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CHAPTER XXVI


THE DEVIL'S TIRING HOUSE


IF THE village was abed by ten o'clock, the coffin shop was very much alive at half an hour after midnight. Jerk, according to his instructions, found himself tapping upon the back window at that very hour and immediately found himself hauled into the house by Mr. Mipps himself. The sexton wore a voluminous riding cloak, heavily tippeted, and a black mask hid the upper part of his face, but Jerk could see by a glance at the fine sharp jaws that Mipps had laid aside his oiliness of manner, his sarcastic wit, and cringing self-complacency, and was allowing the real man that was in him to shine forth for once in a way probably for his express advantage. Jerk now saw the iron qualities in the sexton that had struck the love spark upon the flinty bosom of Mrs. Waggetts, for as Mipps walked about among his men, from room to room, and in and out of the coffin shop, which was heavily shuttered, he carried a power upon his shoulders that would have done credit to Boney himself. And the company that Jerk found himself among—well, if the young hangman had suddenly found himself in the greenroom of Drury Lane Theatre in the midst of the great play actors, he could not have been more surprised, for there, collected altogether, were the jack-o'lanterns, the Marsh witches, and the demon riders, all preparing themselves as for a country fair. Grizzly old men, fishermen, and labourers, as the case might be, were arranging themselves in torn rags of women's garments, and with a few deft touches of Mipps's hands, lo! the fishermen and labourers were no more, and Marsh witches took their place. Similarly were the big fellows, hulking great men of Kent, metamorphosed into demons, enormous demons upon whose faces Mipps stuck heavy moustaches and hairy eyebrows of a most alarming nature. The grizzled ones likewise used horsehair in long streamers from their conical hats, so that their appearance as witchfolk should be the more pronounced. There were also three little boys and two little girls dressed as jack-o'-lanterns. They were much younger than Jerk, but their rigouts filled him with envy.

"Gentlemen," said Mipps, leading Jerry into this motley throng of eccentrics, "the new recruit. A young man wot has the eye of an eagle and the nerves of a steel blade. Those who quarrels with this young gent'll come off worst, if I'm not mistook, but them wot be his friends can bank on his good faith, for he's as staunch as a dog. Get your brandy flasks out, my devils, and let's drink to our new recruit. Jerry Jerk his name is, but accordin' to custom we drops all mention of private names in this organization; so up with your glasses whilst I rechristen him. We has power, we has, we has devils amongst us of very great power, for we has lawyers, and farmers, and squires, and parsons wot be in league with us, but the greatest enemy we has is not the revenue swabs, nor the Admiralty uniforms, nor the bloody redcoats, nor the Prince Regent—God bless him for a vagabond and a 'rip!'—no, I thinks you knows who we fears more than all that ruck?"

"Jack Ketch! Jack Ketch!" whispered the horrible creatures.

"Why, right you are, for Jack Ketch it be," retorted the sexton. "And here's a man wot's goin' sooner or later to be a Jack Ketch. He's got all the gifts of the hangman, he has—just that jolly way with him, he has—and so you'll all be delighted to hear as how he's joined us, for with Jack Ketch as our friend we'll cheat the black cap on the gallows. Gentlemen, Jack Ketch." Therefore they all drank to Jerk with much spirit, and Jerk, having been presented with a flask, pledged them in return and was introduced to all severally by the sexton. "This is Beelzebub, knocked over a good round dozen revenue swabs in your time, ain't you, Beelzebub? And this is Belch the demon, the finest rider we ever had in our demon horse, and here's Satan, and this be Cat'seyes, the weirdest old witch you ever met with in a story book, I'll wager," and so on until such a vast collection of weird names had been rammed into Jerk's brains that he felt quite overpowered. However, when his own particular uniform was produced for him to don, his interests were requickened, and before Mipps had half finished attiring him in the strange rags Jerk would have sworn that it wasn't himself he saw in the old cracked mirror.

"And now, Jack Ketch," said Mipps, "you only has to follow me into the coffin shop to get your allowance of devil's face cream, then I thinks you'll feel real pleased with yourself."

Into the weird coffin shop accordingly Jerry followed the sexton, and there was that black cauldron that he remembered so well. Now he would discover its use, Mipps stirred the contents and with a great brush began daubing Jerry's face. The curious smell made the youngster close his eyes and he felt the brush pass over them.

"Now," said the sexton, "I blows out the candles and you shall see." Jerry opened his eyes as the sexton blew out the lights. "Bring in the mirror!" called the sexton to the other room. And then into the coffin shop came the other members of the company, and the mystery of the demon riders was explained, for in the dark room each diabolical face glistened like the moon, and when the cracked mirror had been held up before him he saw that he in his turn burned with the same hell-fire. "It's now time, Satan, to get the scarecrow in, and you, Beelzebub, go and paint the horses with what's left in that cauldron."

Beelzebub obeyed the sexton promptly and, picking up the cauldron, went to the back of the house, Satan accompanying him on his different errand—namely, that of bringing in the scarecrow, a thing that puzzled Jerry exceedingly.

Mipps seemed to read his thoughts, for he approached and whispered: "Jack Ketch, you're a-wonderin' about the scarecrow now, ain't you? Well, you've noticed him, I dare say, all dressed in black, at the bottom of my turnip field, ain't you? "

"Yes," replied the new christened Jack Ketch; "I've noticed him as long as I can remember, and a very lifelike scarecrow I considers him to be."

"You're right," replied the sexton; "it's the best scarecrow I ever seed, for it's lifelike and no mistake, and if you keeps your eyes open you'll see him a bit more lifelike to-night—you wait."

Satan soon reappeared bearing on his shoulder the dead lump of the scarecrow. Mipps indicated an old coffin that lay on the floor behind the counter of the shop and Satan at once pushed the scarecrow into it, and covered him with a lid.

"He'll be there till the work's done," said Mipps, "for you see the great man himself rides out at nights as the scarecrow, and if you keep your eyes open you'll spot him. Now, Beelzebub," as that terror reappeared, "I take it that them horses is all ready; so bear in mind that my friend Jack Ketch is new to the game, and stick by him, and good luck to you devils, and may the mists guard the legion from all damned swabs!" And so the company filed out of the Devil's Tiring House after receiving this parting blessing at the hands of the sexton.

"Ain't you coming along, Hellspite?" said one of the ghastly crew to the sexton.

"No, Pontius Pilate, I ain't," replied Mipps, "for me and the blunderbuss is a-goin' to watch that damned meddlesome captain."

And so they left him there, Beelzebub leading Jerry by the hand out of the back door of Old Tree Cottage.