Holding the Pulpit

Never was there such a great congregation as upon that night in the old dim church. The news that Doctor Syn was to leave immediately after the service brought everybody to bid him farewell, and Mipps had great difficulty in packing them all into the old pews. In fact, full half an hour before the vestry prayer the pews were all choked, and latecomers began to perch themselves upon the high oak backs. Benches were even arranged across the aisles, and boys climbed up on to the window ledges; in fact, every available place in the church capable or not capable of supporting a human being was utilized. Jerry Jerk perched himself without ceremony upon the font cover, much to the indignation of the sexton, who in his capacity of verger tried to signal him off. But Jerk, knowing well that Mipps could not get at him over the benches that crowded the aisles, remained where he was. Right under the pulpit, immediately opposite to the squire’s pew, sat Captain Collyer, and two pews behind that some half-dozen sailors fumbled with hymnbooks under the large eyes of the bo’sun. Once Captain Collyer turned round to see if his men were there, and Jerk noticed the corner of a blue paper bulging from his pocket. Doctor Syn conducted the service from the top box of the three-decker pulpit, with Mipps below him carefully following the printing on the great Prayer Book with a dirty thumb running backward and forward. Now Doctor Syn, although appearing to the congregation to be wrapped up heart and soul in the farewell service, had found occasion to notice two things: the blue paper in the captain’s pocket and the swinging lanterns of men outside the church. He alone could see them, for from the great height of the three-decker he had a good view through the window, and the flashes from the lanterns had revealed one important thing: the red coats of soldiers. The church was surrounded with soldiers, every door was barred and every window watched; and upon the face of Captain Collyer appeared a look of triumph. But none of these things hindered the service, which continued with great spirit. The sea salts in the choir bellowed the hymns louder than usual, although there was no schoolmaster to start them off on the fiddle. The hymn before the sermon was just finishing. Doctor Syn closed the great Bible upon the red cushion and placed it upon the shelf below. The “Amen” was reached and the congregation clattered back into their seats. Then the vicar leaned over the pulpit side and addressed his flock for the last time:

“My friends,” he began, “this is surely no occasion for a theological discourse. I am leaving you tonight, leaving you suddenly, because partings are such cruel things that I would not linger over them, and although I have for some months contemplated this sad step, I have been at pains to keep it to myself lest you should misunderstand my motive and look upon my leaving as a desertion. As I announced this morning, I am going on a mission to far-off lands, a mission to our poor ignorant black brethren. There are so few who can give up all to this work. Most of my colleagues are bound to their benefices by the ties of home. Being a single old fellow, with no relatives dependent upon my income, I am able to volunteer my services for this grand work, well knowing that my place here can be filled by a better man than myself. This it is that makes me willing to tear myself away from the bonds of affection that tie me to Dymchurch, though I well know that those bonds can never be loosed from my heart; and I trust that whatever my failings may have been, you will sometimes think of one who has loved you all. Upon an occasion of this sort perhaps it is expected that I should sum up the poor results of my work among you. This I really cannot bring myself to do. What I have done, you have all seen and know, little and worthless though it be. As your parson I have tried to do my duty, and I fear have in great measure failed. Let me, therefore, leave that branch of my work to rest in silence, and speak of something else, which will be of vital interest to you all. There was much poverty and wretchedness when I first came among you. This, I believe, has been greatly alleviated, and the man who really brought that about was not your vicar, as you all so kindly and fondly imagine. No; that has been the work of another man⁠—a man of whom I would speak, for whom I would appeal to your generosity. For you all know that one man has risked his life and reputation in organizing a great scheme of benefit to the Marshmen. You all know of what scheme I am speaking; but few if any guess to what man you are indebted. There was a man hanged at Rye whose name was Clegg.”

“Clegg was never hanged at Rye!”

The great Bible skimmed over the side of the pulpit and struck the captain’s hand before he could utter another word, and a flint-locked pistol clattered over the front of the pew and fell upon the stone floor. So startlingly had this happened that the congregation merely heard the interruption and the rapid tear of the Bible through the air, and lo! there was Doctor Syn holding the pulpit with a long brassbound pistol in each hand. And there was also Mr. Mipps, the sexton, leaning over his desk and pointing a great blunderbuss at the captain’s head.

“I must beg of you, sir, not to take the words of God out of my mouth!” The Doctor spoke the words in just the same tones as the rest of his sermon, and continued as if nothing had happened⁠—continued his sermon in mild tones, with two pistols grinning over the red-cushioned desk.

