It was a warm, clear day in early May. I had had a busy morning. Fruit bottling and goat-whispering were my great passions - when I was not assisting my friend Shylock Humes with his extraordinary cases - but there were times when it all became too much for my nerves. Kumquats can be uneasy bedfellows, I can assure you. And goats are not always easily whispered to, nor their owners easy to satisfy.
It was with a sigh of relief, then, that, after a third failed attempt to pacify Lady Capstan's Syrian Feather-Toed Billy Goat, I bottled the last kumquat of the batch, washed, made my way outside, and took a hansom cab to 221B Candlestick Maker Street. Tired of fruit bottling and goat-whispering as I was, I was looking forward to seeing my old friend Shylock Humes and catching up with him regarding his latest adventures.
Unfortunately, I was unable to see my friend as quickly as I had hoped, for, as soon as I reached 221B Candlestick Maker Street, I first had to return the hansom I had taken without permission, lest I be discovered and charged with Taking Without A Ticket, or TWAT, as it was popularly known in those days.
I was an hour and a half late, then, when Humes' housekeeper, Mrs Dudson, who was rubbing down a tallboy in the hall, greeted me in her rough pinafore, mop cap and rubbing-down gloves. Why on earth I should be wearing such a ridiculous outfit I have no idea, but it must have been true, as I am writing it down here, and my narratives are notoriously accurate when it comes to these workaday details.
"Why Doctor Flotsam", said Mrs Dudson, "you look quite absurd in that pinafore, cap and gloves, and I could do with just such a set of clothes to assist me in the rubbing-down of this very tallboy here. Perhaps I can maim two pigeons with one slingshot and relieve you of the offending items of apparel."
"Very well, Mrs Dudson", I replied. "You have gone astray in your idiomatic expressions there, with all this surreal talk of maimed pigeons and slingshots, but I am a tolerant man, and would not see you bereft of appropriate equipment."
I glanced across at the tallboy standing in the corner by the elephant's foot umbrella stand, the what-not and the aspidistra. "Who is that?" I enquired.
"I don't know his name, sir", she answered, pulling on the gloves, smoothing the pinafore and straightening the mop cap. "I met him down the Amputee's Arms last night. 'Hello Ma', he says. 'Buy me a gin and I'm yours to the rattle.' And he was. I didn't get much sleep last night, I can tell you!"
I was shocked. It was not like Mrs Dudson to buy anyone a drink. Was the world going mad? I rushed upstairs to the rooms of my friend Shylock Humes, in search of comfort and stability.
But Humes was in no mood to offer me any respite. I found him in a brown study. I was surprised at this, for the last time I had visited, the study had been painted green, with tan drapes providing the only concession to the dun part of the spectrum. My friend hadn't told me he was having any decorating done.
Humes sat in his old armchair by the fire, hunkered down like an old black mole, smoking his old cherrywood pipe. Why he wanted a chair shaped like an old hunkering black mole smoking a cherrywood pipe, I would never know. That was Humes for you.
"Ah, Flotsam!" he ejaculated (we would be in need of Mrs Dudson's trusty cloth before long). "You find me embroiled in a battle against the unspeakable tedium of existence. Nothing is happening. I am bored to death old chap. The criminal fraternity - whose transgressions provide me with that stimulation which is my escape from the jaws of futility - has been conspicuous by its lack of activity in this respect."
"Come now, Humes", I expostulated, pausing only to wonder what expostulated meant. Perhaps it meant that Mrs Dudson's cloth would soon be called for. "Something will turn up. It usually does."
He shook his head. "The days of the great cases are over, I fear, my dear Flotsam!" he ejaculated (yes, there was clearly work here for Mrs Dudson and her cloth). "These are the days of the minor and trivial case only."
"But Humes, this is a mere fancy born of frustration", I countered, immediately wondering why I was countering like this. I had never noticed a counter in Humes' rooms before. Perhaps he has decided to keep a precise count of all our conversations. Perhaps the counters had fallen out of Humes' Ludo set at Christmas, which was the only time he played Ludo. Perhaps Humes was opening a Rag & Bottle Warehouse and the sitting room was going to be the customer interface zone. The possibilities were legion, but I was shaken out of this sombre speculation by the realisation that both of us were too old for the Foreign Legion and, besides, we were better off in London after all.
Shylock Humes was speaking again. "My dear Flotsam", he spoke, again. "This is no mere whim or tarradiddle. I have direct experience on my side."
