By Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch, ('Q')
I. HOW THE CHILDREN PLAYED.
II. CALL TO ARMS.
III. HOW THE MEN WENT.
IV. THE FIRST SERMON.
V. THE ANONYMOUS LETTER.
VI. TREASURE TROVE.
VII. "QUID NON MORTALIA PECTORIA . . ."
VIII. BUSINESS AS USUAL.
IX. THE BROKEN PANE.
X. THE VICAR'S MISGIVINGS.
XI. THE THREE PILCHARDS.
XII. FIRST ATTEMPT AT HIDING.
XIII. FIRST AID.
XIV. POLSUE V PENHALIGON, NANJIVELL INTERVENING.
XV. THE 'TATY PATCH.
XVI. CORPORAL SANDERCOCK.
XVII. THE SECOND SERMON.
XX. MISS OLIVER PROFFERS ASSISTANCE.
XXI. FAIRY GOLD.
XXIII. ENLIGHTENMENT, AND RECRUITING.
XXIV. THE FIRST THREE.
HOW THE CHILDREN PLAYED.
When news of the War first came to Polpier, Nicholas Nanjivell (commonly known as Nicky-Nan) paid small attention to it, being preoccupied with his own affairs.
Indeed, for some days the children knew more about it than he, being tragically concerned in it—poor mites!—though they took it gaily enough. For Polpier lives by the fishery, and of the fishermen a large number—some scores—had passed through the Navy and now belonged to the Reserve. These good fellows had the haziest notion of what newspapers meant by the Balance of Power in Europe, nor perhaps could any one of them have explained why, when Austria declared war on Servia, Germany should be taking a hand. But they had learnt enough on the lower deck to forebode that, when Germany took a hand, the British Navy would pretty soon be clearing for action. Consequently all through the last week of July, when the word "Germany" began to be printed in large type in Press headlines, the drifters putting out nightly on the watch for the pilchard harvest carried each a copy of The Western Morning News or The Western Daily Mercury to be read aloud, discussed, expounded under the cuddy lamp in the long hours between shooting the nets and hauling them.
"When the corn is in the shock, Then the fish is on the rock."
A very little of the corn had been shocked as yet; but the fields, right down to the cliffs' edge, stood ripe for abundant harvest. I doubt, indeed, if in our time they have ever smiled a fairer promise or reward for husbandry than during this last fortnight of July 1914, when the crews, running back with the southerly breeze for Polpier, would note how the crop stood yellower in to-day's than in yesterday's sunrise, and speculate when Farmer Best or farmer Bate meant to start reaping. As for the fish, the boats had made small catches—dips among the straggling advance-guards of the great armies of pilchards surely drawing in from the Atlantic. "'Tis early days yet, hows'ever—time enough, my sons—plenty time!" promised Un' Benny Rowett, patriarch of the fishing-fleet and local preacher on Sundays. Some of the younger men grumbled that "there was no tellin': the season had been tricky from the start." The spider-crabs—that are the curse of inshore trammels—had lingered for a good three weeks past the date when by all rights they were due to sheer off. Then a host of spur-dogs had invaded the whiting-grounds, preying so gluttonously on the hooked fish that, haul in as you might, three times out of four the line brought up nothing but a head—all the rest bitten off and swallowed. "No salmon moving, over to Troy. The sean-boats there hadn't even troubled to take out a licence." As for lobsters, "they were becomin' a winter fish, somehow, and up the harbours you started catchin' 'em at Christmas and lost 'em by Eastertide:" while the ordinary crabbing-grounds appeared to be clean bewitched.
One theorist loudly called for a massacre of sea-birds, especially shags and gannets. Others (and these were the majority) demanded protection from steam trawlers, whom they accused of scraping the sea-bottom, to the wholesale sacrifice of immature fish—sole and plaice, brill and turbot.
"Now look 'ee here, my sons," said Un' Benny Rowett: "if I was you, I'd cry to the Lord a little more an' to County Council a little less. What's the full size ye reckon a school o' pilchards, now—one o the big uns? Scores an' scores o' square miles, all movin' in a mass, an' solid a'most as sardines in a tin; and, as I've heard th' Old Doctor used to tell, every female capable o' spawnin' up to two million. . . . No; your mind can't seize it. But ye might be fitted to grasp that if th' Almighty hadn' ordained other fish an' birds as well as us men to prey upon 'em, in five years' time no boat'd be able to sail th' Atlantic; in ten years ye could walk over from Polpier to Newfoundland stankin' 'pon rotten pilchards all the way. Don't reckon yourselves wiser than Natur', my billies. . . . As for steam trawlin', simmee, I han't heard so much open grievin' over it since Government started loans for motors. Come to think—hey?— there ben't no such tearin' difference between motors an' steam—not on principle. And as for reggilations, I've a doo respect for County Council till it sets up to reggilate Providence, when I falls back on th' Lord's text to Noey that, boy an' man, I've never known fail. While th' earth remaineth, seed-time and harvest shall not cease. And again," continued Un' Benny Rowett, "Behold, I say unto you, Lift up your eyes and look on the fields, for they are white already to harvest."
If pressed in argument he would entrench himself behind the wonderful plenty of john-doreys: "Which," he would say, "is the mysteriousest fish in the sea and the holiest. Take a john-dorey or two, and the pilchards be never far behind. 'Tis well beknown as the fish St Peter took when Our Lord told 'en to cast a hook; an' be shot if he didn' come to hook with a piece o' silver in his mouth! You can see Peter's thumb-mark upon him to this day: and, if you ask me, he's better eatin' than a sole, let alone you can carve en with a spoon—though improved if stuffed, with a shreddin' o' mint. Iss, baked o' course. . . . Afore August is out—mark my words—the pilchards'll be here."
"But shall we be here to take 'em?"
It was a dark, good-looking, serious youth who put the question: and all the men at the end of the quay turned to stare at him. (For this happened on the evening of Saturday, the 25th—St James's Day,—when all the boats were laid up for the week-end.)
The men turned to young Seth Minards because, as a rule, he had a wonderful gift of silence. He was known to be something of a scholar, and religious too: but his religion did Dot declare itself outwardly, save perhaps in a constant gentleness of manner. The essence of it lay in spiritual withdrawal; the man retiring into his own heart, so to speak, and finding there a Friend with whom to hold sweet and habitual counsel. By consequence, young Seth Minards spoke rarely, but with more than a double weight.
"What mean ye, my son?" demanded Un' Benny. "Tell us—you that don't speak, as a rule, out of your turn."
"I think," answered Seth Minards slowly, "there is going to be War for certain—a great War—and in a few days."
Three days later the postmistress, Mrs Pengelly (who kept a general shop), put out two newspaper placards which set all the children at the Council Schools, up the valley, playing at a game they called "English and Germans"—an adaptation of the old "Prisoners' Base." No one wanted to be a German: but, seeing that you cannot well conduct warfare without an enemy, the weaker boys represented the Teutonic cause under conscription, and afterwards joined in the cheers when it was vanquished.
The Schools broke up on the last day of July; and the contest next day became a naval one, among the row-boats lying inside the old pier. This was ten times better fun; for a good half of the boys meant to enter the Navy when they grew up. They knew what it meant, too. The great battleships from Plymouth ran their speed-trials off Polpier: the westward mile-mark stood on the Peak, right over the little haven; and the smallest child has learnt to tell a Dreadnought in the offing, or discern the difference between a first-class and a second-class cruiser. The older boys knew most of the ships by name.
Throughout Saturday the children were—as their mother agreed—"fair out of hand." But this may have been because the mothers themselves were gossiping whilst their men slumbered. All Polpier women—even the laziest—knit while they talk: and from nine o'clock onwards the alley-ways that pass for streets were filled with women knitting hard and talking at the top of their voices. The men and the cats dozed.
Down by the boats, up to noon the boys had things all their own way, vying in feats of valour. But soon after the dinner-hour the girls asserted themselves by starting an Ambulance Corps, and with details so realistic that not a few of the male combatants hauled out of battle on pretence of wounds and in search of better fun.
Nicholas Nanjivell, "mooning" by the bridge twelve paces from his door, sharpening his jack-knife upon a soft parapet-stone that was reported to bring cutlery to an incomparable edge and had paid for its reputation, being half worn away—Nicholas Nanjivell, leaning his weight on the parapet, to ease the pain in his leg—Nicholas Nanjivell, gloomily contemplating his knife and wishing he could plunge it into the heart of a man who stood behind a counter behind a door which stood in view beyond the bridge-end—Nicholas Nanjivell, nursing his own injury to the exclusion of any that might threaten Europe—glanced up and beheld his neighbour Penhaligon's children, Young 'Bert and 'Beida (Zobeida), approach by the street from the Quay bearing between them a stretcher, composed of two broken paddles and part of an old fishing-net, and on the stretcher, covered by a tattered pilot-jack, a small form—their brother 'Biades (Alcibiades), aged four. It gave him a scare.
"Lor sake!" said he, hastily shutting and pocketing his knife. "What you got there?"
"'Biades," answered 'Beida, with a tragical face.
"Han't I heard your mother warn 'ee a score o' times, against lettin' that cheeld play loose on the Quay! . . . What's happened to 'en? Broke his tender neck, I shouldn' wonder. . . . Here, let me have a look—"
"Broke his tender fiddle-stick!" 'Beida retorted. "He's bleedin' for his country, is 'Biades, if you really want to know; and if you was helpful you'd lend us that knife o' yours."
"What for, missy?"
"Why, to take off the injured limb. 'Bert's knife's no good since the fore-part o' the week, when he broke the blade prizin' up limpets an' never guessing how soon this War'd be upon us."
"I did," maintained 'Bert. "I was gettin' in food supplies."
"If I was you, my dears, I'd leave such unholy games alone," Nicky-Nan advised them. "No, and I'll not lend 'ee my knife, neither. You don't know what War is, children: an' please God you never will. War's not declared yet—not by England, anyway. Don't 'ee go to seek it out until it seeks you."
"But 'tis comin'," 'Beida persisted. "Father was talkin' with Mother last night—he didn' go out with the boats: and 'Bert and I both heard him say—didn' we, 'Bert?—'twas safe as to-morrow's sun. The way we heard was that Mother'd forgot to order us to bed; which hasn't happened not since Coronation Night an' the bonfire. When she came up to blow out the light she'd been cryin'. . . . That's because Father'll have to fight, o' course."
"I wish they'd put it off till I was a man," said 'Bert stoutly.
