"Provided your rent is duly paid up to date."
"Right." Nicky-Nan slid a hand into his trouser-pocket, where his fingers met the reassuring touch of half-a-dozen sovereigns he carried there for earnest of his good fortune.
"And on the understanding that I claim possession whenever it suits me. When I say 'the understanding,' of course, there's no bargain implied. I am in a position to do as I like at any time. I want to make that clear."
"Very thoughtful of you."
"Well, I'm glad you're grateful."
"Who said so?"
"At least," answered Mr Pamphlett with rising choler, "you must own that I have shown you great consideration—great consideration and forbearance." He checked his wrath, being a man who had severely trained himself to keep his temper in any discussion touching business. To the observance of this simple rule, indeed, he owed half his success in life. (During the operation of getting the better of a fellow-man, it was wellnigh impossible to ruffle Mr Pamphlett.) "I'll leave you to think it over."
"Thank 'ee," said Nicky-Nan as the banker walked away; and sat on in the August sunshine, the potable gold of which harmonised with the tangible gold in his pockets, but so that he, being able to pay the piper, felt himself in command of the tune. He had ballasted both pockets with coins. It gave him a wonderful sense of stability, on the strength of which he had been able to talk with Mr Pamphlett as one man should with another. And lo! he had prevailed. Obedient to some subtle sense, Pamphlett had lowered his usual domineering tone, and was climbing down under the bluff he yet maintained. . . . Nicky-Nan was not grateful: but already he felt inclined to make allowance for the fellow. What a mastery money gave!
A voice hailed him from the doorway of the Three Pilchards.
Nicky-Nan slewed himself about on the bollard, and encountered the genial gaze of Mr Latter, the landlord. Mr Latter, a retired Petty Officer of the Navy, stood six feet two inches in his socks, and carried a stomach which incommoded even that unusual stature. The entrance-door of the Three Pilchards being constructed in two flaps, Mr Latter habitually closed the lower one and eased the upper part of his facade upon it while he surveyed the world.
"Mornin', Nicky!" repeated Mr Latter. "I han't seen ye this couple o' days; but I had word you weren't gone with the rest, your leg bein' so bad. Step indoors, an' rest it over a drink."
"You're very kind, Mr Latter," Nicky-Nan answered somewhat stiffly. "I was just then thinkin' I'd come in and order one for the good o' the house." To himself he added: "One o' these days I'll teach that man to speak to me as 'Mr Nanjivell'—though it come to remindin' him that his wife's mother was my father's wet-nurse, and glad of the job." But this he growled to himself as he hobbled up the steps to the door.
"I didn't say anything about payment," Mr Latter remarked affably, stepping back a pace as he pulled open the flap of the door, and politely suppressing a groan at the removal of that abdominal support. "I was askin' you to oblige me by takin' a drink, seein' as how—"
"Seein' as how what?" Nicky-Nan asked with suppressed fierceness as he pushed his way in, conscious of the ballast in his pocket.
(Wonderful—let it be said again—is the confidence that money carries: subtle and potent the ways by which it asserts itself upon the minds of men!)
—"Seein' as how," Mr Latter corrected himself, drawing back again and giving such room in the passage as his waist allowed—"seein' as how all true patriots should have a fellow-feelin' in times like the present, an' stand shoulder to shoulder, so to speak, not refusin' a drink when offered in a friendly way. It gives a feelin' of solidarity, as one might say. That's the word—solidarity. Still, if you insist," he paused, following Nicky-Nan into the little bar-parlour, "I mustn't say no. The law don't allow me. A two of beer, if I may suggest?"
"Brandy for me!" said Nicky-Nan recklessly. "And a soda."
"Brandy for heroes, as the sayin' is. Which, if Three Star, is sixpence, an' two is a shilling, and a split soda makes one-an'-four. 'Tis a grand beverage, but terrible costly." Mr Latter took down the bottle from its shelf and uncorked it, still with an incredulous eye on Nicky-Nan. "What with the War breakin' out an' takin' away the visitors, an' money certain (as they tell me) to be scarce all over the land, I didn' reckon to sell another glass between this an' Christmas; when in walks you, large as my lord, and calls for a brace! . . . Sure ye mean it?"
"I never insisted 'pon your choosin' brandy," said Nicky-Nan, beginning to fumble in his left trouser-pocket. "You can make it beer if you wish, but I said 'brandy.' If you have no—" He ended on a sharp outcry, as of physical pain.
For a dire accident had happened. The men of Polpier (as this narrative may or may not have mentioned)—that is to say, all who are connected with the fishery—in obedience to a customary law, unwritten but stringent, clothe the upper part of their persons in blue guernsey smocks. These being pocketless, all personal cargo has to be stowed somewhere below the belt. (In Mrs Pengelly's shop you may purchase trousers that have as many as four pockets. They cost anything from eleven-and-sixpence to fifteen shillings, and you ask Mrs Pengelly for them under the categorical name of "non-plush unmentionables"—"non-plush" being short for Non Plus Ultra.)
Nicky-Nan, then, plunging a hand into his left trouser-pocket in search of a florin which he believed to lie there amidst the costlier cargo, and confident that by its size and his sense of touch he could separate it from the gold, found that he must first remove his pocket-handkerchief. As he drew it forth, alas! two golden sovereigns followed in its fold, fell, and jingled on the slate-paved floor. Not all the fresh sawdust strewn there could deaden the merry sound of wealth. The two coins ran trickling, the one to clash against a brass spittoon, the other to take hiding in a dark corner under the counter. "You might," said Mr Latter that evening, relating the occurrence to a circle of steady customers, "have knocked me down with a feather. To see old Nicky, of all men, standin' there before my very eyes an' sheddin' gold like a cornopean!"
What Mr Latter did at the moment, or as soon as he recovered his presence of mind, was to set down his bottle and dive under the counter; while Nicky-Nan chased the coin which had ricochetted off the spittoon and lodged against the wainscot. Their physical infirmities made the pursuit painful for both, as the darkness in a small room overcrowded with furniture made it difficult. Mr Latter emerged panting, in audible bodily distress. His search had been longer than Nicky-Nan's, but it was successful. He straightened himself up and held out the coin to the light.
"A sovereign! . . . I'll have to go out an' fetch change. A sovereign, send I may never!" He rang it on the bar-counter. "I'll step along an' get change from the Bank."
"There's no hurry," stammered Nicky-Nan hastily and in confusion. "Let's have the drink, an' maybe I can fish out something smaller. . . . You keep your parlour very dark," he added, repocketing both coins.
"I reckon now," observed Mr Latter thoughtfully as he measured out the two tots of brandy, "that 'taty-patch o' your'n has been a perfect gold-mine this season. Everyone tells me how agriculture is lookin' up."
Nicky-Nan sought refuge in a falsehood.
"'Tis my rent," said he, "that I've been savin' up for Pamphlett. Didn' you see him stop an' speak wi' me five minutes since? Well, that was to make an appointment an' give me the receipt. Between you an' me, I've been gettin' a bit to leeward with it lately."
"Ay," said Mr Latter, opening the soda-water and pouring it. "Everybody in the parish knows that. . . . Well, things are lookin' up, seemingly, and I congratulate 'ee. Here's Success to Agriculture! . . . Brandy for heroes! 'Tis a curious thing, how this partic'lar drink goes straight to the heart an' kindles it. Champagne has the same effect, only more so. A glass o' champagne will keep kickin' inside o' ye for an hour maybe. With brandy 'tis soon over and you want another go. I've noticed that often."
"You won't have a chance to notice it today." Nicky-Nan drained his glass at a gulp, and searched again in his pockets. . . .
"And if you'll believe me," reported Mr Latter to a wondering audience that evening, "the man pulled out of his pocket—his right pocket, this time—a two-shillin' piece and a penny; and as he picks out the two-shillin' piece, to pay me, what happens but he lets drop another sovereign, that had got caught between the two! It pitched under the flap o' the counter an' rolled right to my boot! 'What did I say to en?' Well, I don't mind ownin' that for a moment it took me full aback an' tied the string o' my tongue. But as I picked it up and handed it to en, I says, says I, 'Mr Nanjivell,' I says, 'at this rate I don't wonder your not joinin'-up wi' the Reserve.' . . . What's more, naybours, I don't mind admittin' to you that after the man had paid an' left, I slipped to the door an' keeked out after him—an' that story of his about it bein' his rent-money was all a flam. He went past Pamphlett's Bank, never so much as turnin' to look at it."
FIRST ATTEMPT AT HIDING.
Nicky-Nan belonged, congenitally and unconsciously, to that happy brotherhood of men—felices sua si bona norint—whom a little liquor exhilarates, but even a great deal has no power to bemuse. But what avails an immunity above your fellows, if life seldom or never gives you opportunity to prove it?
Nicky-Nan had drunk, after long abstinence and upon a fasting stomach, one brandy-and-soda. He was sober as a judge; he walked straight and—bating his weak leg—firmly, yet he trod on air: he looked neither to the right nor to the left, yet he saw nothing of the familiar street through which he steered. For a vision danced ahead of him. Gold in his pockets, golden sunshine now in his veins—thanks to the brandy-and-soda,—a golden vision weaving itself and flickering in the golden August weather, and in his ears a sentence running, chiming, striking upon the word "gold"— "Ding-a-ding-a-dong! 'Taty-patch a gold mine—'taty-patch a gold mine!" The prosaic Mr Latter had set the chime ringing, as a dull sacristan might unloose the music of a belfry; but like a chime of faery it rippled and trilled, closing ever upon the deep note "gold," and echoed back as from a veritable gong of that metal.
