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   Chapter 2 CALL TO ARMS.

Nicky-Nan, Reservist By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 21296

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


-The Old Doctor (to whom we have made allusion) had been moved to write an account of his native place, and had contrived to get it published by subscription in a thin octavo volume of 232 pages, measuring nine by five and a half inches. Copies are rare, but may yet be picked up on secondhand bookstalls for six or seven shillings.

From this 'History of Polpier' I must quote-being unable to better it-his description of the little town. (He ever insisted in calling it a town, not a village, although it contained less than fourteen hundred inhabitants.)

"If the map of the coast of Cornwall be examined, on the south-east, between the estuaries of the two rivers that divide the Hundred of West from the Hundred of East and the Hundred of Powder, will be noticed an indentation of the littoral line, in which cleft lies the little town of Polpier. Tall hills, abrupt and rugged, shut in a deep and tortuous valley, formed by the meeting of smaller coombs; houses, which seem dropped rather than built, crowd the valley and its rocky ledges; a rapid rivulet dances in and out among the dwellings, till its voice is lost in the waters of a tidal haven, thronged with fishing boats and guarded by its Peak of serried rock."

The Doctor after this first modest mention of "a rivulet" invariably writes of it as "the River," and by no other name does Polpier speak of it to this day. On the lower or seaward side of the bridge-end, where the channel measures some three yards across, the flank of his house leaned over the rushing water, to the sound of which he slept at night. Across the stream the house of Mr Barrabell, clerk, leaned forward at a more pronounced angle, so that the two neighbours, had they been so minded, might have shaken hands between their bedroom windows before retiring to rest. Tradition reports this Mr Barrabell (though an accountant for most of the privateering companies in Polpier) to have been a timorous man: and that once the Doctor, returning home in the small hours from a midwifery case, found his neighbour and his neighbour's wife hiding together under his bed-clothes. Upon an alarm that Bonaparte was in the town, they had bridged the stream with a ladder to the Doctor's open window and clambered across in their night-clothes. It is reported also that, on the transit, Mrs Barrabell was heard to say, "Go forward, Theophilus! Th' Old Doctor knows all about me, if he don't about you. You can trust en to the ends of the world." "That's right enough, ma'am," said the Doctor in his great way; "but you appear to have gone a bit further." A variant of the story has it that Mrs Barrabell was found beneath the bed, and her spouse alone between the bed-clothes, into which he had plunged with an exhortation, "Look after yourself, darling!" "And what do you think Theophilus found under that magnificent man's bed?" she asked her neighbours next day. "Why, naught but a plumed hat in a japanned case; no trace of alarm, and yet ready there against any emergency."

The Doctor (I should say) had held a commission-worn a Major's uniform-in the local Artillery Volunteers during those days of the Napoleonic peril. They passed, and he survived to die in times of peace, leaving (as has been told) a local history for his memorial. A tablet to his memory records that "In all his life he never had a lawsuit. Reader, take example and strive to be so good a man."

In his childhood Nicky-Nan had listened to many a legend of the Old Doctor, whose memory haunted every street and by-lane and even attained to something like apotheosis in the talk of the older inhabitants. They told what an eye he had, as a naturalist, for anything uncommon in the maunds; how he taught them to be observant, alert for any strange fish, and to bring it home alive, if possible; and how he was never so happy as when seated on a bollard near the Quay-head with a drawing-board on his knee, busy-for he was a wonder with pencil and brush-transferring to paper the outline and markings of a specimen and its perishable exquisite colours; working rapidly while he listened to the account of its capture, and maybe pausing now and again to pencil a note on the margin of the portrait. They told, too, of his ways-how for a whole month he came forth from his front door in a crouching posture, almost on all fours, so as not to disturb the work of a diadem spider that had chosen to build its web across the porch; of his professional skill, that "trust yourself to th' Old Doctor, and he'd see you came to a natral end of some sort, and in no haste, neither;" of his habit of dress, that (when not in martial uniform) he wore a black suit with knee-breeches, silk stockings, and silver shoe-buckles; of his kindness of heart, that in the Notes of Periodic Phenomena, which he regularly kept, he always recorded a midnight gale towards the close of August, to account for the mysterious depletion of his apple-crop.

