The man who stood in our doorway was breathing heavily. A swarthy, weathered leathery face with a cudgeled nose peered out from beneath a forward-tilted ancient green billycock hat and from between luxuriant long side-whiskers of the sort formerly termed Piccadilly weepers. The dark visage was screwed up as if it faced an Atlantic storm, rather than our humble sitting-room. A shiny, blue serge double-breasted reefer jacket hung from an enormous pair of shoulders, and out of the lower reaches of this fell one and a half of the thinnest legs I had ever seen on a full-grown, elderly gentleman, wrapped, in most bizarre fashion, in what appeared to be an evil pair of eelskin masher trousers.
When I say one and a half legs, I mean that the apparition possessed a full right leg, but that his left leg was off at the knee, below which extended a wooden limb in the blackest of black black material. The right foot, unspeakably long and narrow, was thankfully entombed within a brown leather shoe covered by a grimy cream-hued spat. I say thankfully: there was something hideous about that long, claw-like appendage.
In his right hand, our visitor clutched a large rectangular parcel tied with what looked like waxed twine.
The eyes that searched our room, and fell at last upon my friend Shylock Humes, were fiery and bloodshot, like a pair of ruddy blown-glass marbles threatened by great caterpillar eyebrows.
The vision spoke. "To whom do I have the honour of addressing a question?" it said, in a quaint American drawl, out of the side of its thin mouth, and cocked its head like a tame parrot at Humes, to eye him askance. The marble eyes blazed under the antediluvian green felt hat.
Shylock Humes parried with a further question. "To whom am I in turn favoured to be able to enjoy the privilege of returning a question with a further query?" he replied, impassive as the Ganges.
The newcomer merely shifted his wooden leg a fraction of an inch, and fired a further broadside. "It would be instructive to one who has journeyed far and wide, over land and sea, through weathers fair and foul, to be vouchsafed that knowledge which, once possessed, is instantly put to that excellent use, the employment of which is the only sure way to ensure an initial greeting - and subsequent discourse - that will be anything other than utterly futile."
Shylock Humes looked at the man in the doorway whose cragged face was once again tilted to larboard as it gurned like that of an aged bosun who had discovered an unwelcome visitor to his hammock after a long watch. "Nay, sir, and would it be - were it even within my compass, which I fear it is not - would it be nothing less than the fulfilment of that which - notwithstanding an ulterior tactical sortie or two, by way of an opening gambit - would it be nothing less than the fulfilment of that which could not otherwise be gainsaid - and let us not stay the fortunate proving otherwise than to let it, as they say, reap its own harvest - would it be nothing less than the fulfilment of that which could not otherwise be gainsaid, to utter a less than imperfectly-constructed reposte to such a volley of surprises?"
The extraordinary gentleman smiled. At least, I thought it was a smile. For all I knew, his face may have been collapsing into itself like a landslip. He began to speak again. "But you, sir, must not be too ready to imagine, much less to make manifest in many a small seeming, those very custodial quaint severalities the very character of which might be writ large - or writ small, for who is to sit in judicial consiracy aboard a vessel such as this - within the suave sophistries of modern European demi-mondes. No, sir, I say" (and here our visitor's thin, piping voice began to skirl like a bagpipes) "that these very circumlocutions betray what my forbears would have fain thus condemned, be it even within door, another..."
Just when I was beginning to fear that this nonsense would go on all night, Mrs Dudson woke up with a yell. This was quite a shock for her, since when she had fainted, there had been no yell in sight. However, a little wine and water, and some soothing words from myself, reassured her that the yell was one of her own, and so at last the ludicrous dialogue was put to a stop.
(I recalled, with a shudder, the Case Of The Double Mandarins, when the twin Chinese diplomatists had taken four hours to introduce themselves. Unfortunately, they had introduced themselves to one another, rather than Shylock Humes, and so the four-hour performance had to be repeated twice more. The second time they introduced themselves to Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley of Scotland Yard by mistake, and it was only at the third attempt that they succeeded in introducing themselves to my friend. By the time the consultation was over, dawn's grey light was seeping past the curtains, and the milkman was sneaking out of Mrs Dudson's quarters.)