"'Taty-patch a gold mine"—How came it that, until Latter put the idea into his head, he had never thought of this, his one firm holding on earth, as a hiding-place for his treasure? His lodging in the old house, hard as he would fight for it, acknowledged another man's will. But the patch of ground by the cliff was his own. He had claimed its virginity, chosen and tamed it, marked it off, fenced it about, broken the soil, trenched it, wrought it, taught the barren to bear. It lay remote, approachable only by a narrow cliff-track, overlooked by no human dwelling, doubly concealed—by a small twist of the coast-line and a dip of the ground—from the telescopes of the coastguard in their watch-house. Folks had hinted from time to time (but always chaffing him) that the land must belong to some one—to the Crown, maybe, or, more likely, to the Duchy. But he had tilled it for years undisturbed and unchallenged. The parcel had come to be known as "Nicky-Nan's Chapel," because on fine Sundays, when godlier folks were in church, he spent so much of his time there, smoking and watching the Channel and thinking his thoughts. It was inconceivable that any one should dispute his title now, after the hundreds and hundreds of maundfuls of seaweed under which, first and last—in his later years—he had staggered up the path from the Cove, to incorporate them in the soil.
At the turn of the street he fetched up standing, arrested by another bright idea. Why, of course! He would carry up a part of his wealth to the 'taty-patch and bury it. . . . But a man shouldn't put all his eggs in one basket, and—why hadn't he thought of it before? The money had lain those many years, safe and unsuspected, under the false floor of the cupboard. Simplest thing in the world, now that Pamphlett had given him a respite, to plank up the place again with a couple of new boards, plaster up the ceiling of the sitting-room, and restore a good part of the gold to its hiding!—not all of it, though; since Pamphlett might change his mind at any time, and of a sudden. No, a good part of the gold must be conveyed to the 'taty-patch. He would make a start, maybe, that very night—or rather, that very evening in the dusk when the moon rose: for (now he came to remember) the moon would be at her full to-morrow, or next day. While the dusk lasted he could dig, up there, and no passer-by would suspect him of any intent beyond eking out the last glimpse of day. To be surprised in the act of digging by moonlight was another matter, and might start an evil rumour. For one thing, it was held uncanny, in Polpier, to turn the soil by moonlight—a deed never done save by witches or persons in league with Satan. Albeit they may not own to it, two-thirds of the inhabitants of Polpier believe in black magic.
He would make a start, then, towards dusk. There was no occasion to take any great load at one time, or even to be seen with any conspicuous burden. As much gold as his two pockets would carry— that would serve for a start. To-morrow he might venture to visit Mrs Pengelly and purchase a new and more capacious pair of trousers— to-morrow, or perhaps the day after. Caution was necessary. He had already astonished Mr Gedye, the ironmonger, with his affluence: and just now again, like a fool, he had been dropping sovereigns about Latter's bar-parlour. That had been an awkward moment. He had extricated himself with no little skill, but it was a warning to be careful against multiplying evidence or letting it multiply. A new pair of trousers, as this narrative has already hinted, is always a somewhat dazzling adventure in Polpier. No. . . . decidedly he had better postpone that investment. Just now he would step around to boatbuilder Jago's and borrow or purchase a short length of eight-inch planking to repair the flooring of the bedroom cupboard. Jago had a plenty of such odd lengths to be had for the asking. "I'll make out the top of the water-butt wants mending," said Nicky-Nan to himself. "Lord! what foolishness folk talk about the contrivances of poverty. Here have I been living in fear and tremblement over a dozen things never likely to befall, and all because my brain has been starving for years, along with my stomach. Start the pump with a dose of brandy, and it rewards ye by working sweet and suent. Here at this moment be a dozen things possible and easy, that two hours agone were worrying me to the grave. Now I know how rich men thrive, and I'll use the secret. Simplicity itself it is: for set me on the Lord Mayor's throne and fill me with expensive meat and drink, and I'll be bold to command the Powers o' Darkness."
This was fine talking. But he had not freed himself from the tremors of wealth: and now again—
Can such things be, And overcome us like a summer cloud, Without our special wonder?
—now and again and for about the twentieth time—now again, as he turned to bend his steps towards Boatbuilder Jago's yard—suddenly and without warning, as a wave the terror took him that in his absence some thief or spy had surprised his hoard. Under its urgency he wheeled right-about and hurried for home, to assure himself that all was safe.
Such was his haste that in passing the corner of the bridge he scarcely observed a knot of children gathered thereby, until 'Beida's voice hailed him and brought him to a halt.
"Hey! Is that you, Missy?" Nicky-Nan wheeled half-about.
"If you had eyes in your head, you wouldn' be starin' at me," said 'Beida, "but at 'Bert. Look at him—And you, 'Biades, can stand there an' look up at him so long as you like, provided you don't bust out cryin' at his altered appearance: no, nor crick your neck in doin' it, but bear in mind that mother used up the last of the arnica when you did it last time tryin' to count the buttons up Policeman Rat-it-all's uniform, an' that if the wind should shift of a sudden and catch you with your eyes bulgin' out of your head like they'm doin' at this moment, happen 'twill fix you up comical for life: an' then instead of your growin' up apprenticed to a butcher, as has been your constant dream, we'll have to put you into a travellin' show for a gogglin' May-game, an' that's where your heart will be turnin' ever, far from the Old Folks at Home. . . . You'll excuse me, Mr Nanjivell, but the time an' trouble it costs to wean that child's eyes off anything in the shape of a novelty you'd hardly believe. . . . Well, what do you say to 'Bert?"
"I'd say," answered Nicky-Nan slowly, contemplating the boy—who wore a slouch hat, a brown shirt with a loosely tied neckerchief, dark-blue cut-shorts and stockings that exhibited some three inches of bare knee—"I'd say, if he came on me sudden, that he was Buffalo Bill or else Baden Powell, or else the pair rolled into one."
"You wouldn't be far wrong either. He's a Boy Scout, that's what he is. Walked over to St Martin's this mornin' an' joined up. A kind lady over there was so took with his appearance that she had to improve it or die on the spot, out of her own pocket. He's walked back with his own trousers in a parcel, lookin'—well, like what you see. I think it becomin', on the whole. He tells me his motto is 'Be British,' an' he has to do a kind action every day of his life: which he won't find easy, in a little place like Polpier."
As 'Beida drew breath, the boy faced Nicky-Nan half sulkily.
"They put me into this outfit. I didn't ask for it."
"If you want my opinion, 'Bert," said Nicky-Nan, "it suits 'ee very well; an' you look two inches taller in it already."
He hurried on in the direction of Boatbuilder Jago's yard, which stands close above the foreshore, on the eastern side of the little haven. When he returned, with the boards under his arm, it was to find 'Bert the centre of a knot of boys, all envious—though two or three were making brave attempts to hide it under a fire of jocose criticism. It was plain, however, that morally 'Bert held the upper hand. Whilst they had been playing silly games around the Quay, he had walked to St Martin's and done the real thing. No amount of chaff could hide that his had been the glory of the initiative. Indeed, he showed less of annoyance with his critics than of boredom with 'Biades, who, whichever way his big brother turned, revolved punctually as a satellite, never relaxing his rapt, upward gaze of idolatry.
"You can shut your heads, the whole lot," said 'Bert airily. "First thing to-morrow mornin' the half of 'ee'll be startin' over for St Martin's to enlist; an' you know it. Better fit you went off home and asked your dear mammies to put 'ee to bed early. Because there's not only the walk to St Martin's an' back—which is six mile—but when you've passed the doctor for bandy legs or weak eyesight, you may be started on duty that very night. I ben't allowed to say more just now," he added with a fine air of official reticence. "And as for you"—he turned impatiently on 'Biades—"I wish you'd find your sister, to fetch an' shut 'ee away somewhere. Where's 'Beida to?"
"She's breakin' the news to mother," answered 'Biades.
By seven o'clock Nicky-Nan had measured and cut his boards to size. He fitted them loosely to floor the bedroom cupboard. Later on he would fix them securely in place with screws. But by this time daylight was dusking in, and more urgent business called him.
Returning to the parlour downstairs, he refilled his pockets with the gold of which he had lightened himself for his carpentry, knotted another twenty sovereigns tightly in his handkerchief, picked up the lighter of his two spades—for some months he had eschewed the heavier—and took his way through the streets, up the cliff-track by the warren, and so past the coastguard watch-house.
The sun had dropped behind the hill, leaving the West one haze of gold: but southward and seaward this gold grew fainter and fainter, paling into an afterglow of the most delicate blue-amber. In the scarce-canny light, as he rounded the corner of the cliff, he perceived two small figures standing above the hollow which ran down funnel-wise containing his patch, and recognised them.
"Drat them children!" he muttered; but kept on his way, and, drawing near, demanded to know what business brought them so far from home at such an hour.
"I might ask you the same question," retorted 'Beida. "Funny time,— isn't it?—to start diggin' potatoes? An' before now I've always notice you use a visgy for the job. Yet you can't be plantin—not at this season—"
"I find the light spade handier to carry," explained Nicky-Nan in some haste. "But you haven't answered my question."
"Well, if you must know, I'm kissin' goodnight to 'Bert here. They've started him upon coast-watchin', and he's given this beat till ten-thirty, from the watch-house half-way to the Cove. I shouldn' wonder if he broke his neck."
"No fear," put in 'Bert, proudly exhibiting and flashing a cheap electric torch. "They gave me this at St Martin's—and in less than an hour the moon'll be up."
"But the paper says there be so many spies about—eh, Mr Nanjivell?"
"Damme," groaned Nicky-Nan, "I should think there were! Well, if there's military work afoot, at this rate, I'd better clear. —Unless 'Bert would like me to stay here an' chat with 'en for company."
"We ben't allowed to talk—not when on duty," declared young 'Bert stoutly.
"Then kiss your brother, Missy, an' we'll trundle-ways home."
"I hope, Mary-Martha," said Miss Oliver, pausing half-way up the hill and panting, "that, whatever happens, you will take a proper stand."
"You are short of breath. You should take more exercise." Mrs Polsue eyed her severely. "When an unmarried woman gets to your time of life, she's apt to think that everything can be got over with Fruit Salts and an occasional dose of Somebody's Emulsion. Whereas it can't. I take a mile walk up the valley and back every day of my life."
"I don't believe you could perspire if you tried, Mary-Martha."
