Adventures of Sherwood Hoakes: The Yellow Cockroach

From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia

Adventures of Sherwood Hoakes: The Yellow Cockroach is the second parody of two written anonymously as A. Cone and Oil (Charles C. Rothwell) published in The Ludgate Weekly on 28 may 1892. His first parody is Adventures of Sherwood Hoakes: An Interrupted Honeymoon.

Adventures of Sherwood Hoakes: The Yellow Cockroach

Next to the great "Crumpet mystery," which, as no doubt you remember, stirred London to its inmost heart, and went very near bringing my poor friend to the gallows, all innocent as he was, but too easily confiding, the case which most thrilled the popular imagination at the time, filling the newspapers with sensational columns under the heading of "What's become of the Bishop?" is the one I am about to lay before you. I had seen nothing of Hoakes for several weeks, though I never failed to glance at his succinct little "ad" every morning in the second column of the Daily Caterwaul. On my last visit at Butcher-avenue, I had found him much ruffled in his temper and rather out of spirits. It transpired that some officious old clergyman of the neighbourhood had called on him, and in the the kindliest way had invited him to attend their annual thieves' supper, and give the company a short account of his personal experiences before reformation and after.

"It's Scotland Yard has done this," he said bitterly. "It's they who disseminate these libels against my professional character. I admit that I've been unfortunate in one or two of my cases, but, having expiated my errors of judgment on the plank bed without a murmur, why should the police be for ever throwing the treadmill in my teeth? They're jealous of me — bitterly jealous of me, Chasemore — that I know for a fact."

Some six weeks elapsed before I heard from Hoakes again. One night I was on the point of closing up my place of business (I am so much of a dispensing chemist that I dispense with all business after eight o'clock), when a young and unprepossessing man, wearing an ostler's sleeved vest, stepped to the counter and handed me a bottle done up in brown paper and sealed.

"What's this for, my man?"

"I dunno. The directions is inside."

It was an old medicine bottle, of a particularly disreputable cast of countenance. Its stopper was a bit of paper, screwed up. There was no prescription accompanying it, and, from the smell, I judged the bottle had last held unsweetened gin. I unrolled the improvised cork, and, to my astonishment, found it was a short note from Sherwood Hoakes, in hurried pencil:

"DEAR CHASEMORE, — Come if you can, and as soon as you can. Here's a mystery with a vengeance, and some queer folk concerned in it. Fill the bottle with water, and seal with red wax if you can come to-night, and with black if you can't. Charge the man 6d. for the 'medicine'... S.H.

"At the sign of the 'Jew's Harp,'
"Cohen-street, East,

I was at Putney by half-past nine, but only after some difficulty did I find the "Jew's Harp," in Cohen-street East. It proved to be a mean little alehouse situated in a most unhandsome quarter. I pushed on into the barroom at the bottom of the unclean passage, and came upon a man sitting dozing beside a small fire in a rusty grate. A two-days' old beard stippled his chin and cheeks; a wisp of blue neckcloth supplied the place of a collar; his clothing would have been a dear purchase at sixpence.

"Who are you?" he demanded, "but cub id and sit dowd."

"Pretty good in its way," I said; "but you're playing at the ostrich with its head in the sand. Your nails are too clean, Hoakes, my boy, for your present character."

"Well, that's true," he said. "But this is only a dress rehearsal. The curtain doesn't rise on me till to-morrow."

"Who are you then?"

"Mine host's brother-in-law; he's the landlord here, a Jew, and rejoices in the name of Raphael Lewis. He'll be back presently. It's a case of sudden death, entailing a suspicion of foul play. The coroner's jury were satisfied that the evidence showed 'natural causes' — namely, excessive drink. But Lewis isn't satisfied; the man in question was his brother Lazarus, better known as Lazy Lewis. He did odd jobs for all sorts of people; when he was sober he was incorrigibly idle and thievish, but, oddly enough, when drunk he appears to have been a fairly decent, civil fellow, and honest in his bemused way. On the fifth and sixth of last month he was working for an old gentleman here whom they call 'the Bishop,' and who was in fact formerly the Bishop of British Gambogia; on the afternoon of the 7th, Lazarus staggered into this room, dazed and drunk, and lay down on that settle. He was coughing violently, and his brother concluded that he was seriously ill, and sent for a doctor. But he died within five minutes, and the only intelligible words he uttered were, 'the yellow cockroach!' which he gasped out twice, and then coughed up the ghost."

"Post mortem on him?"