Mrs Dudson, sitting up, spied our remarkable guest, swaying like the mainmast of an old ship of the line in our doorway. It was a long time since we had had anything resembling a ship of the line in our doorway. There was a time when Candlestick Maker Street was a thriving port, but the great river had long since silted up, leaving us high and dry. Of course, I didn't mind. I enjoyed the peace and quiet of these modern times. In those old days we were led a merry dance, what with all the dockland comings and goings, and we walked in constant fear of contracting some deadly contagion such as the Purple Santiago Corruption. How Mrs Dudson had had to labour, loading and unloading all the cargo, and Humes hardly had time for any cases, what with dealing with all the paperwork. You can have no idea how much paperwork there was, even in the relatively unregulated docklands of Victorian London. Talk about bureacracy. Everything had to be done in quadruplicate, except for imports of root vegetables from the Low Countries - and they had to be done in quintuplicate. And would you believe it - when we ran out of the quintuplicate docket-books, we had to fill out an order in sextuplicate for more quintuplicate docket-books!
No. On the whole, we were far better off now.
Mrs Dudson pointed at our visitor. "Ah, there he is again!" she shrieked. "Who is he? How can he know so much about Uncle Skeffington's scrimshaw? And how did he get hold of Uncle's wooden leg? He's a devil, that's what he is, gentlemen, a black demon from the nether-regions sent to tempt and torment a poor woman of mature provenage."
I quickly ministered to our frightened housekeeper. I stayed poor Mrs Dudson with flagons, I comforted her with apples (I had left my Medical Manuals at the Club, and had to rely on a random search through the King James Bible for instructions on how to treat an hysterical housekeeper scared by a mysterious one-legged man with Piccadilly weepers in a green billycock hat and eelskin masher trousers who had stolen her dead Uncle's wooden leg and knew about his scrimshaw. The Song Of Solomon was what I plumped for. I was only glad I hadn't come across anything to do with sacrifices or wholesale destruction. Imagine if the book had fallen open at Revelation or something like Sodom and Gomorrah. I should have needed lubricants, and dousing agents, and Humes had used all those up in his sword-swallowing experiments the previous week.).
While I ministered to Mrs Dudson, the voice of Shylock Humes pierced the fog of bewilderment like the cry of a Jaguar deep within the Brazilian jungles. "I am delighted to make your acquaintance, Captain, or should I say Professor, Goosefoundling?
"What is it that brings you from the South China Sea, by way of New London, Connecticut, to our humble abode, and why did you not find the answers you seek in Sussex yesterday? It was at the country residence of Lord Poultice that you enjoyed a brief sojourn, was it not?"
"You are Mr Shylock Humes, I perceive", rasped the visitor, beginning to teeter like he was rounding the Horn. "For God's sake, I am a desperate man. Will ye offer a weary traveller a rough shag and a listening ear, eh? I've such matters about me as nobbit a man such as yourself might be fit to hang the canvas on."
And with this obscure nautical argot, Captain, or should I say Professor, Goosefoundling - for it was he - gained entry to the sanctum or consulting-room of Mr Shylock Humes.
Humes beckoned the bizarre giant to an armchair. He clearly had no use for a legchair.
Humes pointed out the hollowed-out bust of Lord Nelson, where he kept his miscellaneous store of rough shag dottles. The stranger (and no stranger man had crossed our threshold since the Vicar had called for tea last Thursday) took up a handful of tobacco, thrust it in his mouth and began to chew.
And as he chewed, he began to tell us his story.
"Nng gnhrng, nng nn", he began. "Ghrnn ngn gharrnging, nng ggrnng", he continued. But thankfully, at last, he spat out the bulk of the rough shag tobacco, and began to speak more clearly.
This was a great relief to me, as I finished my ministrations to Mrs Dudson, and shut the King James Bible. I was beginning to worry that we would never get past this interminable episode and cut to the real action.