"Well, and you needn't make a merit of it, . . . and if you ask me," pursued Mrs Polsue, "one half of your palpitation is put on. You're nervous what show you'll make in the drawing-room, and that's why you're dilly-dallyin' with your questions and stoppages."
"Mrs Steele and me not being on visiting terms—" Miss Oliver started to explain pathetically. "Yes, I know it was my duty to call when they first came: but what with one thing and another, and not knowing how she might take it—Of course, Mary-Martha, if you insist on walking ahead like a band-major, I can't prevent it. But it only shows a ruck in your left stocking."
Mrs Polsue turned about in the road. "You were hoping, you said, that I'd be taking a proper stand? If that woman comes any airs over me—"
She walked on without finishing the sentence. "She's every bit as much afraid as I am," said Miss Oliver to herself, as she panted to catch up; "the difference being that I want to put it off and she's dying to get it over." Aloud she remarked, "Well, and that's all I was saying. As like as not they'll be trying to come it over us; and if we leave it to Hambly—"
"Him?" Mrs Polsue sniffed. "You leave it to me!"
The Vicar welcomed them in the porch, and his pleasantly courteous smile, which took their friendliness for granted, disarmed Mrs Polsue for a moment. "It took the starch out of you straight: I couldn't help noticin'," was Miss Oliver's comment, later in the day. "It took me by surprise," Mrs Polsue corrected her: "—a man has no business to stand grimacing in his own doorway like a—a—" "Butler," suggested Miss Oliver, "—like a figure in a weather-house. What do you know about butlers? . . . but"—after a pause—"I daresay you're right, there. I've heard it put about that her father used to keep one; and quite likely, now you mention it, she stuck her husband in the doorway to hide the come-down." "The pot-plants were lovely," Miss Oliver sighed; "they made me feel for the moment like Eve in the Garden of Eden." "Then I'm thankful you didn't behave like it. I was stiff enough by time we reached the drawing-room."
"Stiff" indeed but faintly describes Mrs Polsue's demeanour in the drawing-room; where, within a few minutes, were gathered Mrs Pamphlett, Mr Hambly, Dr Mant (who had obligingly motored over from St Martin's), five or six farm wives, with a husband or two (notably Farmer Best of Tresunger, an immense man who, apparently mistaking the occasion for a wedding, had indued a pair of white cotton gloves, which he declined to remove, ignoring his wife's nudges). Four or five timid "women-workers," with our two ladies and the host and hostess, completed the gathering.
Mrs Steele opened the business amid an oppressive silence, against which all the Vicar's easy chat had contended in vain.
"I hope," she began nervously, "that at such a time none of you will object to my using the word I want to use, and calling you 'friends'? . . . My friends, then—It was at my husband's suggestion that I invited you to meet this afternoon—because, you know, somebody must make a beginning."
"Hear, hear," put in Dr Mant encouragingly. Mrs Steele's voice grew a little firmer. "We thought, too, that the Vicarage might be the most convenient place on the whole. It is a sharp walk up the hill for those of you who live in Polpier itself: but our stables being empty, the farmers, who come from farther and just now at greater sacrifice, escape a jolting drive down into the village and back."
"Hear, hear," repeated Dr Mant. He was thinking of the tyres of his car. But this time he overdid it, and fetched up Mrs Polsue as by a galvanic shock.
"If interruptions are to be the order of the day," said Mrs Polsue, "I'd like to enter my protest at once. I don't hold, for my part, with calling public meetings—for I suppose this is a public meeting?" she asked, breaking off, with a challenging eye on the Vicar.
"By no means," he answered with quick good-humour. "It's a meeting by invitation, though—as my wife was about to explain—the invitations were meant to include friends of all creeds and parties."
"It's for a public purpose, anyhow?"
"Then I may be saying what doesn't meet with your approval, or Mrs Steele's, or the company's: but that's just my point. I don't hold with meetings for public business being called in a private house. Because if things are done that you don't approve of, either you sit mum-chance out o' politeness, or else you speak your mind and offend your host and hostess."
Mr Hambly was about to interpose, but the Vicar checked him with a quick movement of his hand.
"Mrs Polsue's is a real point; and, if she will allow me to say so, she has put it very well. Indeed, I was going to propose, later on, that we hold our future meetings in a place to be agreed on. This is just a preliminary talk; and when a dozen people meet to discuss, it's handier as a rule to have some one in the chair. . . . You agree? . . . Then for form's sake, I propose that we elect a chairman."
"And I propose Mrs Steele," added Mr Hambly.
"Seconded," said Farmer Best. "Damn it!"
"William!" his spouse ejaculated. (She knew that he detested Mrs Polsue, whom he had once described in private as "the p'isenest 'ooman that ever licked verdigris off a farthing.")
"'Tis all right, Chrisjana," he responded in a muffled voice, with head abased as nearly between his calves as a protuberant stomach allowed. "But one o' the castors o' this here chair has given way. . . . Beggin' your pardon, ma'am,"—he raised a face half-apoplectic but cheerful, and turned it upon his hostess—"but I totalled up seventeen score when last weighed. There's no damage done that can't be set right with a screw-driver afore I go." Then, with another turn-about that embraced the company, "Proposed an' seconded that Mrs Steele do take the chair. Those in favour say 'Hi!'—the contrary 'No.' . . . The Hi's 'ave it." (Farmer Best was Vice-Chairman of the Board of Guardians, and knew how to conduct public business.)
Mrs Steele resumed her little speech. A pink spot showed upon either cheek, but she spoke bravely.
"I suppose the first thing to be done is to see, as tactfully as we can, that during these first few weeks at any rate the wives and families of the men who have gone away to fight for us suffer no want. There are other ways in which we can be useful—And I take it for granted that all of us women, who cannot fight, are longing to be useful in some way or other. . . . There is the working of socks, scarves, waistcoats, for instance; the tearing and rolling of bandages; and Dr Mant, who has so kindly driven over from St Martin's, tells me that he is ready to be kinder still and teach an Ambulance Class. . . . But our first business—as he and Mr Hambly agree—is to make sure that the wives and children of our reservists want neither food nor money to pay their rent. . . . They tell me that in a few weeks the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association will be ready to take much of this work off our hands, though acting through local distributors. Indeed, the Vicar—indeed, my husband has already received a letter from the District Secretary of the Association asking him to undertake this work. In time, too, no doubt—as Government makes better provision—that work will grow less and less. But we have not even arrived at it yet. Until it is set going these poor women and children may be short of money or the food that money buys. So the proposal is to raise a few pounds, form a War Emergency Committee, and tide matters over until a higher authority supersedes us. For in the interval a neighbour may be starving because her husband has gone off to fight for his country. None of us, surely, could bear the thought of that?"
Mrs Steele's voice had gathered confidence, with something of real emotion, as it went on; and an approving murmur acknowledged her little speech. Her husband, whose eyes had kindled towards the close, was in the act of throwing her an applausive glance when Mrs Polsue's voice cut the silence sharply.
"I don't understand this talk about a Soldiers' and Sailors' Association, or whatever you call it. Are we a part of it, here in this room?"
"Oh, no," the Vicar answered. "We are here merely to discuss forming an Emergency Committee, to provide (among other things) present relief until the Soldiers' and Sailors' Families Association— dreadful name!—until the S.S.F.A., as we'll call it, is ready to take over the work."
"And then we shall be cold-shouldered out, I suppose?"
"Dang it, ma'am!" put in Farmer Best. "What matter who does the work, so long as the poor critters be fed meantime?"
[Here we should observe that while Mrs Polsue had a trick of sniffing that suggested a chronic cold in the head, Farmer Best suffered from an equally chronic obstruction of the respiratory organs, or (as he preferred to call them) his pipes. As from time to time he essayed to clear one or another of these, the resultant noise, always explosive, resembled the snort of a bullock or the klock of a strangulated suction-pump. With these interjections Mrs Polsue on the one hand, Farmer Best on the other, punctuated the following dialogue. And this embarrassed the company, which, obliged in politeness to attribute them to purely physical causes, could not but own inwardly that they might be mistaken for the comments—and highly expressive ones—of mutual disapprobation.]
"Danging it don't answer my question—nor banging it," persisted Mrs Polsue. "I want to know more about this Association, and where we come in. . . . Just now, Mrs Steele was talking about a District Secretary and local distributors—which looks to me as if the whole business was cut-and-dried."
"There's nothing cut an' dried about me, ma'am." Farmer Best's sharp little eyes twinkled, and he chuckled obesely.
"Again Mrs Polsue has the right of it," answered the Vicar. "Perhaps I should have explained at the beginning that this War, coming upon us so suddenly, has taken the S.S.F.A. somewhat at unawares, in Cornwall at any rate. The machinery exists—in skeleton; but there still wants the personnel to work it. In our District, for instance—"
"District?" snapped Mrs Polsue. "What's a District?"
The Vicar pulled a wry face. "The Districts at present correspond with the Deaneries in the diocese."
"O-oh, indeed? Ha!"
"There is worse to come, Mrs Polsue." He laughed frankly. "You asked, 'Who are the local distributors?' A present rule of the Association—which I beg you to believe that I regret—provides for two agents in each parish, to report and advise on cases: the Parson, and one of the Guardians."
"—And that's me, ma'am. Honk!" added Farmer Best. "I'm what Parson called the skelliton of the machinery." He wound up with a wink at the company, and a wheezy laugh.
"You may titter, all of you!" Mrs Polsue glared about her. "But if ever there was hole-and-corner sectarianism in this world—And this is what we've come to listen to!"
"You han't done much listenin' up to now, ma'am."
"Forgive me," Mrs Steele interposed, as Dr Mant looked at his watch. "I don't know much about rules of the chair; but I really think you are all out of order. We are not yet discussing the Association or its rules, but whether or not we shall form a Committee to look after these poor people until something better is done for them. We in this room, at all events, belong to very different denominations. I—I hope we meet only as Christians."
