Doctor Syn/Chapter 8

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CHAPTER VIII


DOGGING THE SCHOOLMASTER


NOW Jerry lived with his grandparents, and they were always early to bed. Indeed, by ten o'clock they were both snoring loudly, while Jerry would be tucked up in the little attic dreaming of the gallows and hanging Mr. Rash. Jerry was troubled a good deal by dreams; but upon this particular night they were more than usually violent; whether owing to the great excitement caused by the coming of the King's men, or due to the extra doses of rum that the youngster had indulged in, who can say. He dreamt that he was out on the Marsh chasing the schoolmaster: that was all very well, quite a pleasant dream to young Jerk and not at all a nightmare, but unfortunately there were things chasing Jerry as well, and the nearer he seemed to get to the flying schoolmaster the nearer got the things behind him. There was no doubt at all in the dreamer's mind as to what they were, for they were the Marsh devils that he had heard about from infancy, the very demon riders that old Sennacherib Pepper was credited with having seen. He glanced over his shoulder and saw them pounding after him, grim riders on most ghastly steeds. The noise of the hoofs got nearer and nearer, and run as he would, he felt that he would never reach the schoolmaster before he himself was caught by the demons. Then in the dream the schoolmaster turned round, and Jerk with a scream saw that what he had been chasing was no longer the schoolmaster but the devil himself. So there he was between the demon riders and the very old gentleman that Doctor Syn preached about on Sundays. Now, although Jerry was no coward, he was not quite proof against such a shock as this, so he just uttered the most appalling scream and fell into a ditch that had suddenly appeared before him. The fall into the ditch was very hard, so hard, indeed, that the sleeper awoke to find that he was sitting on the floor with the bedclothes on top of him. But he was still uncertain whether or no he was awake, for although he rubbed his eyes exceedingly hard he could still hear the pounding hoofs of the demon horses, and they were coming nearer. He rubbed his eyes again, twisted his fingers into his ears, and listened. Yes, there was really no mistaking it, there were horses coming along the road before the house, and he was certain in his mind that they were the phantoms of his dream. So he went to the casement and looked out. Prepared for a surprise he certainly was, but not such a terrible one as he got. Along the road at a gallop went a score or so of horsemen: that they were not of this world was very easy to see, for there was moonlight shining from their faces and from the faces of the horses as well.

The riders were fantastically dressed in black, and wore queer tall hats the like of which Jerry had only seen in ghost books. They were fine riders, too, for they seemed to the terrified boy actually to grow out of their horses. Jerry noticed, too, that there were long streamers of black flying from the harness. The curious light that shone upon the riders made it possible for Jerry to see their faces, which were entirely diabolical, for one and all were laughing as they rode. They were going at a good pace, so that as soon as they appeared, just so sudden did they go, and although Jerk opened the casement and hung out of the window, the mist had entirely swallowed the riders up, although he could still hear the distant noise of their horses. It sounded as if one of them was coming back. Yes, he was sure of it! So he very quickly shut the window again. The clatter of hoofs got louder, and presently Jerk, through the pane, caught sight of a rider trotting out of the mist. Now there seemed something familiar about this figure and the peculiar jogging of the steed; but the rider was well under the window before Jerk discovered that this was no demon, but the hated schoolmaster. What was he doing riding out at this hour, thought the youngster? Was he in league with the spirits of the Marsh, and could he pass through them without being scared? For there was no other turning along the road, and the schoolmaster, although very repulsive to behold, was not looking in any way concerned; so Jerry came to the rapid conclusion that his deadly enemy was in some way or other connected with that mysterious band of horse. "So," he thought, "if he's up to mischief, I must find out what that mischief is, and if it's a hanging business, all the better." So quickly and silently Jerk pulled on his breeches and coat, and with his boots in his hand crept out upon the stairs. Everything was very still, and the creaks and cracks of the old oak were horrible, and then his grandfather did snore so very loud, and once just as he was entering the kitchen he heard his grandmother cry out: "Jerry, come here!" That nearly made him jump out of his skin, but he heard immediately afterward her wheezing snore mingled with those of her better half, so he concluded that she had only cried out in her sleep. In the kitchen he put on his boots, and just as he was opening the back door he heard the tall clock in the front room striking eleven. He left the door on the latch and, climbing through a hedge, struck out across the Marsh. He knew well enough that by running he could pick up the road again so as to be ahead of the rider; but it was difficult going at night, and by the time he had scrambled through the hedge again he saw the schoolmaster passing round at the back of Mipps's shop. There was still a light burning in the front window, and after tying up his bony horse the schoolmaster entered the shop. "What's he wanting at a coffin shop at this hour?" thought Jerk. "I wish he was ordering his own, I do!" And with this uncharitable thought he crept along the road and approached the house. A coffin shop isn't a pleasant thing to behold at night. Rows of coffin planks leaned up against the provision shelves, for Mipps supplied the village with bread and small eatables. A half-finished coffin reposed on trestles in the centre of the floor, and around the room hung every conceivable article that had to do with coffins. The atmosphere of coffins spread over everything in the store, and whether young Jerk looked at the bottles of preserves on this shelf or the loaves of dark bread on that, to him they meant but one thing: Death! And he was quite satisfied that any one bold enough to eat of the food in that grizzly shop well deserved to be knocked up solid in one of Mipps's boxes.

