When I opened my eyes I saw red coals, licking flames. My left leg was burning. Above me, giant faces loomed; they were contorted hideously. Had I truly descended to hell?
I had not. I looked about me. I was in the sitting room at 221b Candlestick Maker Street. The faces were those of Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley and - my God! - could it really be my friend Shylock Humes? I moaned, and stirred in my armchair.
"My dear Flotsam", soothed Humes. "Try to relax, old chap. Here, have some brandy. Take your time. You have had quite a shock."
I stared at him, scarcely able to believe my own eyes. "But Humes!" I gasped. "This is too much for me to...I cannot..."
"It's all right, my friend", he said, softly. "I know Albanian brandy is an acquired taste, but if you persevere I think you will get used to its salty tang. The grapes are matured in crates at the dockyards, so they tell me. Yes, you do get used to it. And it is remarkably cheap. The new vintners had a job lot they wanted rid of."
"No, no, not the damned brandy!" I hissed. "Damn the brandy! It's you, you were...you...I watched them. You..."
"Yes, I know", said Humes.
"Have you told Mrs Dudson?"
"Yes, of course, I saw her when I arrived. She saw through the disguise right away."
"Did she, er, faint, like I did?"
"No, she did not faint. She threw one of her rock cakes at me. I fear we shall need the builders to look at that wall. I will ask them about if ever they come back to take down all this scaffolding left over from when they dismantled my brown study."
"We thought you had been killed, for God's sake!"
"Yes, yes, Flotsam", said Humes. "Please try to relax. All will be revealed in time. Now what say you we all sit down round the fire like we always do after a case, you, me and Inspector Livingstone Stanley here. What say you we all have a good old smoke together, perhaps a sip of brandy, while I expound on my conclusions and amaze the pair of you with my deductions?"
He smiled. "Hmm, Flotsam? What say you to that, eh?"
With that, he filled his old clay pipe with Nelson's Navy Cut Extra Rough Shag tobacco, lit it, and then, cursing himself for a fool, knocked the pipe out against the mantlepiece (using his trademark left hook), lit the tobacco, and began to puff away like Stephenson's Rocket on the Stockton To Darlington Line.
"Livingstone Stanley", he said. "Pull up a chair and help yourself to brandy and a cigar."
Then Shylock Humes settled down in his armchair like the dragon lizard basking in the midday sun of the Sumatran Islands. He blew out great draughts of blue smoke, that rose, to hang about the ceiling like the gathered stormclouds of the Oklahoma Plains.
Living with Shylock Humes certainly opened up fresh horizons for a man. Where else could you experience the exotic Dutch East Indies and the central plains of the United States of America, all from the comfort of your armchair? Every home should have one, I mused, before remembering why I was there.
"And now, gentlemen", began Humes, "you will no doubt be anxious to hear all about..."
"I thought you were dead, you know." I said, bitterly.
"Flotsam?" he asked, his voice wavering.
"I thought you were dead. I stood there, helpless, while I saw what I thought was my dearest friend meet a dreadful end."
"Yes, I know, my dear chap, but that is what I am trying to..."
"For three days I lay in my sick bed. I went to hell and back. I thought I was plunging to Pandaemonium. I thought you were dead."
Livingstone Stanley cleared his throat and stared at the Turkey carpet, no doubt wondering why we had a carpet with pictures of turkeys all over it.
"Please, my friend", said Humes, in those beseching tones he always used when he knew he was in the wrong. "If you'll only allow me a few minutes, I shall make all well again. Hmm, my friend?"
"Three days I lay there. For three days and nights my poor wife was forced to keep vigil by my sickbed. For three days she had to sit there and read Morte D'Arthur by Tennyson. Have you the slightest idea what three days of Tennyson can do to a woman?"
"No, no, I fear not", said Humes, his face downcast.
"I'm sure you do not", I snapped. "But then, why should you? It wouldn't be germane to the case, now, would it, to take account of the feelings of those closest to you."
Humes looked up. "No, Flotsam, you are quite in error. I..."
I shook my head. "Pawns. That is what we are. I am a pawn in your great chess games."
"Dear fellow, you have suffered dreadfully", Humes said, staring at me. "I own that I have used you wrongly. I..."
