The Sexton Speaks

“Funerals may be divided into three classes, for there be solemn funerals, there be grisly funerals, and there be funny ’uns. The funniest funeral I ever did see was in China. Do you know, Captain, they very seldom buries out there? They leaves the blasted coffins above ground. The whole of the countryside is a-littered with ’em. For untidy burials China waves the flag, and they has other very funny customs about funerals out there, too. When a fellow goes and dies out there it’s a devil of a business he has to go through before he gets fixed up final. Every family out there ’as their own very particular priest, you understand, and this very particular priest is always a very sly sort o’ dog. The dead ’un is put into the coffin, and then the family pays their sly dog a considerable sum o’ money in exchange for very hard prayers wot the sly dog makes for ’em to his gods. He goes away and prays for weeks on end, askin’ his gods just where exactly the family ought to bury their dead ’un to enable him to get into heaven by the most convenient route. And as the sly dog gets paid all the time he’s a-prayin’, you can bet your wig that he pretends to string them prayers out to some length. And I can tell you those Chinese parsons were up to one or two smart wrinkles. I’ll tell you about a certain Ling Fu Quong. Well, if I hadn’t rung the curtain down, as the stage players say, upon that gent’s little comedy, I believes he’d be drawin’ in a salary now for a fellow what died some forty years ago. You see it happened like this: I had had business deals on with a smug-faced Chinese merchant wot did business at Shanghai. Well, when I was about to sail for the old country, old smug face came to say how sorry he was I was a-goin’ to leave, and hoped he’d have the pleasure of doin’ business with me again when I come back. Well, we started talkin’ and I told him that I should very much like to see a Chinese funeral, and old smug face said that he would gladly oblige me, because a very particular old uncle of his had died and his funeral was shortly to take place. Well, the upshot of it all was that I was invited to go up the river on smug face’s boat to Soochow, where he lived and where his uncle had died, a city some sixty miles away or thereabouts. So there I accordingly went. Have you ever been on one o’ them large sampans, Captain? No? Well, it’s a long sort o’ boat, fitted up very snug indeed, with flowers all trailin’ over the side, and all fixed up to look like an old homestead sailin’ on the river. After a very pleasant trip⁠—and, Lord love you, I did make that old Chinaman laugh tellin’ him things, for I could speak their lingo very well, you understand⁠—well, after a very pleasant trip we gets to Soochow, and a rummy old place it was. It stood right on top of the river, with its old walls runnin’ straight down into the muddy water. It was a strong town and important, a town of fighters and wealthy merchantmen. Well, they was all very pleased to see me and received me very proper. Most of ’em was a-lookin’ over the wall a-wavin’ flags at me, and them as ’adn’t got none were a-wavin’ their pigtails. I might ’ave been the great Cham for all the fuss they made o’ me. O’ course, mind you, I had my enemies. There was a sort o’ lord mayor o’ the place wot I could see didn’t quite approve of me bein’ the nine days’ wonder, but he was one of them self-centred sort o’ coves wot don’t like anyone to have a fling but hisself. But I didn’t mind him, for, although I was only a little fellow, I had an eye like a vulture, a nose like a swordfish, and when I was put out, a way of lashin’ myself about like a tiger’s tail wot used to scare them natives. O’ course, mind you, it wasn’t pleasant when you come to think of it, ’cos there I was the only Englishman amongst them millions of yellow jacks. But an Englishman’s an Englishman all the world over, ain’t he, Captain? and he wants a bit of squashin’, and so that lord mayor discovered, ’cos one day I walked right up to him in the street and I clacked my teeth at him so very loud that he ran home and never annoyed me no more. But I was a-goin’ to tell you about that funeral. When we got to the front door of old smug face’s house we discovered his uncle’s coffin reposin’ upon the doorstep very peaceful but in a most awkward sort of position, ’cos you had to crawl over the blarsted thing to get in or out o’ the door.

“ ‘Lord love you, my most excellent Mipps,’ cried old smug face when he saw it, ‘why, this’ll never do, now will it, for my late lamented uncle’⁠—I forget the uncle’s name but it was Ling something⁠—‘is fairly blocking up the entrance, ain’t it?’

“ ‘Ling Fu Quong,’ I replied, ‘you’ve hit it, for if we ’as to do steeplechase over that there thing every time we wants to get out o’ doors for a breather, well, we’ll fair tire ourselves out.’ And so old smug face agreed, and he accordingly sent for the family sly dog, by which I mean, o’ course, the family parson. Well, old sly dog arrived, and of all the fat, self-satisfied looking bouncers I ever seed, he took the cake. It was easy to see as how he made a good thing out of his job. Well, my old friend smug face begins telling him how awkward it was havin’ a coffin right across the front door, and old sly dog said as how he were very sorry, but it were just in that place wot the gods had told him to put it.

