Shylock Humes And The Narwhal's Tusk Scrimshaw, Part Four

Funny story written by Erskin Quint

Saturday, 18 June 2011


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Humes had climbed up onto the mantelpiece to adjust Danskin's "Nelson Tells A Joke"

My friend Shylock Humes looked at our remarkable visitor, Captain, or Professor, Goosefoundling - for it was indeed he - and spoke directly.

His voice was like the crowing of a cock on a summer morning in Norfolk, when the sun begins to burnish the enormous sky and the windmills glow like rare moonstones.

Fifteen minutes later, we had begun to tire of these farmyard impressions. My personal favourite was the sheep, though I judged the attempt to delineate the various breeds of cattle in the meadow a mere tour de force.

"But Humes", I suggested. "Surely this is no time for these parlour entertainments?"

Shylock Humes was not to be gainsaid. "There is much to learn from the world of animal husbandry, my dear Flotsam", he urged. "Indeed, our friend here spent his formative years upon an agricultural establishment. In New Hampshire, if I am not mistaken."

Humes looked at our visitor with the eyes of a basilisk. It was strange. It was the first time I had noticed that our visitor's eyes resembled those of a basilisk. Perhaps it was the failing light in our sitting-room. I remembered that we had not paid the gas bill.

"My, my, you have thrown me a monkey's fist there, Mr Humes!" cried Goosefoundling. "I'm fair luffed like a lumber hooker steered too far to windward!" he ejaculated.

"But surely this is too much Humes!" I interjected.

"Nay, Flotsam, it is an elementary matter of deduction!" Humes expostulated.

Once Mrs Dudson has been called back in and her trusty cloth had done its work - we were in a fearful mess after all this ejaculation, interjection and expostulation - Shylock Humes expounded (it was now too late to get the housekeeper back; we would have to abide the mess this time).

"I am able to deduce from the gait of the Captain's one good leg, and further, from his habitual method of flexing his hands, that he has done much in the way of work with our friend the pig. I would further venture to infer a considerable amount of experience with various species of fowls."

Goosefoundling smiled. Or at least, his face did. Which was as close as it would get.

"You are hand over fist up among my yards with your deductions, Mr Humes", said he, looking at the fire. I was watching the fire, too. What fascinating patterns there were in the coals. One of the logs was like a crocodile skin. It was too red, of course, but the texture was authentic.

"I don't know if I've the windage to stand this gale, sir!" he said.

Humes' voice came as if from on high. He had climbed up onto the mantelpiece to adjust the copy of Danskin's 'Nelson Tells A Joke' that had gone askew last Tuesday, when he had fired his revolver into the wall all around it so that the bullet holes spelled England Expects.

"Nonsense, sir", he said, in a voice that quavered. He had almost lost his footing on the narrow mantelpiece. "Nngg rnhh, nngg" he continued. "Gngrg nnonn, hhmngg." Why was he trying to talk like this while standing on a mantelpiece and smoking a clay pipe? The way he pushed himself so hard was a constant source of amazement and admiration to me.

Goosefoundling shook his great head. His head moved, though his old billycock hat did not. It was evidently two sizes too big. He began to tell his tale.

Not before time. We are well into episode four, after all. The Stroud Magazine (I have never been able to market these accounts in London) would be complaining again.

But before he could at last begin, the new wall clock struck fourteen. We were almost deafened.

"Good heavens, Flotsam!" cried Humes. "It is as loud as Big Ben!" He was back in his armchair by now.

"Indeed, Humes", I concurred. "It is a striking resemblance!"

"Jokes like that will not hide the fact that you were sold a pup at Bagshaw & Snetterton's last Monday week", scolded Humes.

"Yes", I was forced to agree. "But at least they did not charge us any more for all these extra chimes. And Mrs Dudson's nephew, Little Oliver Little, was happy to take the pup off our hands.

