"Haven't travelled much, maybe?"
"Knocked about a little. . . . Mostly on the China station an' South Pacific."
"Ah, they're hot climates, by all accounts. They wouldn't—no, o' course they wouldn't—"
"Bring you into contact, so to speak. . . . You should see my vi'lets, too."
"They go together. You may notice the same thing in Truro: everybody that sells pork sells vi'lets."
"Damme if I can see the connexion—"
"You wouldn't—not at first. Vi'lets is a delicate way of advertisin' that there's an r in the month, an' your pork by consequence can be relied on. My wife, too, is never happy without a great bowlful o' vi'lets on the counter, done up in bunches: she thinks they suit her complexion. Now this patch o' yours'd be the very place to raise vi'lets. I was thinkin' so just now when I measured it. Suffer much from red-spider in these parts?"
"Not so far as I know. . . . But 'tis a curious thing," went on Nicky-Nan, "to find a man like you turned to sojerin'."
"Ah," cried Corporal Sandercock, eager for sympathy, "yes, well you may say that! It seems like a dream. . . . Of course in the pork-business August is always a slack month, an' this blasted War couldn' have happened at a more convenient season for pork, not if the Kaiser had consulted me."
"But what drove 'ee to it?"
"Into the Engineers? Well, 'tis hard to say. . . . I always had leanin's: an' then the sausages preyed on my mind—they look so much like fuses. So, what with one thing and another, and my wife likin' to see me in scarlet, with piping down my legs, which is what we wear on Sundays—'Tis a long story, however, an' we can talk it over as we're diggin' up yer 'taties."
"'Diggin' up my 'taties'?" Nicky-Nan echoed with a quaver. "Let me catch you tryin' it!"
"Now, we're comin' to business," said Corporal Sandercock. "That's what the O.C. told me—Captain Whybro, commandin' Number 4 Works Company, Cornwall Fortress Royal Engineers. 'Here's where we carry our first trench,' says he; 'an' here, if wit o' man can grasp the why or the wherefore,' says he, 'is a filthy potato-patch lyin' slap across our line. Corporal,' says he to me, 'you're a family man an' tactful. I detach you,' says he, 'to search the blighter out an' request him to lift his crop without delay. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again,' says he, 'an' the more you run around the better it'll be for your figure, an' the more you'll thank me,' he winds up, 'when we march together into Berlin.' So now you understand how welcome you dropped in. . . . 'Tis a terribly hilly country hereabouts."
"If there's law in England," Nicky-Nan threatened, "you'll keep clear o' this here patch o' mine, or it'll be the worse for 'ee!"
Corporal Sandercock seated himself leisurably on a hillock of thyme, began to knock out his pipe against the edge of his boot-sole, and suddenly exploded in laughter so violent that he was forced to hold his sides. The exhibition took Nicky-Nan right aback. He could but stand and stare.
"Oh, oh!" panted the corporal. After another paroxysm he gasped, "You'll excuse me, but that's how I get taken. 'You've got no business here' was your words." (Another paroxysm.) "You can't think how comical you said it, either."
"Comical or not, I mean it," Nicky-Nan assured him, with a saturnine frown. "If you can give over holdin' your belly an' listen, I don't mind tellin' you my opinion o' this here War; which is, that 'tis a put-up job from start to finish, with no other object than to annoy folks."
The corporal sat up, wiping his eyes. "That's a point o' voo," he admitted, and added guardedly, "I don't say as I agree: but I'd like to know how, comin' upon all of us so suddent, it strikes a man like you, dwellin' in these out-o'-the-way parts. My wife declares she've seen matters workin' up to it for years."
"I never thought about it, one way or t'other, an' I don't want to think about it now. Who in the world wants war? Not I, for one."
"Me either, if it comes to that," Corporal Sandercock allowed, refilling his pipe. "If the matter had rested with me, I'd ha' gone on forming fours every Wednesday an' Saturday, contented enough, all the rest o' my life. But the great ones of earth will have it, the Kaiser especially: and, after that, there's no more to say. The Kaiser wants a place in the sun, as he puts it; an' 'tis our bounden duty as true Britons to see he don't get any such thing."
"I never heard tell as he expressed a hankerin' for my 'taty-patch," answered Nicky Nan sourly. "The way I look at it is, he leaves me alone in quiet, an' you don't. A pack o' sojers messin' about a spot like this!" he added with scorn. "It affronts a decent man's understandin'. But 'tis always the same wi' sojers. In the Navy, when I belonged it, we had a sayin'—'A messmate afore a ship-mate, a ship mate afore a dog, an' a dog afore a sojer.'"
"To judge by your appearance," said the corporal with no sign of umbrage, "that was some time ago, afore they started the Territorial movement. . . . Ever study what they call Stradegy? No?—I thought not. Stradegy means that down below your patch there's a cove o' sorts: where there's a cove there's a landin'-place; where you can get a light gun ashore you can clear the shore till you find a spot to land heavy guns. Once you've landed heavy guns you've a-took Plymouth in the rear. You follow me?" Corporal Sandercock stood up and picked up a crumb or two of tobacco from the creases of his tunic. "I'll go fetch a fatigue party to harvest these spuds o' yours," said he. "There'll be compensation for disturbance. If you like, you can come along an' bargain it out wi' the O.C."
"No," said Nicky-Nan, snatching at this happy chance. "I'm a lame one, as you see. What must be, must, I suppose: but while you step along I'll bide here."
"So long, then!"
The corporal had no sooner turned his back than Nicky began to unwrap his bundle in a fumbling haste. He watched the rotund figure as it waddled away over the rise; and so, dropping on his knees, fell to work furiously. The sun was already making its warmth felt. In less than five minutes the sweat trickled off his forehead and dropped on his wrists as he dug with his unhandy trowel and grabbed at the soil.
Something more than a quarter of an hour had passed when, looking up for the fiftieth time, he spied the corporal returning down the grassy slope, alone. By this time his job was nearly done; and after finishing it he had the presence of mind to dig up a quart or so of potatoes and spread them over the gold coins in his sack.
"What in thunder's your hurry?" demanded the corporal, halting for a moment on the crest of the rise and gazing down. "I told you as I'd fetch a party to clear the patch for you; an', what's more, the spuds shall be delivered to your door sometime this very day. But the Captain can't spare a man this side o' nine o'clock, an' so I was to tell you." He descended the slope, mopping his brow. "Pretty good tubers?"
Nicky-Nan hypocritically dived a hand into the sack, drew forth a fistful, and held them out in his open palm.
"Ay, and a very tidy lot," the corporal nodded. "And what might be the name of 'em?"
"Duchess o' Cornwall they're called: one o' the new Maincrops, an' one o' the best. East-country grown. You may pull half a dozen or so for yourself if you'll do me the favour to accept 'em."
"Thank 'ee, friend. There's nothin' I relish more than a white-fleshed 'taty, well-grown an' well-boiled. Not a trace o' disease anywhere," observed the corporal, running his eye over the rows and bringing it to rest on the newly-turned soil at his feet. "Eh? Hullo!"
He stooped and picked up a sovereign.
"That's mine!" Nicky-Nan claimed it hastily. "I must ha' dropped it—"
"Well, I didn', anyway—an' that's honest." The corporal handed it over with just a trace of reluctance. "But it only shows," he added, eyeing Nicky-Nan thoughtfully, "as there's nothing in this world so deceptive as appearances."
THE SECOND SERMON.
"For Zion's sake will I not hold my peace, and for Jerusalem's sake I will not rest, until the righteousness thereof go forth as brightness, and the salvation thereof as a lamp that burneth."
". . . And thou shalt be called by a new name. . . . Thou shalt no more be termed Forsaken; neither shall thy land be termed Desolate: but thou shalt be called Hephzi-bah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married. . . ."
". . . I have set watchmen upon thy walls, O Jerusalem, which shall never hold their peace day nor night."
". . . The Lord hath sworn by his right hand, and by the arm of his strength, 'Surely I will no more give thy corn to be meat for thine enemies; and the sons of the stranger shall not drink thy wine, for the which thou hast laboured. But they that have gathered it shall eat it, and praise the Lord; and they that have brought it together shall drink it . . . in the courts of my holiness.'"
"Go through, go through the gates; prepare ye the way of the people; cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones; lift up a standard for the people."
"Behold, the Lord hath proclaimed unto the end of the world, 'Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh; behold, his reward is with him,' and his work before him. And they shall call them 'The Holy People, the Redeemed of the Lord,' and thou shalt be called, 'Sought out, A City Not Forsaken.'"
Mr Hambly closed the great Book upon the cushion and leaned forward, resting his arms over it.
"I want you," said he after a pause, very solemnly and slowly, "to apply those words not only to ourselves, of whom we are accustomed to think, too particularly and too complacently, as a chosen people; but to the whole as the free peoples of Western Europe, with whom to-day we stand in alliance and as one. If you apply them at all particularly, let France and Belgium be first in your minds, with their harvest-fields and vineyards, as you listen to the Lord's promise, 'By the arm of my strength, surely I will no more give thy corn to be meat for thine enemies, and the sons of the stranger shall not drink thy wine for which thou hast laboured.'
"For our own land, England, if we are really to vindicate it out of this struggle as Beulah—that is, 'married,' the bride of the Lord—I wish you to consider how far the God of this noble oath has advanced upon the old bloodthirsty Jehovah of the book of Joshua. He is not yet, in Isaiah, the all-living, all-comprehending God the Father of the Gospel: but if we halt on Him here, we are already a long way advanced from that tribal and half-bestial conception of the Deity which Joshua invoked and (as it seems to me) the German Emperor habitually invokes.
"I see no harm in priding ourselves that we have advanced beyond the German Emperor's schoolboyish conception of Jehovah. As a greater and far more highly bred and educated Emperor—an Emperor of Rome— once warned us, 'The best part of revenge is not to be like them.'