“ ‘Don’t you think that if we were to offer sacred crackers to the gods that they might find as how they’ve been mistook?’ suggested smug face.

“ ‘I’ll have a try, oh, bereaved one,’ answered sly dog, a-rubbin’ his fat hands with invisible soap, a habit he was very fond of practisin’ and a habit wot always sets my teeth on edge, soap bein’ to my mind such an unnecessary sort o’ institootion.

“So my old friend unlocks his treasure chest and forks out a regular king’s ransom, which he gives to the sly priest to buy crackers with just to persuade the gods to change their minds. And I tells you that if old sly dog had really spent all that money in crackers, why, Gunpowder Plot wouldn’t have been in it. Anyhow, the priest left us with the money, and we spent the next few days a-climbin’ over that inconvenience whenever we ventured to go out or in doors. You must understand also that coffins out in China ain’t the neat sort of contrivance like we’ve got here. Oh, Lord love you, no, for of all the great cumbersome family coaches I ever seed in the coffin line, them Chinese ones took the cake.

“Well, in a few days back comes the sly dog lookin’ more prosperous than ever. It was very plain to me that he’d been havin’ a good time with that money, and if he had spent five minutes in prayers to his gods I should be very much surprised. Well, he tells my old friend the merchant as how we had to turn out of the house for that night, because the gods had promised to visit him that night if he stayed all alone along of the coffin, and they would then say whether it was possible for the coffin to be moved. So we had to turn out, much to my annoyance, and go to another house wot was owned by a friend of my smug-faced friend. Well, I wasn’t particular about where we stopped, though I could see smug face didn’t like turning out his house, but I felt annoyed to see how very easily he knuckled under to whatever the priest said. So we went away, as I say, for that night. Now the nights come up cold in China, and we both had got two very snivelly noses wot had been brought on by the draughts through not being able to shut that front door. Next morning sly dog came round to say that the gods would visit the house every night and see just where they could order the coffin to be moved to, and in the meantime sly dog was to spend his days and nights in the house, and a very comfortable time he had of it, you may be sure, for my friend the merchant had got a house well stored with very good things.

“At the end of a week sly dog comes round to say that the gods had decided to move the coffin, and that he had seen their orders carried out. So after giving him more money, much to my indignation, for I couldn’t bear to see my friend imposed upon, we left him and set off for the house. And where do you think that dirty fat priest had put that coffin?”

“Where?” queried the captain.

“Why, in the bed where I was supposed to sleep. Now this really did rouse the devil in me, and I determined to get even with that priest. But I had to think things over very carefully. You see if I objected to sleepin’ in the same bed as the coffin, my friend the smug-faced merchant, who had really been kindness itself to me, might think I thought myself superior to sleepin’ with his uncle, and that I knew would offend him, ’cos the Chinese seem to bear a most ridiculous respect towards their dead relations. So I decided that, come what might, I would certainly sleep there, and at the same time I hit upon a scheme for the undoin’ of that priest.

“Next morning I woke up after a very pleasant sleep alongside that coffin, and felt much refreshed, though o’ course I wasn’t goin’ to let ’em know that. When my friend asked me how I had slept I told him very badly, ’cos all through the night the old uncle in the coffin kept awakin’ up and askin’ if I would go and fetch the priest. So smug face sends round at once to sly dog for me to tell him all about it.

“ ‘Did the late lamented uncle of this bereaved man really converse with thee in the night, O Englishman?’ asked the priest, tryin’ to look very knowin’. I was longin’ to reply by givin’ him one in his fat mouth, but I pulled myself together and answered very respectfully:

“ ‘Of a truth did the late lamented uncle of this bereaved one’⁠—a-jerkin’ my thumb towards smug face⁠—‘converse with my contemptible self in the small hours of the dawn previous to the inestimable crowing of the invaluable cock upon the temple roof. Of a truth did he converse with me, indeed, and say unto me’⁠—I could speak their lingo very well in those days, I could⁠—‘ “Send for the wise and learned priest of the family and tell him that I have much to say unto him on matters of most heavenly importance, and command him to sleep upon the very spot where thou art now sleeping, O foreigner of the white face. Let him sleep there tomorrow night alone. Let none other be in the house, for it is to the priest alone that I can confide my troubles. Urge also my dutiful nephew to pay large sums of money to the priest so that he may not fail to come to me in my sore and troubled hour.” ’