Farmer Best slapped his thigh. "Bray-vo, ma'am! and you never spoke a truer word."
"I only wish to add," the Vicar persisted, "that before any outside society works in this parish, I shall urge very strongly that the parish nominates its agents: and that I hope to have the pleasure of proposing Mrs Polsue and Mr Hambly. One more word—"
"Certainly not." His wife cut him short with a sharp rap on the table. "I can rule you out of order, at all events!"
Everybody laughed. Even Mrs Polsue was mollified. "Well, I managed to drag the truth out at last," was her final shot, as the meeting resolved itself into Committee and fell to business.
She was further placated, a few minutes later, by being elected (on the Vicar's proposition) a member of the House-to-house Visiting Sub-Committee. "'Twill give her," Farmer Best growled to his wife, later, as they jogged home in the gig, "the chance of her life to poke a nose into other folks' kitchens."
Farmer Best—it should here be observed—with all his oddities, was an exemplary Poor Law Guardian. He had small personal acquaintance with Polpier itself: the steepness of the coombs in which it lay was penible to a man of his weight: yet, albeit by hearsay, he knew the inner workings of the small town, being interested in the circumstances of all his neighbours, vividly charitable towards them, and at the same time no fool in judging. Of the country-folk within a circuit of twelve miles or more his knowledge was something daemonic. He could recount their pedigrees, intermarriages, numbers in family; he understood their straits, their degrees of affluence; he could not look across a gate at a crop, or view the state of a thatch, but his mind worked sympathetically with some neighbour's economies. He gave away little in hard money; but his charities in time and personal service were endless. And the countryside respected him thoroughly: for he was eccentric in the fashion of a true Englishman, and, with all his benevolence, you had to get up early to take him in.
Nor was Farmer Best the only one to doubt Mrs Polsue's fitness for her place in the sub-committee. Mrs Steele spoke to her husband very positively about it as he helped to water her begonia-beds in the cool of the evening.
"You were weak," she said, "to play up to that woman: when you know she is odious."
"The more reason," he answered. "If you're a Christian and find your neighbour odious, you conciliate him."
"My dear Agatha—isn't that a somewhat strong expression, for you?"
She set down her watering-pot.
"Do you know what I want to say?" she asked. "I want to say, 'Go to blazes!' . . . When I said the woman is odious, do you suppose I meant odious to me or to you?"
"O-oh!" The Vicar rubbed the back of his head penitently. "I am sorry, Agatha—I was thinking of the time she gave you this afternoon."
"She will give those poor women a worse time—a dreadful time!" said Mrs Steele, with conviction.
He picked up his watering-pot in such a hurry as to spill a tenth or so of its contents into his shoes; swore under his breath; then laughed aloud.
"I'll bet any money they'll get upsides with her, all the same. Lord! there may be fun!"
His wife eyed him as he emptied the watering-pot spasmodically over the flowers.
"As a rule you have so much more imagination than I. . . . Yet by fits and starts you take this business as if it were a joke. And it is War, you know."
The Vicar turned away hurriedly, to fetch more water.
On the Sub-Committee for House to house Visiting—the Relief Committee, as it came to be called—were elected:
(1) For Polpier—Mrs Polsue, Miss Alma Trudgian (in Mrs Polsue's words, "a pitiful Ritualist, but well-meaning. She'll give no trouble"), the Vicar, and Mr Hambly.
(2) For the country side of the parish—Mr and Mrs Best, "with power to add to their number." On the passing of this addendum, Farmer Best uttered, apparently from the roof of his palate, a noise not unlike the throb of the organ under the dome of St Paul's, and the mysterious words, "Catch me!"
Next was formed a Sub-Committee of Needle-Workers, to make hospital-shirts, knit socks, &c. It included Miss Charity Oliver; and Mrs Steele undertook to act as Secretary and send out the notices.
—Next, a Sub-Committee of Ways and Means, to collect subscriptions, and also to act as Finance Committee. The Vicar, Mr Best, Mr Hambly, with Mr Pamphlett for Honorary Treasurer. Mrs Pamphlett (a timid lady with an irregular catch of the breath), without pledging her husband, felt sure that under the circumstances he wouldn't mind. Then Dr Mant unfolded a scheme of Ambulance Classes. He was one of those careless, indolent men who can spurt invaluably on any business which is not for their private advantage. (Everybody liked him; but he was known to neglect his own business deplorably.) He could motor over to Polpier and lecture every Saturday evening, starting forthwith. Mrs Steele undertook to write to the Local Education Authority for permission to use the Council Schoolroom.
At this point the parlour-maid brought in the tea.
"I believe," remarked Miss Oliver pensively, on the return journey, "I could take quite a liking to that woman if I got to know her."
"She won't give you the chance, then," said Mrs Polsue; "so you needn't fret."
"No, I suppose not . . . in a fashion. Still"—Miss Oliver brightened—"she proposed me on the Needlework Committee, and we're to meet at the Vicarage every Wednesday. She looked up at me a moment before mentioning my name, and smiled as nice as possible; you might almost say she read what was in my mind."
"'Twould account for her smiling, no doubt."
"I don't know what you mean by that. 'Twas in my mind that I'd rather be on that committee than on any other. She's a proper lady, whatever you may say, Mary-Martha. And the spoons were real silver— I took occasion to turn mine over, and there was the lion on the back of it, sure enough."
"I saw you in the very act, and meant to tell you of it later; but other things drove it out of my head. You should have more command over yourself, Charity Oliver."
"But I can't," Miss Oliver protested. "When I see pretty things like that, my fingers won't stop twiddlin' till I make sure."
"By the same argiment I wonder you didn't pocket the spoon. Which was old Lord Some-thing-or-Other's complaint; though I doubt you wouldn't get off so light as he did."
"There was the tea-pot, too. . . . I couldn't get nigh enough to see the mark on that, though I tried. Next time, perhaps—though I doubt she won't have the silver out for ordinary workin' parties—"
"Tut—the tea-pot was silver right enough. I ought to know, havin' one of my own and a heavier by ounces. No, I don't use it except on special occasions: because you can't make so good tea in silver as in china ware; and clome is better again. But though you lock it away, a silver tea-pot is a thing to be conscious of. I don't hold," Mrs Polsue fell back on her favourite formula, "with folks puttin' all their best in the shop window."
"Well, you must be strong-minded! For my part," Miss Oliver confessed, "little luxuries always get the better o' me. I declare that if a rich man was to come along an' promise to load me with diamonds and silver tea-pots and little knick-knacks of that sort, I shouldn' care who he was, nor how ugly, but I'd just shut my eyes and fling myself at his head."
"You'd better advertise in the papers, then. It's time," said Mrs Polsue sardonically. She wheeled about. "Charity Oliver, you needn't use no more silly speech to prove what I could see with my own eyes, back yonder, even if I hadn't known it already. You're a weak fool—that's what you are! Those folks, with their pretty manners and their 'how-dee-do's,' and 'I hope I see you well's,' and their talk about all classes bein' at one in those times of national trial and standin' shoulder to shoulder till it makes a body sick—do you reckon they mean a word of it? Do you reckon that if 'twas Judgment Day itself, and you given to eatin' peas with a knife, they'd really want you to luncheon?"
"But I don't."
"I'm puttin' it for the sake of argument—"
"Then I wish you wouldn't," Miss Oliver interrupted with some spirit.
"—And old Hambly kow-towing like a Puss-in-Boots till I could have wrung his neck for him—and you weakenin' and playin' gentility as you picked it up, like another cat after a mouse—and myself the only one left to show 'em plain that we weren't to be put upon—yes, and after you'd hoped, up to the very door, that whatever happened, I'd take a proper stand!"
"Well, and so I did," Miss Oliver admitted defiantly. "But I didn't ask you to make yourself conspicuous."
POLSUE V. PENHALIGON, NANJIVELL INTERVENING.
At breakfast, two days later, Dr Mant received a summons to visit Polpier and pronounce upon the symptoms of Boatbuilder Jago's five-year-old son Josey (Josiah), who had been feverish ever since Tuesday evening. The Doctor's practice ranged over a wide district, and as a rule (good easy man) he let the ailments of Polpier accumulate for a while before dealing with them. Then he would descend on the town and work through it from door to door—as Un' Benny Rowett put it, "like a cross between a ferret an' a Passover Angel." Thus the child and his temperature might have waited for thirty-six hours—the mothers of Polpier being skilled in febrifuges, from quinine to rum-and-honey, treacle posset, elder tea—to be dealt with as preliminaries to the ambulance lecture, had it not been that (1) the Doctor had recently replaced his old trap with a two-seater car, which lifted him above old economies of time, and (2) he wished to ascertain if the valley schoolhouse, in which he was to lecture, possessed a wall-chart or diagram of the human frame; for it is a useful rule to start an ambulance class with some brief information on the body and its organs, their position and functions. Also he remembered casually an official letter received from Troy, a couple of days ago, concerning one Nicholas Nanjivell, a reservist. The man, if he remembered rightly, had an epithelioma somewhere in his leg, and was quite unfit for service. Nevertheless he must be visited: for the letter was official.
First of all, then, the Doctor hied him to Boatbuilder Jago's: and it was lucky he did so, for the child had developed measles—a notifiable complaint. "Any other cases about?" he asked. Mrs Jago did not know of another child sick or sorry in the whole of Polpier. "Which," she went on to argue in an aggrieved tone, "it therefore passes my understandin' why our Josey should be took, poor mite! 'Tisn't as if he was a naughty child, either."
"Everything must have a beginning, Mrs Jago," said the doctor in his cheerful matter-of-fact way.
"You reckon as it will spread, then?"
"I don't know. I hope not. . . . It's a mercy that the schools are closed for the holidays. When did they close, by the way?"
"Just a week ago."
"H'm. . . . I must step up and ask the Schoolmaster a few questions."
"I called you in to cure my Josey, not to talk about other folk's children." (Mrs Jago was a resentful woman.)
