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CHAPTER I


DYMCHURCH-UNDER-THE-WALL


To those who have small knowledge of Kent let me say that the fishing village of Dymchurch-under-the-wall lies on the south coast midway between two of the ancient Cinque ports, Romney and Hythe.

In the days of George III, with Trafalgar still unfought, our coast watchmen swept with keen glasses this broad bend of the Channel; watched not for smugglers (for there was little in Dymchurch to attract the smuggler, with its flat coastline open all the way from Dover cliffs around Dungeness to Beachy Head), but for the French men-o'-war.

In spite of being perilously open to the dangers of the French coast, Dymchurch was a happy little village in those days—aye, and prosperous, too, for the Squire, Sir Antony Cobtree, though in his younger days a wild and reckless adventurer, a gambler and a duellist, had, of late years, resolved himself into a pattern Kentish squire, generous to the village, and so vastly popular. Equally popular was Doctor Syn, the vicar of Dymchurch: a pious and broad-minded cleric, with as great a taste for good Virginia tobacco and a glass of something hot as for the penning of long sermons which sent every one to sleep on Sundays. Still, it was clearly his duty to deliver these sermons, for, as I have said, he was a pious man, and although his congregation for the most part went to sleep, they were at great pains not to snore, because to offend the old Doctor would have been a lasting shame.

The little church was old and homely, within easy cry of the sea; and it was pleasant on Sunday evenings, during the Doctor's long extempore prayers, to hear the swish and the lapping and continual grinding of the waves upon the sand.

But church would come to an end at last, as most good things will, although there was a large proportion of the congregation—especially among the younger members—who considered that they could have even too much of a good thing.

The heavy drag of the long sermon and never-ending prayers was lifted, however, when the hymns began. There was something about the Dymchurch hymns that made them worth singing. True, there was no organ to lead them, but that didn't matter, for Mr. Rash, the schoolmaster—a sallow, lantern-jawed young man with a leaning toward music—would play over the tune on a fiddle, when led by the Doctor's sonorous voice, and seconded by the soul-splitting notes of Mipps, the sexton, the choir, recruited entirely from seamen whose voices had been cracked these many years at the tiller, would roll out some sturdy old tune like a giant pæan, shaking the very church with its fury, and sounding more like a rum-backed capstan song than a respectable, God-fearing hymn. They felt it was worth while kneeling through those long, long prayers to have a go at the hymns. The Doctor never chose solemn ones, or, if he did, it made no odds, for just the same were they bellowed like a chanty, and it was with a long-drawn note of regret that the seafaring choir drawled out the final Amen.

Very often when a hymn had gone with more spirit than usual the Doctor would thump on the desk of the three-decker, addressing the choir with a hearty, "Now, boys, that last verse once again," and then, turning to the congregation, he would add: "Brethren, for the glory of God and for our own salvation we will sing the—er—the last two verses once again." Whereat Mr. Rash would scrape anew upon the fiddle, Doctor Syn would pound out the rhythm with a flat banging on the pulpit side, and after him would thunder the sea salts from the choir with an enthusiasm that bade fair to frighten hell itself.

When they had hardly a note left in their bodies, the service would be rounded off by Doctor Syn, and the congregation would gather in little groups outside the church to bid him a good-night. But Doctor Syn would take some minutes changing his black gown for his cloth surcoat; besides, there was the collection to be counted and entered into the book, and a few words of parochial business with the sexton, but at last it would be all finished and he would come forth to receive the homage of the parish. He would be accompanied by Sir Antony, who was warden as well as squire and a regular churchgoer, as the well-thumbed pages of a large prayer-book in the family pew could prove. Bestowing a cheery word here and a kindly nod there, the gentleman would pass on to the Court House, where, after a hearty supper, Doctor Syn would metaphorically lay aside his robes of righteousness, and over a long pipe of his favourite tobacco and a smoking bowl of bishop, with many an anecdote of land and sea, make the jolly squire laugh till his sides ached, for he possessed to a lively extent that happy knack of spinning a good yarn, having travelled far and read much, albeit he was a parson.

And while the vicar entertained his patron at the Court House, Mr. Mipps in a like manner held court behind the closed doors of the old "Ship Inn." Here, with his broken clay pipe asmoke like a burning chimney and with eminent peril of singeing the tip of his nose, he would recount many a tale of wild horror and adventure, thoroughly encouraged by Mrs. Waggetts, the landlady, who had perceived the sexton's presence to be good for trade; and thus it was that by working his imagination to good effect Doctor Syn's parochial factotum was plied with many a free drink at the expense of the "Ship." The little sexton was further encouraged into yarning because it gratified his vanity to see that they all believed in him. It was exhilarating to know that he really made their flesh creep. He felt a power and chuckled in his heart when he saw his audience swallowing his exaggerations for gospel as easily as he himself could swallow rum, for Mipps liked rum—he had served for a great part of his life as a ship's carpenter and had got the taste for it—and so as a seasoned traveller they respected him, for what he hadn't seen of horrors in the far-off lands—well, the whole village would have readily staked their wigs was not worth seeing.