"Well, that is the point on which I would specially caution you this morning. When an adversary suddenly and brutally assaults us, his ferocity springing from the instinct of a lower civilisation—as when a farm-dog leaps upon us in the road—our first instinct is to fall back and meet him on the ground of his own savagery, to give him an exact tit for his tat. But can you not see that, as we do this, and in proportion as we do it, we allow him to impose himself on us and relinquish our main advantage? It is idle to practise a higher moral code, if we abandon it hurriedly as soon as it is challenged by a lower.
"Bearing this in mind, you will not in the next few minutes say to yourselves, 'Our minister has ill chosen his time—now, with the enemy at our gates—to be preaching to us that we should be confirming what little hold we have on the divine purpose, to advance upon it; to counsel our striving to pierce further into the mind of God; when all the newspapers tell us that, for success in war, we should enter into the minds of our enemies.'
"For, let me tell you, all knowledge is one under God; and the way of theology—which should be the head and crown of the sciences—not different from the way of what we call the 'natural' sciences, such as chemistry, or geology, or medicine. Of wisdom we may say with Ecclesiasticus: The first man knew her not perfectly, neither shall the last man find her out. But that does not matter. What matters for us, in our generation, is that we improve our knowledge and use it to make ourselves comparatively wiser—comparatively, that is, with our old selves as well as with our enemies. 'Knowledge,' they say, 'is power'; which, if it mean anything, must mean that A, by knowing a little more than B, has made himself, to that extent, more powerful than B.
"Now by saying that the way of all the sciences is one, I mean just this: that the true process of each is to refer effects to their real causes, not to false ones, and in the search to separate what is relevant from what is irrelevant and—so far as we can discover— quite accidental. For example, when a pestilence such as typhoid fever broke out in Polpier five or six hundred years ago, your forefathers attributed it to the wrath of God visiting them for their sins: and to be sure it is good that men, under calamity, should reflect on their sins, but only because it is good for them to reflect on their sins at all times and under any circumstance. Nowadays you would have your well-water analysed and ask what the Sanitary Inspector had been about. Or, again, if a fire were to devastate our little town, we should not smite our breasts in the manner of those same forefathers, and attribute it to what there is amongst us of sloth and self-indulgence, to God's wrath upon our drinking habits or our neglect of Sunday observance: we should trace it to a foul chimney and translate our discovery into a Bye-law, maybe into a local Fire Brigade. That is how men improve their knowledge, and, through their knowledge, their wellbeing—by sifting out what is relevant.
"Do you suppose that irrelevances account for this war any more than they account for a fire or a pestilence; or that they will any more help us to grapple with it? Truly it would seem so," sighed Mr Hambly. "A great deal of fervid stuff was uttered in England last Sunday by archbishops, bishops, presidents of this and that Free Church; and the 'religious newspapers' have been full of these utterances. God forgive my presumption that, as I walk the streets of Polpier, I seem to hear all these popular men preaching with acceptance about nothing in particular!
"They all start by denouncing or deploring Germany's obvious sins: her exaltation of Might against Right, her lust of world-dominion, the ruthlessness of her foreign policy, the vainglorious boastings of her professors. No great harm in this!—for all these have contributed to bring this war about, and are therefore relevant. But when the preacher turns to the examination—for us so much more profitable—of our own sins, what has the preacher to say? Why, always in effect that, though it passeth comprehension why Germany should be chosen to punish us (being so much worse than ourselves), we deserve punishment somehow for our drinking, swearing, and gambling habits, for the state of the poor in our cities, for our worship of wealth, for having a Liberal Government. . . .
"Absurd as it may seem, that last gets nearest to sense; for wars are made, or at any rate accepted by, governments; and in a democratic country the government of the day represents the nation, or the nation is to blame. But believe me, my friends, God does not punish in this haphazard way. He punishes scientifically; or rather he allows men to punish themselves, by reaping the evil from the cause they have planted or neglected to remove: and the harvest comes true to the seed.
"The War as yet is scarcely a week old. It came upon us like a thief in the night, and as yet none of us can tell how far we are blameworthy. We have not the evidence.
"There will be time enough, when we have it, to search out the true reasons for national penitence. I do not believe in being penitent at haphazard: I have too much respect for that spiritual exercise. Still less do I believe in running up to God's mercy-seat with a lapful of unassorted sins and the plea, 'Dear Lord, we are doubtless guilty of all these. Being in affliction, we are probably right in believing that one or more of them has provoked Thy displeasure, and are ready to do penance for any if it will please Thee to specify. Meanwhile, may we suggest horse-racing or profane language?' We may be sure, then, that the sin suggested, as a conjurer forces a card, is not a relevant one. We may be fairly sure also that it is one with which some neighbour is more chargeable than are we ourselves. The priests of Baal were foolish to cut themselves with knives, but it is to be set to their credit that they used real ones.
"You will observe that Isaiah constantly, in his words of highest promise to her, speaks of Zion as to be redeemed, and her glory as something to be restored: which implies that her bliss will lie, not in acquiring some new possession, but in regaining a something she has lost or forfeited. Have we of England in our day built such a Jerusalem that merely to have it again is our dearest hope for the end of this War?
"I come back to my main proposition, and will conclude with one word of immediate practical advice—the best I can offer, as a plain man, in these days when the minds of all are confused.
"My main proposition is that, all knowledge being one in its process, our best chance of reading God's mind lies in thinking just as practically, rationally, relevantly about divine things as scientific men take care to do about scientific things, and as you or I should take care to do about the ordinary things of life. If we only thought of God as important enough, we should do that as a matter of course. If we then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to our children . . . We in England to-day are as yet a long way off the philosophy of Jesus Christ. That is too hard for us altogether, it seems. But we ought to be abreast with Isaiah, which is a long way ahead of Joshua and the German Emperor.
"For my word of practical advice—I counsel you, as a people, not to waste time in flurried undiscriminating repentance; not to fuss, in short, until, having learnt where and how you ought to repent, you can repent effectually. That knowledge may come soon: more likely it will come late. Meanwhile the danger is instant. Every man in this church," concluded Mr Hambly, "has a strong sense—a conviction, which I share—that the cause of England is right, that she is threatened and calls to him as he has never heard her call in his lifetime: and the call is to fight for her, but as men not straying to learn a new gospel of hate, remembering rather what at the best our Country has been, and proud to vindicate that."
"Silly old rigmarole," commented Miss Oliver on the way home. "If you can tell me what it was all about!"
"If 'twas no worse than silly there'd be no harm done. When it comes to hinting that the Almighty hasn't a purpose of His own for typhoid fever, in my opinion it's time some one made a public protest."
"I don't see what good that would do. On his own showing it 'd lie between the Lord an' Scantlebury, the Sanitary Inspector. He'd no business to speak so pointed: an' I always hate personalities for my part. But I daresay Scantlebury won't mind, if it comes to his ears even—"
"Scantlebury!" exclaimed Mrs Polsue with a sniff. "He only got the job through his son's being a local preacher and him a freemason. Do you think Scantlebury could make typhoid fever, if he tried?"
"Well, no; if you put it in that way. A Board School was as high as ever his parents could afford to send him: and then he went into the greengrocery, and at one time was said to be going to fail for over three hundred, when this place was found for him. A fair-spoken little man, but scientific in no sense o' the word."
There was a pause.
"The silly man collected himself towards the end," said Mrs Polsue. "There was sense enough in what he said about every man's duty just now—that it was to fight, not to argue; though, after his manner, he didn't pitch it half strong enough. . . . I've been thinking that very thing over, Charity Oliver, ever since the Vicarage meetin', and it seems to me that if we're to be an Emergency Committee in anything better than name, our first business should be to stir up the young men to enlist. The way these tall fellows be hangin' back, and their country callin' out for them! There's young Seth Minards, for instance; an able-bodied young man if ever there was one. But I don't mind telling you I'm taking some steps to stir up their consciences."
"I did hear," said her friend sweetly, "that you had been stirring up the women. In fact it reached me, dear, that Mrs Penhaligon had already chased you to the door with a besom—and she the mildest woman, which no doubt you reckoned on for a beginning. But if you mean to tackle the young men as well—though I can't call to mind that the Vicarage meetin' set it down as any part of your duties—"
"I don't take my orders from any Vicarage meeting," snapped Mrs Polsue; "not at any time, and least of all in an emergency like this, when country and conscience call me together to a plain duty. As for Mrs Penhaligon, you were misinformed, and I advise you to be more careful how you listen to gossip. The woman was insolent, but she did not chase me—as you vulgarly put it, no doubt repeating your informant's words—she did not chase me out of doors with a besom. On the contrary, she gave me full opportunity to say what I thought of her."
"Yes; so I understood, dear: and it was after that, and in consequence (as I was told) that she—"
"If you are proposing, Charity Oliver, to retail this story to others, you may drag in a besom if you will. But as a fact Mrs Penhaligon resorted to nothing but bad language, in which she was backed up by her co-habitant, or whatever you prefer to call him, the man Nanjivell."
"Yes, I heard that he took a hand in it." "There you are right. He took a hand in it to the extent of informing me that Mrs Penhaligon was under his charge, if you ever heard anything so brazen. . . . I have often wondered," added Mrs Polsue, darkly musing, "why Polpier has not, before this, become as one of the Cities of the Plain."
"Have you?" asked Miss Oliver. "If I let such a thought trouble my head, I'd scarce close an eye when I went to bed."
"But what puzzles me," went on Mrs Polsue, "is how that Nanjivell found the pluck. Every one knows him for next door to a pauper: and yet he spoke up, as if he had pounds an' to spare."