"And I am doing my best for him. . . . Tut! in a week or so he'll be running about as well as ever. But I'm the Medical Officer of Health, ma'am."
"Well I know it; seein' that, four months back, as you happened to be passin', I called you in an' asked you to look at the poor dear's eyes an' give me a certificate that he was sufferin' from something chronic. An' you flatly declined."
"If my memory serves me, I said he had a small stye in his eye, and I was willing to certify that for what it was worth, if you didn't mind paying me half-a-crown."
"If edication's free, as they call it, I don't see why a body should pay half-a-crown to get off what can be had for nothing. That's how I reasoned then, and always shall. In consikence o' which that la-di-da of an Attendance Officer, that thinks all the maids be after him an' looks sideways into every shop window he passes for a sight of his own image—and if it rids us of a fella like that, I'm all for Conscription—got me summonsed before the Tregarrick bench an' fined another half-crown, with five shillin' costs. An' now, when the mischief's done an' the tender dear one rash from head to foot"— Mrs Jago mopped her eyes with the edge of her apron—"what better can 'ee say than thank God the schools be closed! For my part, I wish He'd close an' roll the great stone o' Daniel agenst 'em for ever and ever!"
Doctor Mant sought up the valley to the Schoolmaster, Mr Rounsell, whose quarters formed a part of the school buildings, and ended the block on its southern or seaward side. One roof, indeed, covered him in and out of school: and the Vicar, as one of the Managers, had been heard to lament this convenient provision. "It never allows the fellow to forget his chain: he talks to me as if I were a class of forty."
Mr Rounsell himself answered the door. He had been gardening, and was in his shirt-sleeves. At sight of his visitor he became exceedingly prim and scholastic, with a touch of defiance. He was short in stature, and, aware of this, often paused in the middle of a sentence to raise himself on his toes. He made a special study of what he called "Voice-Production," and regulated his most ordinary conversation by the laws (as he understood them) of that agreeable science.
"Ah, it's yourself, is it?" chimed Dr Mant, whom the Schoolmaster's accent always sent back, and instantly, to a native brogue. "Well, and it's a fine row of sweet peas you have, Mr Rounsell, at the edge of the garden by the stream. I note them every time I drive by: and how in the world you contrive it, year after year, in the same soil—"
"You take me at some disadvantage, sir," said Mr Rounsell stiffly. "My daughter being from home on a holiday, and few people coming to this door at any time, unless it be to ask a small favour."
"Well, and you've hit it: for myself's one of that same," Dr Mant assured him cheerily. "But business first! Jago's child has the measles. Had you any reason to suspect measles, or anything of the sort, in your school before you closed it a week ago?"
Mr Rounsell, who had seemed to be arming himself against a very different approach, sensibly relaxed his guard. He was punctilious by habit in all official responsibilities. He considered for a moment before answering.
"Had I done so, I should have reported my—er—suspicions. I cannot tax my memory, Dr Mant, with having observed a symptom in any child which pointed—er—in that direction. With regard to the child Jago, I was the less likely to be forewarned of such an—er—shall we say?—eventuality, seeing that he is the most irregular attendant of my infant class, and, so far as my recollection serves me, his attendances during the past quarter amount to but twenty-three point four. I leave you to judge."
"Right—O! What about his attendance the week before breaking up?"
"I can look up the Register if you wish, sir. But, speaking at off-hand, I should compute the child Josiah Jago's attendances during the last week of July at nil, or thereabouts. You will understand, Dr Mant, that at the very close of the school year many parents take advantage, reasoning that they will not be prosecuted during the holidays. I may say that I have drawn the attention of the School Attendance Committee to this—er—propensity on the part of parents, and have asked them to grapple with it: but, so far, without result."
"Hallelujah!" exclaimed Dr Mant. "Then there's hope we may isolate the little devil. . . . Well, so far so good. But that wasn't my only reason for calling. I have to give an ambulance lecture in your schoolroom to-morrow evening: and I came to ask if you had a wall-map or chart of the human body to help me along. Otherwise I shall have to lug over a lot of medical books with plates and pass 'em around: and the plates are mixed up with others. . . . Well, you understand, they're not everybody's picture-gallery. That's to say, you can't pass a lot of books around and say 'Don't turn the page, or maybe you'll get more than you bargain for. '"
Mr Rounsell had stiffened visibly. "I will not conceal from you, Dr Mant, that the matter on which you now approach me is—er—the subject on which I—er—privately anticipated that you had called. I have no official knowledge of your lecturing here to-morrow— instructive as I am sure it will be. The Managers have not consulted me; they have not even troubled to give me official notice. But come inside, sir."
Doctor Mant followed, to a little parlour lined with books; wherein the little man turned on him, white with rage.
"I have heard, by a side wind," he foamed, "that a meeting was held, two days ago, up at the Vicarage, when it was decided that you should hold lectures in this school—my school. I wasn't asked to attend. . . . And of course you will jump to the conclusion that I am over-sensitive, huffed for my own sake. It isn't that! . . . I am huffed—maddened—if you will—for the sake of my calling. For twenty years, Dr Mant, I have opened this school every morning with prayer, dismissed it with prayer every evening, and between times laboured to preach many things that all in the end come to one thing—the idea of a poor English schoolmaster. All over the country other poor schoolmasters have been spending their lives teaching in just the same way their notion of England—what she is, has been, ought to be. Similarly, no doubt, teachers all over France and Germany have been teaching—under the guise of grammar, arithmetic, what not—their ideas of what France or Germany has been, is, ought to be. These nations are opposed and at length they come to a direct conflict, in this War. Mark you what happens! At once we patient teachers in England are brushed all aside. You call a chance Committee of amateurs, and the man who has taught the boys whom, within a fortnight, you will be clamouring to fight for you, has not even the honour to be consulted. . . . Yes, I think well enough of Great Britain to be pretty confident that she will win, letting us slip; that is, she will win though fighting with a hand tied. But Germany is no such fool. She won't, in her hour of need, despise the help of her teachers. They teach what is almost diametrically opposed to our teaching: they teach it thoroughly, and on my soul I believe it to be as nearly opposed as wrong can be to right. But they have the honour to be trusted; therefore they will succeed in making this war a long one. . . . Yes, I have a wall-map, sir, of the human body. It does not belong to the school: I bought it on my own account seven years ago, but the then Managers considered it too naked to hang on the walls of a mixed school, and disallowed the expense. You are very welcome to use it, and I am only glad that at length it will serve a purpose."
"Touchy lot, these school-teachers!" mused Dr Mant on his way back to the town. "I never can like 'em, somehow. . . . Maybe I ought to have used a little tact and told him that, as I understood it, Mrs Steele called the meeting; and it was for women-workers only. That wouldn't quite account for Farmer Best though," he chuckled. "And I suppose Best and the Vicar, as Managers—yes, and Mrs Pamphlett's another—just put their heads together on the spot and gave leave to use the schoolroom, without consulting the Head Teacher at all. I don't suppose it ever crossed their minds. . . . No: on the whole that poor little man is right. Nobody in England ever does take any truck in schoolmasters. They're just left out of account. And I dare say—yes: I dare say—that means we don't, as a people, take any real truck in Education. Well, and who's the worse for it?—barring the teachers themselves, poor devils! Germany has taken the other line, put herself in the hands of pedagogues, from the Professors down: and a nice result it's going to be for her, and for the rest of the world in the meantime! On the whole—"
On the whole, the Doctor decided—faithful to his habit of looking questions in the face and so passing on—that these things worked out pretty well as they were.
His reflections carried him to the bridge-end, where, in the porch of the Old Doctor's house, he encountered Mrs Polsue.
"Ah! Good morning, ma'am! We are bound for the same door, it appears? That's to say if, as I seem to remember, a man called Nanjivell lives here?"
"He does," Mrs Polsue answered. "And if I may make bold to say so, it's high time!"
"Eh? . . . Are you looking after him? I'd no idea that he was really sick."
"No more haven't I," said Mrs Polsue. "But I'll say 'tis time somebody looked after him, if I say no more. In point of fact," she added, "I'm not seeing Nicholas Nanjivell, but a woman called Penhaligon who lives in the other tenement here. Her husband was called up last Saturday."
"What, are you ladies at work already?"
"Oh, I don't let the grass grow under my feet," said Mrs Polsue.
"Damn the woman, I suppose that's a slap at me," muttered Dr Mant to himself. But he tapped on the Penhaligons' door for her very politely.
"Thank you," she said. "That's Nanjivell's door, at the end of the passage."
He bowed and went on, came to the door, paused for a glance at the padlock hitched loose on the staple, knocked, and—as his custom was when visiting the poor—walked in briskly, scarce waiting for an answer.
Between him and the small window, almost blocking the light—on a platform constructed of three planks and a couple of chairs set face to face—stood Nicky-Nan, with a trowel in one hand and a bricklayer's board in the other, surprised in the act of plastering his parlour ceiling.
"Had an accident here?" asked Dr Mant, eyeing the job critically. "Old house tumbling about your ears?"
"No . . . yes—that's to say—" stammered Nicky-Nan; then he seemed to swallow down something, and so to make way for a pent-up fury. "Who sent for 'ee? Who told 'ee to walk in like that without knockin'? . . . That's what I ask—Who sent for 'ee here? I didn!"
"What in thunder's wrong with ye?" asked the Doctor, very coolly taking a third chair, seating himself astraddle on it, and crossing his arms over the top. "No harm to be taken patching up a bit of plaster, is there?" Again he eyed the ceiling.
"I—I beg your pardon, Doctor," answered Nicky-Nan, recollecting himself. "But I live pretty lonely here, and the children—"
"So that's why you put a padlock on the door? . . . Well, I'm not a child. And though you didn't send for me, somebody else did. Mr Johns, the Custom House Officer at Troy. He wants to know why you didn't go with the rest of the Reserve last Sunday."
