It was a dark and stormy night when I banged the door knocker of my good friend, Mr. Shorleck Humes, the world-renowned detective. As I stood there, cold rain sluicing from my hat, I contemplated the weather: a falling barometer, a blustery wind from the west, and the dismal prospect of yet more rain and bluster.It kept falling.
I was just picking up the barometer when Mrs. Hubson, Humes’s efficient but ofttimes surly Scotch housekeeper, flung open the door with an Enfield .303 held at port arms and demanded that I advance and be recognised.
“It’s just me, Dr. Wadson,” I said soothingly. “Good gracious, Mrs. Hubson! Has the nefarious Professor Moreyorey laid siege to the place?”
“Och! Oonna nicht sooch as thees, innathin’ be apt to hap’n!” And with that cryptic declaration, she took my coat and hat and tossed them, with the barometer, out into the street.
“He’s oopstairs,” she said sardonically and disappeared down the hallway.
“Ah, Wadson,” my good friend greeted me as he lit his pipe. “It’s good that you have braved the elements to be here this evening. In exactly two minutes and forty-three seconds I am expecting a visitor: a young lady about whom I know nothing save that she is five-foot-two, eyes of blue, with a figure that would put the Venus de Milo to shame, a university education, and that she belongs to a family of great wealth.”
“Great Scott, Humes! How did you deduce all that?”
“She told me in a letter. The fact that she has a university education was doubly confirmed when she spelt ’panty raid’ with two ‘t’s in the fashion approved of by all fraternity members. — But, Wadson, I am an ungracious host! Here, do have dinner with me. Mrs. Hubson has only just now brought up our repast.”An unwelcome visitor
Just as Humes lifted the lid from the silver serving tray, an Indian cobra — easily six feet in length — sprang out and landed noisily on the carpet. I must confess that I was paralyzed with fear and surprise, but not so with Humes. Not wasting a moment, he stuffed his pipe into one jacket pocket and produced an ocarina from the other.
With graceful side-to-side movements, Humes stealthily backed toward the window, all the while piping “A Modern Major-General” on his instrument; the snake haltingly pursued him.
Without missing a note — for Humes is famous for his skill with the ocarina all the way from Beagle Street to Piccadilly Circus — he deftly raised the window with his toe and stepped out on to the rain-slick sill. The cobra, at first appearing indecisive, followed suit. Briefly, in the actinic glare of a lightning flash, the two could be seen side by side; but then, in the next moment, the hissing serpent had leapt out into space and dashed itself to pieces on the street below.
I stood for a moment, gasping for breath and searching for words to express my utter amazement.
“Calm yourself, Wadson,” said my friend with the utmost composure. “Perhaps I can save you the effort of searching for words to express your utter amazement. You see, the very moment the hissing serpent manifested itself, I saw at once that it was of the genus Atonius barrymanilowius and I knew instantly that, like all of his snakish kind, he could not long endure hearing Gilbert and Sullivan being played a half-tone flat on an ocarina. Consequently, I ushered him to the window in hopes that he would commit suicide — which, as you have just seen, he did. QED.”
“Amazing, Humes. But surely this was a cowardly attempt on your life by that evil napkin-pincher, Professor Moreyorey.”
“No, Wadson, I’m afraid it was not. As you know, Mrs. Hubson has been on something of a tear lately — offering vehement objections to the hours I keep, to my skipping meals that she has labored long to prepare, to my hanging underwear in the fireplace, and so forth.” Through clenched teeth he added, “The woman will have her little jokes.”
“Say, Humes,” I said, sniffing the air. “Do you smell smoke?”
“That’s fear, my dear Wadson. It will pass.”
Just then there was a knock on the door.
“Knock-knock,” said a muffled but delicate feminine voice from the other side.
“Who’s there?” said Humes.
“Bob’s your uncle!”
Turning to me, Humes said, “That is our pre-arranged code. Quickly, Wadson, admit the young lady at once!”
As I did so, I could not help but notice the diminutive apparition that glided into the room. From her delicate neck to the floor, she was wrapped in a heavy, voluminous overcoat which barely stirred as she walked; whilst above the neckline perched a finely-shaped head with two bright, blue, intelligent eyes and a mass of honey-coloured hair.
“Mr. Humes, I presume.”
“You presume correctly, Miss Twisby-Axelby. First of all, I wish to apologize for the falling snake, for I noticed that he only narrowly missed you waiting on the doorstep. Secondly, let me introduce Dr. Wadson. I want to assure you that anything you say before him, of even the most intimate and embarrassing nature, will be held in the strictest confidence until he publishes it in the STRAND six months from now.”
