Doctor Syn/Chapter 28

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CHAPTER XXVIII


THE FIGHT AT MILL HOUSE FARM


MILL HOUSE FARM was the last on Beelzebub's list, and in the dyke facing the house, but on the other side of the highroad crouched the King's men, commanded by the captain's bo'sun. They were as still as mice, for the captain had given strict orders to the bo'sun on that score, but they need not have put themselves to such pains, for owing to the extreme vigilance of Sexton Mipps the smugglers knew exactly where they were and what they were going to do.

Now it is depressing to the most seasoned fighters to have to crouch for hours in a soaking muddy dyke waitting for an outnumbering enemy; for it was common knowledge that if smuggling was carried on upon the Marsh, it was well manipulated and relied for its secrecy upon the strength and numbers of its assistants. So the bo'sun had no easy task in keeping his men from grumbling; for whatever Captain Collyer's opinion may have been with regard to maintaining the law according to his duty, it was pretty evident that his men had no great relish for the task, and the bo'sun heartily wished that the captain had not left him responsible, for his absence was having a poor effect upon the men, and the unfortunate bo'sun was greatly afraid that they would fail to put up a good fight when the time came. It is one thing to fight an enemy, but quite another to shoot down your own countrymen, and although every man jack of them was itching for the French war, they felt no enthusiasm for this suppression of smuggling, for the whole of the countryside would have taken the side of the lawbreakers, and who knows how many of these same King's men had not themselves done a very profitable trade with the illegal cargoes from France.

These were the feelings that existed as the King's men lay in the dyke opposite Mill House Farm, listening to the noise of ponies' hoofs in the yard, and waiting to fire upon any one who presented himself.

But the order "Not to kill, but to fire low," also damped their spirits, for what chance would they have against desperate fellows keeping their necks out of the rope, who would not hesitate but would rather aim to kill?

The bo'sun had great difficulty in preventing one old seadog who lay next him in the ditch from voicing his opinion of the proceedings in a loud bass voice, but what he did say he after all had the good grace to whisper, though a whisper that was none too soft at that.

"What the hell's the sense, Mr. Bo'sun, of sending good seamen like we be to die like dogs in this blamed ditch? Ain't England got no use for seamen nowadays? 'Tain't the members of Parleyment wot'll serve her when it comes to fighting, though they does talk so very pleasant."

"They don't talk as much as you do," was the hushed retort of the bo'sun.

"Look ye 'ere, Job Mallet," went on the seadog, "you've been shipmate o' mine fer longer than I well remembers, and you be in command here. Well, I ain't a-kickin' against your authority, mind you, but I'm older than you be, and I want to voice my opinion to you, which is also the opinion of every mother's son in this damned ditch. Why don't we clear out of this and be done with the folly? We looks to you, Job Mallet, I say we looks to you as our bo'sun, and a very good bo'sun you be, we looks to you, we does, to save us bein' made fools of. We wants to fight the Frenchies and not our own fellows. The Parleyment's a-makin' a great mistake puttin' down the smugglers. If they only talked nice to 'em they'd find a regiment or two o' smugglers very handy to fight them ugly Frenchies. For my own part I don't see why the Parleyment don't put down other professions for a bit and leave the smugglers alone. Why not give lawyers a turn, eh? They could do with a bit o' hexposin'! Dirty swabs! And so could the doctors wot sell coloured water for doses. Bah! dirty, dishonest fellows! But, oh, no! It's always the poor smugglers who be really hard-working fellows; and very good fighters they be, too, as we'll soon be called upon to see."

All this time Job Mallet tried to silence him, but threats, persuasions, and arguments were all alike useless.

"Old Collywobbles thinks the same as wot we does."

"I'll have you to remember," whispered the bo'sun stiffly, "that I bein' in command in this 'ere ditch don't know as to who you be alludin' when you say Collywobbles. I don't know no one of that name."

"Oh, ain't you a stickler to duty?" chuckled the seadog. "Still I respec's you fer it, though p'raps you'll permit me to remind you as how it was you in the fo'csle of the Resistance as gave the respected Captain Howard Collyer, R. N., the pleasant pet name of Collywobbles. Though p'raps that's slipped your memory for the moment."

"It has," answered the bo'sun.

"Very well, then, but you can take it from me as how it was, so there, and a very clever name it be, too; but there, you always was one of the clever ones. Job Mallet."

"I wish I were clever enough to make your fat mouth shut, I do," muttered the bo'sun.

"Now, then, Job Mallet, don't you begin getting to personalities. But there, now, I don't want to quarrel with you. You've always had my greatest respec's, you has, and as we'll probably be stiff 'uns in a few minutes, we won't quarrel, old pal. But I give you my word that I don't like being shot down like a rabbit, and I'm sorry as how it's you as is in command, 'cos if it was any one else I declares I'd get up now and walk home to bed."