At this point the wounded hero behaved as he always did on discovering life duller than his hopes. He let out a piercing yell and cried that he wanted his tea. 'Beida dropped her end of the ambulance, seized him as he slid to the ground, shook him up, and told him to behave.
"You can't have your tea for another hour: and what's more, if you're not careful there won't be no amputation till afterwards, when Mother's not lookin' an' we can get a knife off the table. You bad boy!"
'Biades howled afresh.
"If you don't stop it,"—'Bert took a hand in threatening,— "you won't get cut open till Monday; because 'tis Sunday to-morrow. And by that time you'll be festerin', I shouldn't wonder."
"—And mortification will have set in," promised his sister. "When that happens, you may turn up your toes. An' 'tis only a question between oak an' elum."
'Biades ceased yelling as abruptly as he had started. "What's 'fester'?" he demanded.
"You'll know fast enough, when you find yourself one solid scab," began 'Bert. But Nicky-Nan interrupted.
"There, there, children! Run along an' don't ee play at trouble. There's misery enough, the Lord knows—" He broke off on a twinge of pain, and stared down-stream at the congregated masts in the little harbour.
Polpier lies in a gorge so steep and deep that though it faces but a little east of south, all its western flank lay already in deep shadow. The sunlight slanting over the ridge touched the tops of the masts, half a dozen of which had trucks with a bravery of gilt, while a couple wore the additional glory of a vane. On these it flashed, and passed on to bathe the line of cottages along the eastern shore, with the coast-guard hut that stood separate beyond them on the round of the cliff-track—all in one quiet golden glow. War? Who could think of War? . . . Nicky-Nan at any rate let the thought of it slip into the sea of his private trouble. It was as though he had hauled up some other man's "sinker" and, discovering his mistake, let it drop back plumb.
While he stared, the children had stolen away.
Yet he loitered there staring, in the hush of the warm afternoon, lifting his eyes a little towards the familiar outline of the hills that almost overlapped, closing out sight of the sea. A verse ran in his head—"I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help. . . ."
The slamming of a door at the street-corner beyond the bridge recalled him to the world of action.
On the doorstep of the local Bank—turning key in lock as he left the premises—stood a man respectably dressed and large of build. It was Mr Pamphlett, the Bank-Manager. Nicky-Nan thrust his hands in his trouser-pockets and limped towards him.
"If you please, sir—"
Mr Pamphlett faced about, displaying a broad white waistcoat and a ponderous gold watch-chain.
"If you please, sir—" Nicky-Nan, now balanced on his sound leg, withdrew a hand from his pocket and touched his cap. "I've been waitin' your convenience."
"Busy times," said Mr Pamphlett. "This Moratorium, you know. The War makes itself felt, even in this little place."
If Nicky-Nan had known the meaning of the word Moratorium, it might have given him an opening. But he did not, and so he stood dumb. "You have come to say, I hope," hazarded Mr Pamphlett after a pause, "that you don't intend to give me any more trouble? . . . You've given me enough, you know. An Ejectment Order. . . . Still—if, at the last, you've made up your mind to behave—"
"There's no other house, sir. If there was, and you'd let it to me—"
"That's likely, hey? In the present scandalous laxity of the law towards tenants, you've cost me a matter of pounds—not to mention six months' delay, which means money lost—to eject you. You, that owe me six pounds rent! It's likely I'd let you another house—even if I had one!"
"Even if you had the will, 'twouldn' be right. I understand that, sir. Six young men, as I know, waitin' to marry and unable, because the visitors snap up cottage after cottage for summer residences, an'll pay you fancy prices; whereas you won't build for the likes o' we."
"Your six young men—if six there be—" said Mr Pamphlett, "will be best employed for some time to come in fighting for their country. It don't pay to build cottages, I tell you."
Nicky-Nan's right hand gripped the knife in his pocket. But he answered wearily—
"Well, anyways, sir, I don't ask to interfere with them: but only to bide under my own shelter."
"Owing me six pounds arrears, and piling up more? And after driving me to legal proceedings! Look here, Nanjivell. You are fumbling something in your pocket. Is it the six pounds you owe me?"
"I thought not. And if it were, I should still demand the costs I've been put to. If you bring me the total on Monday—But you know very well you cannot."
"Then," said Mr Pamphlett, "we waste time. I have been worried enough, these last few days, with more serious business than yours. In the times now upon us a many folk are bound to go to the wall; and the improvident will go first, as is only right. Enough said, my man!"
Nicky-Nan fumbled with the knife in his pocket, but let Mr Pamphlett pass.
Then he limped back to the house that would be his until Monday, and closed the door. Beyond the frail partition which boarded him off from the Penhaligon family he could hear the children merry at tea.
CALL TO ARMS.
NESCIO QUA NATALE SOLUM DULCEDINE CUNCTOS DUCIT ET IMMEMORES NON SINIT ESSE SUI.
—The Old Doctor (to whom we have made allusion) had been moved to write an account of his native place, and had contrived to get it published by subscription in a thin octavo volume of 232 pages, measuring nine by five and a half inches. Copies are rare, but may yet be picked up on secondhand bookstalls for six or seven shillings.
From this 'History of Polpier' I must quote—being unable to better it—his description of the little town. (He ever insisted in calling it a town, not a village, although it contained less than fourteen hundred inhabitants.)
"If the map of the coast of Cornwall be examined, on the south-east, between the estuaries of the two rivers that divide the Hundred of West from the Hundred of East and the Hundred of Powder, will be noticed an indentation of the littoral line, in which cleft lies the little town of Polpier. Tall hills, abrupt and rugged, shut in a deep and tortuous valley, formed by the meeting of smaller coombs; houses, which seem dropped rather than built, crowd the valley and its rocky ledges; a rapid rivulet dances in and out among the dwellings, till its voice is lost in the waters of a tidal haven, thronged with fishing boats and guarded by its Peak of serried rock."
The Doctor after this first modest mention of "a rivulet" invariably writes of it as "the River," and by no other name does Polpier speak of it to this day. On the lower or seaward side of the bridge-end, where the channel measures some three yards across, the flank of his house leaned over the rushing water, to the sound of which he slept at night. Across the stream the house of Mr Barrabell, clerk, leaned forward at a more pronounced angle, so that the two neighbours, had they been so minded, might have shaken hands between their bedroom windows before retiring to rest. Tradition reports this Mr Barrabell (though an accountant for most of the privateering companies in Polpier) to have been a timorous man: and that once the Doctor, returning home in the small hours from a midwifery case, found his neighbour and his neighbour's wife hiding together under his bed-clothes. Upon an alarm that Bonaparte was in the town, they had bridged the stream with a ladder to the Doctor's open window and clambered across in their night-clothes. It is reported also that, on the transit, Mrs Barrabell was heard to say, "Go forward, Theophilus! Th' Old Doctor knows all about me, if he don't about you. You can trust en to the ends of the world." "That's right enough, ma'am," said the Doctor in his great way; "but you appear to have gone a bit further." A variant of the story has it that Mrs Barrabell was found beneath the bed, and her spouse alone between the bed-clothes, into which he had plunged with an exhortation, "Look after yourself, darling!" "And what do you think Theophilus found under that magnificent man's bed?" she asked her neighbours next day. "Why, naught but a plumed hat in a japanned case; no trace of alarm, and yet ready there against any emergency."
The Doctor (I should say) had held a commission—worn a Major's uniform—in the local Artillery Volunteers during those days of the Napoleonic peril. They passed, and he survived to die in times of peace, leaving (as has been told) a local history for his memorial. A tablet to his memory records that "In all his life he never had a lawsuit. Reader, take example and strive to be so good a man."
In his childhood Nicky-Nan had listened to many a legend of the Old Doctor, whose memory haunted every street and by-lane and even attained to something like apotheosis in the talk of the older inhabitants. They told what an eye he had, as a naturalist, for anything uncommon in the maunds; how he taught them to be observant, alert for any strange fish, and to bring it home alive, if possible; and how he was never so happy as when seated on a bollard near the Quay-head with a drawing-board on his knee, busy—for he was a wonder with pencil and brush—transferring to paper the outline and markings of a specimen and its perishable exquisite colours; working rapidly while he listened to the account of its capture, and maybe pausing now and again to pencil a note on the margin of the portrait. They told, too, of his ways—how for a whole month he came forth from his front door in a crouching posture, almost on all fours, so as not to disturb the work of a diadem spider that had chosen to build its web across the porch; of his professional skill, that "trust yourself to th' Old Doctor, and he'd see you came to a natral end of some sort, and in no haste, neither;" of his habit of dress, that (when not in martial uniform) he wore a black suit with knee-breeches, silk stockings, and silver shoe-buckles; of his kindness of heart, that in the Notes of Periodic Phenomena, which he regularly kept, he always recorded a midnight gale towards the close of August, to account for the mysterious depletion of his apple-crop.
But the Old Doctor had gone to his fathers long ago, and the old house, divided into two tenements—with access by one porch and front passage—had been occupied for twenty years past by Nicky-Nan and (for eight or nine) by the Penhaligon family. Nicky-Nan's cantle overhung the river, and comprised a kitchen and scullery on the ground-floor, with a fairly large bedroom above it. The old Doctor's own bedroom it had been, and was remarkable for an open fireplace with two large recessed cupboards let into a wall, which measured a good four feet in depth beyond the chimney-breast. Once, in cleaning out the cupboards, Nicky-Nan had discovered in the right-hand one that one or two boards of the flooring were loose. Lifting them cautiously he had peered into a sort of lazarette deep down in the wall, and had lowered a candle, the flame of which, catching hold of a mass of dried cobweb, had shot up and singed his eyebrows, for a moment threatening to set the house on fire. It had given him a scare, and he never ventured to carry his exploration further.
His curiosity was the less provoked because at least a score of the old houses in Polpier have similar recesses, constructed (it is said) as hiding-places from the press-gang or for smugglers hotly pursued by the dragoons.
