The Captain’s Experiment

They entered the vicarage by the back door and found the bo’sun roasting chestnuts on the bars of the kitchen fire. There was another man there, with his back to the door, and by his black clothes and scholarly stoop Jerry recognized the vicar. So quietly had the captain opened the door that neither of the men roasting chestnuts was aware of their presence. They went on roasting the nuts, when an astonishing thing happened: The vicar, in trying to take out a hot chestnut from the bar, knocked three of the bo’sun’s into the red-hot coals, which so enraged the bo’sun that he administered with his forearm a resounding clump on the back of the cleric’s head. Jerry thought this a distinct liberty, but the vicar only laughed, and when he turned round Jerry saw that it was Morgan Walters dressed in an entire clerical suit, and not Doctor Syn at all.

Morgan Walters looked sheepish and uncomfortable when he beheld the captain, but the latter remarked that his getup was magnificent, and that his black hair, which had been carefully sprinkled by the bo’sun with flour to make it gray, so nearly resembled that of the cleric, that Morgan Walters was evidently intended by Providence to be a parson, for such a capital one did he make. Thus encouraged, Morgan Walters strutted about the kitchen, and the likeness to Doctor Syn (for he was of the same build and Doctor Syn had always the sailor’s rolling gait) was so perfect that Jerk began to laugh, but was speedily hushed by the captain.

“Now remember, Walters,” the captain said, “there’s no danger in this if you do exactly as I told you, but you will have to be spry, of course.”

“If he sticks me, then I deserves to be stuck,” replied Morgan Walters. “I’ve been Aunt Sally at the county fairs afore now, and never got whacked, not once. I always could bob down in time in those days, and I didn’t have no bo’sun’s whistle to help me.”

And then began the captain’s experiment, a most curious game, and, in spite of its tragic purpose, a humorous game it was.

The bo’sun, whistle in mouth, was hidden in the little front garden; the captain and Jerk crouched in the corner of the room of which the window had no view; while Morgan Walters, in all points resembling Doctor Syn, sat reading in the ingle seat by the fire⁠—sat reading a book with his back to the window, from which the shutters had been thrown open and the broken casement set ajar. It was a weird occasion: the captain crouching down in the corner holding on to young Jerk with a warning hand, the bo’sun with his whistle hidden in the garden, and the firelight aided by one candle upon the table throwing the two wavering shadows of the pseudo parson upon the whitewashed wall. Jerk could hardly persuade himself that it was not the Doctor, so clever was the rig-out of Morgan Walters, and he could hardly forbear letting out a laugh as the crafty seaman kept turning the pages of the book. But he had ample time to control himself before anything happened; indeed, a whole hour he had to wait⁠—an hour which seemed a lifetime; and then the occurrence was swift and terrible.

A shrill whistle sounded from the garden; down went Morgan Walters’s head; and with a thud which broke the surrounding wall plaster into a thousand powdery cracks, a great harpoon trembled in the wall, exactly one foot above the settle.

“Gone!” shouted the bo’sun from the garden, and he immediately tumbled up through the window, closing the shutters behind him.

“Well, sir,” said Morgan Walters, “it wasn’t the ducking I minded when it came to it, but the waiting wasn’t pleasant.”

“You did well, my man,” said the captain. “And now, potboy, after that little experiment I’ll know how to proceed, how to prescribe like an analyzing apothecary, so, as it’s Sunday tomorrow, which ain’t far off now, we’ll get back to the Ship Inn, bo’sun, and you can light us there, whilst Morgan Walters can change his clothes and get back and to sleep.”

So they left him there, the bo’sun with a lantern stepping before the captain and Jerk to the door of the Ship. Just as they reached the door a horseman galloped up from the Hythe Road and, saluting, asked if any could direct him to Captain Collyer. As soon as the captain had made himself known, Jerk saw the rider hand the captain a blue paper, which the latter put carefully into his pocket. Then he led the rider and the bo’sun into the sanded parlour and gave them drinks, after which he went home to bed and slept sound.

But back in the vicarage, just as Morgan Walters was about to divest himself of his ecclesiastical robes, Mr. Mipps entered with a loaded blunderbuss and requested him to turn round, hold his hands above his head, and precede him to the coffin shop at the farther end of the village.

Doctor Syn slept at the courthouse, for he did not intend to go to the vicarage any more at night. He had a dread of that sitting-room of his. The horrible whirring of a certain weapon boring a hole through the shutter was still in his ears, and he could see a terrible eye, magnified by the bottle glass of the casement, looking in at him from the darkness. No, he had had enough of that room, he told himself, and so he welcomed the squire’s invitation to pass the night in the courthouse. Complaining of fatigue, he went to his room, but the squire sat up late wondering how Imogene was faring, and whether or no she would succeed in rescuing his son, and how in the world she was setting about it. About two o’clock in the morning he detected a smell of burning. He went upstairs. The smell seemed to be coming from the room assigned to Doctor Syn, but there was only the firelight showing under the door, so thinking that the Doctor was asleep, he put his eye to the keyhole. But the Doctor was not asleep. He was dressed in shirt and breeches, and the sleeves of the shirt were turned up. He was standing by the fireplace with a red-hot poker in his hand, looking at a seared mark upon his forearm.

“What the devil’s he burning his arm for?” thought the squire. Doctor Syn then began to whistle under his breath; to whistle that old tune the words of which the squire knew so well:

“Here’s to the feet wot have walked the plank.”

The squire remembered certain words of the captain: Clegg’s one tattoo⁠—the picture of a man walking the plank, executed badly upon his forearm. “Good God! Was it possible? No! Ridiculous!”

An uncanny feeling came over the squire, and he went downstairs quietly, without knocking at the Doctor’s door, as he had intended⁠—went downstairs to the fire in the library, relit his pipe, and began to think about Doctor Syn.

So when Sunday morning broke, two more strange things had happened: Morgan Walters, for one thing, had disappeared, parson’s clothes and all, and Doctor Syn, on going to the vicarage, discovered a new ugly gash in the plaster of the wall, and he felt indeed thankful that he had passed the night at the courthouse.

The villagers had it announced to them at the morning service that, in order to undertake a great spiritual mission to the blacks, Doctor Syn was leaving Dymchurch that very night; leaving after evensong by fishing lugger which was timed to pick up a certain Spanish trader bound for Jamaica and sailing upon the next day from the port of Rye. So all that Sunday afternoon the villagers, with much sorrow in their hearts at the thought of losing their faithful shepherd and good friend, prepared great beacons along the coast seawall as far as Littlestone, in order to light and cheer their vicar on his lonely way at night.