"If Captain Collyer was here, you know you'd do nothing of the sort."

"Why, ain't he here? That's wot I wants to know. Strike me dead! it's easy enough to send out poor old seadogs to be shot like bunny rabbits. I could do that. There ain't no pluck in that, as far as I can see, though p'raps I be wrong, and if I be wrong, well, I'll own up to it, for I don't care bein' put in the wrong of it when I is in the wrong of it."

"You ain't a-settin' a very good example to the young men, I'm thinkin'," said Job Mallet. "You, the oldest seaman here, and a-grumblin' and a-gossipin' like an old housewife. You ought to think shame on yourself, old friend."

"Oh, well," growled the other, "I won't utter another blarsted word, I won't. But if you does want to know my opinion in these 'ere proceedin's, it's—hell!"

"I don't say as how I don't agree with you," returned Job Mallet, "but there it is and we've got to make the best of it. It won't do no good a-grumblin'. We'll make the best of a bad job, and I hopes as I for one will be able to do my duty, 'cos I don't relish it no more than you do."

"Well, strike me blind, dumb, and deaf!" thundered the seadog in a voice of emotion as he clapped Job Mallet on the back, "if I've been a snivellin' powder monkey I ought to be downright ashamed of myself, and seein' as how I be the oldest seaman here, instead—well, I'm more than damned downright ashamed. Job Mallet, thank you! You set a good example to us all, Mister Bo'sun, and I'll stand by you for one. Damn the smugglers, and wait till I get at 'em, that's all!"

"Thank yer," said the bo'sun, "but you'll greatly oblige me by keeping quiet, 'cos here be the smugglers, if I ain't mistook."

Indeed at that instant along the road came the sound of the sharp, quick steps of the packponies. At present they were hidden in the mist which floated thickly about that part of the Marsh, but they could not only hear the ponies but a sound of a voice singing as well. This voice was raised in a wailing monotone and the words were repeated over and over again. They were intended for the ears of the wretched sailors who were waiting in the ditch for the attack:

"Listen, oh, you good King's men who are waiting to shoot us from the damp ditch. We have got your kind captain here, a blunderbuss a-looking at the back of his head. If you fire on us, good King's men, then the blunderbuss will fire at the good captain, and then:

"'All the King's horses and all the King's men
Could not put captain together again.'"

Even if the words were not sufficient to explain the situation to the sailors, the first figures of the cavalcade were all sufficient. A donkey led by two jack-o'-lanterns on foot jolted out of the fog. Upon its back was a man bound and gagged, supported on either side by two devil-men. That the gagged wretch was the captain needed no words to tell, for his uniform showed by the lantern's light, and there right behind him, sure enough, was the blunderbuss in question, pointed by a snuffy little devil called by his colleagues Hellspite, who sat hunched up on a shoddy little pony. This little group halted at a convenient distance from the sailors in the ditch, and Hellspite again rehearsed his little speech, ending up with:

"'All the King's horses and all the King's men
Could not put captain together again.'"

Now the poor bo'sun in command had all his life grown so used to taking other people's orders that he didn't know what to do for the best. He liked the captain and didn't want to see him killed, though he knew what he must be suffering in his ridiculous position. He knew that had the captain but got the use of his speech he would have shouted, "Fire! and be damned to 'em!" But then the captain had not got the use of speech. The Scarecrow and Hellspite knew enough of the man to see to that, and as they had no great desire to be fired at, they had seen that the gags were efficient. So it was, after all, small wonder that the old grumbling seadog next to him, who possessed a rollicking vein of humour, laughed until he rolled back into the mud, for the sight was enough to make the proverbial cat laugh, much less a humorous old tar, and the rest of the men were divided into two classes, some following the example of the bo'sun and being struck stiff with amazement and powerless wrath, others joining the laughing tar in the muddy ditch and guffawing over the ridiculous situation of their captain, for he was not the build of man to sit an ass with any dignity, not being at all akin to a Levantine Jew, but very absurd in his naval uniform, with the cocked hat literally cocked right down over his nose. It was this sudden surprise that made the sailors utterly unprepared for what followed. A large party of horse swept out of the mist behind them, and when they turned to see what fresh thing was amiss there was a gallant line of terrible cavalry pulling up on their haunches a few yards in their rear. Thus they were cut off on both sides: at their back the devils with flaming faces, on horses of alarming proportions, and in front, their captain, waiting for them to shoot, to meet his own death by the little demon's blunderbuss:

"'If you fire, you good King's men,
Then the devil shall blarst your captain.'"

