In the year 1878 I took my degree of Doctor of Hatmaking from the University of Budleigh Salterton, and proceeded to Aldeburgh to undergo the course prescribed for surgeons in the Secret Service.
Finding that I was refused entry to the students' quarters at Aldeburgh on account of the possession of an invalid degree in Hatmaking, I made my way back to Budleigh Salterton in a huff (the huff was cheaper than the train for an impoverished student carrying an invalid degree) and exchanged the dubious Hatmaking degree for my genuine Degree of Doctor of Medicine.
Then - pausing only to complain to the Budleigh Salterton Board of Examiners about their gross inefficiency - I made my way back to Aldeburgh by train (I had no further need of the huff, now that I was in possession of the correct degree, and could afford to travel in some style), there to take up my advanced studies.
On the way back to Aldeburgh, I recalled the words of my old Latin Master at Brent Knoll School, on the Somerset Levels, where I spent my formative years wondering why they had built a school on the site of an Iron Age hill fort. 'Stick to Oxford and Cambridge, boys', he used to advise, 'for these new universities are not to be trusted. One may as well take a Degree in Hatmaking or Owl Husbandry.'
The memory gave me pause more than once. With that, and the appalling rail service, it was midnight before I reached Aldeburgh station. The final journey to Aldeburgh College by dog cart was wearisome and cramped, since I was obliged to share the cart with five newfoundlands, a bloodhound, two sheepdogs and a bull terrier.
As inconvenient as this episode was to a young man anxious to get along in the world, it did at least provide me with an intriguing story to tell my new colleagues and acquaintances at Aldeburgh. Because of this, 'Hatter' Flotsam quickly gained a reputation as a fascinating companion. I was never short of invitations to dinner parties, croquet tournaments or 'plant the headless cadavre in the Bursar's bed' evenings.
Having completed my studies at Aldeburgh, I was attached to the Cryptographic Executive at Cuckfield in Sussex, which was housed in the former residence of the palaeontologist and denture pioneer Gideon Mantle, historian of the wooden palates of Ancient Japan and inventor of the Patent Leather Ventilated Clasp.
After six months at Mandible House, there was little I did not know about cryptography: in those days you could take me to a crypt and I could draw up a graph in minutes. In my spare time I explored the house and learned much about the history of dentures in general and of the work of the Etruscan dentists in particular. All this provided me with an excellent foundation of knowledge and, once I had reminded my tutors that I was in fact at Cuckfield to specialise in medicine, I was able to embark on the correct course at last.
Auspicious as this beginning was, however, my Secret Service career was not destined to be a happy or a profitable one. The activities of the Secret Service being spread liberally throughout the Empire, it has provided the means to make the fortune of many a man, but for me, it brought nothing but misfortune and disaster.
My first posting was in Egypt. I enjoyed that posting. Posting in Egypt was very enjoyable. The post boxes were a joy to use. As far as my work was concerned, however, I was stationed by the side of the Nile. After six weeks of wondering why I was there, a messenger came with a cleft stick. Finding no message in the stick, I sent him away with a flea in his ear (our bedding was dreadfully infested). But eventually I learned that I was stationed there in order to build railway stations for the proposed Nile Railway.
It was in vain for me to protest that I was a doctor and not an engineer. It was in vain for me to question the wisdom of building railway stations before a track has been laid down. Because of the infernal business of sending messengers back and forth with cleft sticks, communication with Head Office in Khartoum was never easy. All this would have been prohibitive enough, without the challenges of obtaining the right spare parts from Britain.
Our legacy consisted of several stations in Southern Egypt that were regularly engulfed by floodwaters. Their platforms were caked in alluvial mud and their waiting rooms were occupied by crocodiles and hippopotami. They never saw a track, let alone a train. Due to the problems we had obtaining raw materials, the stations were glorified by signs such as Littleborough Junction, Upper Clotbury and Pelting Downe.
My next posting was in Malaya. That was where I posted a telegram to my parents. It read
I met a man named Trubshawe in a rented room in Malacca. In the room was a table, piled high with bottles. Beneath the table was Trubshawe, piled high with more bottles. I got no sense from him, but I discovered my orders in his hat. I was to find the renegade botanist, known as 'Mad Farquhar', who had gone native in the jungle, after abandoning the search for rubber trees which he had undertaken under an undertaking undertaken on behalf of the British Rubber Foundation. Having had this rubber undertaking rebound on them, the British Rubber Foundation were keen to have 'Mad Farquhar' apprehended, before he revealed the location of the rubber trees to the Dutch.
I embarked with two native bearers named Binbag and Bangbang. They accompanied me as far as the outskirts of Malacca before they realised that they had misunderstood the nature of my undertaking. They were pall bearers and had been expecting to be involved in a funeral procession.