“Very well, Mr. Humes. Truly, these matters are of a most delicate nature. My dear father is beside himself with Anxiety about this affair. Whenever we go to the theatre, we must buy an extra seat just to accommodate both of them. And as for my dear mother — don’t get me started.”
“Pray,” said Humes with impatience, “be more specific — and please confine yourself to the facts!”
“Hmm,” said the muffled but delicate feminine voice, “I like forceful men. . . At any rate, here are the sordid — as you call them — facts. Fact: My favourite colour is pink. Fact: Bustles are hideous. Fact: All men are beasts. Fact: Diamonds are a girl’s best friend. There! Have I been quite clear?”The Pink Panzer
“So,” said Humes. “You have been jilted by your fiance, a one-legged Aussie who walks with a limp and goes by the name of Archie; and furthermore he has absconded to Australia with a family heirloom, a rare pink diamond easily worth one hundred thousand pounds, inside the bustle of your dress.”
“Incredible, Humes,” I interjected, “but how — ?”
Humes waved the letter.
Miss Twisby-Axelby’s delicate feminine lip curled into a delicately feminine sneer. “This happened just a fortnight ago, Mr. Humes. Not only did that dirty, rotten scoundrel make off with the Pink Panzer, but he also took my favourite dress, leaving me with absolutely nothing to wear. See?”Miss Twisby-Axelby in better times
And with that she flung open her heavy, voluminous overcoat. In a bright flash of lightning, all was revealed.
“I see,” said Humes.
“It is obvious that you do,” she said with a delicately feminine annoyance as she closed her coat. “This situation is intolerable, Mr. Humes! Every day finds me telling my friends that I have nothing on, and yet I cannot engage in normal intercourse. This cognitive dissonance is most egregious — nay, it is more. It is — it is — impecunious!”
“Quite so,” murmured Humes. “Is there any possibility,” he added hopefully, “that Archie might have left any tobacco ash on your person with which I might trace him? I have written a monograph on the subject, as you may know. If you would kindly open your coat — purely in the interests of justice, mind you — I could commence with an examination. Now where did I leave my magnifying glass…?”
“Such an inspection would be fruital, Mr. Humes. Archie was a confirmed non-smoker.”
“Pity. Well, Miss Twisby-Axelby, you may rest assured that all your troubles are behind you, and that we will pursue this case to, um, its conclusion.”
“Speaking of tobacco ash just now,” said Miss Twisby-Axelby, “seems to have made me imagine that I smell smoke.”
“That is just my housekeeper doing the laundry. Dr. Wadson and I will now wish you a fond adieu — and mind the mud puddles.”
After she had gone, Humes settled into an armchair, shut his eyes, and said, “That young woman is hiding something.”
“I can’t for the life of me imagine what.”
Humes clapped his hands together. “Get packing, Wadson, we’re leaving.”
“Leaving? Leaving for where?”
It wasn’t long before we hailed a handsome cab. Humes allowed several plain ones to pass before he flagged down a cab whose jib he liked the cut of, and off we raced to Paddington Bear Station.
The 10.28 to Melbourne, we were told, would be leaving on schedule at 11.44, so we had just enough time to extinguish the flames belching from Humes’s jacket pocket.
“I TOLD you I smelled smoke.”
“We’ll speak no more of this, Wadson.”
“Even Miss Twisby-Axelby said —”
The 10.28 to Melbourne chugged out of the station right on time at 1.50, with Mighty Casey at the throttle, lustily singing “This Train’s Got the Disappearin’ Railroad Blues” (from the album “Train Travel and Other Non Sequiturs”).
The receding lights of London struck a chord of sadness in me. At least, they would have had it not been a dark and stormy night, with a falling barometer, a blustery wind from the west, and … you know.
As we rounded the Cape of Good Hope, engineer Casey leaned on the hooter, with the good hope that people on the shore would wave and cheer us on. Surely enough, they did. Well, perhaps they did; it was so dark and stormy, the noise and gestures we heard and saw could be interpreted in any number of ways.
Despite the weather, our passage across the Indian Ocean was uneventful, interrupted only by a few rather aggressive dolphins trying to sell us time-shares in Ayers Rock Development.
Humes, meanwhile, was in the throes of ratiocinative cogitation, and as such, was not to be disturbed. He would puff incessantly on his reserve calabash, scooping cupfuls of tobacco from a Persian kitten; and whenever the barometer would start to fall, he would prang it in mid-air with his Webley .455.
Finally, three months after leaving London, we rolled up the beach and on into Melbourne Station. Although it happened to be a dark and stormy night, never had an outpost of Her Majesty’s Empire looked so welcoming. Even Humes seemed to have regained his optimism.
“Well, Wadson, we have arrived. Now, to find Miss Twisby-Axelby’s malefactor, who, as you may recall, is a one-legged Aussie who walks with a limp and goes by the name of Archie. . . Excuse me, sir. Might I make a query of you?”
