Doctor Syn/Chapter 24
THE COFFIN-MAKER HAS A VISITOR
ABOUT noon of the same day Captain Collyer, in walking through the village, found himself passing Old Tree Cottage, the low-lying residence of Sexton Mipps, with its coffin shop facing the street and its small farmhouse behind. Attracted by a great noise of hammering, the captain stepped up to the window and glanced in. Rows of coffins lined the walls and coffin planks were everywhere propped up against shelves containing everything imaginable. In the centre of the shop stood two black trestle-stools, and upon these funeral relics reposed a large coffin with no lid. Inside this gloomy thing sat Mr. Mipps. He was sitting straight up and hammering lustily upon the coffin sides, singing away with much spirit to the rhythm:
O hammer, hammer, hammer,
And damn her, damn her, damn her,
For I don't fear my wife now she's dead.
The captain, amused at the crude words, pushed open the casement and leaned into the room. Whether the sexton saw him or not the captain did not know, but the song changed immediately to a song of the sea:
There’s no swab like the captain,
There's no swab like the captain,
Of all the swabs I've ever seen
With a diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle diddle dee
No swab like the captain.
"A very appropriate song, Master Sexton," laughed the captain.
Mipps turned round and surveyed the intruder.
"Why, knock me up solid if it ain't the good captain! The gold of the high noon to you, sir, though there ain't much gold in the sky to-day. I take it as a very friendly piece of impertinence that you should come and look me up so unexpected. Had I knowed of your arrival I'd have had these grizzly relics stowed away, for some folk has a distinct dislike to lookin' at these last dwellin' houses."
"You are used to 'em, I suppose, by now?" said the captain.
"Oh, love you, yes, I don't mind 'em. Some undertakers has fearful superstitions about coffins. Some won't get in 'em to measure 'em. Lord! I always does. I lies down inside 'em and pops the lid on the top to see if it's airtight."
"Awkward if the lid was to stick."
"You may well say that, 'cos once it did. But it weren't so much awkward as peaceful, for after I'd pushed and struggled for a power o' time, I just resigned myself to my fate, feelin' thankful that at any rate I had had the privilege of bein' my own undertaker. I shall never forget my feelin's when my last bit of breath came up and went out. It was just the sort o' feelin' you gets when you drowns, only more so. 'Cos when you drowns you sees all the bad actions of your life a-troopin' before you, but gettin' buried alive is different, 'cos you sees all the good actions wot you've done. Mind you, things I'd clean forgot. Little acts of kindness wot I thought could never have been recorded anywhere. Why, they all walked out, and I seemed to be greatly comforted, 'cos, you see, I thought as how I was quite in the runnin' for heaven. In fact I was so pleased with my past self that I fairly kicked with delight, and that was the means of bringin' me back to earth, 'cos over went these trestles, and the jar I got knocked the stuck lid off. No, I've been near gone these many times, but never so near gone as that, for, as you see, I was finished with the undertaker having undertook myself, and I only had to be passed through the parson's hands and get knocked over the sconce with the sexton's shovel, as Shakespeare says in the play, to be a real 'gonner,' stiff and proper."
"A horrible experience. Master Sexton," returned the captain.
"It was in a sense. But I could tell you horribler. I takes a pride in my business, same as you might in yours. That's why I went round the world."
"Oh, you've been round the world, have you?" said the captain.
"Not once nor twice, but many times, and do you know why?"
"Perhaps the life of the get-rich-quick buccaneers appealed to you?" remarked Captain Collyer casually.
"There you go—suspicious. Can't you adapt yourself for five minutes? Can't you make an effort when you're a-gossipin' with honest folk to forget that there is dishonest ones? I never did see the like. Here we be chattin' quite friendly, and forgettin' our little differences, when you starts accusin' me of bein' a Captain Clegg or an England. Do I look like a bold pirate now? Lookin' at me straight sittin' up in this 'ere coffin, could you say that I looked like a swaggerin' gentleman o' fortune. No, you couldn't. Very well, then, why go and make unpleasant insinuations against a respectable sexton o' the realm? Mind you, I don't say as how I didn't come across some of that breed durin' my travels, and I don't say as how circumstance, that fickle woman, didn't at times make me work for 'em. But not for long. I held no sort o' likes with the likes o' them, and though some of 'em had most engagin' ways, it was easy to see that they was all of 'em unadulterated sinners. And swear? God bless your eyes, Captain, it made you blush like a damned woman to hear 'em."
"And if it was not for gold and adventure that you went, may I ask what tempted you abroad?"
"Certainly, Captain. It was the love of my work. The zeal to have a look at other sextons, vergers, and undertakers and see what they were a-doin' with the business. But Lord love you, Captain, I soon found as how funerals was done on different plans abroad. Why, I could tell you some things I seed with regard to burials abroad what 'ud make your flesh creep—aye, and now, too, though the sun is high in the heaven."
"Well, I've an hour to spare. Master Sexton. What do you say to coming along to the Ship and enjoying a drink and a friendly pipe?"
"I thinks I can do one better than that, thankin' you kindly," said the sexton, vaulting with marvellous dexterity out of the lofty coffin to the floor, "for I've baccy, pipes, and good brandy all to hand, and if you'd care to spend an hour with Sexton Mipps and listen to his babbles, why, light your 'strike me dead' and gulp your spirits and settle your hulk in that there coffin, what hasn't got no passenger inside—so don't be frightened—and we'll shut the window, for it's a-blowin' the fire out; and if you ain't cozy, well, it's not the fault of the sexton, is it now?" And then Mr. Mipps, after busily providing his guest with the requisites for smoke and drink, and after splitting up a coffin plank to renew the fire, sprang back into the coffin, sitting snug with a glass of brandy and his clay pipe. The captain also was ensconced on a coffin in the corner, and to the crackle of the split coffin plank upon the fire the sexton began to yarn.