The Coming of the King’s Men

Meantime the little sexton had arrived, breathless and panting, at the inn. Here he was accosted with a breezy, “Hello, Mr. Mipps, where’s the Doctor?” The speaker was Denis Cobtree, the only son of the squire.

This young worthy of some eighteen summers was being prepared in the paths of learning by the vicar with a view to his entering the university; but Denis, like his father before him, cared very little for books, and the moment the Doctor’s back was turned, off he would slip to talk to some weather-beaten seaman, or to attempt a flirtation with Imogene, the dark-haired girl who assisted the landlady at the inn.

“Just been talkin’ to the vicar on the seawall,” said Mipps, hurrying past into the parlour and calling loudly for Mrs. Waggetts.

“What do you want?” said that good lady, issuing from the kitchen with a teapot in her hand. Tea was the luxury she indulged in.

“A word,” answered the sexton, pushing her back into the kitchen and shutting the door behind him.

“Whatever is it?” asked the landlady in some alarm.

“What’s the time?” demanded the sexton.

“A quarter to four,” replied Mrs. Waggetts, turning pale.

“Good!” said the sexton. “School will be closing in a minute or two, so send Imogene round there to ask Mr. Rash to step across lively as soon as he’s locked up. But no”⁠—he added thoughtfully⁠—“I forgot: Rash is a bit struck on the girl and they’ll linger on the way; send young Jerk, the potboy.”

“Jerk’s at school hisself,” said Mrs. Waggetts.

“Then you go,” retorted the sexton.

“No,” faltered the landlady. “It’s all right, I’ll send the girl; for she can’t abide Rash, so I’ll be bound she won’t linger. And while she’s gone I’ll brew you a nice cup of tea.”

“Throw your tea to the devil,” snarled the sexton. “One ’ud think you was a diamond duchess the way you consumes good tea. When shall I knock into your skull that tea’s a luxury⁠—a drink wot’s only meant for swells? Perhaps you don’t know what a power of money tea costs!”

“Come, now,” giggled the landlady, “not to us, Mister Mipps. Not the way we gets it.”

“I don’t know what you means,” snapped the wary sexton. “But I do wish as how you’d practise a-keepin’ your mouth shut, for if you opens it much more that waggin’ tongue of yours’ll get us all the rope.”

“Whatever is the matter?” whimpered the landlady.

“Will you do as I tell you?” shrieked the sexton.

“Oh, Lord!” cried Mrs. Waggetts, dropping the precious teapot in her agitation and running out of the back door toward the school. Mipps picked up the teapot and put it on the table; then lighting his short clay pipe he waited by the window.

In the bar sat Denis Cobtree, making little progress with a Latin book that was spread open on his knee. From the other side of the counter Imogene was watching him.

She was a tall, slim, wild creature, this Imogene, dressed as a fisher, with a rough brown skirt and a black fish blouse, and she wore neither shoes nor stockings. Her hair was long and her eyes black. She had no parents living, for her father⁠—none other than the notorious pirate Clegg⁠—had been hanged at Rye⁠—hanged publicly by the redcoats for murder; and the mother⁠—well, no one knew exactly who the mother was, Clegg having lived a wild and roving life; but it was evident that she must have been a southerner, from the complexion and supple carriage of this girl⁠—probably some island woman of the Southern Seas. Imogene was a great favourite with all the men on account of her good looks and her dauntless courage when on the boats at sea; for she loved the sea and was wonderful upon it⁠—her dark eyes flashing, her hair blowing wild, and her young bosom heaving with the thrill of fighting the waves.

Imogene liked Denis because he was nice to her, and, besides, he made her laugh: he was so funny. His ways were so funny, his high manners were so funny, but his shyness attracted her most.

He was shy now because they were alone, and the boy knew that she was watching him; so he made a feint of studying his book of Latin, but Imogene could see that his mind was not on his reading.

“You don’t get on very fast, Mr. Denis,” she said.

Denis looked up from the book and laughed. “No,” he said, “not very, I’m afraid; I’m not very fond of books.”

“What are you fond of?” said the girl, leaning across the bar on her bare elbows.

