Prologue. The Syns 'o' Lydd
So: an ancient town, Lydd; and an ancient race, the Syns.
Prolific, too, as their massed ranks of tombstones in the churchyard show; while their mural tablets in the church itself serve as a testimony for all time to the family's integrity and learning.
Go where you will in the neighbourhood, and rummage amongst old chests and cupboards until you have collected a pile of legal documents, ancient and modern, as high as Wolsey's Tower, and you will indeed be hard put to discover one parchment that does not show the signature of a Syn attorney.
Statutes, recognizances, fines, conveyance of land or messuage, recoveries, easements, vouchers, testaments and bequeststhe signature of Syn appears upon them all.
Of comfortable means they always seem possessed. They inhabited the most mellow houses in Lydd and the adjacent New Romney. While waiting for clients, they purchased for themselves, until by judicious bargaining they gradually acquired much fertile land, large flocks of good wool, and such substantial homesteads that no other family could boast of a more delectable name upon the Marsh.
When there were no more purchasable properties upon the Levels of the Marsh, they lifted their eyes into the hills, carrying their territorial conquests along the sky-line from Aldington to Lympne. But when they realized that no financial embarrassment could shift the ancient Pemburys from their fastness of Lympne Castle, they pushed their own family possessions inland, acquiring property in Bonnington, Bilsington and Appledore, until there was even a Syn attorney secure in distant Tenterden, possessing the best cellars and stables in that comfortable sleepy town.
Now, the holding of land upon the hills gave to the Syns, as it did to other Marshmen in like case, a sense of security, for the reclaimed pasturage of Romney Marsh owed its existence to the Dymchurch Wall, which held the sea in check. The slogan of the Marsh, Serve God, honour the King; but first maintain the Wall", showed that possible calamity was ever in their minds, and Marshmen liked to think they had a retreat in the uplands in the event of the sea breaking through and overwhelming the lower Levels. As folk in face of a common danger are apt to hang together, so did the Marshmen show a loyalty to one another. But none were so clannish as the Syns. They inter-married. Syn kith led Syn kin to the altar, and in due course added further cousins to the Syns. But just as in the most fruitful tree will sometimes have its barren period in all its branches, so did the Syn dynasty have its sterile age, and this in the mid years of the eighteenth century, the time in which this history is about to be unfolded. Then were the Syns sadly depleted. Jacobite tendencies caused the family to send their best blood to be spilled in the Young Pretender's cause.
Then an epidemic of ague which swept the Marsh took heavy toll, so that the Syns, who had in the past multiplied so exceedingly and covered the lands of the Levels of Romney, Welland, and Denge; the Syns who had covered as many dead sheepskins with ink as they had covered living sheepskins with wool, found themselves ten years after the '45" bereft of their good men and true, and represented only by old Solomon Syn, attorney at Romney, and his nephew Christopher Syn, the youngest Don at Queen's College, Oxford, and the youngest Doctor of Divinity in either of the Great Universities.
His father, Septimus Syn, had been clerk to the Lords of the Level of Romney Marsh, under the magistracy of Sir Charles Cobtree, who resided at the Court House of Dymchurch-under-the-Wall. A tall, thin and austere man, this Septimus, who to all outward appearances was as dry as the parchments over which he toiled. But beneath his legal dustiness there must have burned a bright spark of adventurous romance, for at the outbreak of the '45 he cast aside his quills and sandbox, buckled on his sword, and took ship to Scotland, where he joined the Young Pretender's force. He wisely left his wife and only child under the joint guardianship of his elder brother Solomon and Sir Charles Cobtree. Wisely, for with three of his brothers he was killed at Culloden. His wife followed him to the grave the same yearof a broken heart, it was said and thus at the age of eighteen was Christopher Syn an orphan. Besides his two excellent guardians, his parents had bequeathed to him many other valuable assets: a sufficient sum of money to insure his independence and a brain and personality capable of improving with security.
In the year 1754, when this history begins, Christopher Syn was in his twenty-fifth year, and, as resident classical tutor at Queen's College, was respected by his elders and popular with his students. As his great friend Antony Cobtree told his father, Sir Charles, at Dymchurch, I owe my degree to Christopher's patience and perseverance. By applying the spur at the right moment he lifted me over the hedges that barred my way to scholarship.
Although beloved by all, the young Doctor, two years junior to Tony Cobtree, was a sombre, tragic figure. Eyes deep, piercing and alive. Hair raven black. Tall, slim and weird, with a brooding melancholy that faded only when he smiled, and that because his smile conveyed a princely graciousness, and a pledge of loyal friendship to the fortunate recipient. Yes, a man of classic beauty and a strength well equipped to face and overcome whatever fate might hold in store for him. As an orator he was magnificent, for each spoken syllable claimed its utmost value, and every phrase its place of full significance, and backed in all its moods by expressive movements of his wonderful hands, whose strong delicacy could express more than most men's tongues. A personality that could not fail to make its mark in any walk of life, but was at present confined within the bounds of scholarship at Oxford University, a Doctor of Divinity. A priest. But more than all a man of high romance.
Taken from the Opening of "Doctor Syn on the High Seas" by Russell Thorndike ©
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