"It's like The Adventure Of The Apostle Spoons all over again. I was locked in that cutlery cupboard for 36 hours. After that, I couldn't bear the sight of a teaspoon or a toast-rack for weeks. I had to eat my breakfast blindfolded."
"Yes, old chap, I know. But I..."
"And then there was The Adventure Of The Boiled Gamekeeper. Remember that? Of course you do. I had to pretend to be a scarecrow and stand in a ploughed field all night. Your idea of a scarecrow, that is. I was pecked to death. And all you could do was tell me off because I couldn't identify the vicar's tartan."
"Please, no more, my dear chap", Humes pleaded. "In a moment, I shall make all clear, and we will have another success for the annals, eh, my friend? Another story for the Stroud Magazine, hmm? What do you think of that? Another classic from the pen of Doctor James Flotsam? Can you forgive me, Flotsam? Am I forgiven?"
"And how can we forget The Adventure Of The Exploding Butler, another success for Shylock Humes. You were so busy explaining your amazing deductions to the police that you forgot I was still wedged up the kitchen chimney. It was only when the cook lit the fire that anyone realised I was there."
Shylock Humes sat up. He was already sitting down, so he couldn't do that. Up it was then. "Then I am not forgiven. My dear friend, perhaps that is because I do not deserve your forgiveness. But please believe, my friend, that your company is worth more to me than all the cases in the world. I should be truly lost without my biographer and assistant."
He poked the fire. Sparks danced in the grate. The flames crackled. The clock - long ago stopped - did not tick. Again, the cry echoed outside: "Mutton Pies, Mutton Pies, Fresh Last Week!" Shylock Humes spoke again, his voice pierced the tobacco smoke like the song of the Tibetan monk at his prayer wheel (the monks were notorious for their chain-smoking habits):
"My dear Flotsam, I know that you are the most long-suffering man in London. But please understand. There was no other way. Had there been another way, I should have taken it. Do you think I would have put you through all this if there had been? In the service of Justice I have had to do these things. To my eternal regret I have been forced to injure those who are most dear to me."
He began to smoke again. Now that he was acting like the great martyr in the cause of Justice, I knew that there would be no use in persisting with my attempts to make him see the human side of things.
I harrumphed in my chair. That would be the mutton curry from last night. "Very well, Humes. Of course I am overjoyed to see you alive and well. But can you say that you would never do such a thing again?"
"It will not happen again. Unless there is no alternative."
"Look, Humes", I said. "Of course I know why you do these things. It's just that you are so damned ruthless at times."
Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley cleared his throat again and looked at his watch. "Mr Humes, Dr Flotsam", he said. "I think we need to be getting down to business. There is a lot of pressure on us at Scotland Yard about this matter."
"Of course, Inspector, of course", said Humes. "With the doctor's permission?"
I waved my hand.
"Very well. As I think I said to you, Flotsam, in the four-wheeler, I had solved the problem before we left these rooms on that fateful night. I had been working day and night for a week on this case, and my researches had begun well before that.
"And it was through the invaluable work of my many agents that I was able to make the key breakthroughs."
"Agents?" asked the Inspector. "What agents?"
Humes grinned. "You met one or two of them yourselves, gentlemen."
I sat up. "You mean those cockneys we saw in the vile alley. Some of the cockneys who have been forced to diversify in the present economic climate. What was the name of that fellow, Peter Pickle, Peter Pepper?"
"Peter Pickett", said Humes. "Peter Pickett the pickpocket and picket-fencer. Yes, Flotsam, how you scintillate again, you are quite your old self again. These fellows know every inch of this great city, and there is little they will not do, when it comes to diversification, if you see what I mean."
"Oh I see what you mean, Mr Humes", said Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley. "No wonder you get results that we can only dream about."
"Ha!" laughed Humes. "There are other reasons for that, Inspector! But let me continue to expound."
"Like a great peacock", I thought, looking at him. But I said nothing. This episode had already used up 1800 words and we were no wiser as to the solution of the mystery. Humes continued to expound.
"You see, when I had established - through the sterling work of several of my out of town agents - 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, I knew there must be a Scottish connection."
My brows were knitted. Why was I wearing a balaclava indoors. No wonder I was sweating. Taking off the balaclava, I said: "why should there be a Scottish connection?"