“Oh, what a chance to say ‘you’!” thought the young man; but somehow the words wouldn’t come, so he stammered instead: “Oh, nothing much. I like horses rather; yes, I like riding.”

“Is that all?” said the girl.

“About all,” said the boy.

Mr. Rash, the schoolmaster, tells me that he likes riding,” went on the girl mischievously; “he also likes books; he reads very fast, much faster than you do.”

“Not Latin books, I’ll be bound,” said young Denis, starting up scarlet with rage, for he hated the schoolmaster, in whom he saw a possible rival to the girl’s affection. “And as for riding,” he cried, “a pretty fellow that to talk of riding, when he doesn’t know the difference ’tween a filly and a colt. He sits on an old white scrag-bones, jogs along the road at the rate of dyke water, and calls it riding. Put the fool on a horse and he’d be skull under the hoofs before he’d dug his heels in. The man’s a coward, too. I’ve heard tales of the way he uses the birch only on the little boys. Why, if they’d any sense they’d all mutiny and kick him round the schoolhouse.”

“You’re very hard on the schoolmaster, Mr. Denis,” said the girl.

“You don’t like him, do you?” asked the boy seriously. “You can’t!”

But the girl only laughed, for into the bar-parlour had come Mrs. Waggetts, accompanied by the gentleman under discussion, and followed by young Jerk, the potboy.

Jerry Jerk, though only a lad of a dozen years, possessed two excellent qualifications: pluck and a head like a bullet. He had got through his schooling so far without a taste of the birch: not that he hadn’t deserved it, but the truth was⁠—Mr. Rash was afraid of him, for he once had rapped the little urchin very severely on the head with his knuckles, so hard, indeed, that the blood had flowed freely, but not from Master Jerk’s head⁠—oh, no: from the teacher’s knuckles⁠—upon which young Jerry had burst into a peal of laughter, stoutly declaring before the whole class that when he grew up he intended to be a hangman, just for the pleasure of pulling the bolt for the schoolmaster. So ever after Jerry went by the name of “Hangman Jerk,” and whenever the pale, washy eye of the sandy-haired Mr. Rash fell on him, the schoolmaster pictured himself upon a ten-foot gallows with that fiend of a youngster adjusting the running noose around his scraggy neck.

This young ruffian, entering on the heels of the schoolmaster, and treading on them hard at every step, took over the bar from the fish girl, Mr. Rash remarking with a show of sarcasm that “he hoped he didn’t interrupt a pleasant conversation, and that if he did he was more sorry than he could say to Mr. Denis Cobtree.”

Denis replied that he shared the schoolmaster’s sorrow himself with a full heart, but the door being open, he⁠—the schoolmaster⁠—could easily go out as quickly as he had come in. At this young Jerk let fly a loud guffaw and doubled himself up behind the bar, laughing. Upon this instant the conversation was abruptly interrupted by the head of Mr. Mipps appearing round the kitchen door, inquiring whether it was their intention to keep him waiting all night.

“Quite right, Mr. Mipps, quite right!” retorted the schoolmaster, and then turning to Imogene, he said: “Mr. Mipps wants us at once.” Denis was about to make an angry retort, but Imogene passed him and went into the kitchen, followed by Mrs. Waggetts and the sandy-haired Rash, that gentleman carefully shutting the door behind him.

Denis now found himself alone with young Jerk. The would-be hangman was helping himself to a thimble of rum, and politely asked the squire’s son to join him; but Denis refused with a curt: “No, I don’t take spirits.”

“No?” replied the lad of twelve years. “Oh, you should. When I feels regular out and out, and gets fits of the morbids, you know, the sort of time when you feels you may grow up to be the hanged man and not the hangman, I always takes to myself a thimble of neat rum. Rum’s the drink for Britons, Mister Cobtree. Rum’s wot’s made all the best sailors and hangmen in the realm.”

“If you go on drinking at this rate,” replied Denis, “you’ll never live to hang that schoolmaster.”

“Oh,” answered Jerry thoughtfully, “oh, Mister Denis, if I thought there was any truth in that, I’d give it up. Yes,” he went on with great emphasis, as if he were contemplating a most heroic sacrifice, “yes, I’d give up even rum to hang that schoolmaster, and it’s a hanging what’ll get him, and not old Mipps, the coffin knocker.”