But the Old Doctor had gone to his fathers long ago, and the old house, divided into two tenements-with access by one porch and front passage-had been occupied for twenty years past by Nicky-Nan and (for eight or nine) by the Penhaligon family. Nicky-Nan's cantle overhung the river, and comprised a kitchen and scullery on the ground-floor, with a fairly large bedroom above it. The old Doctor's own bedroom it had been, and was remarkable for an open fireplace with two large recessed cupboards let into a wall, which measured a good four feet in depth beyond the chimney-breast. Once, in cleaning out the cupboards, Nicky-Nan had discovered in the right-hand one that one or two boards of the flooring were loose. Lifting them cautiously he had peered into a sort of lazarette deep down in the wall, and had lowered a candle, the flame of which, catching hold of a mass of dried cobweb, had shot up and singed his eyebrows, for a moment threatening to set the house on fire. It had given him a scare, and he never ventured to carry his exploration further.

His curiosity was the less provoked because at least a score of the old houses in Polpier have similar recesses, constructed (it is said) as hiding-places from the press-gang or for smugglers hotly pursued by the dragoons.

The Penhaligon family inhabited the side of the house that faced the street, and their large living-room was chiefly remarkable for the beams supporting the floor above it. They had all been sawn lengthwise out of a single oak-tree, and the outer edges of some had been left untrimmed. From a nail in the midmost beam hung a small rusty key, around which the spiders wove webs and the children many speculations: for the story went that a brother of the old Doctor's- the scapegrace of the family-had hung it (the key of his quadrant) there, with strong injunctions that no one should take it down until he returned-which he never did. So Mrs Penhaligon's feather-brush always spared this one spot in the room, every other inch of which she kept scrupulously dusted. She would not for worlds have exchanged lodgings with Nicky-Nan, though his was by far the best bedroom (and far too good for a bachelor man); because from her windows she could watch whatever crossed the bridge-folks going to church, and funerals. But the children envied Nicky-Nan, because from his bedroom window you could-when he was good-natured and allowed you-drop a line into the brawling river. Of course there were no real fish to be caught, but with a cunning cast and some luck you might hook up a tin can or an old boot.

Now Nicky-Nan was naturally fond of children, as by nature he had been designed for a family man; and children gave him their confidence without knowing why. But in his early manhood a girl had jilted him, which turned him against women: later, in the Navy, the death of a friend and messmate, to whom he had transferred all the loyalty of his heart, set him questioning many things in a silent way. He had never been able to dissipate affection or friendship: and his feelings when hurt, being sensitive as the horns of a snail, withdrew themselves as swiftly into a shell and hid there as obstinately: by consequence of which he earned (without deserving) a name not often entered upon the discharge-sheets of the Royal Navy. But there it stood on his, in black upon white-"A capable seaman. Morose."

He had carried this character, with his discharge-sheet, back to Polpier, where his old friends and neighbours-who had known him as a brisk upstanding lad, sociable enough, though maybe a trifle shy- edged away from the taciturn man who returned to them. Nor did it help his popularity that he attended neither Church nor Chapel: for Polpier is a deeply religious place, in its fashion.

Some of the women-folk-notably Mrs Polsue, the widow-woman, and Miss

Cherry (Charity) Oliver, a bitter spinster-spoke to the Wesleyan

Minister about this.

The Minister listened to them politely. He was the gentlest of little men and had a club-foot. Mrs Polsue and Miss Oliver (who detested one another) agreed that it would be a day of grace when his term among them expired and he was "planned" for some other place where Christianity did not matter as it did in Polpier. They gave various reasons for this: but their real reason (had they lived in a Palace of Truth) was that the Rev. Mark Hambly never spoke evil of any one, nor listened to gossip save with a loose attention.

"The man has a wandering mind!" declared Miss Oliver. "It don't seem able to fix itself. If you'll believe me, when I told him about Bestwetherick's daughter and how she'd got herself into trouble at last, all he could say was, 'Yes, yes, poor thing!'-and invite me to kneel down an' pray she might come safely through it!"

"You surely weren't so weak as to do it?" said Mrs Polsue, scandalised.

"Me?" exclaimed Cherry. "Pray for that baggage? To start with, I'd be afeard the Lord'd visit it on me. . . . An' then it came out he'd Known the whole affair for more than two months. The girl had been to him."

"And he never told? . . . I tell you what, Cherry Oliver! It's my belief that man would set up a confessional, if he could."

"Don't 'ee tell up such things, Mary-Martha Polsue, or I'll go an' drown myself!"

"And why not?-he bein' so thick with Parson Steele, that sticks up 'High Mass' 'pon his church door and is well known to be hand-in-glove with the Pope. I tell you I saw the pair meet this very Wednesday down by the bridge as I happened to be lookin' out waitin' to scold the milk-boy: and they shook hands a

nd stood for up-three-minutes colloguin' together."

When these two ladies joined forces to attack Mr Hambly on the subject of Nicky-Nan's atheism, presumed upon his neglect to attend public worship, the Minister's lack of interest became fairly exasperating. He arose and opened the window.

