Throckmortons was packed. There was a sale of hats on. I fought my way through the crowd, determined to avoid being taken for a fool, and to stick to my mission - the purchase of two storage jars for fruit-bottling purposes.
An hour later, alighting from the hansom at 221B Candlestick Maker Street with the new storage jars, a top hat, a sou'wester and a bowler, I was accosted by a thoroughly disreputable-looking loafer. A torrent of incomprehensible sentences gushed out before I could do anything.
"Avast behind there me hearty, I be taken aback wi' the' croup an' accurs'd wi' ducks disease an' ter'ble knockin' o' the knees from many a hard roundin' o' the Horn, you'd spare a dubloon fer a ol' sailor down on 'is luck eh Squire? Me grandferther 'e was in Nelson's Navy Guvnor, eh?"
I'll never know what made me talk like that all of a sudden, but it did the trick. It sent the swarthy reprobate scuttling off, crab-like, down the street. Old sailor indeed! Hardly, with that spavined gait, those Old Carthusian braces and those false ears.
Mrs Dudson was in the hall, polishing a what-not. She explained that it belonged to her cousin, Arthur Watt-Knott.
"I'm having quite a morning of it, doctor", she said, "what with the gentleman upstairs who's come to see you, the cold collation for supper and my cousin Arthur Watt-Knott's what-not and what not."
I dropped the top hat. Three what-nots? "Gentleman?" I ejaculated.
"It's all right, I've got the cloth here, sir", she said. "And yes, but he isn't a proper gentleman, if you know what I mean, not with such pale skin and a coarse beard like that."
I was upstairs in a trice. It looked bad for a moment, I'd never been in a trice before, but I managed to fight my way out of the trice, onto the landing and into our parlour without spoiling the tension of the story.
The red-bearded mulatto, dressed in blue moleskin trousers and a green jacket, with a moth-eaten felt hat on his head, was warming his old backside before our old fire, smoking Humes' old clay pipe and drinking our old brandy. I was appalled. Was he not aware of the old colours clashing in his old clothing?
"You blaggard, sir!" I ejaculated. Damn! Not again. But there was no time to clean up just now, I had to press home the fight. "How dare you make free with my companion's accoutrements? By Heaven, I'll serve you for this!"
I advanced upon the grinning figure, who turned to face me, and pulled off his beard, to reveal Shylock Humes, my old friend.
I was astounded. "It's you, Humes!"
"It is no other, friend Flotsam", he cried.
"But how did you get out of central Wales so quickly, Humes? Surely this is not possible?"
"Ah, my dear Flotsam", he remarked, puffing on the old clay pipe. "The reason I was able to get out of Wales is quite elementary! You look done-in, my dear chap. Put down those jars and those hats and sit down and let me explain."
I did as I was told. In no time (the clock had stopped), I was cradling a glass of brandy, smoking a cigar and listening to my friend's explanation.
"I set off as planned, Flotsam", Humes said. "Oh, I meant to go to Llandrinndrbdrioddnagg in Central Wales. I left in a hansom, as you know. I drove to St Pancras, I got on the train, I travelled for 3 hours, including several changes, and then I alighted altogether. There were five of us altogether, and it was alight by then. Fortunately, we managed to get off before we were burned alive.
"From the little station, I took a dog-cart into a larger town. It was an interesting ride, jogging along the country roads, me and the six dogs. Then I took a hansom, got arrested, was released when I promised to take the hansom back, then engaged another. Within the hour I arrived at a large railway station. From there I engaged another hansom. Then I arrived at my destination." He fell silent, smoking and watching the plumes of tobacco smoke rising towards the bullethole-pocked ceiling.
The clock did not tick. The fire crackled. His disgusting moleskin trousers chafed.
I spoke. "Well? What did you find? Where were you?"
"I was back here, Flotsam, back at 221B Candlestick Maker Street."
"But how on earth...?"
"There are no trains to Central Wales from St Pancras, my dear fellow. I had simply skirted around London a few times and ended up back where I began. It was a most instructive experience."
I thought. "So my trip to Throckmortons...?"
"It was my doing, yes. I engineered the kumquat arrival and the disappearance of that extra storage jar you had kept for just such an occasion. I also placed three of my agents in the shop. It was they who detained you at Throckmortons, they who sold you those hats."
"To keep me out of the way."
"Quite so, my dear fellow."
"But surely not the loafer...?"
