jonathan Slow"; "The Vulnerable Bede"; "The Emperor Adrian"; "Napoleon Blownapart". I shook my head. "What does all this nonsense mean?" I whispered.
"'The Convention of Not Quite Correct Things'" whispered Humes. "Since Colonel Clavicord was in the Bengal Dancers, it is natural that he should hold a Fancy Dress Ball when he hosts the convention."
Humes searched among the costumes. "Here, Flotsam", he hissed. "You must put on this costume."
"Sir Lancealittle?" I queried. "I am not sure I like that."
Humes smiled. "I should think it quite appropriate. As a doctor, you have no doubt had occasion to use a lance. And what is more, this suit of armour will provide an excellent means of concealement. It will fit over your clothing too."
"What about you?" I asked, as I put on the armour and adjusted my sword and mace. There was no lance, not even a little one, but I supposed that was in keeping with the conventions of the convention.
"I have no need of a disguise, my dear Flotsam", said Shylock Humes. "I shall go to the ball as myself."
I was knocked sideways. I was having the devil of a job balancing in the armour. The mace was playing havoc with my equilibrium. "But Humes!" I gasped. "Surely the danger..."
"I am no stranger to danger", rhymed Humes, with what I judged to be inopportune catchpenny facility. "Danger is my stock in trade. My Huguenot ancestors were in the stocking trade."
I could not argue with history, but I was not happy with these attempts at humour. Surely the bad jokes were my province. However, it was typical of the quicksilver genius that was my friend Shylock Humes, to be confounding my expectations at this critical juncture. I recalled the time he had stood on his head at the critical Kensington and North London Junction, where Mr Harley Davidson's decapitated body was found, in The Adventure Of The Bryce Hartington Prams.
But before I could comment, Humes was away down the corridor again. I followed as best I could, peering through my visor, like a man who had fallen into a letterbox.
It was all I could do to keep up with Humes, who seemed hell-bent on getting somewhere as fast as possible, as we sped along what I took to be the servant's corridors. Caution and stealth seemed to have gone out of the window.
Closing the window, Humes said. "The time for action is nigh, friend Flotsam. The ballroom is at the end of the next corridor. As soon as we enter, you must merge into the crowd. Stay at the periphery of the gathering. You must leave me to do what I have to do. Simply observe. Is that clear?"
"As clear as daylight", I answered. "But what are you going to do?"
"I shall confront the villains head-on", said Humes. "Remember, whatever you do, you must not give away your identity. No matter what you see, no matter what appears to happen, you must be secreted. Do I have your word?"
"Of course, Humes" I said, through my visor. "But to be secreted inside this armour will surely become uncomfortable with no means of wiping away. Nevertheless, I shall do my best."
"Remember my friend", Humes urged. "However dangerous and intrepid appears my course, yours is the vital role in this. It is vital that you endure, undiscovered, until our friends the police break in."
I nodded, and nearly broke my neck. The helmet was so heavy."Very well, Humes", I agreed.
We passed the length of the next corridor, and entered the ballroom. A pair of bewigged flunkeys paid us little heed as we passed through the doorway.
It was a chaotic scene that I encountered in that ballroom. Able to hear but dimly, and able to see only through the slit of my visor, I obeyed the instructions of my friend and made my way to stand by one of the walls, next to a Pantomime Duck and an Afghan Sailor. For a villa, this seemed to be an impressively-large room, with a marbled ceiling and a chandelier in the centre of the floor, about which a host of ludicrously-costumed dancers whirled like dervishes in what might have been a devilish travesty of the Gay Gordons (I could not be sure; the Pantomime Duck was in the way of my visor). The orchestra - bassoon, bugle and jew's harp - kept up an ethereal, formless, entrancing sound quite unlike any I had heard before, even when I lived in Norfolk.
It was then that I caught sight of Shylock Humes. I heard a noise like an argument, with shouts and screams. I looked up, as best I could, and spied a balcony above the dancefloor. There I saw my friend wrestling with two Pantomime Walruses. With my heart in my mouth (I wished that I had left the sandwiches alone) I watched helplessly, mindful of my instructions, as Humes grappled with the grotesque Pantomime creatures.
Though I had every confidence in my extraordinary friend, and knew better than to question his judgement, it was increasingly clear that all was not going well with him. The Walruses were prevailing. Humes was being thrown against the balcony rail, repeatedly. At every moment, the rails threatened to break, with the most dreadful consequences.
I could only look on. "Humes", I mouthed, dearly wishing that I could rush to the aid of my dear friend. "For God's sake, Humes!"
And then it was that I saw what I can only describe as the most appalling thing I have ever seen. Shylock Humes was leaning against the balcony rail, clearly in a desperate struggle to get his breath. It was obvious that he was looking for a way to escape the clutches of the twin Walrus menace. He glanced forlornly down into the dancing throng. Was he looking for me? I could only peer up, in an agony of apprehension.
Then it happened. Time itself seemed to have slowed, all the better to torment me with the evil succession of events. One of the Walruses charged. Humes was squashed hideously against the railing. The rails splintered and broke like matchwood. Several flew out into the air like broken spears. Shylock Humes, his arms flailing in the yellow light, as if he was trying to fly (and for a split second of hope against hope I really did will him to take wing), Shylock Humes, the greatest and the most brilliant man I had ever known, fell with no more dignity than a cast off rag doll.
The effect was instant. The music - that hypnotic, nightmarish music - was silenced. The dancers ceased their capers. There was a surge back, and outward. We were pushed up against the refreshment tables. Glasses shattered. I glimpsed the poor, broken form of Shylock Humes on the floor, surrounded by a menacing wave of hideous costumed monstrosities. Then they surged forward again, and rounded on him.
They cried, as one, as if they were one many-legged beast, and they trod, and stamped, and crushed the life out of Shylock Humes. Caught inexorably in the mad rush, I found myself spinning, and falling.
Unable to help myself, unable to breathe, blind with panic, I hurtled into darkness.