The Penhaligon family inhabited the side of the house that faced the street, and their large living-room was chiefly remarkable for the beams supporting the floor above it. They had all been sawn lengthwise out of a single oak-tree, and the outer edges of some had been left untrimmed. From a nail in the midmost beam hung a small rusty key, around which the spiders wove webs and the children many speculations: for the story went that a brother of the old Doctor's— the scapegrace of the family—had hung it (the key of his quadrant) there, with strong injunctions that no one should take it down until he returned—which he never did. So Mrs Penhaligon's feather-brush always spared this one spot in the room, every other inch of which she kept scrupulously dusted. She would not for worlds have exchanged lodgings with Nicky-Nan, though his was by far the best bedroom (and far too good for a bachelor man); because from her windows she could watch whatever crossed the bridge—folks going to church, and funerals. But the children envied Nicky-Nan, because from his bedroom window you could—when he was good-natured and allowed you—drop a line into the brawling river. Of course there were no real fish to be caught, but with a cunning cast and some luck you might hook up a tin can or an old boot.
Now Nicky-Nan was naturally fond of children, as by nature he had been designed for a family man; and children gave him their confidence without knowing why. But in his early manhood a girl had jilted him, which turned him against women: later, in the Navy, the death of a friend and messmate, to whom he had transferred all the loyalty of his heart, set him questioning many things in a silent way. He had never been able to dissipate affection or friendship: and his feelings when hurt, being sensitive as the horns of a snail, withdrew themselves as swiftly into a shell and hid there as obstinately: by consequence of which he earned (without deserving) a name not often entered upon the discharge-sheets of the Royal Navy. But there it stood on his, in black upon white—"A capable seaman. Morose."
He had carried this character, with his discharge-sheet, back to Polpier, where his old friends and neighbours—who had known him as a brisk upstanding lad, sociable enough, though maybe a trifle shy— edged away from the taciturn man who returned to them. Nor did it help his popularity that he attended neither Church nor Chapel: for Polpier is a deeply religious place, in its fashion.
Some of the women-folk—notably Mrs Polsue, the widow-woman, and Miss Cherry (Charity) Oliver, a bitter spinster—spoke to the Wesleyan Minister about this.
The Minister listened to them politely. He was the gentlest of little men and had a club-foot. Mrs Polsue and Miss Oliver (who detested one another) agreed that it would be a day of grace when his term among them expired and he was "planned" for some other place where Christianity did not matter as it did in Polpier. They gave various reasons for this: but their real reason (had they lived in a Palace of Truth) was that the Rev. Mark Hambly never spoke evil of any one, nor listened to gossip save with a loose attention.
"The man has a wandering mind!" declared Miss Oliver. "It don't seem able to fix itself. If you'll believe me, when I told him about Bestwetherick's daughter and how she'd got herself into trouble at last, all he could say was, 'Yes, yes, poor thing!'—and invite me to kneel down an' pray she might come safely through it!"
"You surely weren't so weak as to do it?" said Mrs Polsue, scandalised.
"Me?" exclaimed Cherry. "Pray for that baggage? To start with, I'd be afeard the Lord'd visit it on me. . . . An' then it came out he'd Known the whole affair for more than two months. The girl had been to him."
"And he never told? . . . I tell you what, Cherry Oliver! It's my belief that man would set up a confessional, if he could."
"Don't 'ee tell up such things, Mary-Martha Polsue, or I'll go an' drown myself!"
"And why not?—he bein' so thick with Parson Steele, that sticks up 'High Mass' 'pon his church door and is well known to be hand-in-glove with the Pope. I tell you I saw the pair meet this very Wednesday down by the bridge as I happened to be lookin' out waitin' to scold the milk-boy: and they shook hands and stood for up-three-minutes colloguin' together."
When these two ladies joined forces to attack Mr Hambly on the subject of Nicky-Nan's atheism, presumed upon his neglect to attend public worship, the Minister's lack of interest became fairly exasperating. He arose and opened the window.
"Astonishing plague of house-flies we are suffering from this year," he observed. "You have noticed it, doubtless? . .. Yes, yes—about Nanjivell . . . it is so good of you to feel concerned. I will talk it over with the Vicar."
"God forbid!" Mrs Polsue ejaculated.
"One uses up fly-papers almost faster than Mrs Pengelly can supply them," continued the Minister. "And, moreover, she will sell me but two or three at a time, alleging that she requires all her stock for her own shop. I fell back last week upon treacle. Beer, in small glass jars, is also recommended. I trust that if you ladies see me issuing from the Three Pilchards to-morrow with a jug of beer, you will make it your business to protect my character. The purchase will not escape your knowledge, I feel sure. . . . But we were talking of Nanjivell. I have some reason to believe that he is a God-fearing man, though his religion does not take a—er— congregational turn. Moreover, he is a sick man."
"H'mph!" Miss Oliver sniffed.
"The amount of disease disseminated by house-flies is, I am told, incalculable," pursued Mr Hambly. "Yes—as I was saying, or about to say—it's a pity that, in a small town like Polpier, two ministers of religion cannot between them keep a general shop to suit all tastes, like Mrs Pengelly." Mr Hambly's voice dropped as he wound up. "Ah, if—like Mrs Pengelly—we kept bull's-eyes for the children!"
"And for another year we have to sit under a man like that!" said Mrs Polsue to Miss Oliver on their way homeward.
Nicky-Nan had one thing in his favour. He came of an old Polpier stock. It had decayed, to be sure, and woefully come down in the world: but the town, though its tongue may wag, has ever a soft heart towards its own. And the Nanjivells had been of good "haveage" (lineage) in their time. They had counted in the family a real Admiral, of whom Nicky-Nan had inherited a portrait in oil-colours. It hung in the parlour-kitchen underneath his bedroom, between two marine paintings of Vesuvius erupting by day and Vesuvius erupting by night: and the Penhaligon children stood in terrible awe of it because the eyes followed you all round the room, no matter what corner you took.
In neighbourliness, then, and for the sake of his haveage, Nicky-Nan's first welcome home had been kindly enough. His savings were few, but they bought him a small share in a fishing-boat, besides enabling him to rent the tenement in the Doctor's House, and to make it habitable with a few sticks of furniture. Also he rented a potato-patch, beyond the coastguard's hut, around the eastward cliff, and tilled it assiduously. Being a man who could do with a very little sleep, he would often be found hard at work there by nine in the morning, after a long night's fishing.
Thus, though always on the edge of poverty, he had managed his affairs—until four years ago, when the trouble began with his leg.
At first he paid little heed to it, since it gave him no pain and little more than a passing discomfort. It started, in fact, as a small hard cyst low down at the back of the right thigh, incommoding him when he bent his knee. He called it "a nut in the flesh," and tried once or twice to get rid of it by squeezing it between fingers and thumb. It did not yield to this treatment.
He could not fix, within a month or so, the date when it began to hurt him. But it had been hurting him, off and on, for some weeks, when one night, tacking out towards the fishing-grounds against a stiffish southerly breeze, as he ran forward to tend the fore-sheet his leg gave way under him as if it had been stabbed, and he rolled into the scuppers in intolerable anguish. For a week after this Nicky-Nan nursed himself ashore, and it was given out that he had twisted his knee-cap. He did not call in a doctor, although the swelling took on a red and angry hue. As a fact, no medical man now resided within three miles of Polpier. (When asked how they did without one, the inhabitants answered gravely that during the summer season, when the visitors were about, Dr Mant came over twice a-week from St Martin's; in the winter they just died a natural death.)
At any rate Nicky-Nan, because he was poor, would not call in a doctor; and, because he was proud, would not own to anything worse than a twisted knee, even when his neighbours on the Quay, putting their heads together, had shaken them collectively and decided that "the poor man must be suff'rin' from something chronic."
Then followed a bitter time, as his savings dwindled. He made more than a dozen brave attempts to resume his old occupation. But in the smallest lop of a sea he was useless, so that it became dangerous to take him. Month by month he fell further back in arrears of rent.
And now the end seemed to have arrived with Mr Pamphlett's notice of ejectment. Nicky-Nan, of course, held that Mr Pamphlett had a personal grudge against him. Mr Pamphlett had nothing of the sort. In ordinary circumstances, knowing Nicky-Nan to be an honest man, he would have treated him easily. But he wanted to "develope" Polpier to his own advantage: and his scheme of development centred on the old house by the bridge. He desired to pull it down and transfer the Bank to that eligible site. He had a plan of the proposed new building, with a fine stucco frontage and edgings of terra-cotta.
Mr Pamphlett saw his way to make this improvement, and was quite resolute about it; and Nicky-Nan, by his earlier reception of notices to quit, had not bettered any chance of resisting. Still—had Nicky-Nan known it—Mr Pamphlett, like many another bank manager, had been caught and thrown in a heap by the sudden swoop of War. Over the telephone wires he had been in agitated converse all day with his superiors, who had at length managed to explain to him the working of the financial Moratorium.
So Mr Pamphlett, knowing there must be War, had clean forgotten the Ejectment Order, until Nicky-Nan inopportunely reminded him of it; and in his forgetfulness, being testy with overwork, had threatened execution on Monday—which would be the 3rd: August Bank Holiday, and a dies non.
Somehow Nicky-Nan had forgotten this too. It did not occur to him until after he had supped on boiled potatoes with a touch of butter, pepper and salt, washed down with water, a drink he abhorred. When it occurred to him, he smote his thigh and was rewarded with a twinge of pain.
He had all Sunday and all Monday in which to lay his plans before the final evacuation, if evacuation there must be. The enemy had miscalculated. He figured it out two or three times over, made sure he was right, and went to bed in his large gaunt bedroom with a sense of triumph.
Between now and Tuesday a great many things might happen.
A great many things were, in fact, happening. Among them, Europe— wire answering wire—was engaged in declaring general War.
Nicky-Nan, stretched in the four-post bed which had been the Old Doctor's, recked nothing of this. But his leg gave him considerable pain that night, He slept soon, but ill, and awoke before midnight to the sound—as it seemed—of sobbing. Something was wrong with the Penhaligon's children? Yet no . . . the sound seemed to come rather from the chamber where Mr and Mrs Penhaligon slept. . . . It ceased, and he dropped off to sleep again.
Oddly enough he awoke—not having given it a thought before—with a scare of War upon him.
In his dream he had been retracing accurately and in detail a small scene of the previous morning, at the moment quite without significance for him. Limping back from his cliff-patch with a basket of potatoes in one hand and with the other using the shaft of his mattock (or "visgy" in Polpier language) for a walking-staff, as he passed the watch-house he had been vaguely surprised to find coastguardsman Varco on the look-out there with his glass, and halted.
"Hallo, Bill Varco! Wasn't it you here yesterday? Or has my memory lost count 'pon the days o' the week?"
"It's me, right enough," said Varco; "an' no one but Peter Hosken left with me, to take turn an' turn about. They've called the others up to Plymouth."
