Doctor Syn/Chapter 17

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CHAPTER XVII


THE DOCTOR SINGS A SONG


NOW, although Jerry had employed all his auditory faculties for the overhearing of this conversation, he had unconsciously listened to something else: a slight noise that now and again came from the direction of the vicarage, a small, whirring noise, the kind of noise that he had heard in Mipps's coffin shop when a tool was working its way through a piece of wood—yes, a whirring noise with an occasional squeak to it.

He hadn't bothered to ask himself what it was; he had just gone on hearing it, that's all. But now another noise arose in the night that not only claimed his immediate attention but made him feel cold all over. It had the same effect upon Mr. Rash, for he stopped talking suddenly and gripped the post of the gate with one hand and with the other pulled Imogene roughly into the denser black of the bushes; and then the noise grew louder and louder. What at first could only be described as a gibbering moan rose into shriek after shriek of mortal terror: a man's voice, a man scared out of all knowledge; and then over the gate leaped a dark form, agile and quick, that went bounding away through the ghostly churchyard. There was something familiar in that figure to Jerk. He had seen it almost from the same spot the night before. It was the man with the yellow face. The schoolmaster came out from the bushes, followed by Imogene. Quickly they went through the gate and toward the vicarage, and silently Jerk followed, with his heart thumping loud against his ribs; for although the echoes of those drum-cracking shrieks still vibrated in his ears, the gibbering moans still continued.

To the back of the house went the girl and the schoolmaster, and to the front went Jerk. It was all dark—indeed no lights were showing from any of the rooms but one, and that was the Doctor's sitting-room with the shutters still close fastened; but a jagged little hole in the corner of one of the shutters sent a shaft of yellow candlelight straight out into the blackness. Yes, the gibbering moaning was coming from the Doctor's room. Jerk crossed a bed of flowers and a gravel path and applied his eye to the jagged hole in the shutter. This little hole accounted for the whirring and squeaking that he had just heard, for it was newly cut, and Jerk put his hand upon several little pieces of split wood that had fallen upon the outer sill. It was plain that the awful apparition he had just seen had been looking into the room. He had evidently made the hole for the purpose, and made it with that awful weapon he carried, that same harpoon over which so much talk had been expended at the Court House inquiry. Now the shutter, being an outside shutter, backed right against the lead-rimmed glass casement, and thus it was that Jerk had to wait for a few considerable seconds before seeing plainly anything in the room, for the candlelight flickered and danced upon the glass. But the very second he had put his eye to the hole the moans within the room steadily rose, and Jerk's thumping heart increased its already unnatural pace, for he expected the loud shrieks to follow, though he could not understand their motive. But soon his eye got accustomed to the light, and one thing in the room became visible, the form of Doctor Syn. He was sitting in a high-backed chair in the centre of the room, gripping the oaken arms with his long, white fingers, and upon his face was a look of indescribable horror: his neck being stretched up alert and straight, his eyes dilated to a most disproportionate stare, glazed and terrible; his hair unkempt, and his thin legs pressing hard against the floor.

But his mouth was neither set nor rigid, like the rest of his members—his mouth was loose and hanging open—such a mouth as the madman carries; and from it was coming that inarticulate gibber, that gibbering moan that had arrested the hearing of Jerry Jerk. Straight at the shutter stared the demented Doctor; straight into Jerk's eye at the jagged hole, and suddenly his hand shot out over the table; he picked up the great plated candelabra, and hurled it, lighted candles and all, full at the window. Jerk started back to the rattle of glass, and at the same time a heavy hand fell upon his shoulder, and another was passed over his mouth, while a familiar voice whispered in his ear: "For God's sake be quiet!" It was the captain, and he stood holding the boy tightly, keeping his eye on the jagged hole, and with something approaching terror upon his strong face. It was dark now, of course, for there was no light in the house, but presently Jerk and the captain heard low, frightened voices, and a light showed suddenly through the hole. The captain stooped and put his eye to it. Yes, the door of the Doctor's sitting-room was opening, and Imogene and the schoolmaster came into the room. Imogene came first, with a lighted candle held high above her head.

The Doctor was now kneeling on the floor straight up. He had a black bottle in his hand; the same rum bottle from which he had treated Jerk that very day. He seemed to recognize Imogene, for he smiled as she entered, smiled as he slowly raised the bottle and tilted the contents, neat and raw, down his vibrating throat. And then he saw the schoolmaster. His upper lip twitched, curled, and rose, disclosing his white upper teeth; his underlip stretched down and showed his lower teeth, shining white, that glistened underneath the bottle's neck. There was a snap and a quick crunching sound. The captain gasped for breath, for Doctor Syn had bitten through the glass neck, and seized the bottle by the broken end. Slowly he dragged one leg from the kneeling position and pushed it out before him; slowly he fixed his other foot like a firm spring behind him. Terrified, Mr. Rash sprang back against the wall, with the blood still trickling from his cut lip, and motionless stood the girl Imogene, with the candle held above her head. Syn was in position to spring. Rash was waiting to be seized, and nothing moved in the room save the slowly oozing blood on the schoolmaster's lip, vivid against the pale lantern jaw, and the blood and ground glass that glistened in a saliva stream that hung from the cleric's mouth. Nothing else moved at all, except perhaps the light shed by the flickering candle, which danced shadows of the two weird men upon the whitewashed wall And then with a hissing sound Syn made a leap, swinging the bottle as he did so, and bringing it down with a sickening crash on the white face before him. Down went Rash, senseless, blinded with blood and the shivered glass. Then Syn laughed, and sang at the top of his voice:

"Here's to the feet wot have walked the plank,
Yo ho! for the dead man's throttle.
And here's to the corpses floating round in the tank,
And the dead man's teeth in the bottle."

And as he sang he danced, and stamped the senseless face beneath his feet; and then he sang again, roaring new words to the eternal old tune:

"A pound of gunshot tied to his feet,
And a ragged bit of sail for a winding sheet;
Then out to the sharks with a horrible splash,
And that's the end of Mr. Rash."

And with diabolical glee he leaped again, and landed with both feet upon the victim's face.

All this time the girl stood still. Like a statue she stood, with the candle high above her head; and the terrible cleric went on with the song: new words, but still a corruption of the same old tune, which he roared and screamed in the very whirlwind of his uncontrolled madness:

"And all that isn't ripped by the sharks outside
Stands up again upon its feet upon the running tide."

Taking the prostrate body, he lifted it on to its feet and leered into its face; then letting go of it, he watched it fall and collapse in a heap.

"And it kept a-bowing gently and a-looking with surprise
At the little crabs a-scrambling from the sockets of its eyes."

The captain then shouted, shouted at the top of his voice, and tore at the fast, firm shutter. The song ceased in the room. The light once more went out of the jagged hole, and there was the noise of a falling body. Probably the girl had fainted. The shutters were strong and wouldn't give.

"The back door!" shrieked the terrified Jerry. "The back door is open!" And around to the back rushed the captain, followed by the boy. And as he ran he blew three shrill calls upon a silver whistle that he carried on a chain. The whistle was answered with another, and before the captain had found and opened the back door, the captain's bo'sun had appeared from the bushes, followed by a strong party of the King's men. The bo'sun made a light from his tinder box, and as they were finding a candle in the back kitchen they could hear some one moving about in the sitting-room.