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   Chapter 3 HOW THE MEN WENT.

Nicky-Nan, Reservist By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 16381

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


In the passage he found Mrs Penhaligon standing, alone, rigid as a statue. By her attitude she seemed to be listening. Yet she had either missed to hear or, hearing, had missed to understand Varco's call up the stairs. At Nicky-Nan's footstep she turned, with a face white and set.

"Sam's got to go," she said. Her lips twitched.

"Nonsense, woman! Some person's playin' a trick 'pon the town."

"They start from the bridge at ten-thirty. There's no trick about it. Go an' see for yourself." She motioned with her hand.

Nicky-Nan limped to the porch and peeked out (as they say at Polpier). Up the street the women stood clacking the news just as though it were a week-day and the boats had brought in a famous haul. Feminine gossip in Polpier is not conducted in groups, as the men conduct theirs on the Quay. By tradition each housewife takes post on her own threshold-slate, and knits while she talks with her neighbours to right and left and across the road; thus a bit of news, with comment and embellishment zigzags from door to door through the town like a postal delivery. To-day being Sunday, the women had no knitting; but it was observable that while Mrs Trebilcock, two doors away, led the chorus as usual, her hands moved as though plying imaginary needles: and so did the hands of Sarah Jane Johns over the way.

Down by the bridge-end two men in uniform sat side by side on the low parapet, sorting out a small pile of blue papers. They were Mr Irons, the chief officer of Coastguard at Troy, and a young custom-house officer-a stranger to Nicky-Nan. The morning sunlight played on their brass buttons and cap-rims.

Nicky-Nan withdrew his head hastily.

"Where's Sam?" he asked.

"Gone down to Billy Bosistow's to fetch his sea-boots."

"I don't follow 'ee." Nicky-Nan rubbed his unshaven jaw with two fingers. "Is the world come to its end, then, that Billy Bosistow keeps open shop on a Sunday mornin'?"

"'Tisn' like that at all. . . . You see, Sam's a far-seein' man, or I've tried to make him so. I reckon there's no man in Polpier'll turn out in a kit smellin' stronger of camphor, against the moth. Twice this week I've had it out an' brushed it, fingerin' (God help me) the clothes an' prayin' no shell to strike en, here or there. . . . Well, an' last autumn, bein' up to Plymouth, he bought an extry pair of sea-boots, Yarmouth-made, off some Stores on the Barbican, an' handed 'em over to Billy to pickle in some sort o' grease that's a secret of his own to make the leather supple an' keep it from perishin'. He've gone down to fetch 'em; an' there's no Sabbath-breakin' in a deed like that, when a man's country calls en."

"'Tis terrible sudden, all this," said Nicky-Nan, ruminating.

"'Tis worse than sudden. Here we be, with orders to clear out before Michaelmas: and how be I to do that, with my man away? Think of all the great lerrupin' furnicher to be shifted an' (what's harder) stowed in a pokey little cottage that wasn' none too big for Aun' Bunney when she lived. An' sixteen steps up to the door, with a turn in 'em! Do 'ee mind what a Dover-to-pay there was gettin' out the poor soul's coffin? An' then look at the size of my dresser. . . ."

"I can't think why you turn out, for my part. Pamphlett's served me with notice to quit by to-morra. You don't catch me, though."

"Why, Mr Nanjivell, you won't set yourself up to fly in the teeth of the law!"

"Just you wait. . . . And Pamphlett doesn' know all the law that's in the land, neither, if he reckons to turn me out 'pon a Bank Holiday."

Mrs Penhaligon stared. "Well, I s'wow! Bank Holiday to-morra, and I'd clean forgot it! . . . But, with the Lord's Sabbath standin' 'pon its head, 'tis excusable. The children, now-out an' runnin' the town in the Sunday clothes with never a thought o' breakfast; and how I'm to get their boots an' faces clean in time for Chapel, let alone washin'-up, I ask you!"

