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CHAPTER IX


THE END OF SENNACHERIB PEPPER


FOR half a mile out of the village Mr. Rash kept well in the rear of Sennacherib Pepper, and Jerk kept well behind the schoolmaster. It was a weird night. Everything was vivid, either very dark or very light; such grass as they came to was black grass; such roadways they crossed were white roads; the sky was brightly starlit, but the mountainous clouds were black, and the edges of the great dyke sluices were pitch black, but the water and thin mud, silver steel, reflecting the light of the sky. Sennacherib Pepper was a black shadow ahead; the schoolmaster was a blacker one; and Jerk—well, he couldn't see himself; he rather wished he could, for company.

Although Mr. Rash was a very black-looking figure, there was something small and ugly that kept catching the silver steel reflected in the dyke water. What was it? Jerry couldn't make out. It was something in Mr. Rash's hand, and he kept bringing it out and thrusting it back into the pocket of his overcoat. But the young adventurer had enough to do, keeping himself from being discovered, else he might have understood and so saved Sennacherib's life.

When they got about a mile from the village Mr. Rash quickened his pace; Jerry quickened his accordingly, but Sennacherib Pepper, who had no object in doing so, did not quicken his. Once the schoolmaster stopped dead, and the young hangman only just pulled up in time, so near was he; and once again the silver thing came out of the pocket, but this time Mr. Rash looked at it before thrusting it back again. Then he began to run.

"Is that you. Doctor Pepper?" he called out.

"Now this is strange," thought Jerk, "for the schoolmaster must surely have known what man he was following, and why hadn't he cried out before?"

Sennacherib stopped. Jerk drew himself down among the rushes in the dyke and crept as near to the two men as he dared; he was within easy earshot, anyhow.

"Who is it?" asked Pepper; and then, recognizing the shoddy young man, he added: "Why, it's the schoolmaster!"

"Yes, Doctor Pepper," replied Rash, "and it's been a hard job I've had to recover you, for it's an uncanny way over the Marsh."

Just then there was the sound of horses galloping in the distance, Jerk could hear it distinctly.

"What do you want me for?" asked the physician.

"It was the vicar sent me for you, sir," replied the schoolmaster. "He wants you to come at once; there's somebody dying in the parish."

"Do you know who it is?" said the physician.

"I believe it's old Mrs. Tapsole in the Bake House, but I'm none too sure."

Indeed it seemed to Jerk that uncertainty was the whole attitude of the schoolmaster. He seemed to be listening to the distant noise of galloping and answering old Sennacherib at random. Perhaps the physician also noticed something in his manner, for he looked at him pretty straight and said:

"I don't think it's Mrs. Tapsole, either, for I saw her to-day and she was as merry as a cricket."

"She's had a fit, sir, that's about what she's had," replied the schoolmaster vaguely.

"Then," said the physician, "you do know something about it, do you?"

"I know just what I was asked to say," returned the schoolmaster irritably. "It's not my business to tell you what's the matter with your patients. If you don't know, I'm sure I don't. You're a doctor, ain't you?"

No doubt old Pepper would have pulled the schoolmaster up with a good round turn for his boorishness and extraordinary manner had he not at that instant caught the sound of the galloping horses. "Look there!" he cried.

At full gallop across the Marsh were going a score or so of horsemen, lit by a light that shone from their faces and from the heads of their mad horses. Jerk could see Rash shaking as if with the ague, but for some reason he pretended not to see the hideous sight.

"What are you looking at?" he said, "for I see nothing."

"There, there!" screamed old Pepper. "You must see something there!"

"Nothing but dyke, marsh, and the highroad," faltered the schoolmaster.

"No! There—look—riders—men on horses. Marsh fiends!" yelled the terrified physician.

"What in hell's name are you trying to scare me for?" cursed the trembling Rash. "Don't I tell you I see nothing? Ain't that enough for you?"

"Then God forgive me!" cried poor Sennacherib, "for I can see 'em and you can't; there's something wrong with my soul."

"Then God have mercy on it!" The words came somehow through the schoolmaster's set teeth; the silver steel leapt from the pocket of his overcoat, and Sennacherib was savagely struck twice under the arm as he pointed at the riders. He gave one great cry and fell forward, while the schoolmaster, entirely gone to pieces, with quaking limbs and chattering teeth, stooped down and cleaned the knife by stabbing it swiftly up to the hilt in a clump of short grass that grew in the soil by the roadside.

The sudden horror of the thing was too much even for the callous Jerk, for his senses failed him and he slid back into the dyke among the rushes, and when he came to himself the first shreds of dawn were rising over Romney Marsh.