"Yes; but all it disclosed was the drunkard's typical cirrhosed liver, quite enough to account for his death."

"Does Lewis pretend to find any meaning in the words used by his brother, 'yellow cockroach'?"

"None whatever; but the dying man uttered them with such emphasis, that Lewis is convinced they contain some reference to the cause of his death."

"Have you any other clue?"

Hoakes rose and took a bundle from a cupboard, and spread the contents on the table.

"The deceased's clothes. Neither beautiful nor odoriferous, are they? Look at the boots — drunkard's boots — soles showing how he habitually dragged his feet. The vest betrays a trembling hand — front all stained with spilt liquor. This long thread is my most important clue; notice the bit of carefully modelled cobbler's-wax at the end of it." "It has been used to fish up something, you think?"

"Yes; those particles of yellow dust on it tell their tale to an instructed eye. That, and this bent old tin-whistle, are all the materials I have to probe the mystery with."

While we were examining the clothes, our landlord, Raphael Lewis, came in. He regarded my presence with obvious surprise and suspicion, and I looked upon him without experiencing anything approaching pleasure. He was in his shirt-sleeves, and they were partly rolled up, and he wore a dingy pot hat tilted back on his ears. His face had an unhealthy "doughy" look, a mean and sensual expression; and his watery, uncertain eyes warned everyone who looked into them not to trust their owner, however plausible his tongue. He looked more like a brutish Gentile than a cunning Jew, although he spoke catarrhally through his "dose."

"Evenig, gents. Lookin' over poor old Lazarus's duds?"

"This is an esteemed friend of mine," said Hoakes, introducing me, "whom I asked to come down and chat the case over with me."

"What'll he take? What's your poisod, sir? I can recommend our gid."

I declined the gin, and we continued our discussion of the case, aided by a feeling commentary from the bereaved brother.

"Oh, he was a bad 'un, was Lazarus — I'm free to adbit that much — and he was a fool at drinking — couldn't drink above a quart without showing it. I've known him go dead blind drunk over no more than seved tots of unsweetened gid, though I know you won't believe me, gents. He was ad ass, was Lazarus, but what o'that; we can't let him die without havig a show id, can we, gents? And if we can only prove he cub by his death through foul play, it'll cost his murderer a good 'undred pound to settle things quietly with me. Oh, there ain't no flies on me, gents! And poor Lazarus 'ud be the last to grudge me an honest 'undred or two for taking the trouble to 'unt up his burderer." Although I am usually rather squeamish about my sleeping quarter, I stayed the night with Hoakes at the "Jew's Harp." The place was a bedlam of riot and drink till eleven, after which Raphael brought a particular crony of his, named Simeon, into the back parlour, and favoured us with his conversation and tobacco. The night being warm, he had removed what an imaginative mind might call his collar, but his hat continued to occupy the back of his head. In the course of talk, he announced to me, as a propitiatory explanation, calculated to inspire a greater confidence in him, that he was "not a Hebrew, but a Christian Jew."

"But isn't that rather like a contradiction in terms? What is a Christian Jew?"

"Never you mind what it is," he replied, doggedly. "That's what I ab, and no abount of talk will make me change."

"But what are your particular tenets, your formulas of belief?"

"'Ere, Bister, keep a civil tongue id your 'ead, will you? I'll argue against you any day, but calling names isn't argument, is it, Simeon?"

Instead of getting into his bed that night, Hoakes coiled himself on his heels upon it in the Turkish manner, with a paper of snuff at a convenient distance. I tried that snuff, but it loosened my teeth in their sockets as it hurried me, gasping and whooping, out of one convulsion into another.

Hoakes smiled upon me gently.

"No wonder, my poor Chasemore. There's gunpowder in it!"

"G-g — gun — whoorra — whoosk — pshoo — ha! — g-gunpowder in it!" I sneezed and shouted simultaneously.

"Yes; a mile of Eley's best. I find it sharpens the mental processes wonderfully — when you're used to it."

For many an hour this extraordinary man sat statue-like upon his truckle bed, snuffling and cogitating. At last, as the dawn was breaking through the grimy panes I woke to find him preparing for rest, the empty paper of snuff lying on the floor.

"I built up my theory last night," he said at breakfast. "I shall have a busy week of it now."

"But do be careful, my dear fellow. Don't theorise yourself into Millbank again just yet; for in my eyes this Raphael of yours seems to be a most unmitigated scamp."