"Perhaps you irritated him," suggested Miss Oliver. "Everybody knows that, poor as folks may be, if you try to set them right beyond a certain point—"
The two ladies, in this amiable converse, had drawn near to the bridge-end. They were suddenly aware of a party of six soldiers in khaki, headed by a corporal, advancing over the bridge in file. Each pair of soldiers carried between them a heavy sack, swinging it slowly as they marched.
The ladies drew aside, curious. The soldiers halted in front of the Old Doctor's House. The corporal—a stout man—walked into the porch-way and knocked.
Mrs Penhaligon answered the knock, and after a short colloquy was heard to call back into the passage summoning Mr Nanjivell.
In half a minute Nicky-Nan hobbled out. Meanwhile, their passage over the bridge being clear ahead, our two ladies had no good excuse for lingering. Yet they lingered. When all was said and done, no such sight as that of seven soldiers in khaki had been witnessed in Polpier within living memory. The child population of Polpier was indoors, expectant of dinner; and the squad missed the compliment of attention that would certainly have been paid it ten minutes earlier or an hour later.
"Here are your spuds," announced Corporal Sandercock, "with the Commandin' Officer's compliments." He paused, seemingly in wrestle with an inward reluctance. He plunged his right hand into his breeches pocket. "And here," said he, "be two sovereigns picked up in addition to the one you dropped this mornin'. It softens my surprise a bit," Corporal Sandercock added, "now that I see the house you occupy, and," with a glance at Mrs Penhaligon—"the style you maintain. But for a man o' seemin'ly close habits, you're terribly flippant with your loose gold."
When Polpier folk had occasion to talk of soldiers and soldiering—a far-away theme to which the mind seldom wandered—their eyes would become pensive and their voices take an accent of pity tinged with gentle contempt. 'There were such men. People back inland, among various strange avocations, followed this one; at a shilling a-day, too!' Some months before, as young Seth Minards happened to be dandering along the western cliff-track, he was met and accosted by an officer in uniform, who asked him many questions about the coast, its paths, the coves where a boat might be beached in moderate weather, &c., and made notes on the margin of a map. "Who was that tall chap I see'd 'ee in talk with, up by th' Peak?" asked Un' Benny Rowett later in the day. "A Cap'n Something-or-other," answered Seth; "I didn't catch his full name." "Walked over from Troy, I s'pose? Queer how these ship-cap'ns enjoy stretchin' their legs after a passage—the furriners especially. But there! 'tis nat'ral." "He wasn' a ship-cap'n." "What? a mine-cap'n?—ay, to be sure, that accounts for the colour of his clothes. . . . Out o' work, was he? There's been a lot o' distress down in the Minin' District lately." "You're wrong again," said Seth: "he's a gun-sojer, or so he told me." "What, an army-cap'n? . . . But I oft to ha' guessed. Come to think, he didn' look scarcely more 'n that."
Polpier, indeed, had not seen a troop of soldiers since the Napoleonic era, when (as has been related) the Old Doctor raised a company of Volunteer Artillery. Here we were, after more than a hundred years, at war again for what the newspapers called "our national existence"; and behold within five days Polpier had become a centre of military activity! The people, who during those five days had talked more about the career of arms and those who followed it than in five decades before, had insensibly—or, at least, without sense of inconsistency—passed from amused contempt to a lively interest, even though in speech they kept to the old tone of light cynicism. Nor was this tone affected to cover a right-about-face; it simply meant that a habit of speech could not quite so quickly as a habit of thought adapt itself to retreat.
Of a sudden, and almost before it could own to this nascent interest, Polpier found itself flattered and exalted to military importance. That Sunday afternoon the whole town pretermitted its afternoon nap and flocked up past the Warren to view the camp. As Miss Oliver observed, "It was an object-lesson: it brought home some of the realities of war to you."
"Some," agreed Mrs Polsue. "If I was you, dear, I wouldn' gush over such things, but rather pray the Lord against sendin' too many of 'em. It wouldn' altogether surprise me," she added darkly, "if the after-consequences of this was worse than any Revival Meetin'."
The O.C. had very wisely let it be known that, though in future it would be necessary to draw lines about his encampment, station guards, and allow entrance only by written permit, on this first day the public were welcome to roam among the tents and satisfy their curiosity. His company might be stationed here for some months to come, and he wished to start on neighbourly terms. He had been told, moreover, that Polpier as a recruiting-ground was virgin soil. His sappers were instructed, therefore, to make every one welcome, and especially any likely-looking young men who asked questions or otherwise showed an interest.
Curiously enough—and strangely, unless you know Polpier and West-country people—it was the likely-looking young men who hung back and showed least interest that afternoon. A few of them who had sweethearts were jealous, perhaps: it is not pleasant when the girl you love suddenly abstracts from you the Sunday attention on which you have come to count and transfers it enthusiastically—even if generally—to a number of young strangers, artlessly surrendering to a certain glamour in them because they are doing what never occurred to you.
But in the main these young men hung back just because they were interested; because, being interested, they were shy. This camp spoke, or should speak, to them: its business, its proper meaning, could only be for them. They could not lay full account with the feeling. But these old men conning the gear and shaking heads so wisely—these middle-aged Sabbath couples pacing around and hanging on heel to wonder how the soldiers packed themselves at night into quarters so narrow, or advancing and peering among utensils of cookery—most of all the young women giggling while they wondered at this, that, or the' other,—all were impertinent to the scene. Whatever War signified, it was a mystery for men, and for young men.
The crowd thinned towards five o'clock, which is Polpier's Sunday hour for tea. On a tussock of thyme above Nicky-Nan's freshly cleared patch—the very tussock on which Corporal Sandercock had rested that morning—young Obed Pearce, the farmer's son, sat and sucked at a pipe of extinct tobacco. Hunger of heart had dragged him down to have a look at the camp: then, coming in full sight of it, he had halted as before the presence of something holy, to which he dared approach no nearer.
He had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, as the thick of the crowd was dispersing. He had no young woman to bring with him, to allay her curiosity. Farmers' sons marry late, and are deliberate in choosing. It is the traditional rule. Young fishermen, on the other hand, claim their sweethearts early and settle down to a long probation of walking-out, waiting their turn while, by process of nature, old people die and cottages fall empty.
Such is economic law in Polpier: and in accordance with it young Obed Pearce sat and drew at his pipe alone: whereas when young Seth Minards, by two years his junior, came along at a slow walk with hands deep in his trouser-pockets and no maiden on his arm or by his side, Obed felt no incongruity in challenging him.
"Hullo, young Seth! Not found a maid yet?"
"No: nor likely to." Young Seth halted. If he had not found a damsel it was not for lack of good looks. He had a face for a Raphael to paint; the face of a Stephen or a Sebastian; gloomed over just now, as he halted with his shoulders to the sunset. "I can't think o' such things in these times, Mr Obed."
"Nor me," said the farmer's son, discovering that his pipe was out and feeling in his pocket for a box of matches.
"There's no hurry for you, Mr Obed." "Isn't there? . . . Well, I suppose not, thank goodness! Here, take a fill o' baccy an' tell me what you think of it. I mean, o' course"—with a jerk of his hand towards the camp—"what you think o' that there?"
"I wish I could tell 'ee offhand," answered Seth after a pause, carefully filling his pipe. "I was puzzlin' it over as I came along."
"I see nothing to puzzle, for a man placed as you be," said Obed, drawing hard on his pipe. "If you had a father and a mother, now, both draggin' hard on your coat-tails—My God!" he broke off, staring at the sappers moving on the hillside. "What wouldn't I give to be like any o' those?"
"If you feel it like that," Seth encouraged him, "the way's plain, surely? Father nor mother—no, nor wife nor child, if I had 'em— could hinder me."
"What hinders you then, lucky man?" Seth smoked for a while in silence. "I don't think as I'd answer 'ee," he said at length quietly, "if I thought my answerin' would carry weight in your mind. You to call me lucky!—when your way's clear, and all you want is the will."
"We'll pass that," said Obed. "To you, that have none at home to hinder, ben't the way clear?"
"Since you ask me, 'tis not; or if clear, clear contrary."
"How should that be, in God's name?"
"I'd rather you didn' ask."
"But I do. . . . Look here, Seth Minards, I'm in trouble: and I don't know how 'tis, but you're the sort o' chap one turns to. Sit down, now, like a friend."
Seth seated himself on the turf. "It's a strange thing, is War," said he after a pause. "All my life I've abominated it—yes, the very thought of it."
"All my life," said Obed, "I've reckoned it—I can't tell you why— the only test of a man."
"'Tis an evil thing; yes, to be sure, and a devilish," said Seth, musing. "Men killing one another—and the widows left, an' the orphans, on both sides. War's the plainest evil in all the world; and if I join in it, 'tis to help evil with my eyes open. All my life, sir, I've held by the Sermon on the Mount."
"I've read it," said Obed Pearce. "Go on."
"Without it I'm lost. Then along comes this very worst evil," he gazed towards the camp on the slope, "and here it is, callin' me in the name o' my Country, tauntin', askin' me why I can't make up my mind to be a man!" Seth checked a groan. "You see," he went on, "we looks at it, sir, in different ways, but they both hurt. I be main sorry if my own trouble o' mind adds any weight to your'n. But th' Bible says that, though one man's burden be 'most as heavy as another's, the pair may halve the whole load by sharin' it—or that's as I read the tex'."
Young Obed ground his teeth. "Maybe you haven't to endure this sort o' thing!" On a fierce impulse he pulled an envelope from his pocket, seemed to repent, then hardened his courage, and slowly drew forth—three white feathers, "It came to me this morning, anonymous." His face was crimson.
"Maybe I have," answered Seth tranquilly, and produced an envelope containing three feathers precisely similar. "But what signifies a dirty trick o' that sort? It only tells what be in some other unfort'nate person's mind. It don't affect what's in my own,"
"Hullo!" hailed a voice behind them. "Comparin' love-letters, you young men?"
