My friend Shylock Humes sat by the fireside in his favourite armchair, with his legs pulled up and his arms wrapped about his knees. He was coiled and taut, his head sunken into his gaunt shoulders. That recent training with contortionist Roberto the Rubberman of Bounder Brothers Circus was already paying off.
Humes was staring at our extraordinary visitor, Captain, or Professor, Goosefoundling, who was chewing the last of his tobacco in the opposite chair. It was a most unusual sight. Most of our visitors chewed tobacco in their mouths.
Humes had lit his old clay pipe, and was smoking his most malodorous brand of rough shag like some inscrutable Oriental potentate. I had not realised that Oriental potentates could be so foul-smelling. I had always envisaged exotic fragrance. You know, cinnamon, frankincense, cedar of lebanon, that kind of thing.
Perhaps Madame Sultana's on Upper Swandam Lane was not such a faithful recreation of an Asian harem as I had imagined (we were there on business, during the Case Of The Perforated Stockbroker, I hasten to add, lest you begin to suspect turpitude).
We were completely out of turpitude, at that time, as a matter of fact. I had ordered a gallon from Blitherstone & Whymper only the day before. So I trust that we need have no more misgivings in the matter of turpitude.
Goosefoundling - for it was indeed he - spat out the last of the rough shag into the fire, as I ushered Mrs Dudson towards the sitting-room door and downstairs. She was fully recovered, which was more than could be said for the stairs. "I must get on to Nabchilde & Climbertoothe, Floor Coverers To The Queen", I thought. "It's high time our new stair carpet was here."
I closed the sitting-room door. Then, realising that Mrs Dudson had not had time to get out onto the stairs, I reopened it, allowed her to exit, and closed the door once more.
Before I had managed to pull up a chair to the fireplace, however, we were startled by a fresh, frantic knocking on the very same door to our sanctum. Had we another client already?
It was Mrs Dudson. "I left my carbolic and deck scrubber by the occasional table, Dr Flotsam", she said.
I smiled as she finally made her way out and down to her quarters. Though times were hard - Mrs Dudson now had to live in quarters, where once she had been able to live in halves; and we were reduced to the use of an occasional table, instead of the full-time one we once possessed - our housekeeper was the very model of thrift. She had had that same old bar of carbolic ever since we had known her.
No wonder the place was filthy.
I pulled a chair from the window. It had been stuck in the window since Humes flung it there during those experiments in chair-slinging that had helped him to solve the Case Of The Ealing Chair Murders and capture Bladderstone The Ealing Chair-Slinger only last week.
From beyond the casement came the happy sounds of a London evening: the raucous cries of a consumptive coster-monger; the high-pitched wail of a pox-ridden whore being cudgelled in a vile alley; the importunate shriek of a child prostitute accosting the promenading clergy.
I was fascinated, and also perplexed, by these sounds of a London evening. It was, after all, still the middle of the afternoon.
At last I was able to sit by the crackling fireside (it was strange how the fire was quite silent, and the fireplace crackled like anything). I took up my notebook and pencil (I had not been able to purchase the exact size to fit), and listened to my friend Shylock Humes and our remarkable visitant, Captain, or Professor, Goosefoundling.
"But you must tell me, Mr Humes", asked Goosefoundling (how could it have been anyone else? I would hardly have used the formality "Mr", and it would be too ridiculous for Humes to speak to himself in this formal manner). "You must tell me how you know that I have journeyed from the South China Sea, by way of New London, Connecticut, and that I was at Lord Poultice's place, in Sussex, only yesterday." His weathered face was like a stone lion. A stone lion with Piccadilly weepers, perhaps, but a stone lion nonetheless.
Shylock Humes stared, his eyes sparkled like the stars. He had got smoke in his eyes while lighting his favourite ochre meerschaum. I was always warning him about cake build-up inside the bowl, but he never listened. He began to speak. His voice was like the call of the Arab muezzin.
But once he had finished practicing Islamic prayer-calls, he finally began to explain.
"Ah, it is a simple thing", he sighed, the smoke billowing about his head like great thunder clouds (I shall refrain from making a poor joke about Humes having a head like great thunder clouds; it would spoil the tautness of the narrative). "It is all quite elementary, my dear sir.
"Make a long arm, Flotsam, and pass me yesterday's Daily Tarradiddle & Balderdash Extra, would you, old chap? Why, Captain, or Professor, Goosefoundling, sir, if you would disguise your Chinese voyagings, then you ought not to hang about your neck such a thing as a jade Nuing Nuang of the Dung dynasty. The tattoo behind your left ear - of a type normally exclusive to Chinese eel fishermen of the Twang Delta is almost superfluous to my purpose.
"As for New London, the parcel you carry about your person is quite conclusive, being wrapped in that particular brown paper and waxed twine popularly known in polite whaling circles as "New London Connecticut Paper and Twine. I published a monograph some five years ago entitled "On The Identification Of Parcel Wrapping Materials". Nothing is so informative about a man as the parcel he clutches.
"Finally", cried my friend like a banshee, or a town crier in Northern Finland, or a Javanese parrot-cage restorer touting for business at dusk, "finally, having negotiated a typical volley of Flotsam's numinous similies, I am able to deduce your visit to Sussex from the peculiar nature of the loam that still clings to the lower reaches of your teak leg.
"When a teak-legged man visits that part of Sussex where Lord Poultice has his estate, he must surely find that, though he would leave that part of Sussex where Lord Poultice has his estate, that part of Sussex where Lord Poultice has his estate will be loath to leave him.
"In particular, its loam will cling like a barnacle to anything in the way of a teak leg."
Goosefoundling shook his head. "Well, well. Is that it? I thought at first you had done something clever."
But Shylock Humes was not finished yet. "Flotsam, the Daily Tarradiddle & Balderdash Extra, if you please!" he cried, and, turning to a page near the back of the paper, continued:
"Besides, Captain, or should I say Professor, I am an avid student of the London Gossip Columns, and, in this very journal here, I discovered the following advertisement:
"Well, well, my good sir", continued my friend, "these popular columns being such a favourite hunting ground of mine, I was hardly likely to miss such a cock pheasant as yourself, now, was I?
"And now perhaps you would like to explain what it is about poor Mrs Dudson's scrimshaw, the somewhat outlandish inheritance bequeathed her by her late Uncle Skeffington, which she keeps hanging above her bed, - what it is about this piece of carved ivory, I say, that is of such interest to you that it has brought you from the South China Sea, by way of New London, Connecticut, with a brief stop in Sussex, upon the loam-rich estate of Lord Poultice? Why is it that you would prey upon a housekeeper in genteel impoverishment, who, having been reduced to living in quarters, she who once luxuriated in halves, is most likely to be susceptible to the notion of parting with a beloved - if bizarre - heirloom in the form of a carved narwhal's tusk?"
And with this my friend Shylock Humes sat back in his chair and smiled like an Easter Island statue in his smoking jacket. Why on earth he chose to drape his smoking jacket over that dreadful Easter Island Totem I had no idea.
More to the point, his jacket was smoking because he had been sitting too near to the fire again.
The soda syphon - not for the first time - came in handy as a substitute for the fire extinguisher which had yet to be invented.
That was Shylock Humes all over, I mused, as I looked at our visitor, who was preparing his answer.
That was my friend all over. There was soda all over his smoking jacket, as well as the wallpaper. It was just this mixture of brilliance and soda that made him the perfect companion for a jaded old soldier like myself.
I smiled, inwardly (I must stop doing that; it would only bring on the dyspepsia again).
I could feel an adventure coming on.