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CHAPTER XV


A LANDED PROPRIETOR SETS UF A GALLOWS TREE


BACK to the Ship and to duty went "Hangman Jerk," with much to think over in his bullet head, and much to digest in his tight little stomach. To make head or tail of the Doctor's remarkable manner was beyond him, so he dismissed it from his mind and instead fell to contemplating the two silver crowns: one payment for keeping his weather eye open—easily earned; the other—the schoolmaster's safety—directly against his highest hopes; yes, a crown was poor payment for that, especially as it was now possible for himself to be the direct means of hanging his enemy.

Approaching the bar door, he paused, for he heard voices within, voices that he knew released him from work, the voices of Mrs. Waggetts and the pride of her life—the sexton Mipps.

Jerk knew exactly how the land lay with Mrs. Waggetts, and he was always wondering when (if ever) she would succeed in folding that queer little man within the safe bonds of matrimony. Now whatever Jerk's failings may have been, he was loyal to his friends, and Mrs. Waggetts was not only his friend but his employer, and she had done him one or two very good turns. For one thing, she had given him a money box in which to save a portion of his weekly wage. That doesn't sound a great deal on the surface, it is true, but her kindness had not ended there, as you shall see. Jerk's teeth were not sweet, like those of most boys of his age; he never bought sweetmeats, barley sugar, and such child's trash. No, when he wanted a pick-me-up it was a grown man's pick-me-up that he indulged in—a pannikin of rum, a whiff of tobacco, and a long-shot spit at the china spittoon that stood in the front of the bar. These indulgences had no effect on his purse, for the cravings of the first two were easily satisfied from the bar store when nobody was looking, and the third he was at liberty to practise whenever he felt so disposed. And thus it was that, although but approaching thirteen years of age, he had through the good offices of the landlady and a systematic use of her money box already become a landed proprietor. When the landlady heard that Jerk wanted to spend his savings on such a very strange thing as land she had exclaimed in some surprise:

"Lord bless the boy! Land? What can a boy of that age want with a plot of land?"

"The money's good enough, ain't it, ma'am"? Very well, then, I wants land. A nice little bit of snug mud-bank where I can hide and learn about the Marsh. If I've a bit of mud wot's all mine on Romney Marsh—well, I'll be a Marshman, I'll be, and it's a Marshman proper I wants to be."

So Mrs. Waggetts consented, and bought a plot for him situated about a mile and a half from the village and a rough half mile from the sea. As land, it was of no use in the commercial sense—in fact, the farmer had thought the landlady clean crazed to buy it, though the price was small enough as far as prices go on the Marsh. It was more mud than land, surrounded by two broad dykes that slowly oozed round to meet in a sluice channel. This was Jerk's estate, measuring twelve by ten yards all told, and only solid in one spot near the centre, a patch of about ten square feet which formed a knobby mound surrounded by great bullrushes; but the mound was not such a small affair, for it rose high enough to top the loftiest rush, and that is quite a noticeable height on the flat of Romney Marsh. This mound was given by its owner the dignified name of Lookout Mountain, a name well deserved, for by sitting on the top of it upon the great stone which he had dragged from the sea-wall and carried a mile across the Marsh for the purpose, he could see from Dover Cliffs to Dungeness, and in the other direction the long line of hills which bound the Marsh inland, with old Limpne Castle frowning from the top. But Jerk wouldn't have changed his stronghold for any other, Limpne Castle included; it suited him admirably. From it he studied the Marsh and the creatures therein: the great brown water-rat that came out in the evening to hunt in the rushes; the swift-winged dragon-fly that could stand in midair stock still, as it seemed, to look at you; the myriad mosquitoes with their fantastic air dance, hunting in tribes along the sluggish waters; the tadpole who looped about in the water below; and more especially the flabby flap of the night-prowling bat who hung all day head downward from a decayed old tree trunk that was rotting on the opposite bank to Jerk's estate. Now this same tree trunk had put ideas into young Jerk's head. It was obviously no good to any one, and yet Jerk found himself regretting that it had not lived and died upon his land, for it was shaped devilishly like a gallows tree, and if he could only erect a gallows tree upon the summit of Lookout Mountain he would be more than ever living up to his reputable name of Hangman Jerk. He half thought at one time of digging it up and replanting it on his own property, but when he had caught hold of a branch one day and it had crumbled away in his hand he considered that, although very nice and weird to behold, it wasn't much use as a genuine gibbet, and a genuine gibbet he then and there resolved to possess. Now the silver crowns of Doctor Syn would buy the most glorious scaffold, a regular professional affair, fixed snug and firm in the ground, and capable of supporting the weight of a wriggling man. Mipps was the man to undertake the job, for he was a first-rate carpenter, and there was wood and to spare in the yard behind the coffin shop. Yes, if any man could supply him with a gibbet Mipps could; and there he was talking in the bar ready to hand, and here were the silver crowns in Jerk's pocket. But to buy the gibbet and then to have to keep his mouth shut about the schoolmaster was no good. Mipps would never do the job for one crown, but for two Jerk thought he might. Well, he would see about that, and if he were unsuccessful, he must find a way of raising the money, and then, as soon as the apparatus was ready, he would get Rash condemned, and offer the authorities the loan of a brand-new gibbet. Oh, to watch the murderer swinging from the top of Lookout Mountain, right away on the lonely, windswept Marsh! That, indeed, was a glorious thought. Yes, he must come to terms with the undertaker at once—an undertaker now with a vengeance—Rash's undertaker. But the little gentleman in question was talking to Mrs. Waggetts, so Jerry had to wait in honour bound, for he was staunch to his benefactress, and would not have interrupted for the world. The conversation going forward in the bar was carried on in earnest tones but low, and Jerk began to think that Mrs. Waggetts was at last drawing the sexton into a proposal of marriage, and his interest in this one-sided love affair made him crouch by the bar door in hopes of gathering up some scraps of the honeyed words. But the few disjointed words he did catch were more akin to passion than to love.