Humes nodded. "A very good question, Flotsam. It was one I asked myself. 'Why should there be a Scottish connection?' I asked myself. And, of course, the answer is obvious." He puffed on his pipe.
Livingstone Stanley and I exchanged glances. We also exchanged shrugs. It was a pleasant change to try on another man's shrugs for a time.
"Obvious to you, perhaps", said the Inspector, "but to nobody else, I'll wager."
"Gambling is a dangerous pastime, Inspector!" cried Humes. "But is it not simplicity itself? Hmm?" He shook his head. "Ah well, let me explain. You see, while it is quite natural for Mooncalfe to invent a character who is a chimney-sweep, or a gardner, or a ratcatcher, for example, it is quite another matter to set himself up as a bagpipes-repairer, of whom there are a mere 5 in the whole of the South of England. Six, if you count Jawny Whackstraw, which, of course I do not, having had a most fruitful conversation with the Worshipful Guild of Bagpipes-Repairers."
"So they told you this fellow wasn't a real bagpipes-repairer?" I asked.
"No, they told me he was."
"What?" I asked, in astonishment. "Then, how...?"
Shylock Humes crowed like the Chicken God of The Utsi-Tutsis. "Ha! My letter had been intercepted by minions of Hercule Leitmotif, and it was from those scoundrels that the corroborating letter was sent forth. I could tell from an examination of the writing-paper; it did not have the watermark of the Worshipful Guild of Bagpipes-Repairers.
"Once I had discovered that deception, I was but twelve further deductions away from realising that Whackstraw was no genuine bagpipes-repairer."
"But surely you knew that already?" I persisted. "You knew that was a mere alias of Mooncalfe. Why pursue such a rigmarole?"
"Why indeed?" asked Livingstone Stanley. "Surely the simple explanation was right in front of you."
Humes shook his head, sadly. "Yes, yes, I knew that, of course. Of course there was a simple course lying before me. But we were in deep waters here. These are complex villains. Their chicaneries know no bounds. It was only by following all these tangled threads to their roots, that I could establish why Mooncalfe should have chosen to pose as a bagpipes-repairer."
"Because Lady Mandible was going to visit the McShagnasty of McShagnasty!" I cried.
"Bravo, Flotsam! You hit the nail square on. Mooncalfe stole the jewel from the Lady's jewel-case and inserted it into the bagpipes that she intended to take to Scotland to present to the McShagnasty of McShagnasty."
"The bagpipes that another of Leitmotif's agents had punctured, in order to provide an excuse for the impostor bagpipes-repairer who was really a jewel-thief to enter Lady Mandible's rooms", I said.
"Quite so, Flotsam", said Humes.
"Well", said Livingstone Stanley. "It all seems very simple now, when you put it like that."
"Alas", sighed Humes. "I fear that my poor reputation shall suffer shipwreck when I explain myself too readily" he whined.
"You've already used that one in this adventure, Humes", I whispered. "But if you carry on expounding quickly enough, the reader will never notice. Not that anyone reads this rubbish anyway, but that is another tale for a winter's fireside."
"Thank you, Flotsam", said Humes. "Now, the Honourable McShagnasty of McShagnasty is a gentleman who has graced my files with his presence for a while. It was a simple matter to link him with the movement of such a bauble as this.
"So then I had the scheme laid out before me. Mooncalfe inserted the Red Emerald into the bagpipes. The bagpipes were to go to the McShagnasty of McShagnasty, and the McShagnasty of McShagnasty would pass them - or their valuable contents - to another minion of Hercule Leitmotif, the puppet-master of the whole production."
"How then did you get hold of the gem?" asked the Inspector, as Humes refilled his glass.
Humes laughed heartily. "Oh, it was delicious, Inspector, even though I say so myself. Unbeknown to Mooncalfe, the very agent who had punctured the bagpipes to facilitate his entry as the spurious bagpipes-repairer was in fact one of my very own agents!"
"A double-agent, in fact", I said.
"Exactly, Flotsam", confirmed Humes. "As soon as Mooncalfe had left the Rottingdean Arms, my agent substituted this very bagpipes that we have here for the original one containing the gem. Instead of receiving the original, complete with jewel, the McShagnasty of McShagnasty was to receive a bagpipes containing a copy of my celebrated monograph Upon The Utility Of Disguises In The Work Of The Counter-Spy."