The speaker was Nicky-Nan, come to survey the desolation of his 'taty-patch. Young Obed hastily crammed his envelope into his pocket. But Seth Minards turned about with a frank smile.
"You may see mine, Mr Nanjivell. Look what some kind friend sent me this mornin'!"
"Well, I s'wow!" exclaimed Nicky-Nan, after a silence of astonishment. "If I didn' get such another Prince o' Wales's plume, an' this very mornin' too!"
"You?" cried the two young men together. "See here"—Nicky in his turn pulled forth an envelope. "But what do it signify at all? 'Tis all a heathen mystery to me."
"Well, and how are we getting along?" asked the Vicar two days later, as he entered the morning-room where his wife sat busily addressing circulars and notices of sub-committee meetings.
She looked up, with a small pucker on her forehead. "I suppose it is drudgery; but do you know, Robert," she confessed, "I really believe I could get to like this sort of thing in time?"
He laughed, a trifle wistfully. "And do you know, Agatha, why it is that clergymen and their wives so seldom trouble the Divorce Court— in comparison, we'll say, with soldiers and soldiers' wives? . . . No, you are going to answer wrong. It isn't because the parsons are better men—for I don't believe they are."
"Then it seems to follow that their wives must be better women!"
"You're wrong again. It's because the wife of a parish priest, even when she has no children of her own"—here the Vicar winced, flushed, and went on rapidly—"nine times out of ten has a whole parish to mother—clothing-clubs, Sunday-school classes, mothers' meetings, children's outings, choir feasts,—it's all looking after people, clothing 'em, feeding 'em, patting 'em on the head or boxing their ears and telling 'em to be good—which is just the sort of business a virtuous woman delights in. She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household and a portion to her maidens. 'A portion to her maidens'; you see she used to measure out the butter in Solomon's time."
"It wouldn't do in this parish," she said with a laugh. "They'd give notice at once."
"God forgive me that I brought you to this parish, Agatha!"
"Now if you begin to talk like that—when I've really made a beginning!" She pointed in triumph to the stacks of missives on the writing-table.
"It's I who bungled, the other day, when I suggested your giving Mrs Polsue a duplicate list of the names and addresses. I thought it would please her and save you half the secretarial labour; and now it appears that you like the secretarial labour!"
"What has happened?" Mrs Steele asked. "Well, young Obed Pearce rode over to see me yesterday. He's in great distress of mind, poor fellow; dying to enlist and serve his country, but held back by his parents, who won't hear of it. As if this wasn't torture enough, in the midst of it he gets an envelope by post—addressed in a feigned hand, and with no letter inside, but just three white feathers."
"Oh, hateful! Who could be so wicked?"
"I met Lippity-Libby at the gate this morning. 'Look here,' I said; 'this is a pretty poison you are sowing on your rounds': and I showed him the feathers which young Obed had left with me. 'I know you can't help it,' said I, 'but if the Post Office can stop and open suspected circulars, surely it can refuse to help this abomination!' 'I've delivered pretty well a score, sir,' said he; 'and I wish you or some person would write to the papers and stop it.' 'Well,' I said, 'it's not for me to ask if you have a guess who sends this sort of thing about?' He rubbed his chin for a while and then answered: 'No, Parson; nor 'tisn't for me to tell 'ee if I do: but if you should happen to be strollin' down t'wards the Quay, you might take a look at Mrs Polsue's Cochin-China hens. The way them birds have been moultin' since the War started—'"
"Robert! You don't tell me that woman plucks the poor things alive!"
"Ay: and takes the bleeding quills to draw more blood from young men's hearts."
At certain decent and regular intervals of time (we need not indicate them more precisely) Mrs Polsue was accustomed to order in from the Three Pilchards a firkin of ale. A firkin, as the reader probably knows, is the least compromising of casks, and Mr Latter regularly attended in person to "spile" it. Mrs Polsue as regularly took care to watch the operation.
"The newspaper tells me," said she, "that this is likely to be a teetotal War."
"Tell me another, ma'am!" answered Mr Latter in his unconventional way.
"It would be an excellent thing for our troops in the field: and, if you ask my opinion, a little mortifying of the spirit would do the working classes of this country a deal of good. I take a glass of ale myself, under medical advice, because cold water disagrees with me, and I've never yet had the aerated drink recommended that wasn't followed by flatulence."
"There's neither mirth nor music in 'em" agreed Mr Latter.
"I do not seek either mirth or music in the little I make use of," Mrs Polsue corrected him; "and on general grounds I agree with total abstinence."
[In this the lady said no more than the truth. She had lamented, scores of times, an infirmity of the flesh which, forbidding her to chastise the indulgence of moderate drinking, protected a truly enormous class of fellow-creatures from her missionary disapproval. Often and often she had envied Charity Oliver, who could consume tea with hot sausages and even ham rashers. "To have the stomach of an ostrich must be a privilege indeed," she had once assured her friend; "though to be sure it tells on the complexion, forcing the blood to the face; so that (from a worldly point of view) at a distance a different construction might be put on it."]
"Tea with sausages, for instance!"
"The same here—Poison!" Mr Latter agreed, delicately indicating where "here" lay for him.
"My father ever kept a generous table, which he was in a position to afford." Mrs Polsue sighed, and added with resignation, "I suppose we must say that the fathers have eaten sour grapes and the children's teeth are set on edge."
"I wouldn' put it just like that, ma'am-not from what I've heard of the old gentleman's knowledge o' liquor."
"It will bear hardly on you, Latter, if the King and Parliament should put the country under Prohibition?"
["Drabbet the old cat!" murmured Mr Latter to himself. "She's fishing to get at my banking account, and a lot she'd interfere if 'twas the workhouse with me to-morrow."]
Aloud he said, rubbing his thumb on the edge of the augur and preparing to make incision upon the cask, "Well, ma'am, I reckon as the Lord will provide mortification enough for us before we're out o' this business, without our troublin' to get in ahead. The way I looks at it is, 'Let's be cheerful.' In my experience o' life there's no bank like cheerfulness for a man to draw upon, to keep hisself fit and industrious. What's more—if I may say it—'most every staid man, afore he gets to forty, has pretty well come to terms with his innards. He knows—if you'll excuse the figger o' speech, ma'am— what's the pressure 'pon the boiler, an' how to stoke it. There's folks," said Mr Latter delicately, "as can't stoke hot tea upon sossiges: an' likewise there's folks as'll put forth their best on three goes o' whisky. So why not live an' let live?"
"They say," answered Mrs Polsue, "that the Czar has been advised to prohibit the sale of vodka throughout his vast dominion."
"What's the beverage, ma'am? I don't seem to know it."
"Oh, well: very likely he has his reasons. . . . It sounds a long way off."
"But that," Mrs Polsue persisted, reproducing what she had assimilated from her newspaper,—"that is what folks in Polpier cannot be made to understand. At this moment the Germans are nearer than we are to London, as the crow flies; and here are our working classes living on honey and roses, like a City of the Plain. What are our young men thinking about?"
"Why, ma'am," said Mr Latter, by this time busy with the cask, "they're takin' it slow, I'll own, an' they don't say much. To begin with, 'tis their natur'; an' next, 'tis a bit more they risk than you or me, if I may make bold to say so. Then there's the mothers an' sweethearts pullin' 'em back."
"Tut! If I had a sweetheart—"
"Oh, certainly, ma'am!" agreed Mr Latter. "That if wars there had been, you'd have driven him to the nearest, I make no doubt at all; though your departed—if I may make so bold—was never the sort to hurt a fly. . . . Though, by God," wound up Mr Latter in an inaudible murmur as he blew the sawdust from the vent-hole, "the man must have had pluck, too, in his way!"
"There's worse bein' done by Polpier women than holding the men back. I call it worse, at any rate, to send your wedded husband off to fight for his country and then pick up with another man for protection."
"Can such goin's-on go on in our midst, ma'am, and nothing about in the shape o' fire and brimstone?"
"I am not retailing gossip, Mr Latter. I tell you no more than was openly said to me, and brazenly, before witnesses, by one of the parties involved. As one of the Relief Committee appointed to see that none of our reservists' families are suffering want, I called the other day upon Samuel Penhaligon's wife. From the first the woman showed no sense of our respective positions; and after a question or two she became so violent that it drew quite a small crowd around the door. In the midst of her tirading out steps her partner—"
"How should it be Samuel Penhaligon, when you know as well as I do that he's gone to the War? No: the man, I regret to say, was Nicholas Nanjivell."
"Nicky-Nan? . . . Oh, come, ma'am, I say! Why, what capers could he been cuttin'?"
"I feel justified in speaking of him as her partner, seeing that he avowed as much. She was living under his protection, he said, and he would see that she didn't come to want. He had even the effrontery to assure me that he had made an arrangement with Penhaligon. But that, I feel sure, was a shameless lie, and my ears tingle to hear myself repeating it. 'Twas hard enough to keep one's temper with the man standing there and talking big as my lord, when the Almighty knows if for these two years he's seen the colour of a sovereign. . . . Eh? What ails you?" she demanded, as Mr Latter, who had been testing the point of the auger with his thumb, gave a sudden and violent start.
"Thank 'ee, ma'am—there's no blood drawn, as it happens," said Mr Latter, "but 'twas nibby-jibby, the way you outed with it, and took me of a heap. If you'd ever happened now to stand up to a man and him gettin' his fist full on your wind—no, you wouldn't, o' course. But 'twas a knock-out. . . . 'Nicky-Nan,' says you, 'an'not a sovereign to bless hisself'—Why the man's fairly leakin sovereigns!—sheddin' 'em about like fish-scales!"
"Mr Latter—are you intoxicated?"
