I looked at my friend Shylock Humes, and then at the huddled figure in the leather armchair.
"Dead, Humes?" I ejaculated. It was all right, the butler had a cloth I could use.
"No, Flotsam", answered my friend Shylock Humes. "I am not dead - though, in view of the paltry audience we get for this rubbish, I may as well be. No, I mean the figure in this leather armchair. His Lordship. He is quite dead."
I lunged towards the chair. I had to rest a moment. I should have known better. I had not lunged like that in 20 years, since that time with dear little Kitty behind the whelkstall at Bognor. Or was it Broadstairs? Was it even Kitty? Surely, she was the one who went into service in Scotland and married a deer stalker? Odd that, marrying a hat. The only other case of hat infatuation I was aware of was that of my Uncle Skeffington, who became obsessed with the tricorn hat worn by the Ivybridge town crier, Wilfred Scrote, and tried to elope with it one wild September night.
But Uncle Skeffington was insane. He lived in a disused poultry shed and called every woman (and the tricorn hat) "Clarissa", after the tragic heroine in Richardson's 1748 epistolary novel. I could recall no signs of lunacy in little Kitty. If it was Kitty, behind the whelkstall at Bognor. Or Broadstairs.
It was Shylock Humes who interrupted this gentle reverie. "Come now, Flotsam, to work! This is no time for wool-gathering man!" he cried. I threw down the ball of wool scraps I had managed to gather while I was musing upon my raffish youth, and leant over the chair.
My first reaction was one of horror. "Humes, the poor devil has wasted completely away. All that remains is a heap of clothing that looks from a distance as if it housed a man.
"I've not seen anything like this since that day on the Khyber Pass, after we found that band of travelling minstrels who had been attacked by brigands. All that remained were their clothes. Our native cook, Ahmad as-Buggaree, said it was the result of the deadly vanishing poison distilled from the ab-racadbra plant.
"Of course, a mile further on, we found their naked mutilated corpses hanging from a couple of trees, but still, it brings it all back does this."
"But Flotsam, this is utterly splendid!" cried Humes, rubbing his hands with a glint in his eyes. I was shocked, I had never seen a man rub glint into his bare hands before. Mrs Dudson used it on the brass candlesticks.
My friend sprang from the mantelpiece. How or why he had got up there I will never know, there is no hint of it in the preceding paragraphs. He turned to the butler, who was lurking behind us.
"Mr Herring", he said, his voice like the crack of a pistol, "you seem remarkably unperturbed at the melancholy fate of your erstwhile master. Why are you lurking impassively there?"
"I was taught the techniques of impassive lurking by Msr Merde, of Paris. The Pwthylliggrionngngrdngnadd Hall servants have always been trained in impassive lurking by Msr Merde."
"Ha!" cried Humes, springing down from the Louis Walsh chandelier. What he had been doing up there was a mystery, there was no hint of it in the preceding paragraphs. "Ha!" he cried again. For a moment I feared that he was losing his ability to improvise silly dialogue.
I need not have feared. He had never had that ability in the first place.
"Now then, here's a pretty business. There's something not right about all this." The stentorian tones of Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley came as quite a surprise, as he had not spoken since we had entered Pwthylliggrionngngrdngnadd Hall. "Here's a business", he said, "here's a pretty business."
"Ha!" Humes cried again, emerging from the bowels of the Louis Armstrong escritoire. What on earth had he been doing inside an antique writing-desk? "Ha!" he shouted triumphantly.
"Here's a business, here's a pretty business", came the deep voice of Livingstone-Stanley again.
"Ha!" yelled Shylock Humes, from behind the Louis Pasteur cabinet. "Ha! That, I may say, is conclusive. Quite conclusive!"
Herring the ancient butler continued lurking impassively on the Louis Tussaud carpeting.
I was worried now. Would we ever get to the bottom of this mystery? Humes and I had been in some narrow scrapes before. However, on that occasion, Mrs Dudson had let them out for us, and we were soon much more comfortable. This was different. Mrs Dudson's needle and thread could not help us here. Surely this was the darkest hour we had yet experienced.
It seemed as if I were trapped in an endlessly repetitive pseudo-reality. Humes and Livingstone-Stanley kept repeating themselves in a nonsensical, self-parodying fashion. The old butler was behaving like a cardboard stock minor character. The so-called mystery we had been investigating seemed like a lot of old tripe.
It looked bleak for us. We seemed to have become trapped inside an Arthur Conan Doyle story.
But, as ever, it was my mercurial friend Shylock Humes whose torch of truth shone light into the darkness in that obscure Welsh mansion. Well, to be honest, it was the new gas lighting that we turned up, but you must see what I mean. Well, I hope you do. We are utterly lost otherwise.
"Inspector!" cried Humes. "Why are you speaking in that way? You sound like Inspector Athelney Jones, the Welsh policeman from the popular stories about the detective with a name like mine."
"I thought, 'when in Rome, talk like an Italia.., er, Welsh, er. Sorry, Mr Humes, the, er, metamorph.., er, similarity..."