Denis laughed at his notion and crossed to the kitchen door listening. “What can they be discussing in there so solemnly?” he said, more to himself than to his companion. But Jerry Jerk tossed off the pannikin of rum, clambered on the high stool behind the bar, and leaned across the counter, fixing Denis with a glance full of meaning.

“Mister Cobtree,” he whispered fearfully, “you are older than I am, but I feel somehow as if I can give you a point or two, because you’ve got sense. I’m a man of Kent, I am, and I’m going to be a hangman sooner or later, but above all I belongs to the Marsh and understands her, and them as understands the Marsh⁠—well, the Marsh understands them, and this is what she says to them as understands her: ‘Hide yourself like I do under the green, until you feels you’re ready to be real mud.’ I takes her advice, I do; I’m under the green, I am, but I can be patient, because I knows as how some day I’ll be real dirt. You can’t be real dirt all at once; so keep green till you can; and if I has to keep green for years and years, I’ll get to mud one day, and that’ll be the day to hang that Rash and cheat old Mipps of his body.” And to encourage himself in this resolve Jerry took another thimbleful of rum.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow you,” said Denis.

“Don’t try to,” replied the youngster, “don’t try to. You’ll get it in time. The Marsh’ll show you. She takes her own time, but she’ll get you out of the green some day and ooze you up through the sluices, and then you’ll be a man of Kent, and no mistaking you.”

Denis, not able to make head or tail of this effusion, laughed again, which brought Jerry Jerk with a bound over the bar.

“See here, Mister Cobtree,” he hissed, coming close to him; “I likes you; you’re the only one in the village I does like. Oh, I’m not wanting anything from you; I’m just speaking the truth⁠—you’re the only one in the village I haven’t hanged in my mind, and, what’s more to the point, you won’t blab if I tell you (but there, I know you won’t), you’re the only one in the village I couldn’t get hanged!”

“What on earth do you mean?” said the squire’s son.

“What I’ve said,” replied the urchin, “just what I’ve said, and not another word do you get from me but this: listen! Do you hear that sexton in there a-mumbling? Well, what’s he mumbling about? Ah, you don’t know, and I don’t know (leastways not exactly), but there’s one who does. Come over here,” and he led Denis to the back window and pointed out over Romney Marsh. “She knows, that there Marsh. She knows everything about this place, and every place upon her. Why, I’d give up everything I’ve got or shall get in this world, everything⁠—except that schoolmaster’s neck⁠—to know all she knows, ’cos she knows everything, Mister Cobtree, everything, she does. In every house there’s murmurings and mumblings a-going on, and in every dyke out there there’s the same ones, the very same ones a-going. You can hear ’em yourself, Mister Cobtree, if you stands among ’em. You try. But, oh, Mister Denis”⁠—and he grabbed his arm imploringly⁠—“don’t try to understand them dykes at night. She don’t talk then, she don’t; she does⁠—she just does then. She does all wot the mumbles and murmurs have whispered to do; and it’s death on the Marsh at night. I found that out,” he added proudly. “Do you know how?”

“How?” queried Denis.

“By going out on her in the day, and gradually getting used to wot she says; that’s how; and that’s the only way.”

Just then a most infernal noise arose from the front of the inn, and before Denis had disengaged himself from the earnest clutches of his guardian angel, and before the murmurs of Mr. Mipps had ceased in the kitchen, the bar was swarming with seamen⁠—sailors⁠—rough mahogany men with pigtails and brass rings, smelling of tar and, much to the admiration of Jerk, reeking of rum, filling the room with their jostling, spitting, and laughing, and their calls on the potboy to serve ’em with drink. But their entrance was so sudden, their appearance so startling, and their behaviour so alarming, that the young hangman was for the moment off his guard, for there he stood open-mouthed and awestruck, watching the giants help themselves freely from the great barrels. To Denis they had come with no less surprise. He had seen preventer men before; he had many friends among the fishermen, but these were real sailors, men-o’-war, who had lived through a hundred sea-fights, and seen hellfire on the high seas⁠—real sailors, King’s men. Yes, the King’s men had come to Dymchurch.