"I wish I was, ma'am. 'Twould be some kind of an explanation, though mebbe not the most satisfactory. . . . When I tell you that the man walked into my bar, three days since, an' scattered sovereigns all over my floor! When I tell you he couldn' pull out a han'kerchief to blow his nose but he sneezed sovereigns!"
Mrs Polsue gasped.
"—When I tell you," Mr Latter pursued, flourishing his auger and rapping it on the flat of his palm, "that one o' these soldiers—a Corporal too, and named Sandercock—was talkin' in my bar not two hours ago, an' says he, 'You've a man called Nanjivell lives here by the bridge.' 'Ay,' says I. 'Bit of an eccentric?' says he. 'How?' says I. 'The way he drops his gold about,' says the Corporal. 'Ho?' says I, prickin' up my ears, but not choosin' to be talkative with a stranger. 'So folks have been tellin' you that story already?' says I. 'Tellin me?' says he. 'Why, I see'd it with my own eyes!' 'Come,' thinks I to myself, 'this fellow's a bra' bit of a liar, wherever he hails from.' 'With my own eyes,' he repeats. 'I see'd 'en drop a sovereign in gold, up by that 'taty-patch of his where the Company's runnin' a trench: an' later on, as I started clearin' his crop, I came on two more in the soil, just where he'd been standin'. 'Hullo!' thinks I, 'this ben't the same story, but another one altogether.' I didn't say that aloud, though. What I said aloud was, 'You mustn't take notice of everything you see Nicky-Nan do. 'Tis only his tricks.' 'Tricks?' says the Corporal. 'If a man behaved like that down to Penryn we should call 'en an eccentric.' That's the tale, ma'am: an' the best part o' last night, what with puttin' two an' two together an' makin' neither head nor tail of it, I scarce closed an eye in my head."
"I saw the man,"—Mrs Polsue, after a sharp intake of breath, said it slowly in a hushed tone of surmise. "On Sunday, on my way home from service, I saw him hand the money over. I wasn't near enough to catch all that passed in the way of conversation. But the soldiers were delivering a quantity of potatoes they had dug up in the man's patch, and I concluded that Government, in its wasteful way, was paying him some sort of compensation over and above saving his crop for him. I remember saying to Miss Oliver that somebody ought to write to the War Office about it. . . . A man that already takes the taxpayers' money for pretending to be a Reservist, and then, when war breaks out, prefers to skulk at home in open sin or next door to it!"
"I wouldn't go so far as all that, ma'am," said Mr Latter. "In fact, I b'lieve you're under some mistake about Mrs Penhaligon, who is reckoned as vartuous a woman as any in the parish; while 'tis known that no doctor'd pass Nanjivell for service. But if you ask me, I've a great idea the man has come into a legacy, or else struck a store of gold—"
The landlord checked his tongue abruptly. Some phrase about a 'taty-patch floated across his memory. Had the phrase been his own, or Nicky-Nan's? He must give himself time to think this out, for it might well be the clue. The Corporal had spoken of finding two of the three sovereigns under the soil. . . . While Mr Latter's brain worked, he cast a quick glance at Mrs Polsue, in fear that he had gone too far.
But, although she had heard him, it happened that Mrs Polsue's mind was working on a widely divergent scent. She also was preoccupied with something that haunted her memory: a paragraph in that morning's newspaper. She, too, had no present intention of unveiling her surmise.
"Nonsense!" she said. "Folks don't happen on buried treasure in Polpier; and you can't have a legacy without its getting into the papers."
Mr Latter had no sooner departed than she put on her bonnet and paid a call on her friend Miss Charity Oliver.
"If Mr Pamphlett were only a magistrate—" said Mrs Polsue, after telling her story. "He was as good as promised it before the Unionists went out of office, as his services to the party well deserved. This Government appoints none but its own creatures. . . . And Squire Tresawna living three miles away—with the chance, when you get there, of finding he's not at home—"
"You might send him a letter," suggested Miss Oliver.
"One has to be very careful what one puts down on paper," said Mrs Polsue. "I don't want to compromise myself unnecessarily, even for the sake of my country. A personal interview is always more advisable . . . But, apart from the distance, I don't fancy the idea of consulting the Squire. He dislikes hearing ill of anybody. Oh, I quite agree!—If he takes that line, he has no business on the Bench. What else is a magistrate for?"
"Well, dear, I don't know much about the law. But I've heard it laid down as a rule that every man is supposed to be innocent until you prove that he's guilty—"
"And I never could understand why," Mrs Polsue interjected; "seeing that five out of every six persons charged are found guilty. To my mind the law would be more sensible if it learnt by experience and took some account of the odds."
"There's a good deal to be said for that, no doubt," Miss Oliver agreed. "But the Squire—or any other magistrate, for that matter— will look on the law as it stands; and if you are going to lay information against Nicholas Nanjivell—"
"Who said I wanted to lay information? Why should any private person undertake such unpleasantness, when it's the plain duty of the police, and in fact what they're paid for."
"Then why not leave it to Rat-it-all?"
"I believe I will, after giving him a hint. . . . But you don't seem to see, Charity Oliver!" her friend exploded. "What you are arguing may do well enough for ordinary times. These are not ordinary times. With all the newspapers declaring that our country is riddled with German spies—positively riddled—"
"I don't believe the man's capable of it, even if he had the will."
"Then, perhaps, if you're so clever, you'll suggest a likelier explanation?"
"He may have won the money in a lottery," Miss Oliver suggested brightly. "One of those Hamburg affairs—if you insist that the money's German."
"I don't insist on anything," snapped Mrs Polsue. "I only say, first, there's a mystery here, and you can't deny it. Secondly, we're at war,—you'll agree to that, I hope? That being so, it's everybody's business to take precautions and inform the authorities of anything that looks suspicious. The more it turns out to be smoke without fire, the more obliged the man ought to be to us for giving him the chance to clear his character."
"Well, I hope you won't start obliging me in that way," Miss Oliver was ever slow at following logic. "Because I never put a shilling into a lottery in my life, though I've more than once been in two minds. But in those days Germany always seemed so far off, and their way of counting money in what they call Marks always struck me as so unnatural. Marks was what you used to get at school—like sherbet and such things."
"Charity Oliver—may the Lord forgive me, but sometimes I'm tempted to think you no better than a fool!"
"The Vicar doesn't think so," responded Miss Oliver complacently. "He called this morning to ask me if I'd add to my public duties by allowing him to nominate me on the Relief Committee, which wants strengthening."
"Did he say that?" Mrs Polsue sat bolt erect.
"Well, I won't swear to the words. . . . Let me see. No, his actual words were that it wanted a little new blood to give it tact. I will say that Mr Steele has a very happy way of putting things. . . . So you really are going to lay information, Mary-Martha? If you see your duty so clear, I can't think why you troubled to consult me."
"I shall do my duty," declared Mrs Polsue. "Without taking further responsibility, I shall certainly put Rat-it-all on the look-out."
That same evening, a little before sunset, Nicky-Nan took a stroll along the cliff-path towards his devastated holding, to see what progress the military had made with their excavations. The trench, though approaching his boundary fence, had not yet reached it. Somewhat to his surprise he found Mr Latter there, in the very middle of his patch, examining the turned earth to right and left.
"Hullo!" cried Nicky-Nan, unsuspecting. "You caught the war-fever too? I never met 'ee so far afield afore. What with your sedentary figure an' the contempt I've heard 'ee use about soldiers—"
Mr Latter, as he straightened himself up, appeared to be confused. He was also red in the face, and breathed heavily. Nicky-Nan noted, but innocently misread, these symptoms.
"Good friable soil you got here," said Mr Latter, recovering a measure of self-possession. "Pretty profitable little patch, unless I'm mistaken."
"It was," answered Nicky. "But though, from your habits, you're about the last man I'd have counted on findin' hereabouts, I'm main glad, as it happens. A superstitious person might go so far as to say you'd dropped from heaven."
Nicky-Nan cast a glance over his shoulder. "We're neighbours here?"
"Certainly," agreed Mr Latter, puzzled, and on his defence.
"Noticed anything strange about Rat-it-all, of late?"
"You wish friendly to him, eh? . . . I ask because, as between the police and licensed victuallers—" Nicky-Nan hesitated.
"You may make your mind easy," Mr Latter assured him. "Rat-it-all wouldn't look over a blind. I've no complaint to make of Rat-it-all, and never had. But what's happened to him?"
"I wish I knew," answered Nicky-Nan. "I glimpsed him followin' me, back along the path; an' when I turned about for a chat, he dodged behind a furze-bush like as if he was pouncin' on some valuable butterfly. 'That's odd,' I thought: for I'd never heard of his collectin' such things. But he's often told me how lonely a constable feels, an' I thought he might have picked up wi' the habit to amuse himself. So on I walked, waitin' for him to catch me up; an' by-an'-by turned about to look for en. There he was, on the path, an' be damned if he didn' dodge behind another bush! I wonder if 'tis sunstroke? It always seemed to me those helmets must be a tryin' wear."
"I dunno. . . . But here he is! Let's ask him," said Mr Latter as Policeman Rat-it-all appeared on the ridge with body bent and using the gait of a sleuth-hound Indian. [There is no such thing as a sleuth-hound Indian, but none the less Rat-it-all was copying him.]
The constable straightened himself up and approached with an affected air of jauntiness.
"Why, whoever would ha' thought to happen on you two here?" he exclaimed, and laughed uneasily.
"Sure enough the man's manner isn't natural," said Mr Latter to Nicky-Nan. "Speakin' as a publican, too," he confided, "I'd be sorry if anything happened to the chap an' we got a stranger in his place."
"What's the matter with 'ee, Rat-it-all?" asked Nicky-Nan sympathetically. "By the way you've been behavin' all up the hill—"
"You noticed it?"