Pressing on alone, I eventually discovered Farquhar's last encampment, deep in the Malay jungle. All that was left of 'Mad Farquhar' was his khaki shorts and pith helmet. He may have been mad, but he was also a genius, and had studied the local flora and fauna such as orchids, rubber plants and Indochinese Amphibious Mole-Ferrets.
Farquhar had made extensive notes on all these flora and fauna. Unfortunately, he had not made any notes on paper, and his specimens had not survived long in the heat and humidity of the Malay jungle.
Farquhar's notes would have been an exciting find, and would have rendered my expedition triumphant, but it was as a broken man that I made my way back to Malacca, my spirit burdened and my body racked by jungle fever.
I rested for a week and then I had a debriefing meeting with Trubshawe. I met him at the 'Clouded Leopard Club' this time, in a rented bedroom. Here I discovered Trubshawe upside down in a wardrobe, beneath another pile of bottles. A brace of Malay prostitutes were counting his money. He had already been debriefed.
I was next dispatched to Shanghai and sailed one misty Thursday morning on a slow boat disguised as a Mandarin-speaking cormorant-trainer, but, falling prey during the passage to the Purple Formosa Corruption, I was put off at Saigon to recuperate.
I quickly found Saigon inimical to any hope of recovery, and within a fortnight I had been invalided home, my health irreversibly altered and my nature indelibly marked by my experiences. My sojourn in the Secret Service was over, and I faced an uncertain future.
I disembarked at Portsmouth from the troopship 'Euripides', clutching my dispatch papers and a document of permission from the Secret Service to spend the coming months in improving my shattered health on a half-pay allowance of twelve shillings a day.
My parents were by now in India, visiting my maternal Uncle (he was always very maternal, when it came to looking after my parents), and so, having neither kith, kin, ilk or kidney in the country at that time, I found myself rootless and friendless, and in want of a new start.
In this restless condition, what was more natural than that I should gravitate to London, for was not the capital at that time the very latrine of the Empire, into which all the effluent of the scattered dominions would inevitably drain?
I discovered a private hotel called 'The Cleopatra', off The Strand, whose name appealed to my new-found cynicism and sense of irony. There I frittered away my time and money in a meaningless way for some weeks, drifting about the streets in an effort to escape the naggings of my conscience, until, one lunchtime, standing at the bar of the Perihelion Club, I heard a familiar voice at my back.
'Flotsam? "Hatter" Flotsam? Well, I'll be damned!' It was young Stamford Bridge, who had left Budleigh Salterton at the same time as me with a degree in Putting Ships Into Bottles, before returning to complain and swap it for the correct degree in Medicine.
'Stamford Bridge!' I ejaculated (I should have to ask the waiter for a cloth now). 'Good heavens, let me look at you, man. How are you?' He had never been a particular friend of mine before, but now I seemed to grasp at the familiar hand as the drowning man will grasp at a straw, or a piece of bindweed, or the trailing leg of a Crested Grebe, anything, really, rather than go under.
I bought him a drink. He stared at me. 'What have you been doing with yourself, "Hatter", old man?' he asked. 'Why, you're as thin as a berry and as brown as a pipecleaner.' He never could get his similies in order.
I offered him a precis of my adventures in the Secret Service. He listened with both ears. I had forgotten how irritating it was, the way he kept turning his head, to use both ears.
'You poor devil!' he ejaculated (I was glad I had obtained that cloth). 'But what are you going to do now? What are your plans?'
I shook my head, dejectedly. 'Oh, I have no grand plans. I've finished with all that, after what I've been through. I'm not like you chaps who have never left England, luxuriating in your lives as perpetual students, quaffing champagne and brandy and chasing after dancing girls of an evening.'
He looked crestfallen. 'Now steady on, Flotsam. I don't chase dancing girls every evening. I have Thursdays off to study anatomy, you know.'
After we had stopped laughing, Stamford Bridge looked at me. 'I say, Flotsam, why were we laughing just now? Did I say something funny?'
I shook my head. He really was the same idiot I had known at Budleigh. 'Oh I don't know. Look, Stamford Bridge, I'm sorry I snapped just now. My nerves are shot you know. You don't know what it's like to sail on a slow boat dressed as a Mandarin-speaking cormorant trainer. It rips the heart out of a man.'
He shrugged. 'I'm sure it does. But, you know, you will have to make some sort of plan, won't you. You can't live in hotels for the rest of your life.'
I nodded. 'Well, yes, I have been thinking about that. I have set myself something of a task, as a matter of fact. I have resolved to find some comfortable lodgings, at an affordable price.'