Nicky-Nan blazed up again. "Then you can tell 'en I can't nor I won't—not if he cuts me in little pieces, I won't! Curse this War, an' Johns 'pon the top of it! Can't you see—"
"No," put in the Doctor, "that's just what I can't, while you stand up there spitting like a cat on the tiles between me and the light. What fly has stung ye I can't think; unless you want to get off by passing yourself on me for a lunatic; and I can't certify to that without calling in a magistrate. . . . Here, man, don't be a fool, but get down!"
Nicky-Nan laid aside trowel and board on the platform, and lowered himself to the floor, very painfully.
"Sit ye down here!" Doctor Mant jumped up and turned his chair about. "Wait a moment, though, and let me have a look at you. No! not that way, man—with your back to the light!" He caught Nicky-Nan by the two shoulders, faced him about to the window, and took stock of him. "H'm . . . you look pretty bad."
Nicky-Nan, in fact, had spent half the previous night in crawling upstairs and downstairs, between parlour and bedroom, or in kneeling by the bedroom cupboard, hiding his wealth. He had thrown himself at last on his bed, to sleep for a couple of hours, but at daybreak had turned out again to start upon the plastering and work at it doggedly, with no more sustenance than a dry biscuit. It had all been one long-drawn physical torture; and the grey plaster smeared on his face showed it ghastly even beyond nature.
"Here, sit down; strip your leg, and let me have a look at it."
The examination took some fifteen minutes, perhaps; the Doctor kneeling and inspecting the growth with the aid of a pocket magnifying-glass.
"Well," said he, rising and dusting his knees, "it's a daisy, and I'll bet it hurts. But I don't believe it's malignant, for all that. If you were a rich man, now—but you're not; so we won't discuss it. What you'll have to do is to lie up, until I get you a ticket for the South Devon and East Cornwall Hospital."
"No hospital for me," said Nicky-Nan, setting his jaw.
"Don't be a fool. I let slip in my haste that I don't reckon the thing malignant; and I don't—as yet. But it easily may be; and anyhow you're going to have trouble with it."
"I've had trouble enough with it already. But, mortal or not, I ben't goin' to stir out o' Polpier nor out o' this house. . . . Doctor, don't you ask it!" he wound up, as with a cry extorted by pain.
"Why, man, what are you afraid of? An operation for that, what is it? A whiff of chloroform—and in a week or so—"
"But—," interrupted Nicky-Nan sharply, and again recollected himself. "To tell 'ee the truth, Doctor—that's to say, if what passes between patient an' doctor goes no farther—"
"That's all right. I'm secret as houses."
"To tell 'ee the truth, then, there's a particular reason why I don't want to leave Polpier—not just for the present."
Dr Mant stared at him. "You are going to tell me that reason?"
But Nicky-Nan shook his head. "I'd rather not say," he confessed lamely.
Still Dr Mant stared. "Look here, Nanjivell. You've a beast of a lump on your leg, and I can certify at once that it unfits you for service. You couldn't even crawl up a ladder aboard ship, let alone work a gun. But the people over at Troy have asked the question; and, what is more, it sticks in my head that, two days ago, I got a letter about you—an anonymous letter, suggesting that you were just a malingerer, who nursed an ailment rather than go to the War and take your chance with the others. As a rule I put that kind of letter in the fire, and so I did with this one. As a rule, also, I put it right out of my head. . . . But I've a conscience, in these times; and if I thought you to be nursing a trouble which I pretty well know to be curable, just to avoid your honest share in this War—" Dr Mant paused.
"Cuss the War!" said Nicky-Nan wearily. "It looks to me as if everybody was possessed with it."
Dr Mant still gazed at him curiously, then whipped about with a sudden "Hey! What's that?"
That was the voice of Mrs Penhaligon uplifted without, voluble and frenzied: and the Doctor hurried forth, Nicky-Nan hobbling after, to find Mrs Penhaligon waving her arms like a windmill's, and Mrs Polsue, as before the blast of them, flat-backed against the wall of the passage.
"—And there you'll stay," Mrs Penhaligon threatened, "while I teach your proud flesh! S'pose now I ventured on you, as you've been venturin' on me! S'pose now that, without so much as a visitin' card, I nosed in on you with—'So that's your poor dear husban's portrait, that you nagged to his grave—and a speakin' image of him too, afore he took to the drink as the better way—An' what little lux'ries might you have cookin' in the apparatus, such as a barren woman might reas'nably afford? Yes, yes—it must be a great savin', havin' no children of your own, but do it warrant pig's liver an' bacon of a Saturday?' Oh, my Gor, I'll make your two ends meet afore I've done with 'ee! I'll tell 'ee the savin' of lard 'pon butter! I'll tell 'ee about nettle-broth an' bread-crumbs for a child's diet! I'll—"
The noise had attracted a group of women to the porchway; among them, Mrs Climoe—"good at the war-cry," as Homer says of Diomede. They huddled forward, obscuring the light.
Mrs Polsue, feeling the wall firm against her back, collected her dignity. "I wish all respectable people here," she appealed to Dr Mant, as he came hurrying up the passage, "to take note of this woman's language."
"'Woman?'" panted Mrs Penhaligon. "No more of a woman than yourself: and less of a lady, thank God! Out! OUT! afore I soil my hands upon 'ee!"
"You would hardly believe, Dr Mant"—Mrs Polsue addressed him with an air of fine gentility, as the one person present who could understand—"but I called on this poor body to advise and, if necessary, procure her some addition to her income from the Emergency Fund."
"Oh, take her away!" sobbed Mrs Penhaligon, suddenly breaking down. "Isn't it enough to lie awake at night with your man at the wars? You're a gentleman, sir, an' a doctor, an' can understand. Do 'ee take her away!"
But Nicky-Nan had pushed forward. "You mean well, ma'am, I don't doubt," he said, addressing Mrs Polsue. "But this here War has got upon everybody's nerves, in a manner o' speaking."
"It doesn't seem to trouble yours," retorted Mrs Polsue, at bay and vicious; "or maybe it has, and that's why you're not with the Reserve."
Nicky-Nan flushed to the roots of his hair. But he answered pacifically—"Until I go, ma'am, you may take it from me that Mrs Penhaligon shan't want. I fixed all that up with her husband afore he left. So there's not need for you callin' again, if you don't mind."
He said it firmly, yet quite respectfully. One or two of the women in the porch murmured approval.
Not so Mrs Climoe.
"O-oh!" said Mrs Climoe, half aloud and all unheeded for the moment. "So that's the way the wind blows, sure enough!"
Nicky-Nan went back to his parlour, closed the door carefully, mounted the platform again, and resumed his plastering. He felt vexed with himself over that little speech of bravado. It had been incautious, with all those women listening.
Still it might be explained away, and easily enough. That woman Polsue put everybody's back up. His words had been just a piece of bluff to get rid of her.
He had succeeded, too. He chuckled, recalling Mrs Polsue's discomfiture; how with a final sniff she had turned and passed out between the ironical files that drew aside for her in the porchway. . . . For a burden had fallen from his heart: his little mistake, just now, weighed as nothing against the assurance that Dr Mant would write a certificate and settle these meddlesome idiots at the Troy Custom-house. . . . Moreover Dr Mant, who passed for a knowledgeable fellow in his profession, had as good as assured him that his leg was nothing to die of; not just yet anyway. Well, he would have it attended to, sometime; his life was valuable now. But he wasn't going to hurry about it, if a sound leg meant his being taken and ordered off to this dam-fool War. Nicky-Nan pursed up his lips as he worked, whistling to himself a cheerful, tuneless ditty. Some one tapped on the door. "Who's there?"
"It's me," answered the voice of Mrs Penhaligon. "Can I come in?"
"No, you can't!" he shouted. "Here, wait a minute! . . . And what might be the matter now?" he asked, as he opened the door a very little way. "I'm sorry, ma'am, that I can't ask 'ee to step inside; but there's a tidyin'-up goin' forward."
"I'd as lief speak to 'ee here, in the passage. Indeed I'd rather," said Mrs Penhaligon as he emerged, trowel in hand. "Well, what is it?"
She hesitated a moment. "'Tis a hard thing for a woman to say. . . . But maybe 'tis turnin' out you are?" she suggested brightly. "Turnin' out?"
"That would simplify things, o' course. And everybody knowin' that Pamphlett's served you with a notice to quit—"
But thereupon Nicky-Nan exploded. "Served me with a notice, did he? Pamphlett! . . . Well, yes he did, if you want to know. But never you fret: I'm upsides with Pamphlett. This is my house, ma'am: an' here I bide till it pleases me to quit."
"O-oh!" sighed Mrs Penhaligon dejectedly, "then it puts me in a very awkward position, if you don't mind my sayin' so."
"How is it awkward, ma'am?" asked Nicky-Nan, rubbing his unshaven chin with the point of the trowel.
"Well, Mr Nanjivell, I dare say you meant it well enough. But I have my reputation to think about; an' the children, God bless 'em! I grant that Polsue body to be a provokin' woman. She 'ave a way with her that drives me mad as a sheep. But, if you don't mind me tellin' 'ee, you men have no sense—not a mother's son of 'ee. Not a doubt my Sam'd ha' spoke up just as fierce as you did. But then, you see, he's my Sam."
"Very like 'tis my dulness, ma'am," said Nicky-Nan, still delicately scraping his jaw-bristles with the trowel; "but I don't catch your drift, even now."
"Then I'll speak plainer. Where was the sense to blurt out afore a lot o' naybours as you'd see I didn' come to want? Be I the kind o' woman to take any help but my own man's?—even if you had it to give, which 'tis well be-known as you haven't."
"Oh, damn!" He swore as if a wasp had stung him: and indeed he had jabbed the point of the trowel into his jaw. After a pause he added, "The naybours know—do they?—as I couldn' act up to what I promised that woman, not if I tried. Very well, then. Where's the harm done? . . . I cleared her out, anyway."
