The Courthouse Inquiry

Jerry Jerk made it a golden rule to be always late for school, but on this particular morning he intended to be there before the schoolmaster, for he wanted to watch him, and if he saw an opening, make him nervous, without in any way betraying his secret. In the comfort of daylight he had lost all those terrors that had oppressed his spirit; indeed, ever since he had unburdened his mind to Doctor Syn he had entirely recovered his usual confidence. So with jaunty assurance he approached the schoolhouse, determined to be there before the murderer. But this same determination had evidently occurred to the schoolmaster, for when Jerry arrived at the schoolhouse he could see Mr. Rash already bending over his desk. Jerry, imagining that he had miscalculated the time, felt highly annoyed, fearing that he may have missed something worth seeing; but on entering the schoolroom he found that not one of his schoolfellows had arrived; consequently his entrance was the more marked. As a matter of fact, Jerk’s young colleagues were hanging about outside the courthouse until the last possible moment, for there was much ado going forward, sailors on guard outside the door, people going in and coming out, and the gossips of the village discussing the foul murder of the unfortunate Sennacherib Pepper. Jerk went to his desk, sat down and waited, narrowly watching the schoolmaster, who was writing, keeping his face low to the desk. The boy thought that he never would look up, but after some ten minutes he did, and Jerk stared the murderer straight in the face.

The schoolmaster bravely tried to return the stare, but failed, and then Jerk knew that he had in a measure failed also, failed in his trust to Doctor Syn, for in that glance Jerry had unconsciously told the malefactor what he knew. Presently Rash spoke without looking up: “Where have those other rascals got to?”

Promptly Jerk answered: “If you’re addressing yourself to a rascal, you ain’t addressing yourself to me, and I scorns to reply; but if I’m mistook⁠—well, I think you knows where they are as well as I do who ain’t no rascal, but a respectable potboy, and no scholard, thank God!”

“I don’t know where they are,” replied the schoolmaster, looking up. “Be so good as to tell me, please. Jerk, and I’ll take this birch” (and his voice rose high) “and beat ’em all up to the schoolhouse like a herd of pigs, I will!” Then conquering his emotion, he added: “Please, Jerk, where are they?”

But Jerk was in no way softened, so placing his forefinger to the side of his nose and solemnly winking one eye, he said: “I don’t know no more than you do, Mister, but if you does want me to guess I don’t mind putting six and six together and saying as how you’ll find ’em hanging about to get a glimpse at old Pepper’s grisly corpse, wot was brought from the Marsh on a shutter.”

“I’ll teach them!” shrieked the schoolmaster, flourishing the birch and flying out of the door.

“That’s it!” added Jerk. “You do, and I’ll teach you, too, my fine fellow, who rapped my head once. I’ll teach you and teach you till I teaches your head to wriggle snug inside a good rope’s noose.” And having thus given vent to his feelings, Jerk followed the schoolmaster to see the fun.

The crowd outside the courthouse was quite large for Dymchurch. Everybody was there, and right in front enjoying the excitement gaped and peered the scholars of the school. But Rash elbowed his way through the throng and fell upon them like a sudden squall, using the terrible birch upon the youngsters’ shoulders, quite regardless of the cries of “Shame!” and “Stop him!” from the villagers. But the onslaught of Rash came to a sudden conclusion, for the heavy hand of the captain’s bo’sun fell upon him and ordered him immediately inside the courthouse. Jerk saw Rash turn the colour of a jellyfish, asserting wildly that there must be some mistake, and that having his duty to perform at the school he must beg to be excused.

“It’s my opinion,” replied the bo’sun in a hard voice, “that them lads will get a holiday today. The inquiry is going forward about this murder, and I have orders to see that you attend.” So keeping his rough hand upon the teacher’s shoulder he led him, still protesting vehemently, inside the courthouse, with the jeers and jibes of the scholars ringing in his ears.

Jerk had by now worked his way to the front of the crowd, and there he stood looking with wonder at the two great seamen who with drawn cutlasses were guarding the open door. Dymchurch was having the excitement of its life, and no mistake, and a holiday for the school, even the tragedy of Sennacherib Pepper’s death, was forgotten in the glory of that moment, and the hated schoolmaster had been publicly stopped thrashing the boys and had himself been ordered into the courthouse.

“I wonder what for?” thought young Jerk. “I wonder?” He would have given a lot to see inside that upper room, where the inquiry was now about to proceed. Presently the captain himself came out of the hall and stood for a moment on the gravel outside, looking at the crowd. Now there were sailors keeping the crowd back; never had there been such formal times in Dymchurch. The captain glanced at the little knot of schoolboys with their satchels, and suddenly catching sight of Jerk, called out: “Hie you! you’re the potboy of the Ship Inn, ain’t you? Well, I want you. Step this way!” So his wish was granted, and followed by the wonder and admiration of the crowd, Jerry Jerk, potboy of the Ship, strutted after the King’s captain into the courthouse.