On the following Wednesday Hoakes walked into my shop clothed in a check suit and a smile which fitted him without a crease. My wife being out, I introduced him to my little parlour, where I vamp my bread pills and my gentian quinine, and begged him to explain his smile.

"I'm od the track of the burderer," he said, mimicking his client's manner of speech.

"I've taken service in the household of the old Bishop."

"As pageboy?"

"As gardener — footman — lodgekeeper. Now I want you to come down to Gambogie

Lodge on Saturday. I may be in need of your help. I want to show you a thing or two, and take the opinion of an unbiased mind."

"But how am I to present myself? I haven't the pleasure of the Bishop's friendship."

"But you have of mine. Call at the gatehouse and inquire for Jackson — c'est moi. He's a deaf and amiable old gentleman, Bishop Barker, and won't object to his new footman showing the sights of the house to a humble and admiring friend. Dress to the character, you know — second-rate boots and a horsey tie."

On Saturday, therefore, leaving my apprentice in charge (who, let me say, in spite of being unfortunately quite colour-blind and deficient in the sense of smell, has, to my gratification and surprise, only once, as yet, been censured by the coroner's jury), I slipped out unobserved by my wife, and betook myself to Putney.

The house where the Right Rev. Barker B. Barker, sometime Bishop of British Gambogia, lived retired, was an antique red brick rambling abode. At the gatehouse I found not only "Jackson" awaiting me, but, to my disgust, Raphael Lewis as well. Hoakes looked his tripartite character in every respect, bearing himself with a demure solemnity very proper in a bishop's servant, but Raphael, in spite of the flash and greasy splendour of his Saturday apparel, smacked all too palpably of the New Cut. He was elated and loquacious, and talked freely about "bringing the burderer to justice, unless he stumped up 'andsomely."

It appeared that it was the other servants' "day out," which left us a clear coast to begin with. We went in the back way, and much to Raphael's relief there turned out to be no dog on guard at the kitchen door.

"It's a beastly custob," he said, "'aving a big hulkig dog outside the back door, and many a poor honest working-man out o' work has been frightened out of his wits and had his trousers tore beside. In my opiniod there's no arm in poisoding them kind of beasts."

As we filed up the backstairs Raphael seemed to tiptoe and spoke only in a hoarse whisper, addressing each of us as "mate" and imploring us to "bake less doise or the old bloke would 'ear us."

On the landing a choice little gilt clock evoked his heartiest admiration. "I know a chap who would give me twenty-five shillings on that, like winking, and no questions asked."

The room into which Hoakes introduced us was a sort of library-museum. The flooring was of oak, brown and glassy, there were many long glass-covered desk-cases containing a multitude of specimens, chiefly entomological, pinned and ticketed.

"His lordship was an enthusiastic collector," said Hoakes, "and you have here specimens of the British Gambogia."

"Beetles ad flies" said Raphael with unconcealed disdain. "Couldn't get a shilling on the whole lot to save your life!"

With an impressive finger, Hoakes beckoned us to a small case apart.

"The choicest specimens in the collection!"

There were four small beetles pinned in a row, a fifth pin was tenantless.

"Why, they're yellow cockroaches!" cried Raphael, hoarsely. "O Lazarus, you poor burdered old bloke, this what you was a-talkig of when you died. We can make the bishop pay for this here! He ought to cub dowd 'andsome to save his old neck from the gallows."

"Lewis," said Hoakes contemptuously, "You're a fool. How do you suppose the bishop is implicated? Do you think he hounded on one of these dead and dried cockroaches to bite your brother? Look here. Do you see where this lid has been tampered with and prized open? Those three minute circles printed on the wood exactly correspond with the blow-holes in your brother's tin whistle, which he used as a lever. Then thro' the fissure he must have let down his thread and cobbler's wax, and fished up the cockroach, put it into his mouth to escape detection, and no doubt gulped it by mistake. Now, these are poisonous beetles, and the fright, and the poison, and the drink conspired to kill him."

"But why on earth should he want to steal a dead beetle?" I demanded.

"You may well ask. Because the other four are all antique fac-similes in gold of the famous yellow beetle of Gambogia, and were found in an old excavated native temple. Lazarus fished up the wrong beetle — that was all."

"Fac-similes in gold!" cried Raphael, gloating over the case. "I always said Lazarus was a bord fool. Why the blazes didn't he take the 'ole lot?"

"Your remarks are indecent, Mr. Lewis," said Hoakes coldly, "and now you've had the explanations, perhaps you'll kindly come away."