Mrs Penhaligon eyed him with pity for a moment. "Yes," she sighed, "that's just the plumb-silly way my Sam would talk: and often enough he've a-driven me just wild with it. Men be all of one mould. . . . Mr Nanjivell, you've no great experience o' women. But did 'ee ever know a woman druv to the strikes by another woman? An' did 'ee ever know a woman, not gone in the strikes, that didn' keep some wit at the back of her temper? . . . I was dealin' with Mrs Polsue, don't you make any mistake."
"It struck me that she had been distressin' you, an' you'd be glad to get the rids of her."
"So I was in distress. But I had th' upper hand, 'specially wi' those women hearkenin' and every one hatin' her. . . . What must happen, but forth you steps with a 'Leave this to me. I'll look after Mrs Penhaligon. I'll see she don't come to want'—all as bold as a fire-hose. 'I'll clear 'ee out o' this house, which is our house,' says you—or to that effect. I wasn' so mad but, when I heard 'ee, there was time to glimpse mother Climoe's face. Oh yes! I know what you'll be sayin'. 'Talk, is it?' you'll be sayin', just like my Sam: an' 'Let them talk. What's talk?'—an' talk, all the time, two-thirds of every decent woman's life!"
"I never heard such dratted nonsense in all my born days."
"That's because you was never married. You'd have heard it from a wife, half your time: though I dare say"—Mrs Penhaligon sighed— "'twould ha' been with you like the rest. . . . 'A nice cauch Mr Nanjivell's made of it,' said I to myself, getting back to the kitchen: 'but he's under notice to quit: and if he quits quick an' delicate, mebbe there's no great harm done.' So I came along to ask you about it."
At this point Nicky-Nan fairly lost command of his temper.
"So you're one wi' the rest, eh? All in one blasted conspiracy to turn me to doors! One comes threatenin', t'other comes carneyin', but all endin' in the same lidden. 'Your health ben't the best, Nanjivell: let me recommend a change of air.' 'Nanjivell, you're a fine upstandin' fellow, an' young for your age. Why don't 'ee leg it off to the War?' 'These be hard times, Nanjivell; so I'm forced to ask 'ee for your rent, or out you go.' An' now along you come wi' the latest. 'Would you mind makin' yourself scarce, Mr Nanjivell, to oblige a lady as has lost confidence in her repitation?' Now look 'ee here, ma'am—what I said to that woman Polsue, just now, is no more than I'm able to abide by. If the shoe pinches at any time, you can come to me, and I'll reckon up wi' Sam Penhaligon when he comes back. What's more—though, to be sure, 'tis no affair o' mine—I reckon Sam Penhaligon's the only chap alive, savin' yourself, consarned in this repitation you've started to make such a fuss about. But you're playin' Pamphlett's game, ma'am, to turn me out," wound up Nicky-Nan wrathfully, turning away: "that's what you're doin': and I'll see you—"
He closed the oath upon a slam of the door.
"There was never a man in this world," sighed Mrs Penhaligon as she regained her own kitchen, "but hisself came afore all the world." She arrested her hand on the cover of the flour-barrel.
"He talked so confident of his money, too. . . . Funny thing if Nicky-Nan, that we've been pityin' all this time, should turn out to be a miser!"
An hour later, in the full light of the afternoon sunshine, Nicky-Nan emerged from the old house with a shovel on his arm and a bundle dangling from it. He had heard 'Bert Penhaligon say that the Boy Scouts were employed by night only for coast-watching. By day the pilots with their telescopes habitually commanded this whole stretch of coast, nor could the periscope of a submarine push itself above the inshore water and not be detected.
At the corner of the Warren, where the cliff turns eastwardly with a sharp bend, Nicky-Nan almost ran into Policeman Rat-it-all, who pulled himself up for a chat as usual.
"I don't know what you think," observed the Policeman, "but to my mind this here War gives us a great sense o' brotherhood. I read that on the newspaper this mornin', and it struck me as one o' the aptest things I'd seen for a long while."
"You said something o' the sort last time we met," answered Nicky-Nan.
"You're wrong there." Rat-it-all seemed to be slightly hurt in his feelings; "because I read it on the paper only this morning. 'Against War in the abstrac' much may be urged,' it said. 'But 'oo will deny as it begets a sense o' Brotherhood if it does nothin' else?' That was the expression."
"I don't take much truck in this War, for my part," said Nicky-Nan, quartering on the narrow footpath to let Rat-it-all pass: "but it'll do a dam sight else afore we're through with it, if you want my opinion."
"To a man in the Force," said Rat-it-all pensively, "an expression like that, mixed up with photographs in the 'Daily Mirror,' strikes HOME. A man in the Force, as I'll put it, is in some ways unlike other men." He paused to let this sink in.
"Take your time," said Nicky-Nan. "But I'm not contradictin' 'ee."
"If they're a species, he's a specie—a man set apart, like a parson. A parson tells you how you ought to behave, and I take you in charge if you don't."
"Like Satan," Nicky-Nan suggested.
"Rat it all! Not a bit like Satan!" said the Constable angrily. "You've not been followin'. I never heard so foolish an interruption in all my born days. . . . What be you carryin' in that there bundle, makin' so bold?"
Nicky-Nan felt his heart stand still. "Just my waskit an' a few odds an' ends," he answered with affected nonchalance. Forcing himself to meet Rat-it-all's gaze, and perceiving it to be dreamy rather than suspicious, he added, "What makes 'ee ask?"
"Nothin', . . . nothin'. . . . Only you reminded me of a song I used to sing, back in the old days. It was called 'Off to Philadelphia in the mornin'.' A beautiful voice I used to have: tenor. I shouldn' wonder if I had it yet; only"—with a wistful sigh—"in the Force you got to put that sort o' thing behind you, . . . which brings me back to what I was saying. In an ordinary way, a police-constable's life is like a parson's: they see more'n most men o' what's goin' on, but they don't belong to it. You can't properly hobnob with a chap that, like as not, you'll be called on to marry or bury to-morra, nor stand him a drink—nor be stood—when, quite as like, next time you'll be servin' a summons. There's a Jane on both sides."
"'Tisn' a ''oo,' 'tis an 'it': bein' an expression I got off an Extension Lecturer they had down to Bodmin, one time. I'd a great hankerin', in those days, to measure six foot two in my socks afore I finished growin', and I signed on for his lectures in that hope. With a man callin' his-self by that name and advertisin' as he'd lecture on 'Measure for Measure,' I thought I'd a little bit of all right. But he ran right off the rails an' chatted away about the rummiest things, such as theatricals. I forget what switched 'en off an' on to that partic'lar line: but I well remember his openin' remark. He said, 'To measure the true stature of a great man we must go down to the true roots. A certain Jane is bound to overtake us if we dig too long among the common 'taturs with their un-stopp'd lines an' weak endings and this or that defective early quest. Oh! all profitable, no doubt, an' worth cultivatin' so long as we do not look for taste.' When I woke up at the end 'twas with these words printed in mind same as they've remained. But I couldn' figure out how this here Jane got mixed up in the diet. So, bein' of a practical mind then, in my 'teens, same as I be to-day, I stopped behind and asked him—takin' care to look bright and intelligent—who might be this Jane he'd allooded to. If you'll believe me, it turned out to be no person at all, but a way the gentry have of sayin' they're uncomfortable; same as, through some writin' chap or other, all the papers was talkin' of your belly as your Little Mary."
"When I say 'yours,' o' course I mean to say 'ours'—that's to say, every one's." Rat-it-all made a semicircular sweep of the hand in front of his person.
"Something of a liberty, I should say, however many you include. What I object to in these newspapers is the publicity. . . . But, if you ask my opinion, that Extension fellow made a start with pullin' your leg."
"You're wrong, then. For I tried the expression 'pon Parson Steele only two days ago. 'This here war, sir,' I took occasion to say, 'fairly gives me the Jane.' He reckernised the word at once, an' lugged out his note-book. 'Do you know, constable,' says he, 'that you're talkin' French, an' it's highly interestin'?' 'I make no doubt as 'twould be, sir,' says I, 'if I was to hold on with it.' 'You don't understand,' says he. 'These Gallic turns o' speech'—which, 'tween you an' me, I'd always thought o' Gallic as a kind of acid—'these Gallic turns o' speech,' says he, 'be engagin' the attention of learned men to such an extent that I think o' writin' a paper upon 'em myself,' says he, 'for the Royal Institution o' Cornwall at their next Summer Meetin'.' . . . I was considerably flattered, as you may well understand. . . . But that brings me back to my point. Parsons an' constables, as I see the matter, be men set apart, an' lonely. So when I reads 'pon the paper that this here war has made us all brothers, it strikes HOME, an' I feel inclined to stop an' pass the time o' day with anybody. I don't care who he may be."
"Then why waste time danderin' along the cliffs, here?"
Policeman Rat-it-all lowered his voice. "Between you an' me, again," he confessed, "I got to do my four miles or so every day, for the sake o' my figger."
"'Tis unfortunate then," said Nicky-Nan, taking heart of grace and lying hardily: "for you've missed a lovely dog-fight."
"Where? Whose?" Rat-it-all panted, suddenly all alive and inquisitive.
"Dog-fights don't concern me. . . . It may ha' been Jago's bull-terrier an' that Airedale o' Latter's. Those two seldom meet without a scrap."
"Is it over?" A sudden agitation had taken hold of Rat-it-all's legs.
"Very like," lied Nicky-Nan, now desperately anxious to be rid of him. "I heard somebody callin' for snuff or a pot o' pepper—either o' which they tell me—"
"An' you've kept me dallyin' all this while how-de-doin'?" Rat-it-all made a bolt down the path.
Nicky-Nan watched his disappearing figure, and collapsed upon a thyme-scented hillock in sudden revulsion from a long strain of terror.
He sat there for a good five minutes, staring out on the open waters of the Channel. An armed cruiser, that had been practising gunnery at intervals during the day, was heading home from Plymouth. A tug had come out and was fetching back her targets. Nicky-Nan arose very deliberately, made for his 'taty-patch in the hollow beyond the pilot house, laid his bundle on the ground, and began to dig in and cover his golden coins, fetching a handful at a time. He had buried them all, and was returning at shut of dusk, when he met young 'Bert Penhaligon coming up the path.
