Doctor Syn/Chapter 23

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CHAPTER XXIII


A YOUNG RECRUIT


TALK about an 'ealthy child, and there he is," said Mrs. Waggetts, entering the sanded parlour with Sexton Mipps. "And eat; nothing like eating to increase your fat, is there, Mister Mipps? But, there, I suppose you never had no fat on you to speak of, 'cos if ever a man was one of Pharaoh's lean kine, you was."

"It's hard work wot's kept me thin, Missus Waggetts," replied the sinister sexton; "hard work and scheming; and a little of both would do our young Jerry here no harm."

"As to work," replied Jerry, gulping down more food, "there ain't been no complaints against me, I believes, Missus Waggetts?"

"Certainly not, Jerry, my boy," replied that lady affably.

"That's good," said Jerk, and then turning to the sexton he added: "And as to scheming, Mister Sexton, how do you know I don't scheme? Some folks are so took up with their own schemes that p'raps they don't get time to notice wot others are a-doin'. I has lots of schemes, I has. I thinks about 'em by day, I does, and dreams of 'em at night."

"And they gives you a rare knack of puttin' away Missus Waggetts' victuals, I'm a-noticin'," dryly remarked the sexton.

"Lor', I'm sure he's heartily welcome to anything I've got," returned the landlady. "It fair cheers me up to see him eat well, and it'll be a fine man he'll be making in a year or so."

"Aye, that I will," cried young Jerk; "and when I'm a hangman I ain't a-goin' to forget my old friend. I'll come along from the town every Sunday, I will, and we'll go and hear Parson Syn preach just the same as we does now, and Mister Mipps will show us into the pew, and everybody will turn round and stare at us and say: *Why, there goes Hangman Jerk!' Then we'll come back and have a bite of supper together, that is providing I don't have to sup with the squire at the Court House."

"That 'ud be likely," interrupted Mipps.

"And, after we've had supper, I'll tell you stories about horrible sights I've seen in the week, and terrible things I've done, and it'll go hard with Sexton Mipps to keep even with me with weird yarnin', I tells you."

"Ha! ha!" chuckled Mipps. "Strike me dead and knock me up slipshod in a buckrum coffin, if this man Jerry Jerk don't please me. Look at him. Missus Waggetts. Will you please do me the favour of lookin' at him hard, though don't let it put you off your feed, Jerry. Why, at your age I had just such notions as you've got, but then I never had your advantages. Why, at thirteen years of age I was as growed up in my fancies as this Jerk. Sweetmeats to devil, eh, Jerry?, for it's some who grows above such garbage from their first rocking in the cradle. This Jerry Jerk is a man; why, bless you, he's more a man than lots of 'em what thinks they be. Aye, more a man than some of 'em wot's a-doin' man's work."

"That's so," said Mrs. Waggetts, enthusiastically backing the sexton up. "And don't you forget that he owns a bit of land on the Marsh, and so he's a Marshman proper."

"I doesn't forget it," said Mipps, "and I've been tellin' certain folk wot had, how things were goin' with Hangman Jerk, and I've made 'em see that although only a child in regard to age, he ain't no child in his deeds, and so they agreed with me, Missus Waggetts, that it 'ud be unjust not to let him have full Marshman's privileges; and I'll go bail that Jerk won't disgrace me by not livin' up to them privileges."

"P'raps I won't, Mister Sexton, when I knows what them privileges are."

"You listen and I'll tell you," answered the sexton. "And listen well, Jerry," added Mrs. Waggetts, "for what Mister Mipps is a-goin' to say will like as not be the makin' of you."

"I will listen most certainly," replied Jerk, "so soon as Mister Mipps gets on with it. I'm all agog to listen, but there's no use in listenin' afore he begins, is there now?"