"Rat it all!—I mean, I was hopin' you wouldn't. I begin to see as it will take more practice than I allowed." He cast a glance back at the ridge as he seated himself on the turf. "Either of you got a pinch o' baccy?"
"Then you aren't afflicted in any way?" exclaimed Nicky-Nan with relief. "But what was the matter with 'ee, just now, that you kept behavin' so comical?"
"Got such a thing as a match? . . . Well, I didn' believe it from the first. You must make allowance," said he as he puffed, "that a constable has communications in these times, of a certain nature, calculated to get on his Nerves. For my part, I hate all this mistrustfulness that's goin'. 'Confidence'—that's my motto— 'as betwix' man an' man.'"
 A close shave.
MISS OLIVER PROFFERS ASSISTANCE.
Although this narrative has faintly attempted to trace it here and there in operation, no one can keep tally with rumour in Polpier, or render any convincing account of its secret ways. It were far easier to hunt thistledown.
The Penhaligon family were packing, preparing for the great move into Aun' Bunney's derelict cottage. 'Bert and 'Beida had been given to understand—had made sure in fact—that the move would be made, at earliest, in the week before Michaelmas Day. For some reason or other Mrs Penhaligon had changed her mind, and was hurrying things forward almost feverishly. 'Beida—who for a year or so had been taken more and more into her mother's confidence—suddenly found herself up against a dead wall of mystery and obstinacy. The growing girl was puzzled—driven to consult 'Bert about it; and a Polpier woman is driven far before she seeks advice from husband or brother.
She might have spared herself the humiliation, too. For 'Bert, when she cornered him, gave no help at all. Yet he was positive enough. [It takes some experience to discover what painted laths men are.]
"Some woman's rot!" decided 'Bert with a shrug of his shoulders. "Father bein' away, she's worryin', an' wants to get it over. She don't consult me, so I've no call to tell her to take things cooler." The trumpet, after thus uttering no uncertain sound, tailed off upon the word 'females.'
"Get along with your 'females'!" fired up 'Beida, springing to arms for her sex. "I'd like to know where the world'd be without us. But don't you see that 'tisn' like Mother to be so daggin' to quit the old house?"
"She wants to get the grievin' over, I tell you," 'Bert maintained.
As for 'Biades, he was rather more—certainly not less—of a nuisance than children of his age usually are when a family intends a move. He asked a thousand questions, wandered among packing-cases as in a maze, and, if his presence were forgotten for a moment, sat down and howled. On being picked up and righted he would account for his emotion quite absurdly yet lucidly and in a way that wrung all hearts. On the second day of packing he looked out from a zareba of furniture under which he had contrived to crawl, and demanded— "What's a Spy?"
"A Spy?" his mother echoed after he had repeated the question three or four times. "A Spy is a wicked man: worse nor a Prooshian."
"What's a Prooshian?"
"A Prooshian," said Mrs Penhaligon, inverting one bedroom chair on another, "is a kind o' German, and by all accounts the p'isonest. A Spy is worse nor even a Prooshian, because he pretends he isn't till he've wormed hisself into your confidence, an' then he comes out in his true colours, an' the next thing you know you're stabbed in the back in the dark." Mrs Penhaligon might miss to be lucid in explanation, but never to be vivid.
"What's your 'confidence'?" asked 'Biades, after a digestive pause.
His sister 'Beida turned about while she bumped herself up and down in a sitting posture on the lid of an old sea-chest overfilled with pillows, bed-curtains, and other "soft goods."
"It isn't your stummick, on which you're crawlin' at this moment like Satan in the garden. And only yesterday your askin' to be put into weskits on the ground of your age! A nice business 'twould be to keep your front in buttons!" While admonishing 'Biades, 'Beida continued to bump herself on the sea-chest, her speech by consequence coming in short interrupted gushes like water from a pump. "A Spy," she continued, "is a man what creeps in a person's belongings same as you're doin' at this moment, an' then goes off an' gets paid for writin' to Germany about it: which if we didn' know from bitter experience as you couldn't spell a, b, 'ab,' we should be feelin' nervous at this moment, the way you're behavin'."
"How can you tell a Spy?" persisted 'Biades after another pause, ignoring reproof. "Does he go about with a gamey leg, like Mr Nanjivell? Or what?"
"Don't you set up to laugh at gamey legs or any such infirmity," his mother warned him, "when there's an All-seein' Eye about; an', for all we know, around the corner at this moment gettin' ready to strike you comical."
"There's no way to tell a Spy at first," added 'Beida; "an' that's why they're so dangerous. The usual way is that first you have your suspicions, an' then, some day when he's not lookin', you search his premises an' the fat's in the fire."
"What's an infirmity?" asked 'Biades. Getting no answer, after half a minute he asked, "What's premises?"
Still there was no answer. With a sigh he wriggled backwards out of his shelter. Seizing the moment when his sister had at length pressed down the lid and his mother was kneeling to lock it, he slipped out of the room and betook himself to the water-side, where he fell into deep thought.
This happened on Tuesday. During Wednesday and the morning of Thursday the child was extraordinarily well-behaved. As Mrs Penhaligon observed to her daughter—
"You kept warnin' me he'd be a handful, messin' about an' unpackin' things as soon as they was packed. Whereas if he'd been his own father, he couldn' ha' been more considerate in keepin' out o' the way. 'Tis wonderful how their tender intellec's turn steady when there's trouble in the family."
"But there isn't."
"Well, you know what I mean. For the last two days the blessed child might not ha' been in existence, he's such a comfort."
"Well," said 'Beida, "you may be right. But I never yet knowed 'Biades quiet for half this time 'ithout there was somebody's bill to pay at the end o't."
That same afternoon as Miss Charity Oliver came down the hill on her first errand as Relief Visitor, at the corner by Mrs Pengelly's she happened on young 'Biades, posted solitary before the shop-window. There was something queer in this: for the elder children had started a game of tig, down by the bridge—that is to say, within earshot— and as a rule any such game attracted 'Biades fatally to its periphery, where he would stand with his eyes rounded and his heart sick for the time when he would be grown up and invited to join in. To-day his back was turned to the fun.
Miss Oliver, however, knew no more of 'Biades ways than that on her approach as a rule he either fled precipitately or, if no retreat offered itself, stood stock-still, put a finger in his mouth, and seemed to be calling on some effort of the will to make him invisible. To-day he met her accost easily, familiarly, even with what in a grown male might have been taken for a drunken leer.
"Well, my little man!" said Miss Oliver. "And what might you be doing here, all by yourself?"
"Choosin'," answered 'Biades. Reluctantly he withdrew his eyes again from gloating on Mrs Pengelly's miscellaneous exhibits. "I 'spect it'll end in peppermint lumps, but I'd rather have trousers if a whole penny would run to 'em."
He held out his palm, exhibiting a coin over which his fingers quickly closed again.
"What's that money you have?" asked Miss Oliver sharply.
"A penny," answered the child. "A whole penny. I like peppermint lumps, but they smell so strong in your breath that 'Bert and 'Beida would find out an' want to share. Of course trousers are found out quite as easy, or easier. But you can't go shares in trousers: not," added 'Biades thoughtfully, "if you try ever so."
"May I see the pretty penny?" coaxed Miss Oliver: for in the glimpse allowed her it had seemed an extraordinarily bright and yellow one.
"You mustn' come no nearer than you are now," said 'Biades, backing a little. After an inward struggle he opened his fingers and disclosed the coin.
"Where did you get that?" Miss Oliver's eyes were notoriously sharp. Her voice rapped out the question in a way that made 'Biades blink and clasp the coin again as he cast a desperate look behind him in search of retreat.
"Mr Nanjivell gave it to me."
"Mr Nanjivell! . . . He couldn't!" Miss Oliver took a step forward. 'Biades lowered his head.
"If you come a step closer I'll butt 'ee!" He threatened. "Mr Nanjivell gave it to me," he repeated, and, seeing her taken aback, soared upon the wing of falsehood. "Mother's changing houses, an' Mr Nanjivell said I'd behaved so quiet I deserved a penny if ever a boy did in this world."
"A penny?" Miss Oliver echoed. "But where did he—how did he come across that kind of penny? Such a bright penny, I mean."
"He spat upon it, an' rubbed it on his trousers," answered 'Biades with a glibness that astonished himself, 'peeking' between his fingers to make sure that they really held the prize. Inspiration took the child, once started, and he lied as one lifted far above earth. "Mr Nanjivell said as it might help me to forget Father's bein' away at the War. Mr Nanjivell said as I couldn' learn too early to lay by against a rainy day, and I was to take it to Missis Pengelly's and if it took the form of trousers he didn' mind. Mother wanted me to put it in the savings bank, but he wouldn' hear of it. He said they weren't to be trusted any longer—not savings banks. He said—"
"But where did he get it?"
'Biades blinked, and set his face hardily. He had the haziest notions of how money was acquired. But from infancy he had perforce attended chapel.
"He took up a collection."
"He took up a collection, Miss: the same as Mr Pamphlett does on Sunday. Back-along, when he was at sea—"
"Alcibiades," said Miss Oliver on a sudden impulse, feeling for her purse. "What would you say if I gave you two pennies for your bright new one? Two pennies will buy twice as much as one, you know."
"O' course I know that," said 'Biades cunningly. "But what for?"
"Because you have told me such a pretty story."
'Biades hesitated. He had been driven—in self-defence, to be sure— into saying things at the bare thought of which he felt a premonitory tingling in the rearward part of his person. But somehow the feel of the coin in his hand seemed to enfranchise him. He had at once a sense of manly solidity, and of having been floated off into a giddy atmosphere in which nothing succeeded like success and the law of gravity had lost all spanking weight. He backed towards Mrs Pengelly's shop door, greedy, suspicious, irresolute.
