Doctor Syn/Chapter 31

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CHAPTER XXXI


A CERTAIN TREE BEARS FRUIT


JERK was kept busy all day at the Ship Inn, for Imogene had left her post and Mrs. Waggetts, who appeared to have grave matters of her own to fuss about, kept the young potboy in command. He was sorry about this, for he was unable to visit his estate upon the Marsh, and he was eager to view his latest purchase, the gallows. But to his great satisfaction he heard it discussed by a farmer and a fisherman who sat drinking at the bar.

"I tell you that there's a gallows erected on the Marsh nigh Littlestone Point," the fisherman was saying. "I could see it quite plain at sunrise when we were running up on to the beach."

"And you say that there was a man a-hangin' from it?" said the farmer.

"Aye, that's what I said, and I thought as how you could tell me what man it was."

"I don't know nothing," replied the farmer, "except that the demon riders was out again last night, and if what you says is right, why, they're at their tricks again, I suppose." And the farmer gave the fisherman a knowing wink. However, this didn't trouble Jerry, for the laugh was all on his side. Not content with an empty scaffold, he had gone out the night before, while Doctor Syn and the captain had been chatting in the sanded parlour, and collected two great sacks full of dried sticks and sand, which, with the help of a few tightly knotted lengths of twine, he had converted into the semblance of a man, and this same dummy he had hanged from the rusty chain. It had looked splendid swinging there with the mist wrapped round its feet. This indeed was playing hangman's games with a vengeance. Impatient as he was to see the fruits of his labour, impatient he had to remain, for he was not released till nightfall, when Mrs. Waggetts entered the bar with Sexton Mipps. Freed at last from duty, Jerry stepped outside, pulling his hat over his eyes and tucking up his collar, for the wind was blowing up for a cold night. He was leaving the yard with a brisk step when he noticed a cloaked figure coming to meet him. It was Imogene.

"Jerry," she whispered, "who put up that gallows on your plot of land?"

"It's my gallows," answered Jerk proudly. "I paid for it, and Mister Mipps it was wot helped me to set it up."

"It's a real one, Jerry," the girl replied.

"Yes, that it is—and ain't it fine?"

"But there's a man, a real man hanging there."

At this Jerk slapped his knee with enthusiasm and cried aloud: "Now by all the barrels of rum! if I ain't fit to take in the devil hisself, wot I believes is a sexton dressed up. For that same corpse wot you've seed a-danglin' from my gallows tree ain't a corpse at all, but sticks, sand, and sacks wot I invented to look like one."

"Are you sure, Jerry?" said the girl.

"I'm a-goin' out there myself now; so come along and see for yourself."

"I've been there once this evening, Jerry."

"Well, come along o' me and you shall give the old scarecrow wot's a-swing on my gallows a good sharp tweak in the ribs." So off they set through the churchyard and out over the Marsh.

"Jerry," whispered the girl presently, "there's something queer going to happen soon. Perhaps to-night. Perhaps to-morrow night. And it's something uncommon queer, too."

"Now what makes you think that?" said Jerry, looking up at her.

"I believe, Jerry, that there are certain tides that run from the Channel round Dungeness that wash up the dead seamen from the deep waters, and all the time that they lie near shore waiting for the ebb to take 'em back to their old wrecked ships in the deep their spirits come ashore and roam about us. I feel that way tonight. I can almost smell death in the air."

"Well, that's a funny notion," remarked the boy, turning it over in his mind, "but I dare say you are right. After all, the sea, what does look so tidy on the top, must have lots of ugly secrets underneath, and I don't see why it shouldn't want to wash 'em ashore once in a way. I've often wondered myself about the dead what moves about inside the sea, and I thinks sometimes when the high tide runs into the great sluice and near fills the dykes that perhaps it buries things it's sick of in the mud. P'raps it's a-doin' it now, and that's wot's given you them notions."

"Perhaps it is, Jerry."

Now the mist was so thick that they did not get a far view of Jerk's gallows; indeed they had crossed the one-planked bridge over the dyke and half climbed Gallows Tree Hill before they viewed it at all. But as soon as they did Jerry sprang forward crying: "Who's been messing about with my bag o' sticks?"

The sacking had been torn, and from the slit appeared a hand. Jerry seized the hand and pulled. The rusty chain squeaked, and one of the rotten links "gave," and the ghastly fruit of the gallows tree fell upon the young hangman, who was borne to the ground beneath the falling weight. Imogene, with a cry, pulled it from him, and Jerk scrambled to his feet. Then they both looked.

The mildewed sacking, wet with the dense mist, had severed in the fall; the threads had rent at a hundred points, and from the fragments of scattered débris the dead face of Rash looked up with protruding eyes that stared from the blood-streaked flesh.

Jerk's gallows had borne fruit.

For minutes they stood looking. The cloak had fallen from the girl's shoulders, and the shrieking wind flapped in her rough dress and tore at her streaming hair. Jerk, with his ambitions fulfilled, found himself most uncomfortably scared. For minutes neither of them spoke. They could only stare. Stare at the huddled horror and listen to the jangle of the broken gibbet chain. Suddenly Imogene remembered something which brought her back to consciousness, for she spoke:

"Jerry, after seeing that, are you afraid to return to the village alone?"

Jerry had not yet found his voice, so he shook his head.

"Then go to the Court House and report what we've found to the squire, and tell him that Imogene has gone out to keep the rest of her promise."

Jerry got her to repeat the sentence again, and he watched her leap the dyke and disappear into the mist, and then from behind the scaffold stepped the captain.

"You'll do nothing of the kind, potboy," he said, seizing Jerk's arm and leading him away from the scaffold. "I've other work for you to do. We're going back to the village to make our experiment."

As they stumbled across the Marsh, scrambling the dykes that skirted the fields, the wind got up off shore, scattering the mists and driving them across the sea toward the beacons of France. Half an hour later, as the captain and Hangman Jerk approached the vicarage, a small fishing boat, carrying no light but much sail, raced before the screaming wind toward Dungeness, and with a firm hand grasping the tiller and a great heart beating high, stood Imogene, blinded with lashing spray and her drenched streaming hair, fighting the cruel sea to keep her word to the squire.