“You try it, mate, ‘n’ I’ll bust yer chops!”
“No, no. You misunderstand. I just want to ask you a question.”
“It ain’t multiple choice, is it, ’cause I HATE them multiple choicers.”
“Again, no. Could you tell me whether or not you know a man named Archie?”
“YOUR name is Archie?”
“And you have one leg?”
“And do you walk with a limp?”
“Ever’ chance I get.”
“Say, you wouldn’t happen to possess a floor-length evening gown?”
“The one with the bustle?”
“What a stroke of luck, Wadson! The very first person —”
” ‘Course now, I don’t have no priceless pink diamond what was a family heirloom, if’n that’s what yer drivin’ at.”
Humes was crestfallen. “No. . .diamond?”
Humes’s hand smoothly slid into his coat; I could tell he was caressing his Webley.
“And why should I believe you?”
” ‘Struth, guv’nuh! Cross me legs and hope to die! I ain’t got no doubt you’ve met Honoria Twisby-Axleby by now ‘n she’s told yuh a pack o’ lies about me — and about the Pink Panzer. Well, fact is she never let it out of her possession. Bathed with it, went beddy-bye with it. ALWAYS had it on her.”
“Wore it as a necklace, did she?” volunteered Humes.
“Not all the time, guv’nuh.”
It was one of those rare occasions when Humes was all at sea. “Then, uh, where did she keep it?”
Archie looked this way and that and, crooking his finger at Humes, bade him lean over so that he could whisper in his ear.
After a moment, Humes’s eyes went wide and he straightened up.
“She hid it in her WHAT?”
“It’s the God’s honest, mate, and no mistake.”
“Get packing, Wadson!”
“But we haven’t UNpacked yet. What’s up?”
“We’re returning to London.”
“But why? What is it?”
“I KNEW she was hiding something!”
And even the charming rustic vista of herds of plodding bunyips being driven by fair dinkum billabongs couldn’t brighten his mood.
Lightning split the skies and rattled the windowpanes.
“Miss Twisby-Axelby.” Humes’s voice carried a note of menace. I can truly say that in all the years we have known each other, I had never seen him on the verge of completely losing his composure.
The young lady sitting on the couch cringed as much as possible in her heavy, voluminous overcoat and, turning her pert nose and deep blue eyes upon him, squeaked, “Uh, y-yes, Mr. Humes?”
“It’s no use exercising your feminine wiles on me at this late date, young woman.”
“Actually, this coat has chosen to bind in the uh — the uh. . .”
“And speaking of that! Archie informed me of just where you’ve been hiding the Pink Panzer all along. That explains why you lied to me about his smoking habit. I knew the truth as soon as I clapped eyes on him; the nicotine-stained fingers, lips, nose, ears, and toes on his singular foot attested to a heavy user. No doubt a close examination of your person would have yielded many varieties of tobacco ash — to say nothing of the diamond.”
“Yes, let us say — uh — nothing — um — of the diamond. Uh, ahhm.”
“Oh, but we shall, young lady. Like so much about you, your malefactions are plain to see now.”
At this she clutched her overcoat tighter.Deadly
“You stole the Pink Panzer and intended to place the blame on Archie, a likely victim due to his rather unusual sartorial habits. You knew that Archie planned to return to the Land Down Under, and what better way to divert attention than to implicate a one-legged man who would likely die in the first koala stampede of the season, for they are so tragically common there. As for your ‘dear’ father and mother, well, they could go hang. But your brilliant plan backfired, didn’t it, when Archie took your dress with him.”
“That fool! He — uh, ah — doesn’t have the faintest idea of how to — ah, uh — to coordinate. Had I but known, I would have dropped him like a dyspeptic dingo.”
“There remains just one more unexplored point — and here I must confess that I am completely baffled.”
I have to admit I was shocked to hear such an admission from the lips of the finest detective in England.Dyspeptic
Pretty little eyelashes fluttered. “And what, pray, is the — uh, uh! — the source of your — erm! — your bafflement?”
“You had the Pink Panzer in your possession for a fortnight AFTER Archie left. Why did you not ‘fence’ it — that is, sell it on the black market? I can only conclude that you still have it — possibly on your person at this very moment!”
Whereupon Miss Twisby-Axelby’s delicately feminine lip once again appealingly curled into a delicately feminine sneer.
And then, suddenly, she was on her feet clawing at the buttons of her voluminous overcoat.
“Do you — AH! — really want — UM! — to — URH! — know, Mr. Humes? DO YOU — URRAH! — REALLY WANT TO KNOW?”
It would, indeed, prove to be a dark and stormy night.