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CHAPTER XII


THE CAPTAIN OBJECTS


UP THE old stairway to the courtroom Jerk followed the captain, wondering why he had been called, what the captain knew about last night, and whatever Doctor Syn would advise him to say if he were questioned. These were nutty problems for Jerry's young teeth to crack, and though somewhat nervous in consequence, he was on the whole highly delighted at seeing the fun.

The procedure of the inquiry was evidently biding the captain's presence, for as soon as he had taken his seat at the high table the squire rose and in a few well-chosen words announced the inquiry to be set and open. The captain seemed to have forgotten the presence of Jerk, who was left standing in the doorway surveying the august company. There was an attorney-at-law and a doctor of medicine from Hythe, an attorney from Romney and a doctor from Romney. At the high table these four gentlemen sat facing the squire, who was in the centre, with Doctor Syn upon his right. On his left was the chair just occupied by the captain, and on fixed oak benches round the room sat the leading lights of Dymchurch: the head preventive officer, three or four well-to-do farmers, two owners of fishing luggers, Denis Cobtree, Mrs. Waggetts, and the schoolmaster, besides two or three other villagers. Nobody took much notice of Jerk when he came in, for all eyes were on the captain, but Doctor Syn not only took notice but the trouble to point out an empty space on one of the benches.

"Are all those summoned for this inquiry present?" asked the captain, looking round at the assemblage.

"All but Mr. Mipps," said the squire, referring to a list of names before him. "While we were waiting for you, he took the opportunity of viewing the body next door."

The captain signed to one of the two sailors who were guarding the door of the adjoining room, and he accordingly summoned the undertaker, who with an eye to business was measuring the corpse. Jerk caught a glimpse of this as the door opened, and of the form of Sennacherib Pepper lying on a table. The undertaker, with a footrule in his hands, took his place on one of the benches. Mipps's entrance seemed to revive the tragedy of the whole business, for there was a pause pending the squire's opening speech; but the captain was the first to speak. He arose and to the astonishment of everybody took up and lit a pipe which had been lying upon the table in front of him.

"Sir Antony Cobtree and gentlemen," he said in his great husky sea voice, as he drew the smoke deliberately through the long clay stem and volleyed it back from his set mouth in blue battle clouds across the table, "we have met here to discuss, as Sir Antony Cobtree has already said better than I ever could, the sad and sudden death of Doctor Sennacherib Pepper, killed violently last night on Romney Marsh. The form of this inquiry I leave to the lawyers whose business it is, but before they get busy I've got a few things bottled up that I must and will say. I don't possess the knack of a crafty tongue myself, I've the reputation among my colleagues of being the most tactless man in the service; but I've also a reputation as a fighter, and when I do fight, it's a hard fight—a straightforward, open fight. So what I've got to say will like enough cause offence to every man in this room from Sir Antony Cobtree downward. I'm no good at strategy; as I say, I fight open; and when I think things—well, I can't bottle them up; I say 'em out bluntly at the risk of offence. So here it is: I don't like this business—this Doctor Pepper business——" The captain here paused to roll a large volume of smoke across the room.

The squire took advantage of the pause and said: "If that's all it is, Captain, come now—which of us do?"

The captain thought a moment and added: "If the party or parties who committed the crime didn't like it, why, in thunder's name, did they do it?"

"You should know that better than we do," returned the squire hotly, "for that the murderer was under your employment is fairly obvious."

"You are referring to the mulatto seaman," said the captain. "In the first place, I consider that you should have asked my permission before you issued that public notice affixed to the church door. Until the mulatto is found and can be examined, I deny your right or any man's right to brand him as a murderer."

"You remarked just now, sir," cried the squire, "that you preferred to leave the business of lawyers to the lawyers. Please do so, and remember that while I am head of this jurisdiction on Romney Marsh I'll brook no dictation from Admiralty men—no, sir, not from the First Lord downward."

"Come, come, gentlemen," said Doctor Syn, drumming with his fingers on the table, "I think that this is an ill-fitting time and place for wrangling. The captain has got a bee in his bonnet somehow, and the sooner we get it out for him the better. Let us please hear, sir, what he has to say."

The squire nodded his head roughly and sat silent, while the rest of the company waited for the captain to continue, which he presently did, still pulling vigorously at his long clay pipe.

"The next thing I don't like," he went on, "is Dymchurch itself. I don't like the Marsh behind it, and I don't like the flat, open coastline; it looks a deal too innocent for me on the surface, and, not being a strategist, I don't like it."

The squire was on edge with irritation.

"I am sure, sir," he said sarcastically, "that had the Almighty been notified of your objection during the process of the creation he would have extended Dover Cliffs round Dungeness." The captain didn't seem to notice the interruption.