"But why?" Nicky-Nan had asked: and the coastguardsman had responded:
"You can put two an' two together, neighbour. Add 'em up as you please."
The scene and the words, repeated through his dream, came back now very clearly to him.
"But when a man's in pain and nervous," he told himself, "the least little thing bulks big in his mind." War? They couldn't really mean it. . . . That scare had come and had passed, almost a score of times. . . . Well, suppose it was War? . . . that again might be the saving of him. Folks mightn't be able to serve Ejectment Orders in time of War. . . . Besides, now he came to think of it, back in the week there had been some panic in the banks, and some talk of a law having been passed by which debts couldn't be recovered in a hurry. And, anyway, Mr Pamphlett had forgotten about Bank Holiday. There was no hurry before Tuesday . . .
Nicky-Nan dropped off again into a sleep punctuated by twinges of pain.
Towards dawn, as the pain eased, his slumber grew deeper and undisturbed. He was awakened by—What?
At first it seemed to be the same sound of sobbing to which he had listened early in the night. Then, with a start, he knew it to be something quite different—an impatient knocking at the foot of his bed-chamber stairs.
Nicky-Nan shuffled out of bed, opened his door, and peered down the stairway.
"Who's there?" he challenged. "And what's your business? Hullo!"— catching sight of Bill Varco, coastguardsman, on the flat below—"the house afire? Or what brings you?"
"The Reserves are called out," answered up Bill Varco. "You'll get your paper later. But the Chief Officer's here from Troy with a little fellow from the Customs there, and I be sent round with first news. I've two dozen yet to warn . . . In the King's name! An' there'll be a brake waiting by the bridge-end at ten-thirty. If War isn't declared, it mighty soon will be. Take notice!"
Bill Varco disappeared, sharp on the word. Nicky-Nan paused a moment, hobbled back to bed and sat on the edge of it, steadying himself, yet half-awake.
"It's some trick of Pamphlett's to get me out," he decided, and went downstairs cautiously.
HOW THE MEN WENT.
In the passage he found Mrs Penhaligon standing, alone, rigid as a statue. By her attitude she seemed to be listening. Yet she had either missed to hear or, hearing, had missed to understand Varco's call up the stairs. At Nicky-Nan's footstep she turned, with a face white and set.
"Sam's got to go," she said. Her lips twitched.
"Nonsense, woman! Some person's playin' a trick 'pon the town."
"They start from the bridge at ten-thirty. There's no trick about it. Go an' see for yourself." She motioned with her hand.
Nicky-Nan limped to the porch and peeked out (as they say at Polpier). Up the street the women stood clacking the news just as though it were a week-day and the boats had brought in a famous haul. Feminine gossip in Polpier is not conducted in groups, as the men conduct theirs on the Quay. By tradition each housewife takes post on her own threshold-slate, and knits while she talks with her neighbours to right and left and across the road; thus a bit of news, with comment and embellishment zigzags from door to door through the town like a postal delivery. To-day being Sunday, the women had no knitting; but it was observable that while Mrs Trebilcock, two doors away, led the chorus as usual, her hands moved as though plying imaginary needles: and so did the hands of Sarah Jane Johns over the way.
Down by the bridge-end two men in uniform sat side by side on the low parapet, sorting out a small pile of blue papers. They were Mr Irons, the chief officer of Coastguard at Troy, and a young custom-house officer—a stranger to Nicky-Nan. The morning sunlight played on their brass buttons and cap-rims.
Nicky-Nan withdrew his head hastily.
"Where's Sam?" he asked.
"Gone down to Billy Bosistow's to fetch his sea-boots."
"I don't follow 'ee." Nicky-Nan rubbed his unshaven jaw with two fingers. "Is the world come to its end, then, that Billy Bosistow keeps open shop on a Sunday mornin'?"
"'Tisn' like that at all. . . . You see, Sam's a far-seein' man, or I've tried to make him so. I reckon there's no man in Polpier'll turn out in a kit smellin' stronger of camphor, against the moth. Twice this week I've had it out an' brushed it, fingerin' (God help me) the clothes an' prayin' no shell to strike en, here or there. . . . Well, an' last autumn, bein' up to Plymouth, he bought an extry pair of sea-boots, Yarmouth-made, off some Stores on the Barbican, an' handed 'em over to Billy to pickle in some sort o' grease that's a secret of his own to make the leather supple an' keep it from perishin'. He've gone down to fetch 'em; an' there's no Sabbath-breakin' in a deed like that, when a man's country calls en."
"'Tis terrible sudden, all this," said Nicky-Nan, ruminating.
"'Tis worse than sudden. Here we be, with orders to clear out before Michaelmas: and how be I to do that, with my man away? Think of all the great lerrupin' furnicher to be shifted an' (what's harder) stowed in a pokey little cottage that wasn' none too big for Aun' Bunney when she lived. An' sixteen steps up to the door, with a turn in 'em! Do 'ee mind what a Dover-to-pay there was gettin' out the poor soul's coffin? An' then look at the size of my dresser. . . ."
"I can't think why you turn out, for my part. Pamphlett's served me with notice to quit by to-morra. You don't catch me, though."
"Why, Mr Nanjivell, you won't set yourself up to fly in the teeth of the law!"
"Just you wait. . . . And Pamphlett doesn' know all the law that's in the land, neither, if he reckons to turn me out 'pon a Bank Holiday."
Mrs Penhaligon stared. "Well, I s'wow! Bank Holiday to-morra, and I'd clean forgot it! . . . But, with the Lord's Sabbath standin' 'pon its head, 'tis excusable. The children, now—out an' runnin' the town in the Sunday clothes with never a thought o' breakfast; and how I'm to get their boots an' faces clean in time for Chapel, let alone washin'-up, I ask you!"
"Well, I'll go upstairs an' get a shave," said Nicky-Nan. "That'll feel like Sunday anyhow."
"Poor lonely creatur'!" thought Mrs Penhaligon, who always pitied bachelors. On an impulse she said, "An' when you've done, Mr Nanjivell, there'll be fried eggs an' bacon, if you're not above acceptin' the compliment for once."
When Nicky-Nan came downstairs again, clean-shaven and wearing his Sunday suit of threadbare sea-cloth, he found the Penhaligon children seated at the board, already plying their spoons in bowls of bread-and-milk. As a rule, like other healthy children, they ate first and talked afterwards. But to-day, with War in the air, they chattered, stirring the sop around and around. 'Beida's eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed.
"War's a funny thing," she mused. "Where do you feel it, Mother?"
"Don't clacky so much, that's a darlin', but go on with your breakfast." But Mrs Penhaligon heaved a sigh that was answer enough.
"Well, I wanted to know, because down by Quay-end I heard old Aun' Rundle say it made her feel like the bottom of her stomach was fallin' out. I suppose it takes people differ'nt as they get up in years."
"I know azackly where I feel it!" announced 'Biades. "It's here." He set down his spoon and pointed a finger on the third button of his small waistcoat. "An' it keeps workin' up an' down an' makin' noises just like Billy Richard's key-bugle."
"Then it's a mercy it ben't real," commented his brother.
"'Biades is right, all the same." 'Beida regarded the child and nodded slowly. "It do feel very much like when you hear a band comin' up the street. It catches you—" She broke off and laid her open palm on her chest a little below the collar. "An' then it's creepin' up the back of your legs an' along your arms, an' up your backbone, right into the roots o' your hair. But the funniest thing of all is, the place looks so differ'nt—an' all the more because there's so little happenin' differ'nt. . . . I can't tell just what I mean," she owned candidly, turning to Nicky-Nan; "but it don't seem we be here somehow, nor the houses don't seem real, somehow. 'Tis as if your real inside was walkin' about somewhere else, listenin' to the band."
"Nonsense your tellin'," 'Bert interrupted. "Father's put on his uniform. How can you make it that things ben't differ'nt, after that?"
"An' he's here!" 'Biades nodded, over his half-lifted spoon, at Nicky-Nan.
"Oh!" said 'Bert, "that isn' because of the War. That's to say Good-bye, because he's turnin' out this week."
"For goodness, children, eat up your meal, an' stop talkin'!" Mrs Penhaligon returned from the hearth to the table and set down a dish of eggs and sizzling bacon. "Wherever you pick up such notions! . . . You must excuse their manners, Mr Nanjivell."
But Nicky-Nan was staring at young 'Bert from under fiercely bent eyebrows.
"Who told you that I was turnin' out this week?" he demanded.
"I heard Mr Pamphlett say it, day before yesterday. He was round with Squinny Gilbert—"
"Fie now, your manners get worse and worse!" his mother reproved him. "Who be you, to talk of the builder-man without callin' him 'Mister'?"
"Well then, he was round with Mister Squinny Gilbert, lookin' over the back o' the house. I heard him say as you was done for, and would have to clear inside the next two or three days—"
"He did—did he?" Nicky-Nan was arising in ungovernable rage; but Mrs Penhaligon coaxed him to sit down.
"There now!" she said soothingly. "Take un' eat, Mr Nanjivell! The Good Lord bids us be like the lilies o' the field, and I can vouch the eggs to be new-laid. Sufficient for the day. . . . An' here 'tis the Sabbath, an' to-morrow Bank Holiday. Put the man out o' your thoughts, an' leave the Lord to provide."
"If I had that man here—"
Nicky-Nan was sharp set; indeed he had been hungry, more or less, for weeks. But now, with the eggs and bacon wooing his nostrils, his choler arose and choked him. He stared around the cleanly kitchen. "And on quarter-day, ma'am, 'twill be your turn. It beats me how you can take it so quiet."
"I reckon," said Mrs Penhaligon simply, looking down on the dish of eggs (which maybe suggested the image to her)—"I reckon as the hen's home is wherever she can gather the chickens under her wings. Let's be thankful we're not like they poor folk abroad, to have our homes overrun by this War."
"'War'?" Nicky-Nan recollected himself with an effort. "Seemin' to me you're all taken up with it. As though there weren't other things in this world—"
"If only the Almighty'll send my Sam home safe an' well!"
But at this point Mr Penhaligon entered the kitchen, with the sea-boots dangling from his hand. He wore his naval uniform—that of an A.B.; blue jumper and trousers, white cinglet edged with blue around his stout throat, loose black neck-cloth and lanyard white as driven snow. His manner was cheerful—even ostentatiously cheerful: but it was to be observed that his eyes avoided his wife's.