Miss Oliver produced two copper coins, and laid them in his palm. As the exchange was made he backed upon Mrs Pengelly's shop door, and the impact set a bell clanging. The sense of it shot up his spine of a sudden, and at each stroke of the clapper he felt he had sold his soul to the devil. But Miss Oliver stood in front of him, with a smile on her face that seemed to waver the more she fixed it: and at this moment the voice of Mrs Pengelly—a deep contralto—called—
Some women are comfortable, others uncomfortable. In the language of Polpier, "there be bitter and there be bowerly." Mrs Pengelly was a bowerly woman, and traded in lollipops. Miss Oliver—
Anyhow, the child 'Biades turned and took refuge in the shop, hurling back the door-flap and its clanging bell.
This left Miss Oliver without, in the awkwardest of situations: since she had a conscience as well as curiosity. In her palm lay a guinea-piece: which meant that (at the very least, or the current rate of exchange) she had swindled a child out of twenty shillings and tenpence. This would never do, of course. . . . Yet she could not very well follow in at this moment and explain to Mrs Pengelly.
Moreover, here was a mystery connected with Nanjivell. In the midst of her embarrassment she felt a secret assurance that she was in luck; that she held a clue; that she had in her grasp something to open Mrs Polsue's eyes in envy.
"The first thing," she decided, "is to take this piece of gold to the child's mother, and instanter."
But, as fate would have it, she had scarcely reached the porch of the Old Doctor's house when Nicky-Nan himself emerged from it: and at the sight of him her fatal curiosity triumphed.
"Mr Nanjivell!" she called.
Nicky-Nan turned about. "Good mornin', Miss. Was that you a-callin'?"
Having yielded to her impulse, Miss Oliver suddenly found herself at a loss how to proceed. Confusion and the call to improvise an opening movement mantled her cheeks with that crimson tint which her friend Mary-Martha so often alleged to be unbecoming.
"I stopped you," she answered, stammering a little, "because, with all our little differences in Polpier, we're all one family in a sense, are we not? We have a sort of fellow-feeling—eh?—whether in trouble or prosperity. And as a Polpier woman, born and bred, I'd like to be one of the first to wish you joy of your good fortune."
Nicky-Nan's face did not flush. On the contrary, it turned to an ashen grey, as he stood before her and leant for support on his stick. He was making inarticulate sounds in his throat.
"Who told you?" he gasped hoarsely. Recollecting himself, he hastily changed the form of the question. "What lies have they been tellin' up about me now?"
Miss Oliver had meant to disclose the guinea in her palm, and tell him of her meeting with the child 'Biades. But now she clutched the coin closer, and it gave her confidence—a feeling that she held her trump card in reserve.
"Why, of course, they have been putting up lies, as you say," she answered cunningly. "There was never such a place as Polpier for tittle-tattle. They've even gone so far as to set it about that it came from Germany: which was the reason you haven't joined up with the colours."
"What came from Germany?"
"And of course it is partly your own fault, isn't it?—if you will make such a secret of the thing? . . . Yet, I'm sure I don't blame you. Living the solitary life you do must make it specially trying to feel that every one is canvassing your affairs. For my part, I said, 'If it does come from Germany,' I said, 'you may be sure 'tis through one of those lotteries.'" On a swift thought she added, "But that tale is all nonsense, of course: because the Germans wouldn't pay in guineas, would they?"
"'Guineas'?" repeated Nicky-Nan, as the solid earth seemed to fail beneath his feet and his supporting stick.
Miss Oliver, grasping the advantage of his evident distress, decided in a flash (1) that here, before her, stood the wreck of a well-connected man, cleanly in person, not ill to look upon; and (2) that she would a little longer withhold disclosure of the guinea.
"Well, I heard it took the form of guineas, Mr Nanjivell. But of course I don't wish to be inquisitive."
"That devil Pamphlett has been talkin'," muttered Nicky-Nan to himself.
"I only suggest," Miss Oliver went on, "that if 'twas known—I don't seek to know the amount: but if I had your authority to say that 'twas all in good coin of this realm—with my opportunities I might hush up half this silly talk about your being a spy and in German pay—"
"What? . . . ME, a German spy?" The words seemed fairly to strangle him.
"It's a positive fact, I assure you. I mean it's a positive fact somebody has been putting that story about."
"If I knawed the critter, male or female—" Nicky-Nan gripped his stick.
Miss Oliver could not help admiring his demeanour, his manly indignation. The man had fine features, too—a touch of ancestry. She grew bolder.
"Well, I rather think I do know the creature, as you put it-though I am not going to tell you," she added almost archly. Then, of a sudden, "Has Constable Rat-it-all been paying you any attention lately?"
"Well . . . I'll be danged!"
Miss Oliver laughed pleasantly. "The fact is, Mr Nanjivell, you want a woman's wit to warn you, as every man does in your position. And just now it took me of a sudden, happening upon you in this way and knowing how you were surrounded by evil tongues, that I'd cast prudence to the winds and speak to you openly for your good, as a neighbour. You don't think the worse of me, I hope?"
"Why, no, Miss Oliver. Contrariwise I ought to be—if you hadn' taken me so sudden!" he concluded lamely.
"We'll say no more about that. All I suggest is that, until you find some one worthier of your confidence, if you care to count on me as an old friend and neighbour—"
"Good Lord!" Nicky-Nan cast a hand to his brow. "You'll excuse my manners, Miss—but if you'll let me go off an' think it over—"
He turned as if to flee into the house. Then, as if headed off by the noise of hammering within, he faced about and made across the bridge for the quay-head and his favourite bollard. There, as a man in a dream, he found a seat, and vainly for ten minutes strove to collect and arrange his thoughts. Suspicion, fear, wild anger wove dances in his brain—witch-dances immingled with cursings upon the heads of Pamphlett and Policeman Rat-it-all. . . . Of a sudden he sat up and stiffened with a new fright.
"By the manner of her conversation, that woman was makin' love to me!"
Left to herself, and as Nicky-Nan passed out of sight around the corner beyond the bridge, Miss Charity Oliver warily opened her palm and examined the guinea.
"By rights," she mused, "I ought to take this in to Mrs Penhaligon at once, and caution her about Alcibiades. . . . No, I won't, though. I'll call first and have it out with Mary-Martha. She thinks she knows everything, and she has a way of making others believe it. But she has proved herself a broken reed over this affair: and," said Miss Oliver to herself with decision, "I rather fancy I'll make Mary-Martha sensible of it."
"So you see, Mary-Martha, that for once in a way you were wrong and I was right."
"You're too fond of sweepin' statements, Charity Oliver. I doubt your first, and your second I not only doubt but deny. So far as I remember, I said the man was probably in German pay, while you insisted that he'd won the money in a lottery."
"I didn't insist: I merely suggested. It was you who started to talk about German money: and I answered you that, even if the money was German, there might be an innocent way of explaining it before you took upon yourself to warn the police."
Mrs Polsue glanced at her friend sharply. "You seem to be gettin' very hot over it," was her comment. "Why, I can't think. You certainly wouldn't if you gave any thought to your appearance."
"I'm not hot in the least," hotly protested Miss Oliver. "I'm simply proving to you that you've made a mistake: which you could never in your life bear to be told. The money is English gold, with King George the Something's head on it: and that you can't deny, try as you may."
"All the more reason why it shouldn't come through a German lottery," replied Mrs Polsue, examining the coin.
"I tell you for the last time that I only threw lotteries out as a suggestion. There's many ways to come into a fortune besides lotteries. You can have it left to you by will, for instance—"
"Dear, dear! . . . But never mind: go on. How one lives and learns!"
"And the other day the papers were full of a man who came into tens of thousands through what they call a Derby sweep. I remember wondering how cleaning chimneys—even those long factory ones—could be so profitable in the north of England, until it turned out that a sweep was some kind of horse-race."
"The Derby, as it is called," said Mrs Polsue, imparting information in her turn, "is the most famous of horse-races, and the most popular, though not the most fashionable. It is called the Blue Ribbon of the Turf."
"Indeed? Now that's very gratifying to hear," said Miss Oliver. "I didn't know they ran any of these meetings on teetotal lines."
"As I was saying," her friend continued, "the gowns worn are not so expensive as at Ascot, and I believe there is no Royal Enclosure. But the Derby is nevertheless what they call a National Institution. As you know, I disapprove of horse-racing as a pastime: but my brother-in-law in the Civil Service used to attend it regularly, from a sense of duty, with a green veil around his hat."
"I suppose he didn't want to be recognised?" Miss Oliver hazarded.
"He didn't go so far as to say that Government Officials were compelled to attend: though he implied that it was expected of him. There's an unwritten law in most of these matters. . . . But after what I've told you, Charity Oliver, do you look me in the face and suggest that the Derby horse-race—being run, as every one knows, early in the London season and somewhere towards the end of May, if my memory serves me—can be made to account for a man like Nanjivell, that humanly speaking shouldn't know one end of a horse from another, starting to parade his wealth in the month of August?"
"You've such a knack of taking me up before I'm down, Mary-Martha! I never said nor implied that Mr Nanjivell had won his money on a horse-race. I only said that some people did."
"Oh, well, if that's your piece of news," said Mrs Polsue with her finest satirical air, "it was considerate of you to put on your bonnet and lose no time in telling me. . . . But how long is it since we started 'Mister'-ing Nanjivell in this way?"
Miss Oliver's face grew crimson. "It seems to me that now he has come into money—and being always of good family, as everybody knows—" She hesitated and came to a halt. Her friend's eyes were fixed on her, and with an expression not unlike a lazy cat's.