"Alsace Lorraine—one bottle gone! Damn that captain's soul!"

Yes, there was passion there—not love. "We know how to use the mist—they don't."

"It's safe enough. Lots of it to-night——"

No, there was no vestige of love in that. And presently the conversation was terminated with the most uncomplimentary remark from the sexton.

"You can lay your old topknot, and throw in your face, that there'll be a good haul out to-night, and a good haul in here," saying which, with a knowing slap at his pocket, Mipps came hurriedly out of the bar door and fell all a-sprawl over the crouching body of young Jerk.

"Why, in the name of all wot rots, can't you tell me where you was?" cursed the sexton.

"'Cos I prefers to tell you what I wants," replied young Jerk.

"A thrashin'?"

"A gallows!"

"Aye, that you do, if any one did."

"Will you make it for me, then?" said the boy.

"What do you mean?"

"What I says—will you make me one?"

"At a price."

"And that is?"

"Depends on the size. Wot do you want a gallows for now?"

"That don't concern you," returned Jerk. "You'll have all you can do makin' it, without askin' questions."

"And you'll have all you can do, when it's made, a-preventin' me a-stringin' you up on it, if I has any more o' your impert'nence."

But Jerry was in no way put out, and replied:

"If you don't want to build my gallows, say so, and I'll soon find some other cove wot does. Come, wot's your price?"

"And wot's your game?"

"My business, not yourn," said the boy. "But you'll find as how yourn won't improve by annoyin' your employers."

"Employers? And who might they be now?" said the sexton.

"Well, I'm a-tryin' to be one," said Jerk, jingling the coins about in his pocket to lend weight to his words. "What price for a gallows, eh?"

The jingle of coins always made the sexton think.

"Wot size? "said he.

"Big enough and strong enough to hang a man on, of course, and allowin' for a good foot or two of timber in the earth."

The sexton scratched his head. "Well, I'm cursed!" he said.

"That's nought to me," replied Jerry. "Come on! Your price?"

"Well, say two crowns for making and one for fixin'."

"One for makin' and one for fixin'," said Jerk, holding them out.

"No!" said the sexton, eying the coins.

"Then hang the fixin'!" cried the boy, "for I'll fix it myself. So it's one for makin' and the wood, ain't it. Mister Sexton?"

"No, it's two for makin', and I lose on that."

"Very well," agreed Jerk desperately, handing over the money, "and please, Mister Sexton, make it now, 'cos I wants it quick."

