My friend Shylock Humes sat by the fire, subjecting the cardboard box Inspector Arbuthnot Williams had brought, to the most intimate and discerning scrutinies possible to man. I say man. I could not speak for woman, apart from our housekeeper, Mrs Dudson, whose scrutinies were generally limited to questions of domestic order, and were far from intimate or discerning. I say order. What I should perhaps have said was 'disorder', given the outlandish habits of my companion, who was wont to turn our rooms at 221b Candlestick Maker Street into a veritable 'Old Curiosity Shop', much to the chagrin of the redoubtable Mrs Dudson. I say chagrin. What I should perhaps have said was 'indifference'. For, to speak the truth, Mrs Dudson simply did not care about the clutter; or at least, given the princely rent she received from Humes each month, she was persuaded to endure it with a good grace. There had been a bad grace, once upon a time; she had been employed as a chamber maid while Mrs Dudson was incapacitated with gout and Duck's Disease (the recurring curse of the Dudson family; or at least, the Suffolk branch, which, oddly enough, was not the branch from which Mrs Dudson had sprung forth; which only proves the impossibility of predicting anything when it comes to families, as far as Duck's Disease and Suffolk branchings are concerned). But Grace had resigned one Tuesday morning, after walking into the sitting room to discover Humes attacking a pig's carcase with a scimitar while he was working on The Adventure of the Earless Greek Orthodox Fishmonger.
My reveries were interrupted by the stentorian voice of Shylock Humes. It was quite a shock. I had always assumed that he was an agnostic.
"Flotsam!" cried Humes. "What on earth are you doing, man?"
"Sorry Humes", I spluttered. "I was wool-gathering."
"Well, this is no time for wool-gathering", snapped Humes, his voice like a bolt of summer lightning. "We can work on our winter balaclavas and mittens when we have more leisure. These are deep waters and time is of the essence." He put down the box and began to fill his old clay pipe with black shag tobacco.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I would never forget the time Humes had put down his old clay pipe and had begun to fill a lady client with black shag tobacco. I had managed to stop him before he tried to light her, but it had been a close run thing.
"What have you learned from your examination of the cardboard box containing the mysterious jigsaw puzzle, Humes?" I asked. It must have been me, there was nobody else there.
"It has furnished me with twenty seven indications", said Shylock Humes. "Only fourteen could be said to be completely conclusive, but, of the remaining thirteen, eight are suggestive enough not to be utterly inconclusive, and, of the remaining five, at least three are not without indications, and the other two at least offer glimmers of faint illumination."
"But Humes, surely this is too much!", I was forced to protest, unfurling the 'Shylock Humes Is A Blustering Mountebank' banner that I kept under my armchair for just such an occasion, and marching up and down the room chanting 'Down With Clever Clogs Detectives'.
But before my companion could reply, and begin to reveal the secrets of his amazing deductions, the doorbell went. It was always doing that. Poor Mrs Dudson would have to go out into the busy street and fetch it back again.
"Blast!" I cursed. I was disappointed indeed. After going to such lengths, with getting my banner out and everything, to pave the way for Humes to expound his miraculous discoveries about the cardboard box, it was quite an anti-climax.
Although, I mused - ever the stoical philosopher - at least I would not have to think up a lot of ludicrous deductions for him to expound about and get all pompous over.
Humes stood upright like a great elm at the sound of the bell. Or was it elk? No, it must have been elm. Whoever heard of an upright elk?
"Aha! That will be my brother, Pycroft, Flotsam!", Humes shouted. "Only a matter of national import could have driven him to abandon his customary orbit and pay us a visit. It is just as I thought. This case is really most unique."
"Your brother Pycroft Flotsam, Humes?" I asked.
"No, Flotsam", corrected Humes. "His name is just 'Pycroft'. The 'Flotsam' bit was a reference to yourself."