"Yes, it was I. Despite the best efforts of my agents, you were, as ever, the model of military persistence and pluck, Flotsam. You were ahead of time. I had to delay you further."
"But I still don't see why, Humes."
"I had to delay your entry. I had to give myself time to dress as this splendid mulatto and be here waiting for you to hand me the yellow envelope when you got back."
I sat up in my armchair. It had been propped up on a pile of bricks ever since Humes had experimented on the effects of altitude upon cocaine stimulation. "So let me get this straight", I said. "You dressed as a loafer to delay my entry to the house."
"Quite so, dear Flotsam."
"You did this to give yourself time to sneak into the house by the drainpipe and the rear landing window, dress as the mulatto, and be here by the fire when I eventually got in."
Shylock Humes clapped his hands in delight. "Bravo, Flotsam! How you scintillate today!"
I frowned. From the street below came the merry sounds of a typical day in London - a man being garrotted and robbed, the shrill voices of the child prostitutes, windows being broken as a shop was looted. "But this won't do, Humes. Simply delaying me at the front door wouldn't work. You still wouldn't have had time to get up here."
"Excellent, Flotsam, and quite right. That is where Mrs Dudson and her what-not came in."
"That was your doing as well?"
"Of course. A masterly touch, to delay you that little bit longer, even though I say so myself, don't you think? I thought, to add authenticity, we should invent Mr Watt-Knott. Give it a little verisimilitude, eh?"
He rummaged inside the Wellington Boot by the fireside for more tobacco. I got out of my armchair. It was a hard fall. I had forgotten about being on top of the bricks.
"So, Humes. You managed to delay me enough to set up this meeting..."
"So what happens next?"
"Why, you bring me the yellow envelope from my dresser, as the telegram instructed."
Shaking my head, I brought the envelope from Humes' bedroom, and handed it to him.
"And this is for you", he said, handing me a blue envelope.
We opened our respective envelopes. We looked at the letters within. We looked at one another.
"These are the wrong envelopes", we said in unison. I know, English would have been preferable, but you will have to put it down to the tension, this being a pivotal moment in the case and what not.
We swapped envelopes.
Humes read his letter out loud. "Read Dr Flotsam's letter for the instructions."
I read mine out loud. "Shylock Humes' letter is the one to read."
I sighed. "This is ridiculous, Humes!" I ejaculated (I was past caring about Mrs Dudson's cloth by now). "You do realise that we are right back at square one. Back where we started. We have achieved absolutely nothing. You might as well have stayed here in bed the whole time. The whole thing is nothing but pish, tosh and utter nonsense."
My friend was sitting in the corner of the parlour, on the pile of Turkish cushions, with his thinking pipe in his mouth, like a species of exotic caterpillar. Why he smoked a pipe that looked like a caterpillar I would never know.
"What are you going to do Humes?" I cried, exasperated.
He spoke without looking at me. "Nng nnn Grg nng, rrg hnnhrgg", he said. Then, taking the pipe out of his mouth he spoke again: "I intend to smoke. These are deep waters and there is much to think about."
I shrugged, and turned to go. In this mood, he was best left alone, and I had those kumquats to bottle, and Admiral Grapeshot, of Norwood, would be calling soon about a bit of goat-whispering he wanted me to do with his Belgian Fainting Goats.
My hand was on the door knob when my friend's voice called me back. I reminded him that my name was not back, and he spoke again.
"Flotsam, it is the blood-bellied mackerel that holds the key."
I stared at him. "What did you say Humes? Blood-bellied mackerel?"
"No, no, Flotsam. That is a mere red herring. It is the man who locks up the British Museum who holds the key, I am certain."
"Well, what of it?" I retorted. "I've fruit to bottle and Fainting Goats to whisper to, you know."
"Never mind all that, Flotsam. I must smoke. As well as this case, Mrs Dudson has asked me to look at the plumbing. It is quite a three pipe problem. When I have smoked, we shall take a hansom to the British Museum. The game is afoot, Flotsam. All I have to do is to fathom the route from the British Museum to the purloined budgerigar, and we are on our way."
I put away my new jars and hats. I was in a brown study. I was dismayed and disgruntled. Why didn't Humes ask me before he had the study decorated?
The clang of the doorbell, agitated voices, and heavy footsteps on the stair brought me out of the brown study and onto the landing, to be greeted by the ratlike countenance of Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley of Scotland Yard. He smiled and spoke:
"Good morning, Doctor Flotsam. Is he in?"