"Proverb", interrupted Humes. "No, it does not work, but it was worth trying. Well done, Inspector. However, all is well, gentleman, for I have my case, and what a case it is. In finest Norwegian leather, silk-lined. At last I can be rid of my moth-eaten old carpet-bag!"
We stared, open-mouthed. At least, Livingstone-Stanley and I did. Herring continued lurking, impassively. And of course Humes did not stare open-mouthed at his own remarks. That would have been ludicrous.
It was Shylock Humes who broke the silence again. "Never fear, gentlemen, I merely mentioned my new leather case to introduce a touch of the dramatic. You know I can never resist a touch of the dramatic. The Case Of The Purloined Budgerigar is solved. This ancient antique has given me the final clues."
"What, that Louis Pasteur cabinet?" I asked.
"No, my dear Flotsam", Humes corrected. "Friend Herring, here, the antique retainer of Pwthylliggrionngngrdngnadd Hall.
"And now, Herring", Humes continued ominously. "I should like to speak to the servants. Be kind enough to gather them for me and fetch them here. I generally find that speaking to ungathered servants is quite a trial, what with all the coming and going, and moving in and out of servants' quarters at all hours of the night. It's a terrible business, involving the use of loud hailers and bagpipes, and can lead to the horrors of Chinese Whispers and incipient scandal."
"Very good Sir", said Herring, and left the room. We were grateful to him for leaving the room. If he had taken it with him, where would we have gone to for shelter and succour of a cold dark Llandrinndrbdrioddnagg night?
Humes turned to us. This was promising. I had wondered if he would stand with his back turned all night.
"Our immediate challenge, gentleman", he said, his voice like the crack of a whip, "is to work our way back from here. It promises to be a devilish business."
"Can't we just reverse our earlier journey hereto?" I suggested.
"Well done, Doctor!" cried Livingstone-Stanley.
"Where would I be without you, my dear Flotsam!" ejaculated Humes. It was all right, The butler had left his cloth. "Where indeed?"
I was delighted at this praise. Every now and again, the cold, hard intellectual facade of the detecting machine was pierced by a shaft of human emotion. These were priceless moments. It was nice to get a bit of praise from Humes as well, of course, that goes without saying.
We made our way back from the Drawling Room by reversing our earlier journey thereto, then. Did I say this was my idea?
From the Drawling Room, we passed through the ornate drawing room with its walls festooned with drawings.
Then we continued reversing, along The To Be Brutally Honest, So Small A Corridor It's A Mystery Why They Even Bothered, Corridor, The Even Less Great Corridor, The Less Great Corridor, The Great Corridor, The Slightly Smaller Hall, and finally we found ourselves once more in The Great Hall.
Here we caught our breath, exhausted. "Reversing along in that way is always fraught with difficulty", Humes explained. "For one thing, the comic effect of the silly names of the corridors and halls is fatally damaged by their being placed in reverse order. For another thing", he said, rubbing his head, "there is the danger of collision with busts of Julius Caesar and Arthur Askey.
"It's devilish work, but it had to be done. Now we must address the gathered servants."
A thought had occurred to me. "Humes", I asked, "where are they being gathered, these gathered servants? I don't recall any venue being booked, or even suggested."
"Damn!" My friend was ablaze with blazing fire. "We have been tricked, Flotsam. I have been blind as a mole. But, by the Lord Harry, he may have bested me this time, but he shall not have bested me a further!
"Though, to be fair, he has rather stitched me up a treat, I must admit. This is a cunning villain indeed. He is a worthy adversary, gentleman, quite the most worthy I have encountered since the death of the late lamented Professor Morris-Varty."
But we seemed to be quite lost. "We seem to be quite lost, Humes", I observed. "How shall we ever find these gathered servants?"
"We're doomed!" wailed Inspector Livingstone-Stanley. "We're doomed, I tell ye! Quite doomed!"
While the Inspector was lapsing into cliched Celtic hyperbole again, Shylock Humes became animated. It was strange, seeing him turn into a cartoon. Fortunately, he was soon himself again. His eyes sparkled.
"I have it, gentlemen! We must find our way outside and encircle the house. Then, when we have discovered, by the expedient of looking in through the window, which room the servants have gathered in, we shall have to break in.
"It will take time, and it will not be easy, for we are grappling with a superior intellect that has run to the bad. We may have to cover the entire house. We might have to scale the walls and look in though every window on every floor. But it will have to be done. Are you with me?"
"I am with you to the hilt, Humes", I said.
"I thought I knew my Flotsam", smiled Shylock Humes. "And you, Inspector, are you game?"
"What have you heard, Mr Humes?" the Inspector asked, clearly perturbed. "You oughtn't to believe every rumour that comes out of Scotland Yard. They like a joke at the Yard you know..."
Before Humes could reply, I had had an idea. "Why don't we make our way back to the Drawling Room? Surely that's where they'll be. You did ask Herring to fetch them there after all."
"What?" Humes ejaculated. Someone had left a towel in the Hall, so it was all right. "If you knew that all this time, why didn't you say something before now?"
"I did", I said. "I said it just then. That's well before now, you know."
"Thank you, Flotsam", Humes said. "Then there is no time to be lost. The game's afoot. To the Drawling Room once more!"