"This is the last night for us here," proclaimed young 'Bert, "and I can't say as I'm sorry. But maybe they'll move us."
"How so?" asked Nicky-Nan.
"Well, between you an' me," announced young 'Bert, who during the last week had seemed to put on stature with confidence, "there's a company of Royal Engineer Territorials ordered over from Troy to dig theirselves in an' camp here."
 Hysterics.  Monotonous burthen.
Nicky-Nan arose with the dawn after a night of little sleep. Very cautiously, with one hand feeling the wall, and in the other carrying his boots, lest he should wake the Penhaligons, he stole downstairs to his parlour. The day being Sunday, he could not dare to risk outraging public opinion by carrying shovel or visgy through the open streets. To be sure nobody was likely to be astir at that hour: for Polpier lies late abed on Sunday mornings, the fishermen claiming it as their week's arrears of sleep. None the less it might happen: Un' Benny, for example, was a wakeful old man, given to rising from his couch unreasonably and walking abroad to commune with his Maker. For certain if Nicky-Nan should be met, going or coming, with a shovel on his shoulder, his dereliction from grace would be trumpeted throughout the parish, and—worse, far worse—it would excite curiosity.
In the parlour he provided himself with the plastering trowel and a sack, and wrapped the one in the other into a tight parcel, easily carried under the crook of his arm-pit. With this he tiptoed along the passage. There was no trouble with latch or bolt: for, save in tempestuous weather, the front door of the old house—like half the front doors of the town—stood open all night long. An enormous sea-shell, supposed of Pernambuco, served it for weight or "dog," holding it tight-jammed against the wall of the passage.
Nicky-Nan seated himself on the bench in the porchway and did on his boots. The light was very dim here, and his fingers trembled, so that he took a long time threading the laces through the eyelet-holes. He became aware that his nerves were shaken. At the best of times, with his hurt leg, he found this operation of lacing his boots one of the worst of the day's jobs. It cost him almost as much time as shaving, and far more pain.
But at length the laces were threaded and tied, and tucking his parcel under his arm he set forth. He had forgotten his walking-staff and dared not go back to fetch it. Moreover, in Polpier it is held to be inauspicious if, once started on an enterprise, you turn back for something you have forgotten: and Nicky-Nan, a sceptic by habit, felt many superstitions assailing him this morning. For instance, he had been careful to lace up his right boot before his left.
A high tide filled the inner pool of the harbour, and on its smooth surface several gulls floated, paddling lazily if at all. These birds know Sunday from week-days as well as any Christian folk: which is nothing very wonderful, for the Polpier boats have lain at home all the night and there is no fish-offal drifting about. Nicky-Nan counted the birds carefully, and drew a breath of relief on assuring himself that they totalled fifteen—an odd number and a lucky one. But he had no sooner done so than, as if they had been waiting for him, to signal misfortune, two of the flock arose, pattered for a moment on the water, wheeled upward twice, thrice, in short circles, and sailed off. His heart sank as he did the small sum in subtraction: but he controlled himself, noting that they sailed off to the right.
It was pretty to see them rising out of the blue liquid shadow of the harbour-pool; rising until, in a flash, they took the morning sun-ray that struck almost level across the top of the chasm, and were transformed into winged jewels, dazzling the eye. But Nicky-Nan scarcely marked this, being preoccupied with his cares and fears: for where a man's treasure is, there will his heart be also. Nor did he note at the bend of the cliff, which brought him in turn, after a long climb, face to face with the sun, that already its beams were warming the dew-drenched cushions of thyme on either side of the track, and drawing delicious odour from them. The ray, smiting full in his eyes for a moment or two, hid from him all details of the landscape ahead and on his left, even as effectually as it hid the stars of night. Nicky-Nan hobbled on for a few paces, blinking. Then, with a catch of the breath, he came to a halt. His vision clearing by degrees, he let out a gasp and his knees shook under him.
A couple of hundred yards away, and for half a mile beyond that, the green turf was populous with soldiery!
For some miles east and west of our haven the coast-front runs, as it were, in two tiers. From the sea rises a sheer face of naked rock, averaging some two hundred feet in height, for the most part unscaleable, but here and there indented with steep gully-ways, down each of which, through thickets of cow-parsley, flax, kale, and brambles, matted curtains of ground-ivy, tussocks of thrift and bladder-campion, a rivulet tumbles to the brine. Above this runs a narrow terrace or plat of short turf, where a man may walk with his hands in his pockets; and here, with many ups and downs, runs the track used by the coastguard, who blaze the stones beside it at intervals with splashes of whitewash, for guidance on dark nights. Above this plateau, which here expands to a width of twenty or thirty feet and anon contracts almost to nothing, the cliff takes another climb, right away now to the skyline; but the acclivity is gentler, with funnel-shaped turfy hollows between bastions of piled rock not unlike Dartmoor tors or South African kopjes in miniature. On top of all runs a second terrace, much broader than the first, and a low hedge, beyond which, out of sight, the cultivated land begins.
Hard by the foot of one of these rock-bastions, on a fan-shaped plat of green, backed by clumps of ivy and wind-tortured thorns, a group of tents had sprung up like a cluster of enormous mushrooms. More tents aligned the upper terrace, under the lee of the hedge: and here also five or six waggons stood against the sky-line, with men busy about them. Smaller knots of men in khaki toiled in the hollows, dragging down poles, sleepers, bundles of rope, parcels of picks and entrenching spades for the lower camp. Twos and threes, perched precariously on the rock-ridges, held on to check-ropes, guiding the descent of the heavier gear. The sound of voices shouting orders came borne on the clear morning air; and above it, as Nicky-Nan halted, rose the note of a bugle, on which somebody was practising to make up for time lost in days of peace.
Nicky-Nan pulled his wits together and stumbled forward, terror in his heart. Could he reach the 'taty-patch and snatch his treasure before these invaders descended upon it?
The patch (as has been told) lay in a hollow, concealed from sight of the pilot-house. The cliff-track crossed a sharp knoll and brought you upon it suddenly. Nicky-Nan's heart beat fast, and unconsciously he accelerated his hobble almost to a run. As he pulled up short on the edge of the dip a sob broke from him—almost a cry.
Below him a couple of men in khaki were measuring the hollow with a field-tape; while a third—an officer—stood almost midway between them pencilling notes in a book. The tape stretched clean across the potato-patch.
"Right!" announced the officer, not perceiving Nicky, whose shadow, of course, lay behind on the path.
The nearer man—a stout corporal—dropped his end of the measuring-tape. The other wound it up slowly.
"We'll have to lay the trench through here," said the officer; and quoted, "'I'm sorry for Mr Naboth—I'm sorry to cause him pain;' but you, corporal, must find him and tell him he'll get compensation for disturbance." He pocketed his note-book, turned, and mounted the slope towards the encampment. The soldier holding the spool on the far side of the dip finished winding the tape very leisurably; which gave it the movement and appearance of a long snake crawling back to him across Nicky-Nan's potato-tops and over Nicky-Nan's fence. Then, shutting the spool with a click, he turned away and followed his officer. The stout corporal, left alone, seated himself on a soft cushion of thyme, drew forth a pipe from his hip-pocket, and was in the act of lighting it when Nicky-Nan descended upon him.
"And 'oo may you be?" asked the stout corporal, turning about as he puffed.
"You—you've no business here!" stammered Nicky wrathfully. "The first sojer I catch trespassin' on my piece o' ground, I'll have the law on him!"
"Hullo! Be you the owner o' this patch, then?"
"Yes, I be: and I tell 'ee you've no business messin' around my property."
The corporal removed the pipe from his mouth and rubbed its bowl softly against the side of his nose. "So you said, to be sure. I didn' laugh at the moment, not bein' a triggerish chap at a joke. But it'll come in time. That's why I joined the sappers."
"I takes a pleasure in redoocin' things. . . . Well, if you be the owner o' this here patch, the pleasure is mootual, for you've saved me time an' trouble over and above your speakin' so humorous. And what might your name be, makin' so bold?"
"You don't say so! . . . Christian name?"
"'Tis a fair co-incidence," mused the corporal aloud. "I knew a man once by the name of Nanjivell—a fish-dealer; but he was called Daniel, an' he's dead, what's more. I remember him all the better, because once upon a time, in my young days, I made a joke upon him, so clever it surprised myself. It began with my sendin' in a bill 'Account rendered' that he'd already paid. I started by tellin' 'ee that I was young at the time. 'Twas before I married my wife to look after the books, an' I won't say that I wasn' a bit love-struck an' careless. Anyway, in went that dam bill; and he'd kep' the receipt, which made him fair furious. Mad as fire he was, an' wrote me a letter about it. Such a saucy letter! 'Twas only last Christmas or thereabouts I found it in my desk an' tore it up. But I got even with him. 'Dear sir,'—I wrote back, 'your favour of the 5th instant received an' unchristian spirit of the same duly noted. On inquiry I find the 3 lb. of sausages to esteemed order was paid for on Lady-day: which on cooler thoughts you will see in the light of a slip as might have happened to anybody. Which in fact it did in this case. P.S.—Nanjivell ought to rhyme with civil. What a mistake when it rhymes with D—!—Yours faithfully'—and I signed my name. Then, on second thoughts, I tacked on another pos'script. At this distance o' time I can't be sure if 'twas 'Flee from the Wrath to Come' or 'The Wages o' Sin is Death'—but I think the latter, as bein' less easily twisted into a threat. . . . That," added the corporal after a pause, "closed the correspondence."
"And where," Nicky-Nan asked, "might all this have happened?"
"At Penryn: which, for electoral purposes, is one borough with Falmouth. . . . I hoped as you would ha' laughed: but I'm glad to find you interested, anyway. Sandercock is my name, if you can make anything o' that,—Eli Sandercock, Fore Street, Penryn, pork and family butcher. You've heard o' Sandercock's hogs-puddin's I don't doubt?"