"The only time I have met your brother was in that case of The Filleted Equerry", I recalled, "where we foiled the Ruritanian plot to replace Her Majesty's most intimate servants with foreign agents."
"Exactly so, old fellow", nodded Humes, from within an impenetrable cloud of black shag tobacco smoke (well, it was not totally impenetrable, or I would not have seen him nodding, but you get the picture). "If my brother has so far shrugged off his habitual lethargy as to visit our sanctum, then there can be nothing less than national interests at stake."
Humes rubbed his hands. How he managed to rub his hands with the very same hands was a constant enigma. "You recall, of course, the name of the man behind the Ruritanian scheme?" he said.
I frowned. "You mean Baron Von Barrenfon Varrenbon III?", I asked.
"Not quite, my dear Flotsam", Humes replied, drawing on his pipe (how I wished that he would use that lovely artist's sketch pad I had bought him at Blessingtons).
"But I don't..." I began.
"When you said 'you mean Baron Von Barrenfon Varrenbon III'", Humes interrupted, "you really meant to say 'you mean Baron Von Varrenfon Barrenvon III', I believe, my dear chap." And he sat, puffing on his clay pipe. He was so damned smug at these times.
I stared into the fire. "What ludicrous names these Ruritanian potentates have", I muttered.
"No Flotsam", Humes corrected. "You are quite in error in your statement."
I looked at him, saying nothing.
Humes smiled the smile of the Sphinx. "Oh don't be hurt, old fellow. I merely mean to point out that our friend the Baron was an impostor. He was in fact a secret agent working for Von Haffenheffer."
"Von Haffenheffer?" I remarked, aghast.
"No, Flotsam, that is not quite the truth", Humes answered.
"But..." I spluttered. I would have to stop asking questions while chewing tobacco.
"Not Von Haffenheffer. His real name was Van Heffenhoffer. Van Heffenhoffer was working for the Ruritanians in the guise of a Ruritanian spy-master named Von Haffenheffer, while in fact he was a Dutch triple agent named Van Hoofenhoffer working from Amsterdam."
My brain reeled. I seemed to be lost, deep within the whorls of thick black smoke from the clay pipe that protruded from the mouth of Shylock Humes like the bill of an ancient Chinese water bird. He had a thing for pipes shaped like exotic fowls. "Hold on, Humes", I expostulated (we would be in need of Mrs Dudson's cloth once again). "You said his real name was, er, what was it?"
"Quite so. So, then, how in the name of all that is sensible could he be called Van, er..?"
"Precisely. This is the stuff of madness, surely?"
"No, no, no, my dear Flotsam. He was Van Hoofenhoffer, as far as the Dutch were concerned, but, of course, the Dutch did not know the real Van Hoofenhoffer."
"Van Heffenhoffer, you mean!"
"Quite so! How you scintillate this evening, my dear Flotsam!" cried Shylock Humes, his voice like that of Mark Antony at the funeral of Caesar. Apart from the latin, of course. And the toga. I had never seen Humes in a toga, and had no desire to do so, though I knew Mrs Dudson lived in hope.
Well, she had a second cousin in Hope, Idaho, but that is not what I mean, or meant. What I meant was, that one day, a few years back, after she had been affected by inhaling the mercury fumes from the cured pelts at the hat-makers where she worked part-time, she told me that she had a hankering to see Humes dressed as a Roman senator.
"I hanker after seein' Mr Humes, all got up like one of they Roman Saniteers", she said, tipping the Mock Turtle Soup into the aspidistra.
I was mortified. I had been looking forward to my Mock Turtle Soup all day. I had her out of that hat-makers the very next day, though I had the very devil of a time with the hatter himself. He kept asking me if anyone had ever told me I was the very image of Cicero. When, exasperated, I said "of course not", he said, "I am not in the least surprised. You look nothing like him."
Mercury poisoning was no joke, as I am sure my readers will testify, after wading through those last paragraphs.