So the bargain was struck there and then, and off they both set to the coffin shop to carry it out; and the gallows was made by nightfall and set up on Jerk's property, the sexton carrying it there himself, digging the hole and fixing it up—a regular professional affair with a jangly rusty chain a-swing through the hook—and all this for the nominal price of two silver crowns, lately received by the purchaser from Dr. Syn.

"Ah!" cried Jerk, as they viewed the completed erection from the other side of the dyke; "ain't it fust rate?"

"Slap up," agreed the sexton.

"Quite strong, ain't it?" inquired the owner anxiously, to which the sexton replied imperiously:

"It were Mipps as knocked it up, as you seed yourself; and when Mipps knocks up, you can lay it's solid wot's knocked," saying which he turned and strode off toward the village, followed by Jerk.

When they had gone about half a mile Jerk looked back and called to the sexton to do the same. Darkness was already creeping over the Marsh, but sharp and black against the skyline—no toy, but real, weird, and convincing—stood Jerk's gibbet.

"What do you think of Lookout Mountain now?" sang out the boy.

"That you can better the name of it, Hangman Jerk. Why not call it Gallows Tree Hill?"

"Why, so I will!" cried the singular youngster. "It's a good name, and so I will—and let's hope as how the tree'll bear fruit."

"As how it won't," muttered the sexton.

"But it will, you can lay to that." Jerk could already picture the schoolmaster hanging there. As they neared the village, with sudden fear Jerk said to the sexton:

"I suppose the smugglers won't take my gibbet as a personal offence and knock it down?" But the wary Mipps disarmed his fears with:

"There ain't no smugglers, for one thing; 'sides, if there was, how could they knock down wot's knocked up so solid?"

"Well, dig it up, p'raps," suggested Jerk, "'cos, Mister Sexton, it do catch the eye some wot, don't it? Look, you can see it even from here, and it don't look exactly pleasant, do it?"

"Pleasant ain't exactly the word, I agrees, but you needn't worry yourself on that score. If them damned King's men had put it up now, I don't say as how it mightn't get mobbed and knocked about a bit, 'cos them damned King's men ain't wot you might term popular favourites in the village, but as it weren't, don't you worry, for I'll soon pass the word, young Jerry, as how it's you wot owns it."

"Thank you," said Jerry. "They wouldn't knock it over if you asked 'em not to, I'll be bound."

"Asked who not to?" demanded the sexton quickly.

"Why, any of 'em," replied Jerk innocently: "Marshmen, smugglers, jack-o'-lanterns, demon riders, wot you will; for I'll lay they're all a-scared of Sexton Mipps, ain't they?"

But Sexton Mipps was not to be caught by such dangerous flattery, and he replied:

"There ain't no such things as smugglers hereabouts, as I thinks I've already remarked; and as for demon riders, why, uncanny they be, and I holds no truck with 'em, thank the Lord. Folks wot has dealin's with 'em has sold their souls for the bargain, and I ain't a-goin' to do that!"

"Bein' such a very good and respectable Christian?, Oh, no!" said Jerk winking.

"Why, certainly," answered the sexton, "and might I ask wot you're a-winkin' about?"

"Nothin'—I was only thinkin'!"

"Wot about?"

"A dream—a nightmare I had last night, that's all."

"Wot about?" asked the sexton again.

"Nothin' particular," returned the boy casually.

They had now reached the coffin shop, so, thanking the sexton for his assistance. Jerk bade him good-night.

"Where are you bound for now?" Mr. Mipps called after him.

"The vicarage."

"Wot for?"

"To tell the vicar as how I've borrowed a crown off of him, that's all!"

"Wot's that?" cried the sexton, making as if to follow, but the boy waved him back with a fierce gesture.

"'Tain't nothin' to do with you. You're paid, ain't you? And it didn't get stole from the poor-box, neither, so don't you start a-worritin'."

And thrusting his hands deep into his breeches pocket. Jerk set off for the vicarage to tell Doctor Syn that although he couldn't accept the silver crown for holding his tongue, he had taken the liberty of borrowing it off him.

And in this way was the gibbet set up on Lookout Mountain, and the name changed to Gallows Tree Hill.