"And you as well, you good King's men!" shrieked and howled the terrible demons at the back, who covered with pistols or blunderbuss every Jack Tar in the ditch.

Then another rider appeared on the scene. He was tall, thin, and of ungainly countenance, and he rode a light gray thoroughbred. He was the Scarecrow, and all the devils hailed him by that name as he appeared. Behind him came the packponies, some sixty or seventy in all, and on each pony was a wool pack that would have meant a human neck to the King's hangman if only Collyer were free to work his will. The Scarecrow drew up in the road and watched the great procession of ponies pass along toward the coast. When they had all but passed he gave a signal, and the doors of Mill House barn were opened and ten more heavily laden ponies trotted out and joined the snake of illegal commerce that was wriggling away to the sea. Then like some field-marshal upon the field of battle did the Scarecrow slowly ride over a small bridge and then along the front of his demon cavalry. Jerry Jerk heard him give a short order to Beelzebub as he passed, and then saw him gallop away after the packponies. And then came the ordeal for the King's men, for they were kept in that uncomfortable position for a full two hours, or maybe even longer. Folly to move, folly to fight, there they had to stop—a foolish-looking group of fighting men, if you like, but more foolish had they attempted resistance, for they were outnumbered in men, in arms, and in wits. Once, indeed, did the bo'sun nearly lose his head, and that was when Hellspite lowered his blunderbuss and produced a clay pipe which he lit. The bo'sun saw a chance, spat in his hand, grasped his cutlass, and clambered from the dyke. But instantaneously came the ominous noise of cocking pistols, and the old seadog grabbed the bo'sun's leg and pulled him back swearing into the mud. Hellspite chuckled and smoked his pipe, the horsemen covered every man in the ditch with cocked weapons, and so another hour passed over the curious group. Suddenly from over the Marsh came the cry of a curlew, weird and repeated seven times. Hellspite put up his pipe and muttered an order to the two devils by the donkey, and then he addressed the sailors:

"Now, good sailors, we will trouble you for your arms. Pass them up to good Job Mallet and he shall stretch his legs and lay them at my feet."

But again Job Mallet lost his head. He arose in the ditch and sang out bravely: "You and the rest of you are damned cowards in silencing the mouth of our captain. Had he his voice you know what he'd say—'Shoot and be damned to you!' and well you know it. Why don't you meet us in fair fight, you damned cowards, instead of using such devil's tricks?"

"'Cos we ain't so bloody-minded as the good King's bo'sun," answered Hellspite in a piping voice, which drew forth a great laugh from the devils.

One of the seamen, considering that all eyes were now upon the bo'sun, leaped from the ditch and made a rush for Hellspite with his naked cutlass. Five or six pistols cracked behind him and over he fell, face downward in the road. Every shot had taken effect: he was dead.

"'Oh, do keep your little heads, you silly King's men!" wailed Hellspite, "for look how we've spoiled that nice little man. He's no use now to fight the French, no use at all. Oh, what a pity, what a pity, what a pity!"

Again came the cry of the curlew, seven times.

"Now, then, those weapons!" ordered Hellspite sharply, "and if they don't come along quick we'll put this captain out of service along with his man there."

There was nothing for it but to obey. They were in the demons' power. The sailors had found that the smugglers were good shots and that they meant business. No, there was nothing for it but to hand over their arms to the bo'sun, who with bad grace laid them upon the roadway, whence they were picked up by the jack-o'-lanterns, who bore them into the barn.

"Now, then, my fine fellows," said Hellspite, "we'll plump this 'ere captain on the road. You will pick him up if you want him and take him home to bed, for the dawn ain't far off, and as the wool packs are safe and away, we'll bid you good repose."

The captain was accordingly lifted from the donkey and laid upon the road. The sailors were filed up around him, and conducted ingloriously back to the vicarage barn. Three devils, having been told off for the purpose, bore away the body of the dead seaman, so that before the dawn lit up the Marsh there was no sign of smugglers anywhere, and Jerry Jerk, after disrobing with the others at the coffin shop, was packed off home to bed by Beelzebub, where, without disturbing his grandparents, he fell immediately to sleep, and dreamed his whole adventure over again.

Just as the dawn was breaking Mipps was returning from the vicarage barn, where he had deposited a bundle of weapons outside the door, when he saw a yellow-faced man creeping along the field by the churchyard wall. As he watched the figure disappear into a deep dyke he muttered: "I wonder if that there thing is real or unreal? I wonder if he did get off that reef in his body? If he did, what the blarsted hell's he findin' to live upon? and if he ain't—well, God help one of us in this 'ere place!" And he scurried back to the coffin shop like a sneaking rat.