Humes was continuing. "Van Heffenhoffer was a Colonial, from the North American continent. He was a man of infinite resource: chameleon, comedian, caricature. A man who, to most other men, was a mere series of semblances, glimpsed in passing but never fathomed."
"But what has all this to do with this business of the scrimshaw and the opium dens and the whaling?" I asked. "And you missed out 'Corinthian' from 'chameleon, comedian, Corinthian and caricature'".
Humes was as impassive as Nelson's Column. He was not as high, or I would have struggled to speak to him. I should have had to shout, and would have risked a crick in my neck, from all the looking up. "Ah, Flotsam", he said, "Van Heffenhoffer was no Corinthian in the traditional sense. Quite the contrary. But my brother Pycroft will, I believe, help us to probe this matter to its root", said my friend, as the door opened, to reveal the corpulent figure of Pycroft Humes, breathing heavily and perspiring freely.
"Come in, my dear!" cried Humes like the wind in April. "If it is of pseudo-Dutch triple agents, narwhals' tusks and Chinese secret societies that you wish to speak, why, Flotsam and I are all agog to hear your news. You are like Mercury, the Winged Messenger!"
I frowned. What was it with all this mercury, all of a sudden?
Pycroft Humes shook his head, and his flabby jowels flapped. "Ah, Shylock, it is none of those phenomena that have compelled me to leave the comfort of my club and come all the way to Candlestick Maker Street."
"What, then?" asked my friend, knocking out his pipe. He could stun a pipe with a single blow.
Pycroft dragged his enormous frame through the door into our sitting room. Apparently he always carried a giant abacus with him, in case someone stopped him and asked him to perform a calculation. It was his way of supplementing his meagre Government wages. He sat on our sofa like nothing so much as a bull elephant seal. I hated that sofa, it reminded me of my holiday in Tierra Del Fuego. Those seals were a dreadful nuisance. They ruined your picnics, as they were always stealing the sandwiches and cakes when your back was turned. We lost a whole savoury blancmange one sultry afternoon.
Pycroft explained. "Shylock, Doctor Flotsam, I have come to speak about the murder of Rear Admiral Sir Jervis Filigree Huxtable, that is true. And yes, there are sundry addenda concerning scrimshaw and Van Hoffenheffer..."
"Van Heffenhoffer", I corrected.
Pycroft Humes fixed me with the stare of a stone lion. He carried the lion along with the giant abacus. No wonder he was sweating. He continued.
"Yes, the matters you mention are indeed of moment and germane to my task", Pycroft said. "But I think that I will have something to mention of which you are as yet utterly ignorant.
"Have you come across a gentleman by the name of Humphrey Humphrey-Humphries?"
"Why", cried Shylock Humes. "You mean the inventor of the Flying Bedstead!"
"The very same!" said Pycroft. "he is also credited with the invention of such devices as the Steam-Driven Mole-Trap and the Reversible Rickshaw.
"If I tell you that all this harmless lunacy is a mere facade, and that our friend Mr Humphry Humphry-Humphries is wont to disappear at regular intervals to a country estate in the far West of Cornwall, where he likes to entertain certain aristocratic visitors from the Far East, then perhaps..."
Shylock Humes leapt to his feet. He was always doing that. It was not so impressive as if he had been able to leap as far as his throat, but then again, he was not getting any younger.
"The Isambard Kingdom Brunel impersonator!" he yelled.
"Quite so, my dear", said Pycroft.
"Then we must go to Cornwall", said Shylock Humes. "Flotsam, make a long arm and consult Bradshaw for the trains to Penzance."
But Pycroft was shaking his head again. I wished he would not do that: those flapping jowels made me nauseous. "First we must visit a house in Bessemer Street, Shylock", he said.
"Lord Saltwater?" asked Shylock Humes.
"Lord Saltwater", confirmed his corpulent brother.
I sighed. It was going to be a long night, as the medieval torturer said, strapping Sir Lancelot onto the rack.