"Next, I don't like the people here, leaving Doctor Syn out of it—for he's a parson and I never could make head or tail of parsons. I say that, from the squire down, you're none of you swimming the surface. Sir Antony Cobtree went to great pains to lavishly entertain me yesterday, in order that he might politely imprison me last night. I enjoy good entertainment and the conversation of witty, clever men, but not at the price of a locked door."

"I don't know what you are talking about!" said the squire, livid with rage.

"Don't you, sir?" retorted Captain Collyer. "Well, I do, as I had to risk breaking my neck when I climbed down the ivy from your top window."

"You had only to tell me of your eccentric habits," said the squire, "and I would have set a ladder against your window in case the door stuck."

"The door was locked, and well your know it, sir," cried the captain, suddenly turning on the squire, "for half an hour after I had climbed back through the window—to be exact, at half-past four—I heard stealthy feet come along the passage and unlock it, by which I know that for a period of the night you wanted to make sure of me inside my room, and when on inquiring from your servants I discover that I am the first guest who has ever slept in that particular room, and that the furniture was put into it for the occasion from one of the spare rooms, I begin to see your wisdom, for that room contained no view of the highroad, no view of the Marsh or sea."

"Gad! sir, you are the first man who has dared to question my hospitality. Perhaps you expected me to give up my room for your accommodation."

"Nothing of the kind," answered the captain, "but I expected to be dealt straight with. And this brings me to the end of my complaints, and let me tell you this: I saw enough last night on the Marsh to keep Jack Ketch busy for an hour or so. Gentlemen, I am warning you. You'll not be the first I've sent from the coast to the sessions, nor will you be the last. I warn you, one and all, that I'm going to strike soon. I'm not afraid of your tales of Marsh devils and demon riders. I'll rout 'em out and see how they look by daylight. I've men behind me that I can trust, and they're pretty hardy fighters. If your demon riders are not of this world, then they'll do our good steel no harm; but if they are just men playing hanky-panky tricks to frighten fools from the Marsh, well, all I've got to say to them is, if they relish British cutlasses in their bowels, let them continue with such pranks as they played upon poor Pepper, and they'll get Pepper back and be damned to them, for it's Jack Ketch or the cold steel and nothing else." And having thus hurled his challenge at the assembly the captain put his pipe upon the table and sat down.

You can imagine that a speech of so staggering a nature had a strange effect upon the company. So sudden was it, so ferocious, so uncalled for, that nearly a minute elapsed before any one moved. At last the squire rose, speaking quietly but in that clear voice that everybody in Dymchurch knew so well and respected:

"Gentlemen, Doctor Syn spoke very wisely, as it is ever his wont to do, when he rebuked us for wrangling, for, as he said, both time and place are ill fitting. This is the first time that I have been insulted during my long sojourn in Romney Marsh, and I am glad that it has been in the presence of my friends and tenants of Dymchurch, who know me well and will do me right in their own minds, never allowing themselves to be warped for a single instant by the scathing and unjust remarks of a stranger upon whom I have, to the best of my ability, bestowed hospitality and every mark of friendship. On the other hand, I most honestly affirm that Captain Howard Collyer has given me insult in a straightforward way. In his defence I must say that the Admiralty have chosen a bad man to do their spying for them; when I say bad, I mean, of course, the 'wrong' man. I know the captain to be a brave and a good sailor. The splendid though tactless drubbing that he gave to the French man-o'-war Golden Lion in the mouth of the St. Lawrence River describes exactly the sort of character that Collyer carries; and if the Admiralty had left him in command of the Resistance we should have been at war with the odious French long ago. I now give the Admiralty credit for being weatherwise seamen and diplomatists, and think them shrewd in depriving him of a 'command.' Having now, as it were, given the devil his due, I say to him, in the presence of you all, that his words here this morning have been foolish, ridiculous, and altogether preposterous. It is not in accordance with either my private or public dignity that I should answer the vague, hinted accusation of this captain. As I said before, I am judge here, and while I hold the most honourable position of 'Leveller of Marsh Scotts,' I decline to entertain any imputations, for should I ever consider myself to be in the position of being rationally accused of any crime of lawlessness, I should, for the honour of my office and the general welfare of Romney Marsh, regard myself compelled to resign. This I have no intention of doing, for it is clearly now my bounden duty to see my poor friend Sennacherib Pepper righted and avenged; and for that duty I sweep aside Captain Collyer's statements as trivial and impertinent. You gentlemen in this Court House are all good Marshmen, and one and all know me better than I know myself. When you consider me unfit to be your judge I will retire, but not till then."

A storm of applause greeted the squire as he sat down, but it was checked by Doctor Syn, who again reminded the assemblage of the sad event that had brought them to the Court House and begged them out of respect for the dead gentleman in the next room to abstain from any further acclamation.