Doctor Syn/Chapter 6
DOCTOR SYN TAKES COLD
YOU can imagine that the coming of the King's men caused some stir in Dymchurch; for after leaving the Ship Inn they were marched round the village and drawn up in front of the Court House. Here they waited while the captain knocked upon the front door and asked for the squire.
"Sir Antony Cobtree is out riding," said the butler. But at that instant a clattering of hoofs was heard upon the highway and the squire himself came along at an easy trot and drew rein before the house. "My faith!" he cried, looking from the butler to the captain, and then at the line of naked cutlasses. "Have the French landed at last?"
"Captain Howard Collyer of the King's Admiralty, sir," said the captain, saluting, "and if you are the squire, very much at your service."
The jolly squire returned the salute, touching his hat with his riding whip. "Indeed, Captain?" he said, dismounting. "And I would prefer to be your friend than your foe so long as you have these sturdy fellows at your back. Is it the renewed activity of the French navy that we have to thank for your presence here, or the coast defence?"
"I should like a word with you alone," said the captain.
"Certainly," returned the squire, throwing the reins to a groom and leading the way to the house.
They crossed the large hall, and the squire, opening a door at the far end, invited the captain to enter the library.
There in the recess of the old mullioned window sat Doctor Syn, deep in a dusty tome that he had taken from the bookcase.
"Ah, Doctor," said the squire, "they didn't tell me you were here. No further need to fear the French fleet. The King's Admiralty has had the kind grace to furnish us with an officer's complement. Captain Collyer—Doctor Syn, our vicar."
"Not the Collyer who sank the Lion d'Or at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, I suppose?" he said, shaking hands.
"The same," returned the captain, highly delighted that the achievement of his life had been heard of by the parson. "Captain Howard Collyer then, commanding the Resistance, a brigantine of twenty-two guns. Indeed, sir, the French Government kicked up such a devil of a row over that little affair that I lost my command. So now, instead of sinking battleships, the Admiralty keeps me busy nosing out smugglers; a poor enough game for a man who has done big things at sea, but it has its excitements."
"So I should imagine," said the cleric.
"And what have you come here for?" asked the squire.
"To hang every smuggler on Romney Marsh," said the captain.
"Do you believe in ghosts?" said the squire.
"What do you mean?" retorted the captain.
"What I say," returned the squire. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
"Well, I can't say I do," laughed the captain, "for I have never yet met one."
"No more have I," returned the squire. "But they say the Marsh is haunted at night. They've said so so long that people believe it. Whenever a traveller loses his way on the Marsh and disappears, folk say that the Marsh witches have taken him. When the harvests are bad, when the wool is poor, when the cattle are sickly, oh, it's always the Marsh witches that are blamed. They set fire to haystacks, they kill the chickens, they blast the trees, they curdle the milk, and hold up travellers and rob them of their purses. In fact all the vices of the Marsh, really performed by Master Fox, or Master Careless, or Master Footpad, are all put down to the poor Marsh witches, who don't exist except in the minds of the people. I know the Marshes as well as any man ever will, and I've never seen a witch, and it's the very same with smugglers. The whole thing's a fallacy. I've never caught 'em at it; and I keep a stern enough eye on my farms, I can tell you. Why, I'm a positive king, sir. Do you know that if a man working in the neighbourhood doesn't please me, that I can shut every door of the Marsh against him? Why, these farmers are all scared stiff of me, sir. I'd like to see the man who went against the laws of Romney Marsh. I can tell you, sir, that I'd soon mark him down."
"You are perhaps too confident, sir," suggested the captain.
"Not a bit of it, sir," exclaimed the squire. "Mind you I don't trust 'em, oh, Lord, no; I just know 'em to be honest, because I don't give 'em the chance to be otherwise. They never know when or where I'll be turning up. Why, I have a groom in my stables awake all night in case I want to surprise a farm ten miles away. Smugglers? Pooh! Rubbish!"
"Then you consider that I am here on a wildgoose chase?" said the captain.
"Not even that," said the squire; "for you will find no wild geese to chase. However, I don't think that you need regret having been sent here, for we can give you really good entertainment; and I'll bet my head that after you have stayed with us a week or so you'll be sending in your papers to the Admiralty, and settling down on the Marsh as a good Kentish farmer."
"I'm afraid not, sir," laughed the captain.
"Oh, yes, you will," went on the squire. "And I'll be bound that we'll have you bothering Doctor Syn to put the banns up for you and some country beauty. What do you say, Doctor?"
"Well," chuckled the cleric, entering into the joke, "if a man wants to marry and settle down, and live happily ever after, as the saying goes, why, then, Kent's the place for him. It's a great country, sir,south and east of the Medway; famous for everything that goes to make life worth living."
"Yes, take him on the whole," said the squire, "the King can boast of no greater jewel in the crown of England than the average man of Kent."
"Well," agreed the captain, "I've heard say that Kent has fine clover fields, and it's evident to me that I'm a lucky devil and have fallen into one. But I must see to the billeting of my men. Perhaps you can advise me?" But the squire wouldn't hear of business until the captain had cracked a bottle of wine with them and promised to lodge himself at the Court House, Doctor Syn readily placing the large brick-built vicarage barn at the disposal of the men.
So having settled all amicably, and promising to return within the hour for supper, the captain, piloted by Doctor Syn, and followed by the seamen, proceeded to inspect the barn; and it was not long before the sailors had converted it into as jolly an old hall as one could wish to see, with a great log-fire ablaze in the stone grate, and a pot of steaming victuals swinging from a hook above the flames.
"Are you all here?" said the captain to the bo'sun, before rejoining the Doctor outside the door.
"All except Bill Spiker and the mulatto, sir," returned Job Mallet. "I sent 'em for rum. Here they are, if I mistake not." And indeed up to the barn came two seamen carrying a barrel.
"Now," said the captain to Doctor Syn, "I am ready to return to the Court House."
But the cleric's eyes were fixed on the men carrying the barrel, who were passing him. "Who's that man?" he said to the captain, shivering violently, for a cold fog had risen with the night.
"That's Bill Spiker the gunner," said the captain. "Do you know him?"
"No—the other, the other," exclaimed the Doctor, still watching the retreating figures who were now being received with shouts of welcome from the barn.
"Oh, that fellow's a mulatto," returned the captain; "useful for investigation work. An ugly enough looking rascal, isn't he?"
"A very ugly rascal," muttered the Doctor, walking rapidly from the barn in the direction of the Court House.
"You look cold," remarked the captain as they stood outside the Court House door.
"Yes. It's a cold night," returned the Doctor. "Why, I declare my teeth are chattering."