"And furthermore", I added, proudly. "I think I am close to working out the meaning of the seemingly-random chiming sequences. You see, I have kept a log of the chimes for the past five days, and I feel sure that there is a pattern. It seems to be a matter of quasi-randomised logarithmic relationships, whereby that which seems to be random - such as the clock striking fourteen just now when it is in fact seventeen minutes past three - actually adheres to a rigorous, though bafflingly-complex, system. All I have to do is to work out this system, and document it in the form of a detailed chart, and we are well on our way to having a clock that we can understand. With the help of the chart, that is. If I can manage to draw up a chart that we can understand."

The room was silent. The new clock had stopped again. Humes and Goosefoundling were shifting restlessly in their chairs. Those new omnibuses always made the house shake when they passed through Candlestick Maker Street.

Goosefoundling lit his briar pipe. He began to choke. Then, realising his error, he extinguished his briar pipe, filled the bowl with tobacco, and this time - the wiser for hard experience - lit the tobacco. Relaxed now, he began to tell us his tale.

"You see, gentlemen, I am charged with a curious kind of mission. Though I was, as you say, Mr Humes, raised on a farm in New Hampshire, where we kept pigs and fowls, and it was a fine upbringing for a boy out in there, I always had a hankering. I was always a-hankering. Then I lost the hankering my mother had given me, and I had nothing to blow my nose on. So I had to get another hankering, off of my grandmother. Then I was set fair. Or so I thought.

"But no. Now that I had a fresh hankering, I was never at rest. Even when we used to show our pigs and fowls at the pig and fowl shows - we had some award-winning black-spotted whites and also some white-spotted blacks, but I can't remember which were pigs and which were fowls. It was all the hankering.

"So, like many a young boy who couldn't abide all this hankering, I said goodbye to my folks and set out one fine Spring morning, bound for Nantucket. My folks were heartbroken but my grandfather wrote a song about me going off to Nantucket. Unfortunately, I wasn't allowed to hear it, it was too filthy, but never mind."

Our strange visitor's eyes had grown as red and glowing as the coals in the fire. He was clearly moved. It was Humes who had moved him when he had shoved his chair to one side, the better to get at the copy of Bessemer's Almanac, where it had lain since last Christmas, when he had hurled it across the room when he was struggling to fathom the cypher in the Case Of The Extinguished Lamplighter.

Goosefoundling sighed, and moved his chair back. Then, sighing again, he moved the rest of the chair: the arms, legs, feet and seat, not forgetting the cushions as well. The chair had collapsed when Humes had moved it. Having moved it back, the mariner reconstructed it, and continued with his tale.

Shylock Humes puffed great clouds of black smoke that rose like the giant thunder storms that gather in the sultry summer afternoons in Norfolk (all this talk of Norfolk was making me think about my forthcoming holiday at Cromer). He was practicing his smoke signals again. How he managed to combine this with his consultations never ceased to amaze me.

"Sir", Humes roared like a labrador on a Scottish grouse moor, or like Wellington at Agincourt (not that Wellington, his ancestor, 'Roaring Welly' who fought at Agincourt), "this is all very interesting, but I must have the facts. Be so good as to get onto the scrimshaw, if you please. Flotsam is having to extend this episode in a most grotesque manner. Not that that is anything new as far as Flotsam's romantic tales are concerned, but here we are."

I was deeply hurt. Humes had never liked my writing. If it were up to him, it would be all scientific monographs and 'data'. I had read some of his notes on the cases. They produced the same effect as trying to work the fifth proposition of Euclid into a love story or an elopement.

Goosefoundling knocked out his pipe. It was quite a blow. It might have knocked out a prize-fighter.

"Very well, sir", he conceded. "I'll push it on a touch. Or touch it on a push. Like with the pigs and fowls, I can never tell those phrases apart.

"Well, I managed to hitch a ride on an east-bound dog cart for a good way. It was a rough ride. The cart was full of newfoundlands. They ain't exactly refined company. But at least that prepared me for a life on the whaling boats sailing out of Nantucket.

"I chose the boats that sailed out of Nantucket. I figured that they'd be more likely to catch whales than the ones that just sailed in. Couldn't see the point in those fellers. Still, that's whaling."