"Well, I'll go upstairs an' get a shave," said Nicky-Nan. "That'll feel like Sunday anyhow."

"Poor lonely creatur'!" thought Mrs Penhaligon, who always pitied bachelors. On an impulse she said, "An' when you've done, Mr Nanjivell, there'll be fried eggs an' bacon, if you're not above acceptin' the compliment for once."

When Nicky-Nan came downstairs again, clean-shaven and wearing his Sunday suit of threadbare sea-cloth, he found the Penhaligon children seated at the board, already plying their spoons in bowls of bread-and-milk. As a rule, like other healthy children, they ate first and talked afterwards. But to-day, with War in the air, they chattered, stirring the sop around and around. 'Beida's eyes were bright and her cheeks flushed.

"War's a funny thing," she mused. "Where do you feel it, Mother?"

"Don't clacky so much, that's a darlin', but go on with your breakfast." But Mrs Penhaligon heaved a sigh that was answer enough.

"Well, I wanted to know, because down by Quay-end I heard old Aun' Rundle say it made her feel like the bottom of her stomach was fallin' out. I suppose it takes people differ'nt as they get up in years."

"I know azackly where I feel it!" announced 'Biades. "It's here." He set down his spoon and pointed a finger on the third button of his small waistcoat. "An' it keeps workin' up an' down an' makin' noises just like Billy Richard's key-bugle."

"Then it's a mercy it ben't real," commented his brother.

"'Biades is right, all the same." 'Beida regarded the child and nodded slowly. "It do feel very much like when you hear a band comin' up the street. It catches you-" She broke off and laid her open palm on her chest a little below the collar. "An' then it's creepin' up the back of your legs an' along your arms, an' up your backbone, right into the roots o' your hair. But the funniest thing of all is, the place looks so differ'nt-an' all the more because there's so little happenin' differ'nt. . . . I can't tell just what I mean," she owned candidly, turning to Nicky-Nan; "but it don't seem we be here somehow, nor the houses don't seem real, somehow. 'Tis as if your real inside was walkin' about somewhere else, listenin' to the band."

"Nonsense your tellin'," 'Bert interrupted. "Father's put on his uniform. How can you make it that things ben't differ'nt, after that?"

"An' he's here!" 'Biades nodded, over his half-lifted spoon, at

Nicky-Nan.

"Oh!" said 'Bert, "that isn' because of the War. That's to say

Good-bye, because he's turnin' out this week."

"For goodness, children, eat up your meal, an' stop talkin'!"

Mrs Penhaligon returned from the hearth to the table and set down a

dish of eggs and sizzling bacon. "Wherever you pick up such notions!

. . . You must excuse their manners, Mr Nanjivell."

But Nicky-Nan was staring at young 'Bert from under fiercely bent eyebrows.

"Who told you that I was turnin' out this week?" he demanded.

"I heard Mr Pamphlett say it, day before yesterday. He was round with Squinny Gilbert-"

"Fie now, your manners get worse and worse!" his mother reproved him.

"Who be you, to talk of the builder-man without callin' him

'Mister'?"

"Well then, he was round with Mister Squinny Gilbert, lookin' over the back o' the house. I heard him say as you was done for, and would have to clear inside the next two or three days-"

"He did-did he?" Nicky-Nan was arising in ungovernable rage; but

Mrs Penhaligon coaxed him to sit down.

"There now!" she said soothingly. "Take un' eat, Mr Nanjivell! The Good Lord bids us be like the lilies o' the field, and I can vouch the eggs to be new-laid. Sufficient for the day. . . . An' here 'tis the Sabbath, an' to-morrow Bank Holiday. Put the man out o' your thoughts, an' leave the Lord to provide."

"If I had that man here-"

Nicky-Nan was sharp set; indeed he had been hungry, more or less, for weeks. But now, with the eggs and bacon wooing his nostrils, his choler arose and choked him. He stared around the cleanly kitchen. "And on quarter-day, ma'am, 'twill be your turn. It beats me how you can take it so quiet."

