The Captain

Just as suddenly as the pandemonium had begun, just so suddenly did it cease, for there strode through the door a short, thickset man, with a bull neck and a red face, a regular rough fighting dog, who, by his dress and the extraordinary effect he produced upon the men, Denis and Jerk at once knew to be an officer.

“Bo’sun,” he said in a thick voice, addressing one of the sailors, “in a quarter of an hour pipe the men outside the inn, and we’ll see to the billeting. Meantime make ’em pay for their drinks and no chalking. Hi, youngster!” he cried, catching hold of young Jerk by the ear, “if you’re the potboy, tumble round behind and look after your job.” Jerk, mentally consigning him to the gibbet, did as he was ordered, for his ear was hurting horribly.

“And now, sir,” went on the officer, addressing himself to Denis, “is there anyone in this law-forsaken hole who can answer questions in King’s English?”

“Certainly, sir,” said Denis proudly, “if they are asked with a civil tongue. I am Denis Cobtree, and my father, the squire, is the best-known man on Romney Marsh.”

“Then,” ordered the seadog curtly, “fetch him along here quick!”

“Really, sir,” retorted Denis hotly, “I do not think you would afford him sufficient interest. He has not the honour of your acquaintance, and I am bound to consider that he’ll have no great zeal to make it!”

“Nor I, neither,” said Mr. Mipps, who had been looking round the kitchen door. “I don’t like his looks.”

The infuriated officer was inside the kitchen like a hurricane, glaring at the little sexton with all the condensed fury of the British navy.

“What’s this?” he said, addressing himself again to Denis, who had followed him into the kitchen to be quit of the crowd of seamen. “I suppose you’ll tell me that this shrivelled up little monkey is a squire’s son too, eh?”

“A squire’s son!” repeated the sexton. “Oh, well, if I is, I ain’t come into my title yet.”

“Don’t you play the fool with me, sir!” thundered the King’s man.

“And don’t you try the swagger with me, sir!” volleyed back the sexton.

“The swagger with you, sir?” exploded the officer.

“Right, sir,” exclaimed the sexton, “that’s what I said⁠—the swagger, sir!”

But the other swallowed his wrath and announced coldly:

“I am Captain Collyer. Captain Howard Collyer, coast agent and commissioner; come ashore to lay a few of you by the heels, I’ve no doubt.”

“Oh! is that all?” replied the sexton with a sigh of relief. “Well, there, I have been mistook. I’d quite made up my mind that you was the Grand Turk or at least the Lord Rear Admiral of the Scilly Isles.”

Ignoring the sexton’s humour, the captain turned to Denis and said: “Who is this person?”

But Mipps was not so easily crushed, and he cried: “A man to be looked up to in these parts. I undertakes for the district. The only one wot does it for miles round. They all comes to me, rich and poor alike, I tells you; for they know that Mipps knocks ’em up solid.”

“Knocks what up solid?” demanded the captain furiously.

“Coffins up solid,” replied the sexton promptly.

“Coffins!” repeated the captain. “Oh, you’re a coffin-maker, are you? Yes, you look it. Thought you might be the landlord of this run-amuck old inn here. That’s the man I want. Where can I find him?”

Mipps pointed out of the window toward the church.

“Up in the churchyard,” he said.

“What’s he doing in the churchyard?” demanded the captain.

Mipps came right up to him and whispered in this ear the significant word, “Worrumps!”

“What?” shouted the captain, who didn’t understand.

“Sh!” said Mipps, pointing across at Mrs. Waggetts, who had begun to weep into her apron. “He’s a-keepin’ ’em out.”

“Keeping who out?” snapped the captain.

“I keep telling you,” replied the sexton. “Worrumps!”

“Danged if I can make out what you say.” The captain’s patience was well-nigh exhausted. “Go and fetch the landlord!” he ordered.

“Oh, would that he could,” sobbed Mrs. Waggetts. “Oh, dear, oh, dear!”

The captain turned on her with an oath. “What’s the matter with you, my good woman?” he said.

“That good woman is the landlord,” volunteered Mr. Mipps.

“You exasperating little liar!” shouted the captain, seizing the enigmatical sexton and shaking him violently; “you said the landlord was in the churchyard a minute ago.”

“A minute ago!” cried the breathless undertaker. “Why, he’s been there a year and a half, and there he’ll stop till as wot time as they gets him. Though I must say I gave him the best pine and knocked him up solid with my own hands⁠—

“Released from Missus Waggetts
I left him to the maggots⁠—

and there’s Waggetts, and she’s the landlord,” and the sexton, chuckling with delight at his ready wit, pointed to the still weeping landlady.

“Well, ma’am,” said the captain, coming to the point at once, “you must really blame yourself if your scores are not settled. A little potboy who has to stand on tiptoe to look over the bar is not the sort of person to prevent people helping themselves; and that’s what my seadogs are doing now⁠—helping themselves.”

Mrs. Waggetts, with a scream, rushed from the kitchen, followed by Imogene, the sexton and the schoolmaster being glad enough to follow their example and so escape from the bullying captain, who was now left alone with Denis.

“Now, then, Mr. Squire’s son, listen to me,” he said.

“My name is Denis Cobtree,” returned the young man. “The name Cobtree is well enough known upon the Marsh to be remembered by a sea captain.”

“Look here, young fellow,” said the officer warningly, “I am here representing the law, commissioned by King George.”

“I have heard that the King’s taste may be called in question,” Denis replied.

“I can prove to you otherwise,” returned the captain, “for it so happens that Captain Collyer holds the majority for stringing up smugglers. I have sent more from the coast to the sessions than any of his Majesty’s agents. And stap my vitals, I believe I have landed on a perfect hornets’ nest here. Now tell me, sir,” he went on with that tone of authority that Denis found so utterly aggressive, “what do you know of the smuggling business in these parts? I have small doubt but that your father finds the business a pretty valuable asset to his land revenues, eh? I warrant me half goes to your own pockets and the rest to the lost cause of the Jacobites.”

The captain was becoming insulting, so Denis took great pains to hold his temper in check. “Let me tell you, sir,” he said, “in the first place, my father is no Jacobite, no, nor yet his father before him. My people were instrumental in bringing across William of Orange. Although my father has withdrawn from political strife, he is still a profound Whig; and on that score he and I have but little sympathy together; for I stoutly affirm that the Dutchman had no right whatever in England, and I never lose an opportunity of drinking to our King over the water, and praying for a speedy restoration.”

“You just bear in mind, young man,” said the captain, “that the ’45 was not so very long ago. I am here to look for smugglers, not royalists, but there’s still a price on their heads, so you should keep whatever opinions you may hold to yourself.”

“If you are really here to look for smugglers,” said Denis, scorning his threat, “you must first take pains to curry favour with my father, for he is the head of our jurisdiction. The Marsh has its own laws, sir; and you will find to your inconvenience, I fear, that the ‘Leveller of the Marsh Scotts’1 is a big power.”

“I hold my commission from the King’s Admiralty, and that’s enough for me,” laughed the captain, “and for Marshmen, too, as you’ll find.”

But Denis replied: “Possibly, sir, you have not heard of the old saying, that ‘The world is divided into five parts⁠—Europe, Asia, Africa, America, and Romney Marsh.’ We are independent on the Marshes.”

“The Act of Parliament,” retorted the captain largely, “brought in by the late King William against all smugglers will cook that goose, young sir.”

“Ah, well,” said Denis finally, “it’s no odds to me; but let me tell you this: Your King George may rule Whitehall, but my father rules Romney Marsh,” and humming an old royalist tune, much to the annoyance of the captain, the young man sauntered out of the inn.