"Hullo, naybour!" he shouted, perceiving Nicky-Nan. "Well, now, I count this real friendly of ye, to come an' give me the send-off." And indeed Nicky's presence seemed to be a sensible relief to him. "Haven't ate all the eggs, I hope? For I be hungry as a hunter. . . . Well, so it's War for sure, and a man must go off to do his little bit; though how it happened—" In the act of helping himself he glanced merrily around the table. "Eh, 'Beida, my li'l gel, what be you starin' at so hard?"
"Father looks fine, don't-a?" responded 'Beida, addressing the company.
"What I want to know," said 'Bert, "is why he couldn' have married Mother years afore he did—an' then I'd have been a man an' able to work a gun."
"Ho!" Mr Penhaligon brought his fist down on the table with huge enjoyment. "Hear that, my dear? Wants to know why we didn' marry years afore we did?" He turned to his wife, appealing to her to enjoy the joke, but hastily averted his eyes. "Well, now, I'll tell ye, sonny—if it's strictly atween you an' me an' the bedpost. I asked her half a dozen times: but she wouldn' have me. No: look at me she wouldn' till I'd pined away in flesh for her, same as you see me at present. . . . Eh, M'ria? What's your version?"
Mrs Penhaligon burst into tears; and then, as her husband jumped up to console her, started to scold the children furiously for dawdling over breakfast, when goodness knew, with their clothes in such a state, how long it would take to get them ready for Chapel.
The children understood and gulped down the rest of their breakfast hastily, while their mother turned to the fireplace and set the saucepan hissing again. Having finished this second fry, she tipped the cooked eggs on to the dish, and swept the youngsters off to be tittivated.
Nicky-Nan and his host ate in a constrained silence. Nicky, though ravenous, behaved politely, and only accepted a fifth egg under strong pressure.
"Curious caper, this o' Germany's," said Mr Penhaligon, by way of making conversation. "But our Navy's all right."
"Sure," Nicky-Nan agreed.
"I've been studyin' the papers, though—off an' on. The Kaiser's been layin' up for this, these years past: and by my reck'nin' 'tis goin' to be a long business. . . . I don't tell the Missus that, you'll understand? But I'd take it friendly if you kept an eye on 'em, as a naybour. . . . O' course 'tis settled we must clear out from here."
"I don't see it," said Nicky-Nan, pursing his lips.
"Pamphlett's a strong man. What he wants he thinks he's bound to have—same as these Germans."
"He won't, then: nor they neither."
"Tis a pity about your leg, anyway," said Mr Penhaligon sympathetically, and stared about the room. "Life's a queer business," he went on after a pause, his eyes fixed on the old beam whence the key depended. "To think that I be eatin' the last meal in this old kitchen. An' yet so many have eaten meals here an' warmed theirselves in their time. Yet all departed afore us! . . . But anyway you'll be hereabouts: an' that'll be a cheerin' kind o' thought, o' lonely nights—that you'll be hereabouts, with your eye on 'em."
He lit a pipe and, whilst puffing at it, pricked up his ears to the sound of wheels down the street. The brakes were arriving at the bridge-end. He suggested that—his own kit being ready—they should stroll down together for a look. Nicky-Nan did not dare to refuse.
The young Custom-house Officer, as he caught sight of Penhaligon approaching in uniform, slipped down from the parapet of the bridge, and sorted out his summons from the pile of blue papers in his hand.
"That's all right, my billy," Penhaligon assured him. "Don't want no summons, more'n word that His Majesty has a use for me."
"Your allotment paper'll be made out when you get to St Martin's, or else aboard ship."
"Right. A man takes orders in these days."
"But go back and fetch your kit," advised the Chief Officer of Coastguard, who had strolled up. "The brake'll be arriving in ten minutes." He paid Nicky-Nan the attention of a glance—no more.
While Penhaligon was away, kissing his wife and family and bidding them farewell (good man!) in tones unnaturally confident and robustious, the last brake rattled up to the bridge-end with a clatter. The whole town had assembled by this time, a group about each cheerful hero.
It was a scene that those who witnessed it remembered through many trying days to come. They knew not at all why their country should be at war. Over the harbour lay the usual Sabbath calm: high on the edge of the uplands stood the outposts of the corn, yellowing to harvest: over all the assured God of their fathers reigned in the August heaven. Not a soul present had ever harboured one malevolent thought against a single German. Yet the thing had happened: and here, punctually summoned, the men were climbing on board the brakes, laughing, rallying their friends left behind—all going to slay Germans.
The Custom-house Officer moved about from one brake to another, calling out names and distributing blue papers. "Nicholas Nanjivell!"
There was a shout of laughter as Nicky-Nan put his best face upon it and limped forward. "Why, the man's no use. Look at his leg!" The young officer scanned Nicky, suspiciously at first.
"Well, you'll have to take your paper anyway," said he—and Nicky took it. "You'd best see the doctor and get a certificate."
The two officers climbed in at the tail of the hindmost brake, and the drivers waved their whips for a cheer, which was given. As the procession started, all on board waved their caps and broke out singing. They were Cornish-men and knew no music-hall songs—"It's a long way to Tipperary" or anything of the sort. Led by a fugleman in the first brake, they started—singing it in fine harmonies—
"He's the Lily—of the Valley, O—my—soul!"
So the first batch of men from Polpier were rattled through the street and away up the hill. The crowd lingered awhile and dispersed, gossiping, to Church or Chapel.
Nicky-Nan, seated on the parapet of the bridge, unfolded the blue paper which the young officer had thrust into his hand. He was alone and could study it at leisure.
It was headed by the Royal Arms, and it ran as follows:—
R.V. 53. Actual Service Form.
From To The Registrar of Naval Reserve, Royal Navy Reserve Man, Port of Troy. NICHOLAS NANJIVELL, Polpier.
NOTICE TO MEN OF ROYAL NAVAL RESERVE TO JOIN THE ROYAL NAVY.
HIS MAJESTY THE KING having issued His Proclamation calling into Active Service, under the Act 22 & 23 Vict. c. 40, the ROYAL NAVAL RESERVE FORCE in which you are enrolled, you are required to report yourself at once in uniform and with your Certificate R.V. 2 at 12 noon o'clock on August 2nd at the Custom House, St Martin's, Cornwall.
You will be forthwith despatched to the Naval Depot and should bring with you any necessary articles.
Should absence from home prevent your receiving this notice in time to attend at once or at the hour specified, you should on its receipt proceed forthwith to the Mercantile Marine Office named.
Failure to report yourself without delay will render you liable to arrest as a Deserter.
Note.—Reasonable expenses incurred in travelling from your home will be allowed.
By command, Joshua Johns, Registrar. Dated this Second day of August 1914.
THE FIRST SERMON.
Some ten minutes after the brakes had departed, Mrs Polsue and Miss Oliver, bound for divine service, encountered at the corner where Jolly Hill unites with Bridge Street, and continued their way together up the Valley road.
"Good-morning! This is terrible news," said Miss Oliver, panting a little, for she had tripped down the hill in a great hurry.
"I have been expecting it for a long while," responded Mrs Polsue darkly. Like some other folks in this world, she produced much of her total effect by suggesting that she had access to sources of information sealed to the run of mankind. She ever managed to convey the suggestion by phrases—and, still more cleverly, by silences— which left the evidence conveniently vague. To be sure, a great-uncle of hers had commanded in his time a Post-Office Packet plying between Falmouth and Surinam, and few secrets of the Government had been withheld from him: but he was now, as Mrs Polsue had to confess, "no more," and when you came to reflect on it (as you sometimes did after taking leave of her), the sort of knowledge she had been intimating could hardly have been telegraphed from another and better world. She had also a cousin in London, "in a large way of drapery business," who communicated to her—or was supposed to communicate—"what was wearing": an advantage which she used, however, less to refresh her own toilettes than to discourage her neighbours'. Moreover, there was a brother-in-law somewhere "in the Civil Service," to whom she made frequent allusion. But the knowledge she derived from him concerning State secrets or high politics could, at the best, but be far from recent, because as a fact the pair had not been on terms of intercourse by speech or letter since her husband's decease twelve years ago. (There had been some unpleasantness over the Will.)
"I have been expecting it for a long while," asseverated Mrs Polsue. "Gracious! Why?"
"You are panting. You are short of breath. You should be more careful of yourself than to come hurrying down the hill at such a rate, at your time of life," said Mrs Polsue. "It reddens the face, too: which is a consideration if you insist on wearing that bit of crimson in your hat. The two shades don't go together."
"It is not crimson. It is cherry," said Miss Oliver.
"The ribbon, Mary-Martha. You should wear glasses. . . . But I started late," Miss Oliver confessed. "I didn't like to show myself walking to Chapel, and so many of the men-folk passing in the opposite direction. It seemed so marked." She might have confessed further (but did not) that she had waited, peeping over her blind, to see the brakes go by. "But you were late too," she added.
"If you will use your reason, Cherry Oliver, it might tell you that I couldn't get past the crowd on the bridge, and was forced to wait."
"Dear me, now! Was it so thick as all that? . . . You know, I can't see the bridge from my back window—only a bit of the Old Doctor's house past the corner of Climoe's: and I shan't see the bridge even when the old house comes down. But I called in builder Gilbert last Monday on pretence that the back launder wanted repairing; and when he'd examined it and found it all right, I asked him how pulling down that house would affect the view: and he said that in his opinion it would open up a bit of the street just in front of the Bank, so that I shall be able to see all the customers going in and out."
This was news to Mrs Polsue, and it did not please her at all. Her own bow-window enfiladed the Bank entrance (as well as that of the Three Pilchards by the Quay-head), and so gave her a marked advantage over her friend. To speak in military phrase, her conjectures upon other folks' business were fed by a double line of communication.
"Well, my dear, you won't pry on me going in and out there," she answered tartly, with a sniff. "Whenever I wish to withdraw some of my balance, to invest it, I send for Mr Pamphlett, and he calls on me and advises—I am bound to say—always most politely."
But here Miss Oliver put in her shot. (And Mrs Polsue indeed should have been warier: for the pair were tried combatants. But a tendency to lose her temper, and, losing it, to speak in haste, was ever her fatal weakness.)
"Why; of course, . . . and that accounts for it," Miss Oliver murmured.
"Accounts for what?"
