Doctor Syn/Chapter 20

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CHAPTER XX


A TERRIBLE INVESTIGATION


THE captain was not long in tumbling into his clothes. Meantime, the sexton sat upon the bed, which neither of the other two seemed to think extraordinary or even familiar. The captain now and then addressed a sharp question to the Doctor, which the Doctor did not answer, nor indeed did the captain seem to expect an answer. The Doctor was standing by the window, his gray hair blowing in the stiff sea breeze that filled the room. Suddenly they heard a little shaking noise upon the bed, and, turning, perceived the little sexton, with the tears rolling down his cheeks, given up to the most ungovernable laughter, and yet it was not laughter, for the sexton made no noise. He just let his body quiver and heave and the tears roll on over his thin cheeks. Yes, he was lost in a fit of unmanageable giggles.

"What the thunder's amusing you?" roared the captain; and he hurled the bolster at the sexton's head.

Mipps was himself again upon the instant. "Blessed if I knows," he gasped, "but thank you kindly for that bolster whack, for if something hadn't happened I believe I should have bust."

"But what is it? There must have been something to make you laugh like that."

"If there was, I'm blessed if I knows wot," returned the sexton, "for I gives you my word that I never felt solemner than I does now, no, not never in my life." Doctor Syn took no notice of this extraordinary occurrence.

When the captain was dressed they all three set out for the vicarage.

"Well, now, what is wrong with it?" said the captain, surveying the little house that looked so pretty in the morning sun.

"That's just what we want to know," answered Doctor Syn. "In the first place, short of forcing the door, I don't see how we're going to get in. The place is all locked up, and, though we have battered and hammered on the doors and windows for a good hour, we can get no answer from the sailors inside."

"And my men in the barn, where are they?" said the captain, looking across at the building in question.

"I'm afraid. Captain, that you are too liberal to your men, for their rum barrel is empty and the whole lot of them are still asleep."

The captain swore and walked to the back door, raised his foot, and with one kick sent the door in, splintered and cracked from the bolt sockets.

"Neatly done!" remarked Doctor Syn, "though who's to pay for a new door?"

But the captain did not heed him, nor care a brass farthing for the door, he was bent on investigating the house, which he did, followed by Mipps and the Doctor and Jerry Jerk, who had appeared from somewhere, nobody quite knew where.

The kitchen was empty, so the captain opened the door of the sitting-room; it was very dark because of the closed shutters.

The captain strode across to the broken window, threw it open, and unbolted the shutters, which, swinging back, let in the light of day. In the corner of the room opposite the window lay the two sailors who had been left to watch with the bo'sun. Both were bound and gagged, and one of them was moving. The captain loosed his bonds with a clasp knife, and the fellow seemed to recover his senses.

"What does this mean, my man?" said the captain.

The sailor turned and pointed to the body of his friend. It lay half propped up against the wall, and above it was a large splintered tear in the whitewashed plaster. There were blood marks on this part of the wall. And then the captain saw and understood, for the neck of the propped-up body had been cruelly pierced, although there was no sign of a weapon; but some weapon had transfixed that body to the wall and then been plucked out, so that the body had collapsed amid a mess of broken plaster.

"It's Bill Spiker, sir," said the sailor. "He's dead! He was a good gunner, sir, too. We wanted Spiker, sir, to fight the French—and he's dead!" And the sailor broke off blubbering.

Just then they all became aware of a moaning overhead.

"What's that?" said Mipps, beginning to giggle.

Indeed the uncanny atmosphere of the vicarage that morning had upset them all.

"I'm sure I don't know," said the captain, "for I've had my fill of horrors. I don't mind blood and I don't mind fighting, but these mysteries are horrible. What the devil is that moaning?"

"That'll be Job Mallet, captain's bo'sun," said the sailor.

"Or Rash, the sick schoolmaster," said Doctor Syn.

But Mipps said nothing; he had left the room and was now out in the passage, suffering from another attack of giggles.

"Damn that sexton's body and soul!" ejaculated the captain; "his giggling gives one the creeps. What's tickling him now?"

"Unstrung," muttered the vicar, as he followed the captain up the dark stairs to the bedroom.

There in the bed, last night occupied by Mr. Rash, lay the fat bo'sun on his back, with his face gagged up and covered with a nightcap. Dreadful moans he was making as he lay there.

The captain pulled the bedclothes off, and discovered that the faithful fellow was tied to the bed. Grateful he looked, though troubled, when the captain cut his bonds and pulled him up; and he owned in a shamefaced manner that he never had endured such a horrible night in his life, and that Parson Syn (saving his presence) must be the foul fiend himself to be able to sleep in such a devil-haunted house.

Doctor Syn went downstairs and fetched the brandy bottle, and administered a good dose to the bo'sun, and also to the other seamen who had followed them upstairs.

"And where's the schoolmaster got to?" said the captain.

"He's gone."

"Gone?" they all repeated together.

"Aye, sir, gone! And if ever a man has gone body and soul, I declares he has; for I solemnly and soberly declares that I seed him hoisted up and removed downstairs by a couple of horrible light-faces."

"Light-faces?" roared the captain.

"Yes, sir, coves with faces all a-shine. Why, I wouldn't settle down and live within a hundred miles of Romney Marsh for a thousand guineas a year pension, I wouldn't; for talk about devils, the place stinks of them!"

"Now, look here, my man," said the captain, "just pull yourself in a brace or two and tell me what happened."

"Why, so I will," said the bo'sun, "for queer, most queer it be."