We got him out of the room with difficulty. He coveted an ivory knife, but I caught him in the act of pocketing it; and Hoakes made him disgorge a crystal letterweight. He was annoyed and disgusted by our interference.

"What does it batter? He's only a Christian," he said, as ample justification for pillaging the Bishop. But we were firm.

On the stairs we met his Lordship, a frail, pathetic, white-headed old gentleman. He seemed mildly surprised, but accepted Hoakes' respectful explanation of our presence.

"Yes, yes," he said, with his hand curved behind his ear; "show them everything; take them round the flower-garden, and let them have some ginger-beer if they wish." Raphael wanted to go the round of the cellars, but we refused, and insisted on leaving the house. Simeon, with his dog-fancier's face, was smoking a pipe on the back steps, awaiting us.

"Thought I'd just stroll round, Rap, and meet you and the gents. Pretty little crib, this 'ere, ain't it; but not sufficiently burglar-proof for my taste. Look at that window, Rap; a cove could clean out the 'ole bloomin' show, single-'anded, with a jemmy and a centrebit." This was on Saturday. On Monday morning Hoakes burst into my shop haggard and distressed.

"He's gone"

"Who's gone?"

"The bishop! Hasn't been seen since Sunday afternoon. Hue and cry everywhere for him. I'm a ruined man!"

"This is indeed serious. Of course it's your client has done this."

"Yes, I'm afraid so. I've been to see him and taxed him with it, but he plays at righteous indignation. What shall I — shall I do?"

"Call in the police at once."

"But they're so jealous of me. They could make themselves so nasty over an affair like this."

"You'll have to put up with that. I'm only afraid this spells Millbank again, my poor Hoakes."

"Don't say so," he protested hoarsely.

"But doesn't it look perilously like conspiracy?"

He dropped a ghastly face into his hands, and I made him up an aether nit. cum cinch draught to put heart into him.

All that black week the papers rang with the mysterious disappearance of the exbishop, and conjecture was rife. On Thursday Hoakes summoned me in haste to Butcher-avenue.

"Come with me to Putney," he said; "and let us make a last appeal to that stupendous blackguard."

So down we journeyed to the "Jew's Harp." Raphael was in quite a genial mood.

"I wish you'd talk some sedse into Bister 'Oakes's 'ead," he said to me. "He thinks I'm hiding the Bishop up my sleeve. What should I want with the 'oary old bloke? Why, I should lose all my custob if my friends thought I kept such ad unclean thing as a Christiad bishop on the premises!"

"You've got him, I know you have," said Hoakes savagely. "You've kidnapped him in the hopes of getting a ransom or reward!"

Raphael shrugged his shoulders.

"He'd cub back fast enough if they did offer a reward, whoever's got 'old of him. What's the good of setting the poice after him? Let 'em advertise a decent reward for them as finds him, and have done with it. I'd join 'eartily in the search then, I would."

While the landlord was talking, I strolled to the window overlooking the stable- yard, and scanned keenly that squalid demesne. At the base of the blind wall forming the end of the stable I noticed that a little earth had been freshly turned and battened down. A glint of sun fell on it, and sparkled upon something which an attentive examination showed to be a portion of a pair of gold spectacles thrust through the soil, and evidently from below, for the earth was raised and broken at their point of egress. I gazed intently at them, and perceived, to my no small astonishment, that they were emerging more and more into view.

"Just keep our friend company, Hoakes, for a few moments," I said. "I'm going for a policeman."

I did so.

"Search 'igh and low," said Raphael hospitably. "You'll not find nothig contraband in my 'ouse."

But we did, much to his chagrin. We found the kidnapped old bishop immured in a disused cellar, the very grating of which had been covered up with earth. When his turn eventually came, Raphael went into his retirement (three years), expressing outspoken disgust at the sentence of "what you call your bloomin' Christiad tribudal!"

Hoakes, demonstrating his innocence, was let off with a judicial "warning." When we came to talk things over afterwards, I spoke very seriously upon his past mishaps and the dangers of the future if he continued in his present career, and earnestly besought him to abandon so perilous a profession, and enter another not calculated to bury him quite so frequently in Millbank.

"A quiet little linen drapery business, now, or a fancy goods and cigars store; there'd be nothing dangerous about that, Hoakes. Just think it over." He wrung my hand feelingly.

"You're a true friend, Chasemore. But I can't give it up yet. I find the excitement more and more necessary; and besides my self-respect would never permit me to withdraw from my present rivalry with the regular police, and thus tacitly confess myself a beaten and dishonoured opponent."