Stamford Bridge drained his glass and clapped his hands. I would have preferred it if he had drained his glass and ordered another brace of brandies, but he always was a miserable cove. 'Why, Flotsam, this is the very happiest of chances! You are the third man today who has used that expression to me!'
I started. Having started, I went on. 'Who were the other two?' I asked.
He shook his head. 'I have no idea', he said. The first one was a Scotchman in the Barber's and the other was a trombone-repairer who sat next to me on the Underground this morning.'
I frowned. 'But what use is this to me?' I asked, cradling my empty glass.
'I have no idea', he answered, 'but you must admit, it is a fine coincidence, eh, Flotsam?' Yes, Stamford Bridge was still an idiot, that much was clear. Age had not improved him.
After wasting another quarter of an hour waiting for him to buy a drink, I made my excuses and left him at the Perihelion Bar.
I wandered along the streets for a time, my head a seething mass of doubts, anxieties and unmanageable dilemmas. I had never felt so alone, even in the midst of the Malay jungle.
After an hour or so, I found myself in Candlestick Maker Street, as the dusk began to fall. I was a long way from The Cleopatra Hotel now. The cab fare would cost a small fortune, and yet I had not the energy to walk.
Across the busy thoroughfare, there was a property with a 'To Let' sign affixed to the door. Half-heartedly, I made my way across the street, to have a closer look. A set of rooms was available to rent, but, as I had expected, the price was far above what I could afford. With a sigh, I turned back to the street. Immediately, I was accosted by a loathsome example of a common loafer, bent-backed, dressed in a quite disgusting suit of ostler's clothes, with gaiters, a seedy bowler and luxuriant side-whiskers, and with the tell-tale red nose of the seasoned drinker.
''Ere', quoth the apparition. 'You ain't thinkin' o' tekkin' this lodgin' is yer, eh?'
I bristled at this impertinence. 'And what business is it of yours if I am, my man?'
His ruddy face creased into a ludicrous grin. 'Well, it ain't non 'er my business, mebbe, as the man says, but I should think th' prices o' yon'll be a bit steep fer a feller o' yer cindition, lookin' at sich clothes as ye're a-wearin', eh?' The flash of a row of appalling brown teeth only added insult to injury.
I had had enough by now. 'See here', I said, looking him in the eye. It was the left eye I looked in. The right one was out of reach. 'Be off, now, or I'll call the policeman over there and have you picked up for harrassment. Would you like to spend the night in gaol, eh? That's what you'll get, for harrassing a man who has been round the world serving his country while the likes of you stand loafing at street corners intimidating innocent ex-Secret Service men.'
There was an immediate change in his demeanour. While I stared in astonishment, he removed his hat, peeled off the side-whiskers, and proceeded to wipe away the rouge from his cheeks, revealing a chiselled, pale, hawk-like visage. He straightened himself too, showing that he was in fact a tall, thin man of considerable agility and authority.
He smiled at me. 'Ah, it is quite a relief to be able to stand erect at last. And to be able to speak in one's own voice. This gentleman has his charms, but one grows weary of them after some time in his company.'
He looked at me. I merely stared back, open-mouthed. He smiled again. 'How do you do?' he asked, extending his hand (he must be double-jointed, I thought). 'You have been in Egypt and the Malay jungles, I perceive. You are an ex-Secret Service man in need of good lodgings. This very suite of rooms here appeals to you. So much is obvious. That it is beyond your pocket, that much is also obvious. Let me tell you that that is precisely my own situation. I have had this suite in mind for a week, and only the lack of a suitable fellow-lodger prevents my moving in. What say you we move in together, eh?'
I shook my head. 'How did you know that I had been in Egypt, and Malaya? And have you really been standing there in disguise in order to judge your possible fellow-lodgers?'
He laughed. 'Never mind all that! The question now concerns this excellent suite of rooms. What say you? Shall we strike while we have the opportunity?'
It seemed inevitable. Smiling, I shook my head, and shrugged. 'Well, I certainly could afford to go halves, that's true. We could have a look at it. But we don't know each other at all. What if we don't get on?'
He moved towards the door. 'Ha! You are a man who has "got along" pretty well with many types of person in his time, I would judge. And as for myself, nothing much disturbs me. But come along, nothing ventured, eh?'
'Doctor James Flotsam', I answered, offering my hand again.
'Porlock Soames', said my remarkable new acquaintance, shaking my hand and ringing the doorbell. His legerdemain was astonishing.
The door was opened by a small, middle-aged woman in a pinafore. 'Mrs Dudson!' cried Porlock Soames. 'Here is Doctor Flotsam, to view the rooms with me', and, hardly knowing what I was doing, and yet somehow sure that a new chapter was beginning in my hitherto aimless and ill-navigated existence, I followed him through the door and into the hall of 221b Candlestick Maker Street.