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CHAPTER XIV


AT THE VICARAGE


NOW, although it was comparatively early in the afternoon, Doctor Syn did rather a curious thing, or so it seemed to Jerry, for he had the wooden shutters of the dining-room fastened, and they dined by the light of candles. This had quite an uncanny effect—to dine by candles in broad daylight — but Jerk thought perhaps this was always done when gentry entertained company.

Doctor Syn was gloomy through the meal, and although he kept pressing Jerry to "take more" and to "help himself," he made no effort at keeping up conversation; in fact, had not the food been good and plenteous, Jerry very much doubted whether he would have enjoyed himself at all, for Doctor Syn's manner was so different. He seemed strained and excited, and not once or twice, but many times during the repast, he would get up and stride about the room, and once he broke out into singing that old sea song that Jerry had so often heard at the Ship Inn:

"Here's to the feet wot have walked the plank.
Yo ho! for the dead man's throttle.
And here's to the corpses floating round in the tank,
And the dead man's teeth in the bottle."

Now to make conversation Jerry was bold enough to interrupt this song by inquiring what exactly was meant by the "dead man's throttle." Doctor Syn stopped in his walk and looked at him, filling two tots of rum, one of which he handed to Jerk, tossing off the other himself and saying:

"Ah, you may well ask that, sonny. I don't know exactly myself, but I suppose if poor Pepper was to come in here now and throttle us, man and boy—him being stone dead, as we both well know—well, we should be having the 'dead man's throttle' served on us!"

"Oh, I see!" replied Jerk with interest. "Then I take it that the rest of the song has some shreds of meaning, too? What's the 'tank' that the corpses float round in, sir?"

"The sea," replied the Doctor, "the sea; that's the great tank, my lad, and that there are corpses enough floating round in it, I don't think you and I could doubt."

"That's plain and true enough," said Jerk, "but I don't see no sense about the 'dead man's teeth in the bottle.'"

"That's plain enough," said the Doctor, taking a stiff swig from the black bottle itself; "it was in England's day that I wrote that. He cut a nigger's head off with a cutlass because the rascal was drinking his best rum on the sly, and the shock, as he died, made the black brute bite through the glass neck of the bottle."

"Did you see it, sir?" asked Jerk, carried away by the tale.

"Who said I saw it? " demanded the cleric sharply.

"Well, you said you wrote the song, sir, and at the time it happened."

"Nothing of the kind—I said nothing of the kind. The song's an old one, an ancient thing. God knows what rascal invented it, but you can depend upon it, a rascal he was. I don't know why I should hum it—I don't know what it means; can't make head or tale of the jargon."

"You explains it very sensible, I thinks," replied Jerry.

"I don't—I don't. I give you my word it's Greek to me."

"But Greek's easy to parsons, ain't it?"

"Yes, yes—well, Chinese, Fiji—what you will—what you will. Have some rum!" The Doctor's manner was really very strange indeed. Add to this the shuttered room, the candlelight, and the strong spirits in his head, and it was small wonder that Jerry felt none too comfortable, especially as at the conclusion of the meal the door opened and Mr. Rash entered the room.

"Well, my lad," said the vicar, "now you know where I feed, drop in again. Parochial matters to attend to with the schoolmaster: must choose the hymns, you know, for Sunday, or the choir will have nothing to sing." And in this vein he led the boy out into the hall. He then dropped his voice to a whisper: "You were wrong about the schoolmaster last night, sonny. I'll explain things to you some day. Meanwhile, here's a crown piece. You're a smart lad, ain't you? Well, keep a weather eye open for that mulatto rascal. There's more in this ugly business than we imagine. I'll tell you all about it when I know more myself, but you made a mistake last night, and I begin to see how you made it, but I can't tell you just yet, because I'm not quite sure of my ground; and it's dangerous ground we're treading, Jerry, you and I. Now here's another crown—that one's for keeping your eye open—do you know what the other's for?"

"What?"

"Keeping your mouth shut. Don't you remember anything about last night till I tell you—you wouldn't understand if I was to explain. You're very young, you know, Jerry lad, but smart's the word that describes you, and no mistaking. You're smart and bright—as bright as the buttons on that sea captain's coat—as bright as a thousand new guinea bits just served from the mint—that's what you are, and no mistake!"

"I hope so," replied Jerk, stepping out of the front door. "I thinks I am!"

"God bless you!" said the Doctor, shutting the door and returning to Rash, who was waiting in the shuttered room by the light of the guttering candles.