"Oh, nothing. . . . There was a visitor here last summer—I forget her name, but she used to go about making water-colours in a mushroom hat you might have bought for sixpence—quite a simple good creature: and one day, drinking tea at the Minister's, she raised quite a laugh by being so much concerned over your health. She said she'd seen the doctor calling at your house almost every day with a little black bag, and made sure there must have been an operation. She mistook Mr Pamphlett for the doctor, if you ever heard tell of such simple-mindedness."
"And the awkward part of it was," Miss Oliver continued in a musing voice, searching her memory—"the awkward part was, poor Mrs Pamphlett's being present."
"And you never told me, Cherry Oliver, until this moment!" exclaimed the widow.
"One doesn't go about repeating every little trifle. . . . And, for that matter, Mrs Pamphlett was just as much amused as everybody else. 'Well, the bare idea!' she cried out. 'I must speak to Pamphlett about this! And Mary-Martha Polsue, of all women!' These were her very words. But of course one had to say something to explain to the other innocent woman and stop her running on. So I told who you were; and that, as everybody knew, you were a well-to-do woman, and no doubt would feel a desire to consult your banker oftener than the most of us."
"If you had money of your own, Cherry Oliver, you'd know how vulgar it feels to have the thing paraded like that."
"But I haven't," said Miss Oliver cheerfully. "And, anyway, you weren't there, and I did my best for you. . . . Well, now, I'm glad sure enough to know from you that 'tis vulgar to make much of your wealth, and I'll remember it against the time my ship comes home. . . . Somebody did explain—now I come to think of it—that maybe you'd be all the more dependent on Pamphlett's advice, seein' that you hadn't been used to handle money before you were married, and it all came from your husband." ("There! And I don't think she'll mention my cherry ribbon again in a hurry," thought Miss Oliver.)
After a moment's silence Mrs Polsue rallied. "I was saying that this War didn't surprise me. The wonder to me is, the Almighty's wrath hasn't descended on this nation long before. He must be more patient than you or me, Charity Oliver; or else more blind, which isn't to be supposed. Take Polpier, now. The tittle-tattle that goes about, as you've just been admitting; and the drinking habits amongst the men— I saw Zeb Mennear come out his doorway, not fifteen minutes since, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve; and him just about to board the brake and go off to be shot by the Germans!"
"Maybe 'twas after kissin' his wife good-bye," Miss Oliver suggested. "I should!"
"There's no accounting for tastes, as you say. . . . But I've had good reason to know for some time that they order a supply into the house and drink when nobody is looking. I've seen the boy from the Pilchards deliver a bottle there almost every Saturday. . . . So, the publics being closed this morning, he can't help himself but go off with (I dare say) a noggin of Plymouth gin for a stiffener; and might, for all we know, be called to the presence of his Maker with it still inside him."
"What hurries me," confessed Miss Oliver, "is the Government's being so inconsistent. It closes the public-houses on a six-days' licence and then goes and declares War on the very day the magistrates have taken the trouble to hallow." She shook her head. "I may be mistaken—Heaven send that I am!—but I can't see on any Christian principles how a nation can look to prosper that declares war on a Sabbath. If it's been coming this long while; as everybody seems to say now; why couldn't we have waited until the clocks had finished striking twelve to-night—or else done it yesterday, if there was all that hurry?"
"The Battle of Waterloo was fought on a Sunday," Mrs Polsue put in. "I've often heard my great uncle Robert mention it as a remarkable fact."
"Then you may be sure the French began it, with their Continental ideas of Sunday observance. I suppose we mustn't speak ill of the French, now that we're allies with them. But I couldn't, when I heard the news, help fearing that our King and his Cabinet had been led away by them in this matter: and once you begin tampering with the Lord's Day—" Miss Oliver shivered. "We shall have the shops open next, I shouldn't wonder."
"You are right about the Battle of Waterloo," said Mrs Polsue. "My great-uncle Robert was always positive that the French began it. He had that on the best authority. The Duke of Wellington, he said, had no choice but to resist: and it must have gone all the more against the grain because he was distantly connected with John Wesley, only for some reason or another they spelt their names differently. My great-uncle, in the room that he called his study, had two engravings, one on each side of the chimney-piece. One was John Wesley, when quite a child, being rescued from a burning house, with his father right in the foreground giving thanks to God in the old-fashioned knee-breeches that were then worn. The other represented the Duke of Wellington in a similar frame on his famous charger Copenhagen and in the act of saying in his racy way, 'Up, Guards, and at 'em!' My great-uncle would often point to these two pictures and spell out the names for us as children, 'W-e-s-l-e-y' and 'W-e-l-l-e-s-l-e-y,' he would say. 'What different destinies the Almighty can spell into the same word by sticking a few letters in the middle!'"
"It's to be wished we had more men of that stamp in these days," sighed Miss Oliver. "I should feel safer."
"I hear Lord Kitchener well spoken of," said her friend guardedly. "But I think we go too fast, my dear. It does not follow, because the Reserves are called up, that War is actually declared. It is sometimes done by way of precaution—though God forbid I should say a word in defence of a Government which taxes us for being patriotic enough to keep domestic servants. That doesn't, of course, apply to you, my dear; still—"
"It only makes matters worse," Miss Oliver declared hastily. "If they haven't declared War yet, there's the less hurry to gallivant these Reservists about in brakes when to-morrow's a Bank Holiday. And, as for patriotism, if I choose to fall downstairs taking up my own coals, surely I'm as patriotic as if I employed another person to do it: though for some reason best known to itself the Law doesn't compensate me."
"There's something in what you say," agreed Mrs Polsue, a little mollified, having caused her friend to rankle. "And the Law—or the Government, or whatever you choose to call it—could afford the money, too, if 'twould look sharper after compensating itself. . . . A perfectly scandalous sight I witnessed just now, by the bridge. There was that Nicholas Nanjivell called up to take his marching-orders, and—well, you know how the man has been limping these months past. The thing was so ridic'lous, the other men shouted with laughter; and prettily annoyed the Customs Officer, for he went the colour of a turkey-cock. ''Tis your own fault,' I had a mind to tell him, 'for not having looked after your business.' Pounds and pounds of public money that Nanjivell must have drawn first and last for Reservist's pay, and nobody takin' the trouble to report on him."
"I suppose," said Miss Oliver, "the man really is lame, and not shamming?"
"The Lord knows, my dear. 'Twas somebody's business to have a look at the man's leg, and not mine nor yours, I hope. . . . Put it now that the case had been properly reported and a doctor sent to see the man. If he's shamming—and unlikelier things have happened, now you mention it—the doctor finds him out. If the man's sick, and 'tis incurable, well, so much the worse for him: but anyway Government stops paying for a fighting man that can't fight—for that is what it amounts to."
"You can't make it less," Miss Oliver agreed. "But doctors are terribly skilful nowadays with the knife," went on Mrs Polsue. "Very likely this growth, or whatever it is, might have been removed months ago."
"He ought to be made to undergo an operation."
"And then, most like, he'd have gone off with the others to be fed at the country's expense and no housekeeping to worry him, instead of giving Mr Pamphlett trouble. For he has been giving Mr Pamphlett trouble. Three times this past week I've seen him call at the Bank, and if you tell me 'twas to put money on deposit—"
"If builder Gilbert is right," put in Miss Oliver with a sigh of envy, "I shall be able to see the Bank as well as you, when that house comes down: and I shan't want to use spectacles neither." She cut in with this stroke as the pair joined the small throng of worshippers entering the Chapel porch. Also she took care to speak the last seven words (as Queen Elizabeth danced) "high and disposedly," giving her friend no time for a riposte.
The Minister, Mr Hambly, gave his congregation a very short service that morning. He opened with three sentences from the Book of Common Prayer: "Rend your heart, and not your garments. . . . Enter not into judgement with thy servant, O Lord. . . . If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us."
Then, after a little pause, he gave out the hymn that begins "On earth we now lament to see." . . . It had not been sung within those walls in the oldest folks' remembrance—nay, since the Chapel had been built; and many were surprised to find it in the book. But at the second verse they picked up the tune and sang it with a will:—
"As 'listed on Abaddon's side, They mangle their own flesh and slay, Tophet is moved and opens wide Its mouth for its enormous prey; And myriads sink beneath the grave And plunge into the flaming wave."
"O might the universal Friend This havoc of his creatures see!" . . .
They sang it lustily to the end. With a gesture of the hand Mr Hambly bade all to kneel, opened the Book of Common Prayer again, and instead of "putting up" an extempore prayer, recited that old one prescribed for use "In the Time of War and Tumults":—
"O Almighty God, King of all kings, and Governour of all things, whose power no creature is able to resist, . . . Save and deliver us, we humbly beseech thee, from the hands of our enemies; abate their pride, asswage their malice, and confound their devices; that we, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore from all perils, to glorify thee, who art the only giver of all victory;" . . .
The voice, though creaking in tone and uttering borrowed words, impressed many among its audience with its accent of personal sincerity. Mrs Polsue knelt and listened with a gathering choler. This Hambly had no unction. He could never improve an occasion: the more opportunity it gave the more helplessly he fell back upon old formulae composed by Anglicans long ago. She had often enough resented the Minister's dependence on these out-of-date phrases, written (as like as not) by men in secret sympathy with the Mass.
Mr Hambly arose from his knees, opened the Book, and said: "The portion of Scripture I have chosen for this morning is taken from Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, vi. 10:—"
'My brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.'
He paused here, and for a moment seemed about to continue his reading; but, as if on a sudden compulsion, closed the book, and went on:
"My Brethren,—choose any of those words. They shall be my text; they and those I read to you just now: 'If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.'
"In entering upon this War we may easily tell ourselves that we have no sin: for in fact not a man or a woman in this congregation—so far as I know—harbours, or has harboured a single thought of evil disposition against the people who, from to-morrow, are to be our enemies, in whose distress we shall have to exult. In a few days this will seem very strange to you; but it is a fact.
"So it might plausibly be said that not we, but our Government, make this war upon a people with whom you and I have no quarrel.
"But that will not do; for in a nation ruled as ours is, no Ministry can make war unless having the people behind it. That is certain. The whole people—not only of Great Britain, but of Ireland too— seems to be silently aware that a War has been fastened upon it, not to be shirked or avoided, and is arming; but still without hate. So far as, in this little corner of the world, I can read your hearts, they answer to my own in this—that they have harboured no hate against Germany, and indeed, even now, can hardly teach themselves to hate.
"None the less, the German Emperor protests, calling on God for witness, that the sword has been thrust into his hand: and, if he honestly believes this, there must be some great confusion of mind in this business. One party or the other must be walking under some terrible hallucination.