Humes clapped his hands in delight. "If only I could have seen the face of the Honourable McShagnasty of McShagnasty when he received a set of bagpipes labelled A Present From The McBagpipe Of McBagpipe and containing my celebrated monograph.
"But of course it will never happen. My agent subsequently made a further substitution, and swapped the contents of the instruments, and these very bagpipes were sent to me."
"But that cannot be true", I said. "Those bagpipes have been here ever since The Adventure Of The Untossed Caber. They have never left this building in that time."
Humes smiled again. "I had the McBagpipe Of McBagpipe send me a duplicate bagpipes, my dear Flotsam. Isn't it wonderful?" He blew smoke rings in sheer glee. Why he smoked sheer glee, I could never understand. I suppose it was cheaper than tobacco.
"Well, Mr Humes", said Inspector Livingstone Stanley, "I've known you handle a good many cases, Sir, but I don't think I ever saw a more workmanlike job than that. We're not jealous of you at Scotland Yard, you know. No, Sir, we're proud of you, and if you want to come down to the Yard tomorrow morning, there's not a man, from the lowest constable right up to..."
Waves of nausea began to flood through my body. "Inspector", I interrupted, "we've already had that speech fifteen times in the last seven adventures. Please stop there. It only makes him even more insufferable than he already is. He'll be up all night taking cocaine and playing the violin. Mrs Dudson won't get a wink of sleep.
"Besides, we haven't heard the rest of it, yet. All this business of the pygmies, the statuettes, - not to mention his resurrection from the dead. I am all ears."
Humes grimaced. "Good old Flotsam, you are the one fixed point in a changing world, though, in the matter of ears, I think you are being a trifle harsh. I think it is Inspector Stanley Livingstone Stanley who wins the prize in the ear department." Then settling back into his chair and puffing on his old clay pipe, he told us what we were waiting to hear.
"The whole business of the goosings and the idea that the Red Emerald had been secreted within a Christmas Bauble: this, I had soon discovered, was a mere smokescreen, set up deliberately to distract us from the truth. My researches in the East India Docks and at Rotherhithe over the last month or two having confirmed to me that Hercule Leitmotif and his master, the esteemed Professor Morris Varty, were importing pygmy sculptors from various African nations in an attempt to flood the country with miniature statues and corner the market for themselves with their captive labour force" (here he paused for breath, in case you are wondering whether he possessed the circular breathing skills of a saxophone player); "my researches having confirmed that much, as soon as I saw the statuettes on the lawn of Colonel Clavicord's villa (I was in the area on quite another errand when I first espied them), I knew that this must be one of the headquarters of the organisation.
"This ludicrous Convention of Not Quite Correct Things was of course the perfect cover for their clandestine meetings. And thus it was that - though I had already achieved my goal as far as retrieving the Red Emerald went (which was as far as from here to Rottingdean and back) - I saw the perfect opportunity to mount an assault upon this bastion of subtle villainy and cast our net about the nest of vipers.
"I knew that Leitmotif, and several of their so-called "Cabinet", had visited the villa, you see. The devilish thing was, that neither Colonel Clavicord himself, nor the genuine visitors to the Convention, were themselves involved in any way. It was as subtle as that."
"Well, then, Humes", I said. "Tell us, what exactly did I see that night?"
Shylock Humes smiled. "My dear chap, I owe you a thousand apologies, but I trust you will see the necessity for what had to be done. When we entered the building, you and I, I had every intention of identifying as many of the villains as I was able, and then bringing in the police immediately. You were there as a witness, and there is no man more suited for that most honourable role.
"But as soon as we stepped into the ballroom, I knew that was impossible. I sensed the atmosphere straight away. The behaviour of the crowd was unnatural. As soon as we parted, I realised two things. One, the air had been tainted with an ordeal poison used by the shaman of certain East African tribes (my agents had retrieved samples of this from some of the pygmies previously). Two, there was no way that we could remain in there and keep our senses. They were clearly attempting to infect the brains of the dancers. Why, I do not know. Perhaps it was a form of hypnosis, to ensure loyalty. Who knows?
"But here I must apologise, my dear Flotsam. For I knew that I must get away from the floor of that room, and escape the drug. I could not fetch you without drawing attention to ourselves. I was forced to leave you in that crowd."