The sexton himself was examining with great care a mixture that he was stirring inside a small cauldron. Mr. Rash approached him and asked if there was enough. "Of course there is," answered the sexton. "Ain't the others all had theirs? And there's only you left; last again, as usual. Hang the pot on to your saddle and come along." Jerk fell to wondering what on earth could be inside that pot. He could smell it through the broken casement, and a right nasty smell it was. Mipps led the way through the back of the shop, and Jerk, by changing his position, could see him fixing the pot to the saddle, as he had suggested, then springing on to the horse's back with marvellous agility for so ancient a man, he went off through the village with the schoolmaster trotting at the side, and the wary Jerk following in the shadows.

They led him right through the village to the vicarage, and tied the horse behind a tree at the back. Then Mipps, producing a key, opened the front door, and a minute later Jerk from a point of vantage behind the low churchyard wall saw the sexton throw a log on to the low, smouldering fire in the old grate of the front room that was the Doctor's study. Mipps also lighted a candle that stood upon the chimney-board. Jerry could see into the room quite distinctly now: he could see the old sexton curled up in the oak settle by the fireplace, and the schoolmaster's shadow flickering upon the wall. He also had a good view of the Court House, where there were candles still burning in the library, and the hearty voice of the squire would keep sounding out loud and clear. Presently the door opened and a figure came out, going off in the direction of the vicarage barn, and Jerk had no difficulty in recognizing the bo'sun of the King's men.

As soon as he had disappeared Jerk got another surprise, for there came across the churchyard, dodging in and out among the tombstones, a truly terrible thing. Its face seemed to the boy like the face of a dead man, for it looked quite yellow, and its white hair gave it a further corpselike expression. Jerk was terrified that the thing would see him, but it didn't, for the shining black eyes, unlike anything he had ever seen before, were directed entirely upon the lighted window of the vicarage, and up to it he crawled, and peeped into the room. The schoolmaster was standing with his back to the window, but he presently turned and went to the door. The weird figure crouched in the flower-bed under the sill, for Mr. Rash opened the front door and went round to the back of the house to the tree where he had tied the horse.

As soon as he had gone the yellow-faced man entered the house. Now Jerry fell to wondering what this was all about, and what the little sexton would do if he caught sight of the apparition. But the sexton's eyes were closed and his mouth wide open, and Jerry could hear him beginning to snore. When the door of the room was opened the figure cautiously crossed toward the fire, but the sexton didn't move; he was asleep.

Now above the chimney-piece hung a harpoon; it belonged to Doctor Syn, who was a collector of nautical curiosities; and this harpoon had once been Clegg's. It was a curious shape, and it was supposed that only one man in the Southern Seas besides the pirate had ever succeeded in throwing it.

The figure was now between Mipps and the firelight, and it began examining the curios upon the mantel-board. Suddenly it perceived the harpoon and, with a cry, unhooked it from its nail. The sexton opened his eyes, and the figure swung the dangerous weapon above his head, and Jerk thought that the sexton's last moment had come, but Mipps, uttering a piercing cry, kicked out most lustily against the chimney-piece, and backward he went along with the settle.

Perhaps it was the horrible cry that frightened the thing, because it came running out of the front door with the harpoon still in its hand, and leaping the churchyard wall disappeared among the tombstones in the direction of the Marsh.

Mipps got up and ran to the door, crying out for Rash, and at the same time the door of the Court House opened and Doctor Syn came striding toward the vicarage.

"No more parochial work, I trust to-night, Mr. Sexton?" he said cheerily, but then noticing Mipps's terrified demeanour he added: "What's the matter, Mr. Mipps? You look as grave as a tombstone."

"So would you, sir, if you seen wot I seed. It was standin' over me lookin' straight down at me, as yellow as a guinea."

"What was?" said the cleric.

"A thing!" said the sexton.

"Come, come, what sort of thing?" demanded the vicar.

"The likes of a man," replied the sexton, thinking, "but not a livin' man—a sort of shape—a dead 'un—and yet I can't help fancying I've seed it somewheres before. By thunder!" he cried suddenly, "I know. That's why it took Clegg's harpoon. For God's sake, come inside, sir." And in they went hurriedly, followed by Rash, who had just arrived back on the scene. Inside the room Mr. Mipps again narrated in a horrified whisper what he had just seen, pointing now out of the window in the direction taken by the thing and now at the empty nail where Clegg's harpoon had hung.

Doctor Syn went to the window to close the shutters and saw Sennacherib Pepper crossing the far side of the churchyard.

"Good-night, Sennacherib," he cried out, and shut the shutters. A minute later out came the schoolmaster, but instead of going round for his horse, as Jerry expected, he walked quickly after Sennacherib Pepper. "How long is this going on for, I wonder?" thought young Jerk, as he picked himself up and set off after the schoolmaster.