“There was a man hanged at Rye. His name was Clegg. So it has always been believed. But the real Clegg was never hanged at Rye. Clegg had the laugh on the authorities all his life, and certainly he had the laugh on them at his hanging, for he was never hanged at all, although he was present to see the affair conducted all properly. Oh, yes, indeed, he was present to read the prayers over the man whom he had got to take his place. You see, my dear brethren, it was all so ridiculously simple. The man condemned for the Rye tavern murder was one of Clegg’s own men, and, most fortunate for Clegg, the rascal had a daughter that he loved⁠—that everybody loved. This girl would have no guardian had the murderer betrayed his great captain, and this is how the captain saved his life: Visiting the condemned man in prison, he bargained for his life. The murderer confessed to the parson that he was Clegg, and so got a public hanging, quite a big affair, in fact, a funeral of which a lord might well have been proud. So you see he got well paid for taking Clegg’s adventures upon his shoulders. He received the curses of the military and the admiration of the countryside as he marched with the redcoats to the scaffold, and the joke of it all was that the solemn-eyed parson who was exhorting the poor fellow to repentance till his body jangled in the chains was hardly able to keep back his laughter, for the idea of Clegg, the notorious pirate, being a country parson had of course not occurred to anyone. Funny it certainly was, although there were only two to enjoy the joke⁠—myself and my friend on the gallows. Funny the end was then; funnier the end will be now; for our good friend Captain Collyer, having come down here to discover the ringleader of the wool-running organization, brought with him a man, a murderous rascal, who was marooned upon a coral reef many years ago. I marooned that man for sedition and mutiny. He was a Cuban priest and was a dangerous practiser of black magic, and as I didn’t choose to have such satan’s tricks aboard my God-fearing pirate vessel, the Imogene, I left him on the reef. How the man got off the reef I know not; for it was a thing impossible to do. But get off he did, and it must have been by some hell’s trick that he managed it. To get him caught I forced Rash, our esteemed schoolmaster, whom you all admire for his great work among the smugglers here, to commit murder upon Sennacherib Pepper, who was seeing more upon the Marsh than was altogether healthy for him; but when my faithful murderer began thinking of King’s evidence, I had to see that he was removed by the Marsh witches and done to death. I like you to know all this, because I am something of a vain fellow, and I never can abide people having the laugh on me, and so, my dear friend Captain Collyer, oblige me like a good-natured and sensible fellow by handing over that blue paper that is sticking out of your pocket with my death written thereon.”

“No. I’ll be damned⁠—”

“If you don’t there will be such a nasty mess for Mister Mipps to clear up in that pew!”

A man stepped from the choir and snatched the blue paper from the captain and handed it to Doctor Syn.

“Thank you, my man!” said the cleric, taking it. “And now for my farewell. You are all of you in this church in eminent peril. The place is surrounded by redcoats who are in danger of being badly hurt when the fight comes, and all in this church are in danger of me being caught by the redcoats, and being obliged to turn King’s evidence against you all to save my life. I should be very loath to do such a dirty thing, so you had better persuade our friend the captain to let me go quietly.”

Doctor Syn deliberately thrust both his pistols beneath his black gown; at the same moment the captain sprang at the pulpit, but was knocked over with a violent blow from the brass candlestick that Doctor Syn had snatched from the pulpit socket. The sailors clambered out of their pew, but were met with a volley of hymnbooks and hassocks from the sea salts in the choir. One or two pistols flashed, and in a second the entire church was a writhing, fighting mass of men. The women screamed and were trodden down as the redcoats entered the west door and forced their way over the upturned benches in the aisles. Above the congregation flew a shower of missiles⁠—hassocks, books, hats, sticks, anything that could be grabbed went flying through the air, and Syn leaped the pulpit and fell upon the writhing mass that was fighting below.

It took the redcoats a quarter of an hour to restore order in the church, and then Mister Mipps and Doctor Syn had disappeared.

But although Collyer was very badly cut and bruised, he was confident, for the church had been surrounded, so he knew that the miscreants couldn’t escape. Presently a cry from the vestry rang out: “Help!” It was Mipps’s voice. Collyer rushed the door, followed by some of his men. The remaining redcoats who had been watching the church were ordered inside to help in the arrest. These men cried out that they had seen the Doctor in the vestry from the window, and they were one and all eager to be in at the death.

Within the vestry stood Sexton Mipps with a blunderbuss at the head of Doctor Syn, who was crouched in terror at the old oak table.

“There he is! Seize him! The devil! The murderer! Seize him!”

“So you’ve turned King’s evidence after all, have you. Mister Sexton?”

But Mipps only cried again: “There he is! Ain’t none of you a-goin’ to take him?”

Captain Collyer obeyed the sexton and cried: “Clegg, I arrest you in the name of the King!” and coming forward he laid his hand upon the Doctor’s shoulder. But the Doctor did not move. The captain shook him, but he did not move. Then the captain put his hand upon the white hair and the hand was covered with something white.

“My God!” he cried. “He’s nailed to the table. It’s not Syn! It’s Morgan Walters. Where’s that damned sexton?”

But the sexton had disappeared, and Clegg had gone, and there, with three nails driven, one through the neck and one through each arm, driven right through into the table, lay the theatrical figure of Morgan Walters, in all points resembling Doctor Syn.