Doctor Syn/Chapter 5

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CHAPTER V


A BOTTLE OF ALSACE LORRAINE


LEFT to himself, the captain rapidly examined the kitchen; then going to the door that led to the bar-parlour, he called out: "Bo'sun, come in here, and bring that mulatto with you."

The bo'sun answered with alacrity, pushing before him into the kitchen an altogether horrible apparition: a thin mulatto in the dress of a navy cook. His skin was cracked like parchment and drawn tightly over the prominent cheekbones. His black eyes shone brightly, and the lids turned up at the corners like those of a Chinaman. The unusual brilliance of these eyes may have been accounted for by the scrags of pure white hair that grew from the skull. These were bound at the back into a thin pigtail, leaving the sides of the head bare, and it must have been this that gave him that curiously revolting look, for the foreigner had no ears. Another terrible thing about him was that he could not speak, for his tongue had been cut out by the roots. He had evidently suffered much, this cook.

"Job Mallet," said the captain, when the door was shut, "we have now got this room to ourselves, and as there is no time like the present, turn that white-haired old spider of yours on to the floor and walls. This panelling seems likely."

"The bo'sun approached the mulatto, and jabbered some weird lingo into his ear-hole, which immediately made the uncouth figure hop about the room, spreading his lean arms along the panels, which he kept tapping with his fingers, at the same time executing a curious tattoo with his bare feet upon the floor. In this fashion he encircled the room twice, apparently without achieving any result. In the corner of the room was fixed a wooden table with a heavy flap which reached nearly to the ground. Upon this table was a large assortment of cooking utensils, while underneath, almost entirely hidden by the flap, there reposed a like collection of buckets, pails, and old saucepans.

The mulatto, after his double journey round the room, turned his attention to this table. He struck the flap up and, pushing aside the pots and pans, uttered a strange, excited gurgle.

"Ha! ha!" said the captain to the bo'sun, "your spider has caught a fly, eh?"

Job Mallet looked under the table and saw the mulatto pulling desperately at a brass ring that was fixed to the floor. Pushing him aside, the bo'sun had pulled up a trap and was descending a flight of steps before the captain had even locked both the doors.

"What is it?" he whispered; for the bo'sun had entirely disappeared.

"Here you are, sir," said the sailor, reappearing with a bottle in his hand. "There's a wine-cellar down there the size of an admiral's cabin."

"Oh!" replied the captain. "Well, like enough it's the regular cellar."

"Then why should they be at such pains to hide the entrance, sir?" returned the bo'sun.

"There's nothing in that," replied the captain. "It's natural that they don't want every Tom, Dick, and Harry going into the wine-cellar."

"I suppose it is, sir," agreed the bo'sun, "but it looks a costly bottle, though it could do with a bit of a shine," he added, spitting on it and giving it a vigorous rub with his sleeve.

"Let's look at the label," said the captain. "'Alsace Lorraine, White, Rare 500.' What on earth does '500' mean?"

"The date, sir," ejaculated the bo'sun; "it's the date. My eye! that's enough to give a man a bad head. It's over a thousand years old."

"Nonsense, my man," said the captain, laughing. "It means that this bottle is one of a cargo of five hundred."

"Of course," said the bo'sun, slapping his knee. "What a thundering old idiot I am, to be sure. You're right, sir, as you always are, for I see the other four hundred and ninety-nine down below there. But," he added ruefully, "we've got no proof that they're smuggled."

"We'll soon get that," said the captain, thrusting the bottle into the capacious skirt pocket of his sea-coat. "Put these things back, and summon the landlady."

Then the captain unlocked the door and quietly opened it.

Coming up quickly from a stooping position near the keyhole was Mr. Mipps, the sexton.

"You're a fine fellow," he said, not at all put out of countenance by the captain having found him eavesdropping, "a very fine fellow to come lookin' for smuggling, with a gang o' blasphemous scoundrels wot kick up more to-do than the Tower of Babel. Look here, sir, are you coming in to keep order or not? I only want a word, Yes or No, for I shall go straight round to the Court House and report you to the squire. And then p'raps he won't put you and your crew into the cells there; p'raps he won't—only p'raps, 'cos I'm dead sure he will."

"What are my boys doing?" laughed the captain.

"What are the little dears not doing?" answered the sexton, thoroughly angry. "Oh, nothing, I assure you! Only upsetting the barrels, throwin' about the tankards, stealin' the drinks, and makin' fun of Missus Waggetts."

"Oh, that's all right," said the captain. "Tell Mrs. Waggetts to come here."

"You tell worse men than yourself to do your dirty work," replied the sexton. "Do you think I'm a powder monkey that I should fetch and carry Missus Waggetts for you? Fetch her yourself, or send old fat-sides there," he added, jerking his thumb at the bo'sun, "or that dear old white-haired admiral wot's lost his yellow ear-flaps. As for me, I'm a-goin' to the Court House, and if you don't know what for, you'll soon learn—you and old fat-sides." The bo'sun made a grab at him, but Mipps slipped through the crowded bar and was running up the highroad.

The captain now stepped into the bar. Order was at once restored. "Now, ma'am," he said to Mrs. Waggetts, "while the bo'sun is seeing that your score is paid, give me a bottle of wine."

"Port or claret, sir?" said the landlady.

"Neither," said the captain. "I have a fancy to try a bottle of Alsatian. Yes, a white wine from Alsace Lorraine."

But before the captain had time to smack his lips Mrs. Waggetts replied: "Oh, we don't keep that, sir."

"No?" queried the captain.

"No, indeed, sir," said the landlady. "You see there's no call for it in these parts. And then the customs are so high we couldn't afford to stock it for the few and far betweens as might ask for it. Why, for my own part, sir, though I've been in the business these—well, many years now, I've never even heard of it."

"Really!" said the captain. "Well, it's a good wine, ma'am. Now, bo'sun, pipe the men outside."

"Won't you try a bottle of claret, sir?" said the landlady with persuasion.

"No," said the captain, "later on, perhaps. I'll see. By the way, is there any old barn about where I could quarter my men? I'm loath to billet them on the village."

"No, I don't know anywhere," returned the landlady. "Do you, Mr. Rash? Perhaps you'd loan the schoolhouse to the captain?"

"Yes, and give us a holiday for once in a way!" chimed in the potboy.

"It's not to be thought of," said the schoolmaster, walking out of the inn.

"No one uses the church on weekdays, I suppose," said the captain. "I daresay there's room for them there, in the vestry or the tower perhaps, or even in the crypt."

"Them drunken ruffians in the church!" cried out young Jerk, pulling a horrified face, and indicating the rough sailors who were now outside the inn. "You'd better watch out what you're up to, or you'll have the vicar on your track."

"I'll tell you where you'll end, my lad," said the captain, turning on him sharply.

"Where, sir?" said young Jerk, looking really interested.

"If not upon the scaffold, uncommon near it, I'll be bound," the captain replied.

"I hope so indeed," thought Hangman Jerk, "and I hopes it'll be a-fixing the noose around your bull neck." But he kept this thought to himself, for he suddenly remembered that the captain could be rather too playful for his liking; so he watched the sailors shouldering their bundles, falling into line, and eventually swinging out of the old Ship Inn, followed by the captain.