"Astonishing plague of house-flies we are suffering from this year," he observed. "You have noticed it, doubtless? . .. Yes, yes-about Nanjivell . . . it is so good of you to feel concerned. I will talk it over with the Vicar."

"God forbid!" Mrs Polsue ejaculated.

"One uses up fly-papers almost faster than Mrs Pengelly can supply them," continued the Minister. "And, moreover, she will sell me but two or three at a time, alleging that she requires all her stock for her own shop. I fell back last week upon treacle. Beer, in small glass jars, is also recommended. I trust that if you ladies see me issuing from the Three Pilchards to-morrow with a jug of beer, you will make it your business to protect my character. The purchase will not escape your knowledge, I feel sure. . . . But we were talking of Nanjivell. I have some reason to believe that he is a God-fearing man, though his religion does not take a-er- congregational turn. Moreover, he is a sick man."

"H'mph!" Miss Oliver sniffed.

"The amount of disease disseminated by house-flies is, I am told, incalculable," pursued Mr Hambly. "Yes-as I was saying, or about to say-it's a pity that, in a small town like Polpier, two ministers of religion cannot between them keep a general shop to suit all tastes, like Mrs Pengelly." Mr Hambly's voice dropped as he wound up. "Ah, if-like Mrs Pengelly-we kept bull's-eyes for the children!"

"And for another year we have to sit under a man like that!" said Mrs

Polsue to Miss Oliver on their way homeward.

Nicky-Nan had one thing in his favour. He came of an old Polpier stock. It had decayed, to be sure, and woefully come down in the world: but the town, though its tongue may wag, has ever a soft heart towards its own. And the Nanjivells had been of good "haveage" (lineage) in their time. They had counted in the family a real Admiral, of whom Nicky-Nan had inherited a portrait in oil-colours. It hung in the parlour-kitchen underneath his bedroom, between two marine paintings of Vesuvius erupting by day and Vesuvius erupting by night: and the Penhaligon children stood in terrible awe of it because the eyes followed you all round the room, no matter what corner you took.

In neighbourliness, then, and for the sake of his haveage, Nicky-Nan's first welcome home had been kindly enough. His savings were few, but they bought him a small share in a fishing-boat, besides enabling him to rent the tenement in the Doctor's House, and to make it habitable with a few sticks of furniture. Also he rented a potato-patch, beyond the coastguard's hut, around the eastward cliff, and tilled it assiduously. Being a man who could do with a very little sleep, he would often be found hard at work there by nine in the morning, after a long night's fishing.

Thus, though always on the edge of poverty, he had managed his affairs-until four years ago, when the trouble began with his leg.

At first he paid little heed to it, since it gave him no pain and little more than a passing discomfort. It started, in fact, as a small hard cyst low down at the back of the right thigh, incommoding him when he bent his knee. He called it "a nut in the flesh," and tried once or twice to get rid of it by squeezing it between fingers and thumb. It did not yield to this treatment.

He could not fix, within a month or so, the date when it began to hurt him. But it had been hurting him, off and on, for some weeks, when one night, tacking out towards the fishing-grounds against a stiffish southerly breeze, as he ran forward to tend the fore-sheet his leg gave way under him as if it had been stabbed, and he rolled into the scuppers in intolerable anguish. For a week after this Nicky-Nan nursed himself ashore, and it was given out that he had twisted his knee-cap. He did not call in a doctor, although the swelling took on a red and angry hue. As a fact, no medical man now resided within three miles of Polpier. (When asked how they did without one, the inhabitants answered gravely that during the summer season, when the visitors were about, Dr Mant came over twice a-week from St Martin's; in the winter they just died a natural death.)

At any rate Nicky-Nan, because he was poor, would not call in a doctor; and, because he was proud, would not own to anything worse than a twisted knee, even when his neighbours on the Quay, putting their heads together, had shaken them collectively and decided that "the poor man must be suff'rin' from something chronic."

Then followed a bitter time, as his savings dwindled. He made more than a dozen brave attempts to resume his old occupation. But in the smallest lop of a sea he was useless, so that it became dangerous to take him. Month by month he fell further back in arrears of rent.

And now the end seemed to have arrived with Mr Pamphlett's notice of ejectment. Nicky-Nan, of course, held that Mr Pamphlett had a personal grudge against him. Mr Pamphlett had nothing of the sort. In ordinary circumstances, knowing Nicky-Nan to be an honest man, he would have treated him easily. But he wanted to "develope" Polpier to his own advantage: and his scheme of development centred on the old house by the bridge. He desired to pull it down and transfer the Bank to that eligible site. He had a plan of the proposed new building, with a fine stucco frontage and edgings of terra-cotta.