"The aged Austrian Emperor calls on his God to justify him. So does the German; while we in turn call on our God to justify us.
"Now, there cannot be two Gods—two real Gods—president over the actions of men. That were unthinkable. Of two claimants to that sceptre, one must be a pretender, an Anti-Christ.
"Therefore our first duty in this dreadful business is to clear our minds, to make sure that ours is truly the right God. Let us not trouble—for it is too late—about any German's mind. Our business is to clear our own vision.
"I confess to you that, however we clear it, I anticipate that what we see in the end is likely to be damaging to what I will call 'official' Christianity. However you put it, the Churches of Europe (established or free) have been allowing at least one simulacrum of Christ to walk the earth, claiming holiness while devising evil. However you put it, the slaughter of man by man is horrible, and— more than that—our Churches exist to prevent it, by persuasion teaching peace on earth, good-will towards men.
"Disquieted, unable to sleep for this thought, I arose and dressed early this morning, and sat for a while on the wall opposite, gazing at this homely house of God across the roadway. It looked strange and unreal to me, there in the dawn; and (for Heaven knows I can never afford to slight the place it holds in my affection) I even dared in my fondness to reckon it with great and famous temples such as in our Westminster, in Paris, in Rheims—aye, and in Cologne—men have reared to the glory of God. I asked myself if these, too, looked impertinent as this day's sun took their towers, dawning so eventfully over Europe; if these, too, suffered in men's minds such a loss of significance by comparison with the eternal hills and the river that rushed at my feet refreshing this valley as night-long, day-long, it has run refreshing and sung unheeded for thousands upon thousands of years.
"Then it seemed to me, as the day cleared, that whatever of impertinence showed in this building was due to us—and to me, more than any—who in these few years past have believed ourselves to be working for good, when all the while we have never cleared our vision to see things in their right proportions.
"We are probably willing to accept this curse of War as a visitation on our sins. But for what sins? O, beware of taking the prohibitions of the Decalogue in a lump, its named sins as equivalent! In every one of you must live an inward witness that these sins do not rank equally in God's eye; that to murder, for instance, is wickeder than to misuse the Lord's name in a hasty oath; that to bear false witness against a neighbour is tenfold worse than to break the Sabbath. Yet we for ever in our Churches put these out of their right order; count ourselves righteous if we slander our neighbour, so it be on the way to worship; and in petty cruelties practice the lust of murder, interrupting it to shudder at a profane oath uttered by some good fellow outside in the street. To love God and your neighbour, summed up, for Christ, all the Law and the Prophets: and his love was for the harlot and the publican, as his worst word always for the self-deceiver who thanked God that he was not as other men.
"I verily believe that in this struggle we war with principalities and powers, with the rulers of darkness in this world, with spiritual wickedness in high places. But make no mistake: the men who are actually going out from England to brave the first brunt for us are men whom we have not taught to die like heroes, who have little interest in Church or Chapel or their differences, who view sins in an altogether different perspective from ours; whom we enlisted to do this work because they were hungry and at the moment saw no better job in prospect: whom we have taught to despise us while they protect us.
"The sins of our enemy are evident. But if We say we have no sin, we shall deceive ourselves and the truth will not be in us."
"Did you ever hear a feebler or a more idiotic sermon?" demanded Mrs Polsue of Miss Oliver on their way home down the valley.
"If ever a man had his chance to improve an occasion—"
"Tut! I say nothing of his incapacity. There are some men that can't rise even when 'tis a question of all Europe at war. But did you hear the light he made, or tried to make, of Sabbath-breaking?"
"I didn't hear all that," Miss Oliver confessed: "or not to notice. It seemed so funny his getting up at that hour and dangling his legs on a wall."
"We will press to have a married man planned to us next time," said Mrs Polsue. "A wife wouldn't allow it."
"Do you suppose he smoked?" asked Miss Oliver.
"I shouldn't wonder. . . . He certainly does it at home, for I took the trouble to smell his window-curtains; and at an hour like that, with nobody about—"
"There's an All-seeing Eye, however early you choose to dangle your legs," said Miss Oliver.
THE ANONYMOUS LETTER.
Just about seven o'clock next morning Nicky-Nan, who had breakfasted early and taken post early in the porchway to watch against any possible ruse of the foe—for, Bank Holiday or no Bank Holiday, he was taking no risks—spied Lippity-Libby the postman coming over the bridge towards him with his dot-and-go-one gait.
Lippity-Libby, drawing near, held out a letter in his hand and flourished it.
"Now don't excite yourself," he warned Nicky-Nan. "When first I seed your name 'pon the address I said to myself 'What a good job if that poor fella's luck should be here at last, and this a fortun' arrived from his rich relatives in Canada!' That's the very words I said to myself."
"As it happens, I han't got no rich relatives, neither here nor in Canada," answered Nicky-Nan. "Is that letter for me? Or are you playin' me some trick?"
"A man of your descent," said Lippity-Libby, "can't help havin' relatives in great quantities dispersed about the world. I've figured it out, and the sum works like that old 'un we used to do on our slates about a horse-shoe. Your great-grandfather married your great-grandmother, and that set the ball rollin'—to go no farther back than the head will carry. Six sons an' daughters they had, for the sake of argyment, and each married and had six again. Why, damme, by that time there's not a quarter in Europe where a rich chap deceased mayn't be croppin' up and leavin' you his money, for no better reason than that you're a Nanjivell. That always seemed to me one of the advantages of good birth. For my part," the postman continued, "my father and mother never spoke of such matters, though she was a Collins and married in Lanteglos parish, where I daresay the whole pedigary could be looked up, if one wasn't a postman and could spare the time. But in the long evenings since my poor wife's death I often find time to think of you, Mr Nanjivell; bein' both of us lame of the right leg as it happens. Hows'ever 'tisn' no news o' riches for 'ee to-day, sorry as I be to say it: for the postmark's 'Polpier.'"
He tendered the letter. Nicky-Nan stretched out a hand, but drew it back on a sudden suspicion.
"No," he said. "You may take an' keep it. 'Tis a trick, I doubt."
"You can't mean that, surely?" Lippity-Libby eyed the letter almost greedily, holding it between finger and thumb. "Of course, if I thought you meant it—I don't remember gettin' more 'n three letters in all my life; that's if you don't count the trade they send me at election times, tellin' me where to put my cross. Three letters all told, and one o' they was after my poor Sarah died, threatenin' me about the rates, that had slipped out o' my head, she bein' in the habit of payin' them when alive. The amount o' fault she'd find in 'em, too, an' the pleasure she'd take in it, you'd never believe. I've often thought how funny she must be feelin' it up there—the good soul—with everything of the best in lighting an' water, an' no rates at all—or that's how I read the last chapter o' Revelations. . . . Yes, only three letters of my own, that have handed so many to other people, with births, marriages, an' deaths, shipwrecks an' legacies an' lovin' letters from every port in the world. Telegrams too—I'd dearly like to get a telegram of my own. . . . But Government be a terrible stickler. You may call it red tape, if you will: but if Mrs Pengelly caught me holdin' back any person's letter, even though I knowed it held trouble for 'en, she'd be bound to report me, poor soul, an' then like enough I'd lose place an' livelihood. So I thank 'ee, naybour, for bein' so forward to give me a bit o' pleasure; but 'twon't do—no, by the Powers Above it won't." He shook his head sadly. Then of a sudden his eye brightened. "I tell 'ee what, though. There's no rule of His Majesty's Service why I shouldn' stand by while you reads it aloud."
"No, no," said Nicky-Nan hastily. "Here, hold hard a moment—Is it in Pamphlett's hand-writin' by any chance?"
The question wounded Lippity-Libby's feelings, and he showed it. "As if I shouldn' ha' told you!" he protested, gently reproachful.
"Nor his clerk's?"
"What, Hendy?—Hendy makes all his long letters straight up an' down, while these be made with loops. The writin's sloped backwards too, with a rake on it, same as was fash'nable on some o' the tea-clippers in my young days, but now 'tis seldom carried 'nless by a few steam-yachts."
"Well, hand me over the thing—I'll risk it," said Nicky-Nan.
He took the missive and glanced at the address—"Mr N. Nanjivell, Naval Reservist, Polpier R.S.O., Cornwall." The words "Naval Reservist" underlined gave him a tremor. But it was too late to draw back. He broke open the envelope, drew forth the letter, unfolded it, and ran his eye hurriedly overleaf, seeking the signature.
"Why, 'tisn' signed!"
"Not signed?" echoed Lippity-Libby. "That's as much as to say 'nonymous." Suddenly he slapped his thigh. "There now! O' course— why, what a forgetful head is mine! And simme I knew that hand, too, all the while."
"Yes, to be sure—'tis the same that, up to two years ago, used to write an' send all the 'nonymous letters in Polpier. The old woman an' I, we tracked it down to one of two, an' both females. It lay between 'em, and I was for old Ann' Bunney—she bein' well known for a witch. But now that can't be, for the woman's gone to Satan these three months. . . . An' my missus gone too—poor tender heart—an' lookin' down on me, that was rash enough to bet her sixpence on it, an' now no means to pay up."
"Who was the other?" demanded Nicky-Nan, frowning over the letter, his face flushing as he frowned.
"You're goin' to read it to me, ben't you?"
"Damned if I do," answered Nicky-Nan curtly. "But I'd like to know who wrote it."
"It don't stand with Government reggilations, as I read 'em," said Lippity-Libby, "for a postman to be tellin' who wrote every 'nonymous letter he carries. . . . Well, I be wastin' time; but if you'll take my advice, Mr Nanjivell, and it isn' too late, you'll marry a woman. She'll probably increase your comfort, and—I don't care who she is— she'll work out another woman that writes 'nonymous. Like a stoat in a burrow she will, specially if she happens to take in washin' same as my lost Sarah did. She was shown a 'nonymous letter with 'Only charitable to warn' in it. Dang me, if she didn' go straight an' turn up a complaint about 'One chemise torn in wash,' an' showed me how, though sloped different ways, the letters were alike, twiddles an' all, to the very daps. I wouldn' believe it at the time, the party bein' a female in good position. But my wife was certain of it, an' all the more because she never allowed to her last breath that the woman's shimmy had been torn at all. Well, so long!"
Nicky-Nan carried the letter indoors to his small, dark sitting-room, and there spelled it through painfully, holding the paper close up to the window-pane. It ran:—
Sunday, 2/8/14. Mr N. Nanjivell.