"I reckon," said Mrs Penhaligon simply, looking down on the dish of eggs (which maybe suggested the image to

her)-"I reckon as the hen's home is wherever she can gather the chickens under her wings. Let's be thankful we're not like they poor folk abroad, to have our homes overrun by this War."

"'War'?" Nicky-Nan recollected himself with an effort. "Seemin' to me you're all taken up with it. As though there weren't other things in this world-"

"If only the Almighty'll send my Sam home safe an' well!"

But at this point Mr Penhaligon entered the kitchen, with the sea-boots dangling from his hand. He wore his naval uniform-that of an A.B.; blue jumper and trousers, white cinglet edged with blue around his stout throat, loose black neck-cloth and lanyard white as driven snow. His manner was cheerful-even ostentatiously cheerful: but it was to be observed that his eyes avoided his wife's.

"Hullo, naybour!" he shouted, perceiving Nicky-Nan. "Well, now, I count this real friendly of ye, to come an' give me the send-off." And indeed Nicky's presence seemed to be a sensible relief to him. "Haven't ate all the eggs, I hope? For I be hungry as a hunter. . . . Well, so it's War for sure, and a man must go off to do his little bit; though how it happened-" In the act of helping himself he glanced merrily around the table. "Eh, 'Beida, my li'l gel, what be you starin' at so hard?"

"Father looks fine, don't-a?" responded 'Beida, addressing the company.

"What I want to know," said 'Bert, "is why he couldn' have married Mother years afore he did-an' then I'd have been a man an' able to work a gun."

"Ho!" Mr Penhaligon brought his fist down on the table with huge enjoyment. "Hear that, my dear? Wants to know why we didn' marry years afore we did?" He turned to his wife, appealing to her to enjoy the joke, but hastily averted his eyes. "Well, now, I'll tell ye, sonny-if it's strictly atween you an' me an' the bedpost. I asked her half a dozen times: but she wouldn' have me. No: look at me she wouldn' till I'd pined away in flesh for her, same as you see me at present. . . . Eh, M'ria? What's your version?"

Mrs Penhaligon burst into tears; and then, as her husband jumped up to console her, started to scold the children furiously for dawdling over breakfast, when goodness knew, with their clothes in such a state, how long it would take to get them ready for Chapel.

The children understood and gulped down the rest of their breakfast hastily, while their mother turned to the fireplace and set the saucepan hissing again. Having finished this second fry, she tipped the cooked eggs on to the dish, and swept the youngsters off to be tittivated.

Nicky-Nan and his host ate in a constrained silence. Nicky, though ravenous, behaved politely, and only accepted a fifth egg under strong pressure.

"Curious caper, this o' Germany's," said Mr Penhaligon, by way of making conversation. "But our Navy's all right."

"Sure," Nicky-Nan agreed.

"I've been studyin' the papers, though-off an' on. The Kaiser's been layin' up for this, these years past: and by my reck'nin' 'tis goin' to be a long business. . . . I don't tell the Missus that, you'll understand? But I'd take it friendly if you kept an eye on 'em, as a naybour. . . . O' course 'tis settled we must clear out from here."

"I don't see it," said Nicky-Nan, pursing his lips.

"Pamphlett's a strong man. What he wants he thinks he's bound to have-same as these Germans."

"He won't, then: nor they neither."

"Tis a pity about your leg, anyway," said Mr Penhaligon sympathetically, and stared about the room. "Life's a queer business," he went on after a pause, his eyes fixed on the old beam whence the key depended. "To think that I be eatin' the last meal in this old kitchen. An' yet so many have eaten meals here an' warmed theirselves in their time. Yet all departed afore us! . . . But anyway you'll be hereabouts: an' that'll be a cheerin' kind o' thought, o' lonely nights-that you'll be hereabouts, with your eye on 'em."