"Jerry," said the sexton, "you're just one after my own heart. You ought to have lived in my days, when I was a lad. Gone to sea and got amongst the interestin' gentlemen like I did. Aye, they was interestin'. And reckless they was, too. They was rough—none rougher; but I don't grudge 'em all the kicks they give me. Why, it made a man o' me, young Jerk. I tell you. Master Jerry, that bad as them sea adventurers was, and bad they was—my eye—yes, buccaneers, pirates, and all the rest of it—but bad as they was they did some good, for they made a man o' me, Jerry. I should never have been the sort o' man I is now if them ruffians hadn't kindly knocked the nonsense out o' me."

"Shouldn't you, though?" said Jerry.

"Never, never!" said the sexton with conviction.

"But mind you," he went on, "you has advantages wot I never had. I had to learn all the tricks o' my trade, and I had to buy my experience. There was no kind friend to teach me my tricks o' trade, no benevolent old cove wot 'ud pay for my experience. No, I had to buy and learn for myself, but, my stars and garters! afore they'd done with me I had 'em all scared o' me. Even England hisself didn't a-relish my tantrums; and when I was in a regular blinder, why, I solemnly believes he was scared froze o' me. There was only one man my superior in all the time I sailed them golden seas, and that man was Clegg hisself. I served on his ship, you know. Jerk. I was carpenter, master carpenter, mind you, to Clegg hisself—to no less a man than Clegg. And on Clegg's own ship it were, too. She was called the Imogene. I never knew why she was called so. It sounds a high fiddaddley sort o' name for a pirate ship, but then Clegg was a regular gentleman in his tastes. Why, I remember him sittin' so peaceful on the roundhouse roof one day a-readin' of Virgil—and not in the vulgar tongue, neither. He was a-readin' it in the foreign language wot it was first wrote in, so he told me. And you couldn't somehow get hold o' the fact that that benign-lookin' cove wot was sittin' there so peaceful a-readin' learned books had maybe half an hour before strung up a mutineer to the yardarms or made some wealthy fat merchant walk the dirty plank. No, he was a rummun, and no mistake, was that damned old pirate Clegg. But I'd pull my forelock, supposing I had one, all day long to old Clegg, even were I the Archbishop of Canterbury and he only an out-at-heel seadog. Now with England it was different, as I told you, though I'll own he could beat the devil hisself for blasphemy when he was put out. But I wasn't afraid o' him; he was one you could size up like. But Clegg—oh, he was different. Show me the man wot could size up Clegg, and I'd make him Leveller of Romney Marsh, aye, King of England, supposin' I had the power. There was only one man wot I ever seed wot made Clegg turn a hair, and that was a rascally Cuban priest, but then he had devil powers, he had. Ugh!" And the sexton relapsed into silence. His listeners watched him, and, watching, they saw him shiver. What old scene of horror was flashing before that curious little man's mind's eye? Ah, who could tell? No living body, for the crew of the Imogene had all died violent deaths one after another in different lands, and since Clegg was hanged at Rye, why, Mipps was the only veteran left of that historical ship of crime, the Imogene.

"Pray get on with the business in hand, Mister Mipps," said Mrs. Waggetts, "for though I declare I could a-listen to you a-philosphizin' and a-moralizin' all day long, young Jerk is all agog. Ain't you, Jerry?"

"That's so," replied young Jerk. "Please get on, Mister Sexton."

"I will," said Mr. Mipps. "You may wonder now, Jerry Jerk, how it has been possible for a swaggerin' adventurer like I be, or rather was one time, when I was a handsome, fine standin' young fellow aboard the Imogene—I say you may fall to wonderin' how I come to be a sexton and to live the dull, dreary life of a humdrum villager. Well, I'll tell you now straight out, man to man, and when I've told you, why, you'll understand all the mystery wot I'm a-gettin' at." The sexton smote his hand upon the table so that all the breakfast dishes jumped into different positions on the table, and the two words he said as his fist crashed down were these: "I couldn't!"

"Couldn't what?" asked Jerk, whose anxiety for the breakfast dishes' safety had driven the context of the sexton's speech from his mind.

"Couldn't live a humdrum life after the high jinks I had at sea."

"But you did, Mister Sexton, and, what's more, you're a-doin' it now," replied young Jerk with some show of sarcasm.

