"Make a long arm and consult Bradshaw, Flotsam!"
My friend Shylock Humes sat hunched in his armchair like a broken-backed black beetle smoking his 'thinking pipe'. Why he wanted an armchair shaped like a pipe-smoking beetle was beyond me.
At least I could rely on good old Bradshaw. "You need the 5:30 express from Victoria, Humes, as far as Littlehampton. Then take the 9:15 Rottingdean sleeper to Hassocks, and finally the open-topped horse manure cross-country shunter to Piddle Downe. From there it is but a short rickshaw ride to Babysham Castle, Lord Clinker's seat.
"Excellent, Flotsam!" my friend ejaculated (we would be in need of Mrs Dudson's cloth once again). "It is Lord Clinker's seat that I seek to probe, for that is where I shall find the key to this mystery."
"What mystery, Humes?" I cried.
"Grr nng nnn, ggnng rhh, nnn", my companion said through gritted teeth (if he had not gritted them, then his pipe would have fallen out; that was the way of things in those days; communication was difficult; but what could we do; the semaphore flags were being steam-cleaned in the Chinese Quarter, and the last time we attempted to communicate via smoke signalling, Mrs Dudson had the Fire Engine round faster than you could say 'Hound of the Baskervilles', which admittedly is not so fast, but still respectably quick for the late 19th century).
I had an idea. "Take the pipe out and rest it on the mantlepiece, my dear fellow!" I cried triumphantly. "That way, I will be able to understand you."
Shylock Humes leapt to his feet. Not much of a leap; it would have been more impressive had he jumped as far as, say, his chest, but he had been working day and night on the recent case of The Corrugated Admiral. "You scintillate this morning, Flotsam!" he yelled, after putting the pipe down.
"It's afternoon, Humes" I corrected. "But what were you trying to say before?"
"Before whom? I don't know, Flotsam," my friend admitted. "I've forgotten your original question. I believe I may have stood up for nothing."
I sighed. "I asked what this latest mystery was, my dear chap."
"Ah yes. Well, what I said was, 'Grr nng nnn, ggnng rhh, nnn'."
I sighed again, more deeply this time. "Yes, Humes, I know that is what you actually said. But what was it that you might have communicated, had you been, as it were, sans pipe?"
"Thank you, my dear Flotsam", Humes replied. "Where would I be without my trusty friend, fruit bottler, goat whisperer and straight man? What I meant to say was 'If I knew that, Flotsam, it would not be such a mystery, and we should not be yet at the beginning of the story, which is where we in fact still are.'"
"You know, Humes", I sighed a third time, "I might have known you would say that. I..."
"Tush, Flotsam", cried my friend. "This is no time for abstruse philosophical debate and idle bantering tomfoolery! I have a train to catch from St Pancras to Llandrinndrbdrioddnagg in Central Wales. There is a hansom at the door and no time to lose. Throw me my ulster and hunting crop and take down a telegram."
I did as he asked, though I had to get the stepladder to take down the telegram, since we kept them on the top shelf. My friend was masterful when his blood was up. "What shall I put in the telegram, Humes?" I enquired.
Shylock Humes answered. His voice grew thin, reedy, distant. It always did when he was under great strain. On this occasion however it was because he had gone into the hall to get his ulster. Well, I was taking down the telegram. He could get his own bloody coat. What did he think I was, his bleeding butler?
He dictated from the hall. "Dear Flotsam. The game is afoot. Gone to Wales. Purloined budgerigar may be red herring. Carry on with fruit bottling and await further developments. Give the red-bearded mulatto who will call tomorrow morning the yellow envelope on my dresser. Humes"
I jotted it all down. When Humes emerged from the hall there was one question burning in my brain. "Why are you sending me telegrams, Humes? We live together. You could just tell me what's going on."
Humes' face, hitherto creased in a very swirling maelstrom of knotty knottedness, relaxed at last. There was a tear in his eye. I can't remember which eye. "I thought I knew my Flotsam", he said. "I knew I should not need these stuffy formalities with my friend. It's just that, when I was a child, my father was the Head of the Dorset Telegraph Service, and he made us communicate via telegrams at home. He wanted us to appreciate the challenges of communicating throughout the British Empire. One Christmas Day, we had to communicate by sending messages to one another using cleft sticks carried by Crumhorn the butler. My brother Pycroft ran out of message paper, and was unable to ask for more, since he would have needed to put a piece of message paper into a cleft stick to ask for it. Poor Pycroft. Even now, he is unable to look upon writing paper without a shudder."
The clock struck five. I started, so I had to finish. "But Humes, your train!" I ejaculated. (I would have to get a cloth from Mrs Dudson again.)
"Yes, my friend!" yelled Shylock Humes.
"Your hansom!" I cried.
"Why thank you, doctor", he effused.
"No, Humes. Your cab", I corrected.
"I'm what, Flotsam?"
"You have a cab outside. Waiting."
"Who? My name's not Waiting. Oh, of course. I see. Silly me. Good old Flotsam, you are the one fixed point in a changing world."
And he was off, like a will o' the wisp, whatever that means.
But two things were worrying me, as I heard the door slam, the harsh oaths of Mrs Dudson (she had the Finchley Trappists round for tea, slab cake and charades again), and then the clatter of hooves as Humes' hansom departed 221B Candlestick Maker Street, bound for St Pancras.
Surely, trains for Wales departed Euston station, not St Pancras.
And I was not going to be able to bottle all these kumquats without getting in some more storage jars. Storage jar stock issues are the very bane of the fruit-bottler's existence.
The question was: would I be able to get to Throckmortons on Fishkettle Street, purchase a brace of jumbo storage jars, and get back to Candlestick Maker Street in time to receive the red-bearded mulatto tomorrow morning?