He lit a pipe and, whilst puffing at it, pricked up his ears to the sound of wheels down the street. The brakes were arriving at the bridge-end. He suggested that-his own kit being ready-they should stroll down together for a look. Nicky-Nan did not dare to refuse.

The young Custom-house Officer, as he caught sight of Penhaligon approaching in uniform, slipped down from the parapet of the bridge, and sorted out his summons from the pile of blue papers in his hand.

"That's all right, my billy," Penhaligon assured him. "Don't want no summons, more'n word that His Majesty has a use for me."

"Your allotment paper'll be made out when you get to St Martin's, or else aboard ship."

"Right. A man takes orders in these days."

"But go back and fetch your kit," advised the Chief Officer of Coastguard, who had strolled up. "The brake'll be arriving in ten minutes." He paid Nicky-Nan the attention of a glance-no more.

While Penhaligon was away, kissing his wife and family and bidding them farewell (good man!) in tones unnaturally confident and robustious, the last brake rattled up to the bridge-end with a clatter. The whole town had assembled by this time, a group about each cheerful hero.

It was a scene that those who witnessed it remembered through many trying days to come. They knew not at all why their country should be at war. Over the harbour lay the usual Sabbath calm: high on the edge of the uplands stood the outposts of the corn, yellowing to harvest: over all the assured God of their fathers reigned in the August heaven. Not a soul present had ever harboured one malevolent thought against a single German. Yet the thing had happened: and here, punctually summoned, the men were climbing on board the brakes, laughing, rallying their friends left behind-all going to slay Germans.

The Custom-house Officer moved about from one brake to another, calling out names and distributing blue papers. "Nicholas Nanjivell!"

There was a shout of laughter as Nicky-Nan put his best face upon it and limped forward. "Why, the man's no use. Look at his leg!" The young officer scanned Nicky, suspiciously at first.

"Well, you'll have to take your paper anyway," said he-and Nicky took it. "You'd best see the doctor and get a certificate."

The two officers climbed in at the tail of the hindmost brake, and the drivers waved their whips for a cheer, which was given. As the procession started, all on board waved their caps and broke out singing. They were Cornish-men and knew no music-hall songs-"It's a long way to Tipperary" or anything of the sort. Led by a fugleman in the first brake, they started-singing it in fine harmonies-

"He's the Lily-of the Valley,

O-my-soul!"

So the first batch of men from Polpier were rattled through the street and away up the hill. The crowd lingered awhile and dispersed, gossiping, to Church or Chapel.

Nicky-Nan, seated on the parapet of the bridge, unfolded the blue paper which the young officer had thrust into his hand. He was alone and could study it at leisure.

It was headed by the Royal Arms, and it ran as follows:-

R.V. 53.

Actual Service Form.

From To

The Registrar of Naval Reserve, Royal Navy Reserve Man,

Port of Troy. NICHOLAS NANJIVELL,

Polpier.

NOTICE TO MEN OF ROYAL NAVAL RESERVE TO JOIN THE ROYAL NAVY.

HIS MAJESTY THE KING having issued His Proclamation calling into Active Service, under the Act 22 & 23 Vict. c. 40, the ROYAL NAVAL RESERVE FORCE in which you are enrolled, you are required to report yourself at once in uniform and with your Certificate R.V. 2 at 12 noon o'clock on August 2nd at the Custom House, St Martin's, Cornwall.

You will be forthwith despatched to the Naval Depot and should bring with you any necessary articles.

Should absence from home prevent your receiving this notice in time to attend at once or at the hour specified, you should on its receipt proceed forthwith to the Mercantile Marine Office named.

Failure to report yourself without delay will render you liable to arrest as a Deserter.

Note.-Reasonable expenses incurred in travelling from your home will be allowed.

By command,

Joshua Johns, Registrar.

Dated this Second day of August 1914.

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