Written by Erskin Quint
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Sunday, 29 May 2011

image for Shylock Humes And The Case Of The Narwhal's Tusk Scrimshaw, Part One "His Middle Name Was Clutter": HMS Victory, Yesterday

Shylock Humes was curled up in his chair like a coiled serpent. Why on earth he chose to have a piece of furniture shaped like a snake I had no idea. But that was my friend all over. His things were always all over the place. He used to leave his papers, smoking accoutrements and clothing lying all over the sitting room. Clutter was his middle name. Actually, it was Horatio, after the famous Admiral, but if I had used Horatio just now, the effect would have been absurd.

Then again, would it have been all that bad? Hmmm. Let me try it for size. Bear with me.

That was my friend all over. He used to leave his papers, smoking accoutrements and clothing lying all over the sitting room. Horatio was his middle name.

No, I was right the first time. That is ridiculous.

Shylock Humes stirred in his chair. He rose and, taking his tobacco pouch out of the Wellington boot by the fireside, he filled his old clay pipe, sat down again, and began to smoke.

Hang on, I've forgotten something here. What else did he do? Did he fire his revolver into the ceiling? No, that wasn't it. Was it that he toasted a crumpet over the open fire? Did he reach for his violin and, being too far away from it, give up on the idea? No, it wasn't those, either. Oh, what was it? I'm sure it must have been something germane to matters of plot or character, that sort of thing, or I wouldn't give it a moment's thought. My narratives are nothing if not concise and taut. I was always taught to be concise at school.

Ah yes, I remember. He spoke, Shylock Humes spoke. "As you have just confirmed, my dear Flotsam", he remarked, "it is invariably a mistake not to trust to one's first impressions. The instincts are a sure guide."

"But how did you know I was thinking..." I began.

"Ah, my friend, your face is, as ever, an infallible map of your thoughts. I merely observed you as you sat there, musing.

"I saw your gaze range over our cluttered room, noted your rueful expression, watched as you stared wistfully at our copy of The Death of Nelson on the wall there, and deduced. It was simplicity itself. I would have said 'it was elementary', only I hate to perpetuate a cliche."

"That is simply marvellous, Humes!" I ejaculated (where was Mrs Dudson the housekeeper with her trusty cloth when you needed it?). But Shylock Humes had not finished.

"Besides, my dear fellow, you should not leave your manuscript lying by the firegrate if you do not want me to read it."

"What?" I remarked, sceptically. "How could you read it? From where you are sitting it would be too small and upside down!"

"Dear dear, Flotsam!" he snorted. How he managed to speak while snorting was just one of the things that constantly amazed me about my remarkable companion. He stopped snorting, and continued to speak. "You really ought to read my monograph entitled On The Reading Of Distant, Upside-Down Manuscripts By Fire-Light. It will enlighten you.

"I trained myself in this very room, before we lived together. I spent many an hour standing on my head by the fireside."

"You spent many an hour standing on your head by the fireside?" I asked.

"Ah yes, Flotsam", he said. "In those early days I could not afford a rug, so I had nothing else to stand on. And I thought I might as well make use of the time while I was standing on my head for many an hour. So, while I stood on my head by the fireside, I practiced reading manuscripts on the other side of the room."

Just when I thought I had been amazed by all that there was to be amazed by in my friend Shylock Humes, here was something new to astonish me: how did he manage to be on the other side of the room at the same time as standing on his head by the fireside?

But the sound of the doorbell downstairs swept these speculations from my mind. Shortly afterwards, there came the sound of heavy footsteps on the stairs.

"Our seafaring friend is rather keen to see us!", smiled Shylock Humes.

"How do you know it is a seafaring man from the mere sound of his footsteps on the staircase?" I asked incredulously. Well, I asked Shylock Humes, actually, but I didn't want to mention his name yet again - though, now that I have mentioned his name again in this qualifying sentence, I feel as though I might as well have mentioned it anyway. And it wouldn't have clogged up the otherwise taut narrative with silly metafictional interjections. But it can't be helped, so let's just try to forget it and move on, shall we?

Shylock Humes grinned and watched the smoke as it hung in a blue cloud high up against the wall, obscuring Whistler's Mother. What on earth she was doing here, and why she was up there, was quite beyond me.

He spoke, his voice like a lion. It was all that rough shag tobacco. "My dear Flotsam, those hurried heavy footsteps belong to the indomitable Mrs Dudson. You know how partial she is to a mariner. Only a sailor could make her run upstairs like that!"

He was right, as ever. In a second, Mrs Dudson stood in the open doorway in a state of excitement. It was a shock to see her like that. I was expecting her to be wearing her pinafore as usual. She hissed her words like a cobra. I had heard cobras speak in India, so I knew what I was talking about.

"Mr Humes, Dr Flotsam, it's, it's, he's..." Then she fell in a faint. In no time at all (the clock had stopped again), Humes and I had lifted her out of the faint and laid her on the sofa.

"Quick, Flotsam", gasped Humes. "The brandy".

Once he had drunk the brandy, he gasped again. "This is dreadful, Flotsam. We will have to act quickly!"

"It's all right, Humes", I assured him. "She has merely fainted."

"No, man", urged Humes. "I am talking about the brandy. It has gone downhill since we changed vintners. We must look for another supplier."

I stared at my friend, mystified yet again at his quicksilver butterfly intellect.

But there was no time for further speculation. There came an awful shuffling, knocking sound on the stair.

Shylock Humes spoke again, his voice like a loaded arquebus on an Elizabethan battlefield surrounded by pikes and maces. "Ah. The sound of the timber-toe."

"You mean?", I hissed, through clenched lips.

"Yes, Flotsam", my friend said. "There are two possible outcomes, here. Either we are about to be visited by a man with a wooden leg, or we are about to be visited by two men, one of whom has only one real leg, the other of whom has only one wooden leg."

His face grew calm, impassive as the statue of an Eastern god. "My guess is that it is the former."

And there in the doorway stood our visitor, one of the most remarkable men I had ever seen.

The story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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