I frowned, shocked once again by the machine-like efficiency of my friend, who could hold brilliance and ruthless selfishness together in the one unique nature.
Humes was continuing. "I was able to pass from the ballroom unobserved, and to make one or two fruitful visitations to various rooms of the building. The fruits of my visits will be of interest to Scotland Yard, I am certain.
"However, and it is time to get to the point, it was Jephro Mooncalfe, dressed as myself, that you saw fall from that balcony, my dear Flotsam. It was one of their little jokes for the evening to have 'Mr Shylock Humes' there. I had learned also that Mr Mooncalfe's next starring role was to be that of a certain Private Consulting Detective. They knew I was on to them, and they meant to ruin me.
"That knowledge is my justification, Inspector, for what happened next. I had several agents in that house that night. Two of them were dressed as walruses. It was those two who, in an attempt to apprehend Jephro Mooncalfe, succeeded only in hurling him to the floor from the balcony.
"Not that that killed him. It was the crowd, roused to act as one ravening beast by the influence of the drug, who completed that task.
"Horrified as I was by this, I saw that here was an opportunity for me. You see, Leitmotif and Morris Varty were not content to leave my demise to the doubtful ministrations of Jephro Mooncalfe, who would no doubt do for me what he did for the unfortunate Reverend Sputum-Wilkinson.
"No. They have used their lawyer connections (and do not doubt their influence over some of the greatest law-firms in the land) to set up such a web of legal writ, that Mr Shylock Humes will not be able to stay in England and survive it."
We were aghast. "What do you mean" gasped Livingstone Stanley, aghast. I also gasped, aghast. I had yet to get used to the gas Humes had had laid on recently.
"I mean that they have done for Shylock Humes, legally-speaking, Inspector", said Humes, like the Cockerel of The Apocalypse crowing at the Dawn of Doom. "They have enmeshed me in such a network of webs and nets that I am utterly webbed and netted."
"But this cannot be!" I cried.
"It can be, my friend!", cried Humes. "They have connections at the very summits of power. They cannot be gainsaid.
"I say again", he said, again, "again, they cannot be gainsaid."
"Then what can we do?" I asked. "There must be something."
"There is a way out of it, gentlemen", said Humes, "but it does mean that very thing which I warned you about that night, my dear Flotsam.
"It means the end of Shylock Humes."
The Inspector and I merely gaped, on tenterhooks. It was a strange feeling, I had never gaped on tenterhooks before. I had gaped on a bicycle once, and there was that other time, where I gaped on an omnibus, but tenterhooks were fresh territory to me. It was an odd feeling, painful but exciting. It reminded me of school.
Humes laughed out loud. If he had laughed silently, he might have done himself an injury, so I was glad he let it all out. "No, my friends, do not look so worried! I am not about to blow my brains out, or leave the country. I would not wish to benefit the criminal classes so!
"I shall go on as before. It is only Shylock Humes who must vanish from the face of the Earth."
"You mean...?" I asked, open-mouthed, which is never easy.
"I mean, Flotsam, that their legal documents are watertight, insofar as they pertain to an individual named Shylock Humes. However, they cannot be said, or be said to be, or be made to say, or to be gainsaid, or, to be said to be gainsaid to say, hereinunder or heretofore or hereafter, in any way, shape or form, in connection with an individual who rejoices in the name of Mr Porlock Soames."
Finding my brandy glass empty, I picked up the bottle and drank greedily from its neck. "Don't tell me you have changed your name, Humes!" I cried, as the Albanian brandy scorched my throat.
"The name is Soames, my friend. You must get used to it. After all, what is a name? A mere convention. What is reality but a matter of relative perceptions in a given configuration of space and time. Humes, or Soames, what does it matter? My brother Pycroft has organised everything, and is happy to take on his new surname in the cause of Justice."
We sat in silence. It was very similar to the sitting-room, only quieter. We mulled over the extraordinary developmnents of the last few days. It was unfortunate that we had spilled the mulled wine over our notes, but we had been very excited.
I tried to absorb this latest bolt from the blue, that my extraordinary friend had provided. It was very hard to grasp. It was like the shifting sands of the Great Araby Deserts, or the beach at Cromer.
But that was my friend Shylock Humes all over. The difference this time was, now it really was all over for Shylock Humes.