"Oho!" thought Mrs Polsue to herself, and for just a moment her frame shook with a dry inward spasm; but not a muscle of her face twitched. Aloud she said: "Well, in your place I shouldn't be so hot, at short notice, to stand up for a man who on your own showing is a corrupter of children's minds. Knowing what I've told you of the relations between this Nanjivell and Mrs Penhaligon, and catching this Penhaligon child with a gold coin in his hand, and hearing from his own confession that the man gave it to him, even you might have drawn some conclusion, I'd have thought."
"I declare, Mary-Martha, I wouldn't think so uncharitably of folks as you do, not if I was paid for it. You're annoyed—that's what you are—because you got Mr—because you got Nanjivell watched for a German spy, and now I've proved you're wrong and you can't wriggle out of that!"
"Your godfather and godmothers did very well for you at your baptism, Charity Oliver. Prophets they must have been. . . . But just you take a chair and compose yourself and listen to me. A minute ago you complained that I took you up before you were down. Well, I'll improve on that by taking you down before you're up—or up so far as you think yourself. Answer me. This is a piece of gold, eh?"
"Why, of course. That's why I brought it to you."
"What kind of a piece of gold?"
"A guinea-piece. My father used to wear one on his watch-chain, and I recognised the likeness at once."
"Quite so. Now when your father happened to earn a sovereign, did he go and hang it on his watch-chain?"
"What a silly question!"
"It isn't at all a silly question. . . . Tell me how many sovereigns you've seen in your life, and how many guineas?"
"O-oh! . . . I think I see what you mean-"
"I congratulate you, I'm sure! Now, I won't swear, but I'm morally certain that guineas haven't been what they call in circulation for years and years and years."
"You're always seeing them in subscription lists," Miss Oliver objected. "Take our Emergency Fund—'Charles Pendarves Tresawna, Esq., J.P., twenty-five guineas.'"
"I seem to remember that the Squire paid by cheque," said Mrs Polsue drily.
"But the guineas must have been there, in the Bank. . . . Oh, I see! You mean that a guinea being worth twenty-one shillings—"
"That's right: you're getting at it. Though I declare, Charity Oliver, there are times when I don't know which is furthest behind the times—your head, or the coquelicots you insist on wearing upon it. But now I hope you'll admit I was right, and there's a mystery about Nanjivell. Whether 'tis mixed up with his immorality or separate I won't pretend to decide, or not at this stage."
"But anyway you can't make out a guinea-piece to be German," maintained Miss Oliver with a last show of obstinacy.
"I don't say 'yes' or 'no' to that just yet," Mrs Polsue replied. "The newspapers tell us the Germans have been hoarding gold for a very long time. But you mentioned the Bank a moment ago—or did I? Never mind: it was a good suggestion anyway. Wait while I send across for Mr Pamphlett."
"Why, to be sure," said Mr Pamphlett, "it's a guinea—a George the Second guinea." He pushed back a corner of the cloth and rang the coin on the table. "Sound . . . and not clipped at all. There's always its intrinsic value, as we say: and one of these days it will have an additional value as a curiosity. But as yet that is almost negligible. Oddly enough—" He broke off, fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, and produced a guinea almost precisely similar. Miss Oliver gasped: it was so like a conjuring trick.
"Where did Miss Oliver get this one?" asked Mr Pamphlett, laying his right forefinger upon the guinea on the table while still holding the other displayed in the palm of his left hand.
"I got it," confessed Miss Oliver, "off that youngest child of Samuel Penhaligon's, who told me it had been given him as a present by Mr—by Nicholas Nanjivell."
She blanched, as Mr Pamphlett stared at her. "His eyes," as she explained later, "were round in his head-round as gooseberries."
"Well, I suppose I oughtn't to have taken it from the child. . . . But seeing that he didn't know its value, and there being something of a mystery in the whole business—as Mary-Martha here will explain, though she will have it that the man is a German spy—"
"Stuff and nonsense, ma'am! . . . I beg your pardon: you're quite right: there is a mystery here, though it has nothing to do with German spies. I rather fancy I'm in a position to get to the bottom of it."
On Saturday, almost at blink of dawn, the Penhaligons started house-moving. Mrs Penhaligon had everything ready—even the last box corded—more than thirty-six hours earlier. But she would neither finish nor start installing herself on a Friday, which was an unlucky day.
The discomfort of taking their meals on packing-cases and sleeping on mattresses spread upon the bare floor weighed as nothing with the children in comparison with the delightful sense of adventure. Neither 'Bert nor 'Beida, when they came to talk it over, could understand why their mother was in such a fever to quit the old house. Scarcely ten days before she had kept assuring them, almost angrily, that there was no hurry before Michaelmas. It was queer, too, that not only had she forbidden them to accept even the smallest offer of help from Nicky-Nan when he showed himself willing (as he expressed it) for any light job as between neighbours, but on 'Bert's attempting to argue the point with her she had boxed 'Biades' ears for a quite trifling offence and promptly collapsed and burst into tears with no more preparation than that of throwing an apron over her head.
"She's upset," said 'Bert.
"If you learn at this rate, you'll be sent for, one of these days, by the people up at Scotland Yard," said 'Beida sarcastically. But you cannot glean much intelligence from a face which is covered by an apron.
"She's upset at leavin' the house. Women are like that—always—when it comes to the point," 'Bert persisted.
"Are they? I'll give you leave to watch me. And I'll bet you sixpence."
"You're not a woman yet. When the time comes you may start cryin' or you mayn't. But I'll take even money you box 'Biades' ears."
'Beida's glance travelled to that forlorn child. "I'll not take any bet," she announced; "when you know that it may be necessary at any moment—he's that unaccountable." She lifted her voice so that the innocent culprit could not avoid hearing. "I don't speckilate on a thief," she added with vicious intention.
"Hush—hush!" said 'Bert, and glanced anxiously at his sobbing parent.
Nicky-Nan was the worst puzzled of them all. He had promised Sam Penhaligon to do his best when the family shifted quarters: and now Mrs Penhaligon would not hear of his lifting so much as a hand.
He spent most of the day out on the cliffs, idly watching the military.
Mrs Penhaligon had invoked the aid of Farmer Best; and Farmer Best (always a friend of the unfriended) had sent down two hay waggons to transport the household stuff. By four in the afternoon, or thereabouts, the last load had been carried and was in process of delivery at Aunt Bunney's cottage.
At a quarter to five Nicky-Nan returned to the desolate house. The front door stood open, of course. So (somewhat to his surprise) did the door of the Penhaligons' kitchen.
"They're all behindhand," thought Nicky-Nan. "Better fit the good woman hadn' been so forward to despise my helpin'."
He peered in cautiously. The room was uninhabited; stark bare of furniture, save for the quadrant key left to hang from the midmost beam; the "hellen "-slated floor clean as a new pin.
Nicky-Nan heaved a sigh. "So they've gone," he thought to himself; "an' so we all pass out, one after another. A decent, cleanly woman, with all her kinks o' temper. Much like my own mother, as I remember her."
He passed into his parlour, laid down hat and walking-staff, and of a sudden pulled himself upright, rigid.
Footsteps were treading the floor overhead.
For a moment it shook him almost to faintness. Then, swiftly, wrath came to his aid, and snatching up his staff again he stumped out to the foot of the stairway.
"Who's that, up there?"
"Ha! . . . Is that you, Nanjivell," answered the voice of Mr Pamphlett. "A domiciliary visit, and no harm intended." The figure of Mr Pamphlett blocked the head of the landing.
Nicky-Nan raised his stick and shook it in a fury.
"You get out within this minute, or I'll have the law of 'ee."
"Gently, my friend," responded Mr Pamphlett soothingly. "I have the Constable here with me, besides Mr Gilbert the builder. And here's my Ejectment Order, if you drive me to it."
"When you promised me—" stammered Nicky-Nan, escalading the stairs and holding his staff before him as if storming a breach.
"But,"—Mr Pamphlett waved a hand,—"we need not talk about ejectment orders. By the terms of your lease, if you will examine them, the landlord is entitled to examine his premises at any reasonable hour. You won't deny this to be a reasonable hour. . . . Well, constable? What about that cupboard?"
Nicky-Nan, reaching the doorway, gave a gasp. Across the room Rat-it-all, on hands and knees, had pulled open the door of the fatal cupboard, and had thrust in head and shoulders, exploring.
"There's a loose piece of flooring here, Mr Pamphlett. New, by the looks of it."
There was a sound of boards being shaken and thrown together in a heap.
"Queer old cache here below. . . . Steady, now . . . wait till I turn my bull's-eye on it! Lucky I brought the lantern, too!"
"You dare!" screamed Nicky-Nan, rushing to pull him backward by the collar.
The constable, his head in the bowels of the hiding-place, neither heard him nor saw Mr Pamphlett and Builder Gilbert interpose to hold Nicky-Nan back.
"But 'tis empty," announced Policeman Rat-it-all.
Nicky-Nan, bursting from the two men, gripped Rat-it-all by the collar, flung him back on the floor, snatched his bull's-eye, and diving as a rabbit into its burrow, plunged the lantern's ray into the gulf.
Rat-it-all had spoken truth. The treasure—every coin of it—had vanished!
Nicky-Nan's head dropped sideways and rattled on the boards.
"Mister Nanjivell! Mis-ter Nanjivell!"
It was the child 'Beida's voice, calling from below.
"Are you upstairs, Mister Nanjivell? I want to see you—in such a hurry!"
Following up her summons, she arrived panting at the open doorway. "O-oh!" she cried, after a catch of the breath. Her face blanched as she looked around the bedroom; at Builder Gilbert, standing, wash-jug in hand; at Mr Pamphlett, kneeling, examining the cupboard; at Policeman Rat-it-all, kneeling also, but on one knee, while on the other he supported Nicky-Nan's inert head and bathed a cut on the right temple, dipping a rag of a towel into the poor chipped basin on the ground beside him.