He pulled at his piccadilly weepers. Then, seeing that they were coming unstuck (the fire must be melting the glue), he hastily pushed them back, and continued quickly. I knew Humes would have noted this. I saw him mark it in his Hopeless and Suspicious Disguises notebook. I shifted in my chair. Did Humes suspect something about our guest?

"I got to Nantucket on a filthy Saturday evening", said Goosefoundling. "''Tis a filthy evening indeed', I said to the landlord of the Broken Binnacle Inn. He just looked at me as if I was mad. No wonder. I'd mistook him for the landlord of the Bombay Runner & Bunting Tosser, which is where I was actually staying.

"The Bombay Runner & Bunting Tosser was a filthy place. I had to share a hammock with three Lascars and a Manxman. That was bad enough, but they insisted on taking their harpoons to bed with them. I was poked and pricked all night. They'd not been near a woman for months, you see."

I shuddered. It reminded me of the night we spent at the home of Humes' cousin Vyvyan Lightfinger, while investigating the Case Of The Gamekeeper In The Savoury Blancmange.

Goosefoundling battled on. "But thankfully, it wasn't long before I was shipped with Captain Eustace Parbuckle, on a whaler called The Narwhal bound for the Arctic grounds.

"Parbuckle seemed a grim sort. He would pace the deck all night. You could hear his wooden leg on deck. It kept you awake. Mind you, that might have been all the pricking and poking in the hammocks as well.

"But soon I learned that Parbuckle was no ordinary whaler. He possessed an all-consuming obsession. They called him 'Scrimshaw Parbuckle'. It was the Narwhal ivory he mostly hankered for.

"So there I was. I'd left New Hampshire to escape all my hankering, and here I was stuck on a whaler getting poked and pricked at night, with a Captain who was just full of hankering.

"You see, gentlemen, Captain Parbuckle weren't his own man. He was in debt up to his neck with the ship's owner, who was a gentry from New Bedford. An eccentric gentleman, who was hell-bent on having the world's greatest collection of scrimshaw. And not just the usual bones and teeth of the whales. No. It had to be the narwhal horns with this gentleman.

"So I spent the best years of my life chasing after narwhals with Captain Parbuckle, frozen stiff by day, and poked and pricked at night as I lay in the filthy hammock listening to Parbuckle's wooden leg knocking on deck.

"Parbuckle was no ordinary man. He had a hold on us all. He used to throw us in the hold. All of us. And he had a strange holdall, that we could never look inside, but he always kept it with him. He was always holding this holdall, even when we were all in the hold. He had such a hold over us all.

"So over the years, myself, like the rest of the crew, were in thrall to Parbuckle, and we sailed the Arctic, hunting the narwhals for their tusks, to take back for the mysterious gentry from New Bedford who owned our souls, as it seemed.

"And after I lost my own leg in a fierce fight with a gang of bull narwhals off Greenland not 5 years ago, well, Parbuckle didn't want me on that ship no more.

"But he and the gentry had other plans for me. I got my own ship, The Peking Duck. We sailed out of New London. We tried sailing in first, but we ran aground, so we decided to try another way.

"And that's how I got to sail the world, a-looking for all this scrimshaw that my employer - whose name, even now, remains a mystery to me - is requiring for reasons best known to himself.

"I learned of your housekeeper's cousin, when I was in the South China Seas, and I knew he'd gotten hold of some fine scrimshaw by way of an equimaux wife he once took, and that it was something I had to go after, and, to cut a long story short, that's what lead me here this day.

"I came here via Sussex since I had been informed that this Lord Poultice had had family interests in whaling in the past. I reckoned on rich pickings there, especially since this Lord - like so many of your gentry here - is not exactly filled to the gunwhales when it comes to the question of the old dubloons.

"We work on the basis that most of our vict..clients are too happy to accept our price, given that my employer has a seemingly-bottomless supply where dollars are concerned."

Goosefoundling let out a great sigh. "That, Mr Humes, is my tale. I am no more or less than the same as or more than the lesser equivalent of an honest trader in scrimshaws, or one who is in the act of buying up this commodity on behalf of an employer."