"And very prettily you can act, can't you, Hangman Jerk?" said Mr. Mipps, winking. "I declare you're a past-master in the way of pretendin'. Well, pretendin' all's very well, but it's often plain-spoken truth wot serves as a safer weapon for roguish fellows, and it's plain-spoken truth I'm a-goin' to use to you, believin' in my heart that if ever there was a roguish fellow livin', and one after my old heart, why, Hangman Jerk is that fellow."

"Please get on, Mister Sexton," said Jerry, feeling rather important.

"Yes, get on, get on," repeated Mrs. Waggetts, "for I'm a-longin' to hear how he takes it."

"Can you doubt? I don't," replied Mipps. "I bet my head he'll take it as a man, won't you, Jerry Jerk, eh?"

"I'll tell you when I knows wot it is," replied the boy.

"Why, what a talky old party I've become. Time was when I never uttered a word—but do—ah, I was one to do. And much and quick I did, too."

"We knows that very well, thank you. Mister Sexton," said Jerry. "That is, we knows it if we knows your word can be relied upon."

"You may lay to that," said Mipps, "and you may lay that in our future dealings together you can depend on me a-standin' by you as long as you lay the straight course with me."

"I'll take your word for that," responded Jerk. "Now p'raps you will get on?"

"Well," said the sexton, "I must begin with the Marsh—the Romney Marsh. No one knows better than you do that she's a queer sort of a corner, is Romney Marsh. I've seen you a-prowlin' and a-nosin' about on her. You scented excitement, you did, on the Marsh. You smelt out a mystery, and like a lad of adventurous spirit you wanted to find out the meanin' of it all. Very natural. I should have done the same when I was a lad. Well, now the whole business is this: the Marsh don't approve of folks a-nosin' and a-prowlin' after her secrets, see?" And the sexton's face grew suddenly fierce: all those lines of quizzical humour vanished from around that peculiar mouth and left a face of diabolical cruelty, of cunning, and of deceit. But Jerk was not easily unnerved or put out of countenance. There was something about Mipps that put him on his mettle and stimulated him. He liked Mipps, but he liked to keep even with him, for his own self-respect, which was very great, for in some things Jerry Jerk was most inordinately proud.

"Oh, the Marsh don't approve, eh? And who or what might be the power on the Marsh to tell you so?"

"The great ruler o' the Marsh—the man with no name who successfully runs his schemes and makes his sons prosperous."

"That'll be the squire, then," said Jerry promptly, "for he's the Leveller of Marsh Scotts, ain't he? He makes the laws for the Marshmen, don't he?"

"He does that certainly," agreed the sexton. "But whether or no he's the power what brings luck to the Marshmen—Marshmen, mind you, worthy of the name—neither you nor me nor nobody can tell. Sufficient for us that the Marsh is ruled by a power, a mysterious power, wot brings gold and to spare to the Marshmen's pockets."

"Ah, then," said Jerry, with his eyes blazing, "then I was right. There are smugglers on the Marsh."

"There are," said the sexton; "and it's wealthy men they be, though you'd never guess at it, and darin', adventurous cusses they be, and rollickin' good times they gets, and no danger to speak of, 'cos the whole blessed concern is run by a master brain wot never seems to make mistakes, and it was this same master brain wot agreed that you should share the privileges o' the Marsh, and I was ordered to recruit you."

"Oh! and what'll be required o' me?" asked Jerk, "supposin' I thinks about it."

"You'll be given a horse, and you'll ride with the Marsh witches, learn their trade, and be apprenticed to their callin'."

"And how do you know I won't blab and get you and your fellows the rope?" asked Jerry bravely.

"Because we've sized you up, we 'as, and we don't suspect you of treachery. If we did, it wouldn't much matter to us, though I should be right sorry to have been disappointed in you, for I declare I don't know when I took to a young man like I 'as to you. You're my fancy, you are, Jerry. Just like I was at your age. Mad for adventure and for the life of real men."

"Yes, but just supposin' that I did disappoint you. Mister Sexton? It's well to hear all sides, you know."