“Well, o’ course they all thought it very wonderful, and, provided with more money by my friend, the priest went off to sleep the night with the coffin. Well, I had pretended to be tired that night and had retired to my sleepin’-room early, so they thought, for we were spendin’ that night with the friends of my friend. But no sooner had I fastened the entrance to my room than I had got out of the window, which looked out upon the city wall, and climbin’ along the parapet I safely reached the ground and set off at a good run to the empty house, gettin’ there well before the priest. Now I had told the merchant to be sure and see the priest safe at the house himself, for I feared that fright might keep the rascal away. The merchant promised to do this, for I believe that by this time he was losin’ confidence in the family confessor. As soon as I got into my old bedroom I opened the coffin, lifted out the corpse, strippin’ him of his funeral clothes, which I donned. Then I hid the corpse in a dark corner of the room behind a screen and got into the great coffin. Now the lids are not screwed down in China, but merely allowed to rest upon the coffin, so I left a very little chink so that I should not have any fear of suffocation. Presently I hears the priest arrive, and my friend bids him goodnight and leaves him. Well, the fellow possessed more courage than I had credited him with, ’cos he comes promptly into the room, counts out his fresh money on the top of the coffin itself, and then curls himself up alongside it upon the mattress. Just as soon as I heard him beginnin’ to breathe heavy I pushed open the coffin lid, callin’ upon him by name in most sepulchral tones. He woke up, o’ course, and sits up on his side of the bed and looked at the coffin; and then he beheld me a-sittin’ up inside the coffin a-lookin’ at him, only, o’ course, he didn’t think it was me, but the dead uncle. Well, he was so frightened that I just had an easy walk over him. I jumped at him, I kicked him, I made him swear that he would return every penny of his false-gotten gains to the merchant, and that if the merchant refused he was to give it to the white stranger that sojourned there, and finally, after thrashing the stuffin’ out of him, I popped him bodily into the coffin, jammed the corpse from behind the screen in on top of him, and over ’em both I closed the lid. Then seein’ as how he was unconscious through the drubbin’ he had had, and the awful fright, I left him and went home to bed at the house of the friends of my friend, gettin’ in as I had got out⁠—through the window. Well, next morning the sly dog turned up and said that the gods had visited him in the night and that the coffin was to be buried twelve feet deep in the merchant’s field, and that he was so overjoyed at having conversed so very pleasantly with the gods that he must insist on returning the gold to the merchant. This the good merchant, of course, refused to accept, so the priest was obliged, according as he had been commanded, to hand it to the white stranger wot sojourned with the merchant and who was your humble servant, Captain. That day I went back to Shanghai loaded with presents, not only from my friend, but from the friends of my friend, at whose house we had sojourned, and with every gold piece out of that sly dog’s pocket, for although a sly dog he certainly was, he was also a cowardly dog, too, and didn’t dare to go against the will of that terrible late lamented uncle of the bereaved one wot was now, and still is, I expect, lying twelve foot down in the field of my inestimable smug-faced merchant who was my friend. And that’s the story of the funniest funeral I was ever at, and there ain’t many wot ever seed a funnier one, I should say.”

“I should think not,” said the captain, and filling their glasses once more they pledged each other, and the captain left the sexton to his hammering, and walked out over the Marsh. He had taken good stock of that coffin shop while Mr. Mipps had been chatting, and he was putting two and two together, and the result was four black marks against the sexton, for he knew him to be out of his own mouth an adventurer, and, when it came to the push, an unscrupulous one. Also he had confessed to having had dealings with buccaneers, and the captain was quick enough to see that he must have been hand in glove with the ringleaders, probably a ringleader himself, a man of the stamp of England and Clegg. Then he had counted no less than thirteen coffins⁠—finished coffins with closed lids⁠—in the shop, and he knew that there were only two bodies awaiting burial in the place⁠—the doctor, Sennacherib Pepper, and the sailor killed at the vicarage. Therefore, what were the others for? That they were misfits was out of the question, for Mipps was too shrewd a man to make eleven misfits; besides, he would have broken them up for fresh material. No, those eleven coffins were destined for other things besides corpses. And the fourth black mark against the sexton was his terrible hypocrisy and the ready wit that hid it. If any man was interested and deeply interested in the great smuggling scheme of Romney Marsh he felt that Mipps was the man, the man-tool of another’s brain, another man mightier than Mipps⁠—the squire probably, Doctor Syn possibly, though he had yet to bring the test to bear upon that curious and enigmatical vicar. But although as yet Doctor Syn was beyond his mental grasp, the Sexton Mipps was within it. He knew that he could make him victim, he was, in fact, sure of his guilt, and, knowing all he did of the man’s character, he fell to wondering how it had been possible for him to fall under the spell of his fascination, for apart from Doctor Syn, whose personality had strongly appealed to him, he would rather have had Mipps for his friend than the rest of the village put together, for that odd little man had a rare way of making you like him, for over all his astute cunning hung a veil, an imperceptible something, that was nearly if not altogether lovable. But the hunter goes to no pains to rehearse the beauty of an animal he is stalking, and the captain knew that as soon as he was ready to strike, no amount of personal fascination possessed by any criminal that he was after would stay his hand when the crucial moment came to destroy, and so he puzzled out his plans for cornering not only Mipps but every wrong ’un on the Marsh, and if the squire and Doctor Syn were in the bag⁠—well, so much the better for the bag.