Shylock Humes sat stock still in his chair like a Tibetan lama. I often wondered what had possessed him to purchase a chair shaped like an Eastern mystic. He was poised and taut, like a Thomsons Gazelle about to spring.

Shylock Humes spoke. His voice was like an explosion. But once the sneezing fit was over, he was more intelligible.

"Captain, or Professor Goosefoundling", he said. "Your conversation is most interesting. I should be grateful if you would close the door on your way out, as there is a decided draught in the house this day."

Goosefoundling's marble eyes widened. I had not seen widening marbles before; working with Humes was a constant education. "But Mr Humes", he whispered, hoarsely (if you have ever heard a horse whisper, you will understand; if not, try not to dwell on it, it is merely another of my rather idiosyncratic similies). "Mr Humes", he said, like a whispering horse, "have you no more questions for me to answer?"

"I have none", said Humes, his voice like the snap of a rifle bolt. "You have furnished me with all the data I require at this point. But I would ask you to do one thing before you go about your business."

"And what is that, Mr Humes?" asked the astonished teak-legged mariner with the dubious piccadilly weepers.

"I would ask you to leave these premises and never return", said Humes, with a face like the Tower Of London. How would we get these ravens and beefeaters out of the house?

"As for the scrimshaw which you claim to have come here to acquire, I believe it to be quite worthless to your employer, and therefore hardly worth your while. We know that it is of an inferior quality, which can hardly appeal to any collector."

Humes stared into the rheumy eyes of our remarkable visitor like a cobra. Humes was like the cobra, not the visitor: no cobra I have ever seen had rheumy eyes. "If it is scrimshaw you seek, you would be well advised to look elsewhere. Good day and good luck to you, sir."

At this, Shylock Humes closed up like a mysterious grimoire. He could not be read when he was in these moods.

I ushered the shaken mariner out of the room and down the stairs, making sure that he did not attempt to enter Mrs Dudson's quarters.

I watched him shamble down the street like an old man o war. It was the first time I had compared Candlestick Maker Street to an old wooden ship of the line and, on the whole, I thought it likely to be the last.

I went back in and upstairs, to find Humes in a brown study. Having persuaded him to come back into the sitting room, I tried to reassure him.

"I think we are rid of that strange fellow now, and that Mrs Dudson and her scrimshaw are safe enough."

But Humes had a face like the dark side of the moon. I couldn't see it as he was turned towards the fire and out of the light. "There is no time to be lost, Flotsam. Send a telegram to Inspector Stanley Livingstone-Stanley of Scotland Yard and order a four-wheeler."

I was astonished. "But Humes", I expostulated (more work for Mrs Dudson and her cloth). "I thought you had banished that man for good."

"All this talk of narwhals and scrimshaw is mere froth or foam atop the waves of the deep sea we are called upon to fathom in this affair", my friend explained. "These are indeed deep waters, Flotsam. There is something devilish in all this. When a man assumes an elaborate disguise and invents a ludicrous tapestry of lies about scrimshaw and one-legged men called Parbuckle, then we know that there are dark forces abroad."

"But the teak leg was real enough", I protested.

"That is what is so sinister", said Shylock Humes, his voice like the wind in a dead man's hair. "When a man is prepared to cut off his own leg in order to masquerade as a timber-toe, there are few lengths to which he will not stoop."

I had to agree. "Yes, he must have had to stoop a long way to cut it off. Do you think he used a saw? I knew a surgeon in Afghanistan who..."

"Not now, old chap", interrupted Humes. "The telegram to Livingstone-Stanley, the four-wheeler, your service revolver and an ulster. These are our priorities. We must hurry. We have just time to take a glass of the Beaune and a slice of cold mutton before we leave."

I acted without further question. Humes was masterful when he was on a scent, and this scent was remarkably strong and fishy, reeking as it did of teak legs, narwhals, and the mysterious lore of whaling.

It reminded me. I must try yet again to read Moby Dick. In seven attempts, I had not yet got past page fifty seven.

The funny story above is a satire or parody. It is entirely fictitious.

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