"Aye, it's well and wise, too, and I'll tell you. If it was to your advantage to betray us—to that captain p'raps—well, I daresay you'd do it now, wouldn't you?"

"I don't know," said Jerk; "all depends. P'raps I might, though. You never knows, does you?"

"No, you never knows. Quite right. But you'd know one thing: that go where you would, or hide where you liked, we'd get you in time, and when we did get you it 'ud be short shrift for you—you may lay to that."

"I daresay," said Jerry, "unless, of course, I got you first."

"You'd have a good number to get, my lad," laughed the sexton. "But it's no use a-harguin' like this. You won't betray us when it don't serve your turn to do so, and it won't do that, 'cos we has very fine prospects open for you, and advantages. Why, we can set you in the way of rollin' in a coach before we've done with you, and who knows, years hence, when you're older than you be now, who knows but what you might not succeed to the headship. If anything was to happen to the great chief wot's to prevent you from takin' his place, eh? You're smart, ain't you? There's no gainsay in' that, now, is there, Missus Waggetts?"

"No, indeed," replied that lady.

"Then take my tip, the straight tip of an old gentleman o' fortune, and you join us."

"What'll I have to do and what is it I'm a-joinin', though?" asked the boy.

"The great scheme of wool-runnin'," said Mr. Mipps.

"Ah," sighed Jerry, "I thought as much. And what am I to do, always supposin' that I'm willin' to join?"

"We've a vacancy in the horsemen—a man short, you see, though we've got the horse. It's Mr. Rash's horse, but we've turned out the schoolmaster and kept his horse. He weren't one of us, you see, so we found that we didn't want him no more."

"You've killed him? " cried the hangman, starting up.

"I didn't say that," retorted the sexton. "I merely remarked that we didn't want him no more. And now just give me your attention. I've every reason to believe, and so has the great chief that I work for, that you are gettin' very thick with that swab of a King's captain. Well, now, don't go suddenly a-givin' him the cold shoulder, do you see? You can't drop a friend all at once like a hot potato without excitin' the gossip and suspicion of folk; so remember what I says and keep civil to him. But it's my opinion that after tonight you'll know which side you be on, for once get the thrill of the demon ride and you'll not want to get dismissed. Besides, gettin' dismissed by our chief ain't exactly what you might term a pleasant form of bein' entertained."

"And what do I do, Mister Sexton?"

"You'll get told all in good time."

"But what do the demon riders do?" persisted the boy.

"Frighten folk from the Marsh when the ponies are trottin' under the wool packs."

"And where do the wool packs come from?"

"From nearly every farm on the Marsh."

"And they put it all in packs and send 'em down to the coast?"

"That's the ticket, my lad. Pack 'em all up on ponies and bring back coffins full of spirit from France."

"Coffins full of spirit from France?" repeated the amazed boy.

"Yes, that's why I'm a coffin-maker. What would you expect to see inside a nailed-up coffin, eh?"

"Why, a dead 'un," said the boy.

"Exactly; and as folk ain't particular fond of amusin' themselves with a sight of dead 'uns they lets my coffins alone, do you see, and the spirit is treated with every respect and is allowed to go on its way very snug and all knocked up most particular solid."

"And the head of it all's the squire, is it?"

"I never said so," replied the sexton quickly; "but the less you think and say on that subject the better, for those who know the identity of the great chief would sooner have their eyes put out than betray him; so don't you hamper your young career with thinkin' about it. All you've got to do is to obey."

"And what do I get out of it?"

"Gold and the time of your life."

"And when do I start?"

"To-night."

"To-night?" faltered Jerk much relieved, for he had thought of his promise to help the captain, and was greatly thankful that the dates had not clashed.

"At half-past twelve at Old Tree Cottage; but don't go to the coffin-shop side. Tap at the back kitchen window."

"And half-past twelve, you say?"

"That's the time," answered Mipps, holding out his hands and seizing Jerk's in both his. "And I can tell at a glance that your a-goin' to be a credit to the undertakin'."

And a minute afterward he was gone and Jerk was sent by Mrs. Waggetts into the bar to polish up the tankards.