Sir,—As an inhabitant of Polpier, born in the town and anxious for its good name, besides being a ratepayer and one that pays taxes to His Majesty, I was naterally concerned to-day at your not taking your place along with the other men that went off to fight for their country. I am given to understand that you were served with a paper, same as the rest, and the Customs Officer was put out by your not going. I don't wonder at it. Such want of pluck.
Its no good your saying you are not Abel. If you are Abel to be a Reservist and draw pay, you are Abel to Fight thats how I look at it. I would let you to know the Public doesnt pay money for gamey legs that go about taking all they can get until the Pinch comes.
Theres a good many things want looking into in Polpier, It has reached me that until the present sistem came in and put a stop to it you drew pay for years for drills that you never atended.
This is a time when as Lord Nelson said England expects every Man to Do his Duty. I think so bad of your case that I am writing by same post to the Custom House at Troy about it. So I warn you as A Well-Wisher.
Nicky-Nan read this amiable missive through, and re-read it almost to the end before realising the menace of it. At the first perusal his mind was engaged with the mechanical task of deciphering the script and with speculating on its authorship. . . . He came to the end with no full grasp of the purport.
His wits were dulled, too, being preoccupied—in spite of Lippity-Libby—with suspicions of Mr Pamphlett. He recognised the hand of an enemy; and though conscious of possessing few friends in the world (none, maybe—he did not care how many or how few, anyway), he was aware of one only enemy—Pamphlett. He held this tenement which Pamphlett openly coveted: but what besides had he that any one could envy? Who else could wish him worse off than he was? His broken past, his present poverty and daily mental anguish, his future sans hope—any one who wanted these might take 'em and welcome!
But when, on the second reading, he reached the last paragraph but one, his heart stood still for a moment as if under a sudden stab.
Yes, . . . in the man or woman who had written this letter he had an enemy who indeed wished him worse off than he was, and not only worse but much worse; who would take from him not only the roof over his head, but even the dreadful refuge of the Workhouse; who would hunt him down even into jail. That talk about his not going to the War was all nonsense. How could all the Coastguard or Custom-house Officers in Christendom force a man to go to the War with a growth under his thigh as big as your fist? Damn the War!—he'd scarcely given a thought to it (being so worried with other matters) until last night. He hadn't a notion, at this moment, what it was all about. But anyhow that stuff about "want of pluck" was silly nonsense,—almost too silly to vex a man. He would have gone fast enough had he been able. In truth, Nicky-Nan's conscience had no nerve to be stung by imputations of cowardliness. He had never thought of himself as a plucky man—it wasn't worth while, and, for that matter, he wasn't worth while. He had, without considering it, always found himself able to take risks alongside of the other fellows. Moreover, what did he amount to, with his destinies, hopes, and belongings all told, to be chary of losing them or himself?
But it was a fact, as the letter hinted, that some years ago, and for two successive seasons, the Reservists' training happening to fall at a time when fish was plentiful and all hands making money, he, with one or two other men, had conspired with a knavish Chief Officer of Coastguard to put a fraudulent trick on the Government. It was the Chief Officer who actually played the trick, entering them up as having served a course which they had never attended, and he had kept their training pay as his price. What his less guilty conspirators gained was the retention of their names on the strength, to qualify them in due time for their pensions.
This and other abuses of the old system had been abolished when the Admiralty decided that every reservist must put in his annual spell of training at sea. The trick at the time had lain heavily upon Nicky-Nan's conscience: but with time he had forgotten it. Since the new order came into force, he had fulfilled his obligations regularly enough—until the year before last, by which time his leg really disabled him. It had fortuned, however, that one afternoon on the Quay, loafing around less on the chance of a job (for odd jobs are scarce at Polpier) than to wile away time, he had encountered Dr Mant, the easy-going practitioner from St Martin's. Dr Mant fancying an excursion after the mackerel, at that time swarming close inshore, Nicky-Nan had rowed him out and back along the coast to St Martin's. The bargain struck for half-a-crown, the doctor sent his trap back by road.
Some way out at sea he inquired, "Hullo! what's wrong with that right knee of yours?"
"Ricked it," answered Nicky-Nan mendaciously, and added, "I was thinkin' to consult you, sir. I be due for trainin' with the Reserve in a fortni't's time."
"Want a certificate? Here, let me have a feel what's wrong." The Doctor interrupted his whiffing for a moment to reach forward and feel Nicky's knee professionally, outside the thick sea-cloth trousers. "Hurts, does it? You've a nasty swelling there, my man."
"It hurts a bit, sir, and no mistake. If I could only have a certificate now—"
"All right; I'll give you one," said the Doctor, and turned his attention again to the mackerel.
Before stepping ashore at St Martin's, he pulled out a fountain-pen and scribbled the certificate on a leaf torn from his note-book. Having with this and one shilling compounded for his trip, he said as he traced up his catch—
"There, stick that in an envelope and post it. You're clearly not fit for service afloat till that swelling goes down."
Nicky-Nan duly posted the certificate, which Dr Mant had characteristically forgotten to date. After a week it came back with an official note drawing Nicky's attention to this, and requesting that the date should be inserted.
"Red tape," said Nicky. He borrowed a pen from Mrs Penhaligon, and wrote the date quite accurately at the foot of the document.
Then, for some reason or other, his conscience smote him. He put off posting the letter; and at this point again fortune helped him. Word came to him by a chance wind that the staff of the Coastguard had been shifted, over at Troy. Also (though he never discovered this) the Chief Officer of Customs, after returning the certificate, had left for his summer holiday.
So Nicky-Nan kept it in his pocket; and nothing happened.
The next year—so easy is the slope of Avernus—Nicky-Nan, who had felt many qualms over filling in a date which (though accurate) should by rights have been filled in by the Doctor, felt none at all in adding a slight twiddle of the pen which changed "1912" into "1913"; by which he escaped again, and again went undetected.
It had all been contrived so easily, and had succeeded so easily! Everything said and done, his leg was worse. Any doctor alive, if brought in, would bear witness that it incapacitated him.
Also any man, who looks ahead, will fight for the pension which alone stands between him and the workhouse.
With such arguments Nicky-Nan had salved his conscience; and his conscience had slept under them.
Now in a moment, with eyes fixed on the fatal handwriting, he saw every bandage of false pretence, all his unguents of conscience, stripped away, laying his guilt bare to the world.
An enemy was on his track—one who knew and could call up fatal evidence.
The light in the window-pane had been growing darker for some minutes. The morning had broken squally, with intervals of sunshine. A fierce gust came howling up the little river between its leaning houses and broke in rain upon the bottle-glass quarrels of the window.
Nicky-Nan started, as though it were a hand arresting him.
The rain—the last, for many weeks, to visit Polpier—cleared up soon after midday. At one o'clock or thereabouts Nicky-Nan, having dined on a stale crust and a slice of bacon, and recovered somewhat from his first alarm (as even so frugal a meal will put courage into a man), ventured to the porch again for a look at the weather. The weather and the set of the wind always come first in a Polpier man's interest. They form the staple of conversation on the Quay-side. Fish ranks next: after fish, religion: after religion, clack about boats and persons; and so we come down to politics, peace and war, the manner of getting to foreign ports and the kind of people one finds in them.
Nicky-Nan could read very few signs of the weather from his dark little parlour. The gully of the river deflected all true winds, and the overhanging houses closed in all but a narrow strip of sky, prolonged study of which was apt to induce a crick in the neck. To be sure, certain winds could be recognised by their voices: a southerly one of any consequence announced itself by a curious droning note which, if it westered a little, rose to a sharp whistle and, in anything above half-a-gale, to a scream. But to see what the weather was like, you must go to the front porch.
Nicky-Nan went to the front porch and gazed skyward. The wind—as the saying is—had "catched in," and was blowing briskly from the north-west, chasing diaphanous clouds across the blue zenith. The roofs still shone wet and dazzling, and there were puddles in the street. But he knew the afternoon was going to be a fine one. He took pleasure in this when, a few moments later, his ear caught the thudding of a distant drum. . . . Yes, yes—it was Bank Holiday, and the children would be assembling, up the valley, for the Anniversary Treat of the Wesleyan Sunday School. There would be waggons waiting to convey them up-inland to Squire Tresawna's pleasure-grounds—to high shaven lawns whereon, for once in the year, they could enjoy themselves running about upon the level. (In Polpier, as any mother there will tell you, a boy has to wear out his exuberance mostly on the seat of his breeches and bring it to a check by digging in his heels somewhere. And the wastage at these particular points of his tailoring persists when he grows up to manhood; for a crabber sits much on the thwart of a boat and drives with his heels against a stretcher. Thus it happens that three-fourths of Billy Bosistow's cobbling is devoted to the "trigging" of boot-heels, while the wives, who mend all the small clothes, have long ago and by consent given up any pretence of harmonising the patch with the original garment. At Troy and at St Martin's they will tell you that every Polpier man carries about his home-address on his person, and will rudely indicate where. Mrs Penhaligon put it one day in more delicate proverbial form. "In a rabbit-warren," she said, "you learn not to notice scuts.")
While Nicky-Nan—who, as we have said, had a fondness for children— stood and eyed the weather with approval, Mrs Penhaligon came bustling out, with her bonnet on.
"Lord sakes!" she exclaimed. "Be that the drum already? What a whirl one does live in!—and if there's one thing I hate more'n another, 'tis to be fussed."
"What about the children, ma'am?"
"The children? . . . Gone on this half-hour, I should hope. 'Beida's a good gel enough, when once ye've coaxed her into her best things. It sobers her you can't think. She'll look after 'Biades an' see that he don't put 'Lead us, Heavenly Father, lead us' into his mouth, though 'tis where he puts most things."
"But you're goin' to the Treat yourself, ma'am?" Nicky-Nan suggested.
"What, in this rig-out? Catch me!" answered Mrs Penhaligon, not with literal intention but idiomatically. "No, I'm but goin' up to see 'em off decent. But I wonder at you liggin' behind, when 'tis the only Bank Holiday randivoo this side o' Troy. . . ."
"'Tidn' for want o' will," Nicky-Nan answered ruefully and truthfully, with a downward glance, which reminded Mrs Penhaligon to be remorseful.
"Eh, but I forgot . . . and you with that leg on your mind! But you'll forgive a body as has been these two days in a stirabout. And if you're fittin' to take a stroll before I get back, maybe you'll not forget to lock the house up."