He paused, to refill his cherrywood pipe with plugs and dottles of old tobacco from the supply he kept in the hollowed-out bust of Lord Nelson by the coal scuttle.
He spoke again. "Again", he spoke. Realising that this was nonsense, he rallied, and, lighting his pipe, cursing with the realisation that he should have lit the tobacco in his pipe and not the pipe itself, then rectifying the situation so that he was eventually puffing away in the correct manner, he began to explain. Oh, I should also say that, having begun, he carried on explaining.
"I was in Guttergormpton's, of Cassowary Street, only yesterday", he said. "I was there in order to assist the store manager with a perfectly sordid little problem of till-pilfering, but while I was there I could not help but notice that their Luggage & Leather Sundries Department no longer stocked any of the splendid great leather cases they used to. They only keep small, perfectly trivial, cases, you know. And have you seen the sundries they sell these days? Let me tell you, my friend, sundries are not what they used to be.
"We live in drab, puny, miserable times, my friend", he lamented finally, sitting gloomily in a cloud of tobacco smoke like a dyspeptic goblin. It was the first time I had seen tobacco smoke like a dyspeptic goblin. "I do not expect to see a great case again", he concluded, staring into the fire.
I was lost for words, but was spared the pain of trying to think of a witty reply by the sound of the doorbell crashing through the house.
"Blast!" cried Shylock Humes. "The doorbell has come adrift again. We shall have to have the builders in, Flotsam. There will be scaffolding up for weeks."
This latest tirade was interrupted, however, when the sitting room door was flung open, and a perspiring, red-faced man burst into the room.
Our visitor was a tall, portly man of about seventy two. Inches tall, that is. I could not tell how old he was. He had a pronounced stoop and a widow's peak. They were pronounced "stoop and a widow's peak". He was dressed in a blue coat with horn buttons, moleskin masher trousers, a top hat and galoshes. He had a notable hunch.
"Mr Shylock Humes!" he cried in a high-pitched voice. "I have a notable hunch that you will take my case!"
"Or rather", he sang, looking crest-fallen. "I feel that you must take my case."
"Or, I should say", he said, his face a very mask of despair, "I should rather say that the case itself has already been taken, and that is why you must indeed take on this case."
He was teetering now. "Flotsam!" cried Humes. "Get him into that chair. The carpet will not stand all this teetering on a Wednesday morning."
I helped the man into the chair. "But Humes", I said. "It is Thursday afternoon."
"Why Flotsam!" yelled Humes. "You fairly scintillate today! But surely that is all the more reason why the teetering must stop at once, for it is later than we thought."
I could only look upon my friend in mute admiration. My mute admiration, however, was curtailed by the high-pitched voice of our visitor.
"But gentleman", he wailed. "What about my case? It is already taken. Will you take it Mr Humes?"
Humes shot the man a piercing glance. "Who are you, sir, that you would ask me to take that which is already taken?"
The man sat up in the chair. High up. The chair was still set up on bricks after Humes had been studying the influence of altitude upon the effects of opium intoxication. "I am the unfortunate Barrington Culpepper", he piped breathlessly. "I am the unhappiest man in London, for I have lost the Leather Briefcase of William Ewart Gladstone!"
He dropped his head into his hands, which was lucky for the carpet. After all that earlier teetering, the last thing it needed was a head rolling about upon it, staining the luxurious pile. He began to sob.
All we could hear was his sobbing and the fire crackling. I remember thinking, "this man should be in the music halls, being able to impersonate the crackle of a fire like that", before realising that it was of course the fire itself that was crackling, not Mr Barrington Culpepper.
"Mr Culpepper", said Humes. "Do not distress yourself further. Your case promises to be quite unique. It presents some remarkable features. I should be glad to look into it."
"Why, so should I", said Culpepper, "though I fear I shall never look into my case again. But will you really help?"
"Indeed, I shall make it my business to do so", cried my friend.
"But have you any clue as to what might have happened?" asked the distressed man in the brick-propped armchair.
Humes' voice was like the crack of an oak branch in a thunder storm. "You have already furnished me with seventeen indications, my dear fellow", he said. "Flotsam, mix our visitor a restorative cordial over my bunsen burner. Mr Culpepper, take your time, sup your cordial, and expound, sir, upon the nature of this trouble that has befallen you.
"Give me the facts, Mr Culpepper, about the case of the missing case!"