Mr Pamphlett saw his way to make this improvement, and was quite resolute about it; and Nicky-Nan, by his earlier reception of notices to quit, had not bettered any chance of resisting. Still-had Nicky-Nan known it-Mr Pamphlett, like many another bank manager, had been caught and thrown in a heap by the sudden swoop of War. Over the telephone wires he had been in agitated converse all day with his superiors, who had at length managed to explain to him the working of the financial Moratorium.

So Mr Pamphlett, knowing there must be War, had clean forgotten the Ejectment Order, until Nicky-Nan inopportunely reminded him of it; and in his forgetfulness, being testy with overwork, had threatened execution on Monday-which would be the 3rd: August Bank Holiday, and a dies non.

Somehow Nicky-Nan had forgotten this too. It did not occur to him until after he had supped on boiled potatoes with a touch of butter, pepper and salt, washed down with water, a drink he abhorred. When it occurred to him, he smote his thigh and was rewarded with a twinge of pain.

He had all Sunday and all Monday in which to lay his plans before the final evacuation, if evacuation there must be. The enemy had miscalculated. He figured it out two or three times over, made sure he was right, and went to bed in his large gaunt bedroom with a sense of triumph.

Between now and Tuesday a great many things might happen.

A great many things were, in fact, happening. Among them, Europe- wire answering wire-was engaged in declaring general War.

Nicky-Nan, stretched in the four-post bed which had been the Old Doctor's, recked nothing of this. But his leg gave him considerable pain that night, He slept soon, but ill, and awoke before midnight to the sound-as it seemed-of sobbing. Something was wrong with the Penhaligon's children? Yet no . . . the sound seemed to come rather from the chamber where Mr and Mrs Penhaligon slept. . . . It ceased, and he dropped off to sleep again.

Oddly enough he awoke-not having given it a thought before-with a scare of War upon him.

In his dream he had been retracing accurately and in detail a small scene of the previous morning, at the moment quite without significance for him. Limping back from his cliff-patch with a basket of potatoes in one hand and with the other using the shaft of his mattock (or "visgy" in Polpier language) for a walking-staff, as he passed the watch-house he had been vaguely surprised to find coastguardsman Varco on the look-out there with his glass, and halted.

"Hallo, Bill Varco! Wasn't it you here yesterday? Or has my memory lost count 'pon the days o' the week?"

"It's me, right enough," said Varco; "an' no one but Peter Hosken left with me, to take turn an' turn about. They've called the others up to Plymouth."

"But why?" Nicky-Nan had asked: and the coastguardsman had responded:

"You can put two an' two together, neighbour. Add 'em up as you please."

The scene and the words, repeated through his dream, came back now very clearly to him.

"But when a man's in pain and nervous," he told himself, "the least little thing bulks big in his mind." War? They couldn't really mean it. . . . That scare had come and had passed, almost a score of times. . . . Well, suppose it was War? . . . that again might be the saving of him. Folks mightn't be able to serve Ejectment Orders in time of War. . . . Besides, now he came to think of it, back in the week there had been some panic in the banks, and some talk of a law having been passed by which debts couldn't be recovered in a hurry. And, anyway, Mr Pamphlett had forgotten about Bank Holiday. There was no hurry before Tuesday . . .

Nicky-Nan dropped off again into a sleep punctuated by twinges of pain.

Towards dawn, as the pain eased, his slumber grew deeper and undisturbed. He was awakened by-What?

At first it seemed to be the same sound of sobbing to which he had listened early in the night. Then, with a start, he knew it to be something quite different-an impatient knocking at the foot of his bed-chamber stairs.

Nicky-Nan shuffled out of bed, opened his door, and peered down the stairway.

"Who's there?" he challenged. "And what's your business? Hullo!"- catching sight of Bill Varco, coastguardsman, on the flat below-"the house afire? Or what brings you?"

"The Reserves are called out," answered up Bill Varco. "You'll get your paper later. But the Chief Officer's here from Troy with a little fellow from the Customs there, and I be sent round with first news. I've two dozen yet to warn . . . In the King's name! An' there'll be a brake waiting by the bridge-end at ten-thirty. If War isn't declared, it mighty soon will be. Take notice!"

Bill Varco disappeared, sharp on the word. Nicky-Nan paused a moment, hobbled back to bed and sat on the edge of it, steadying himself, yet half-awake.

"It's some trick of Pamphlett's to get me out," he decided, and went downstairs cautiously.

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