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   Chapter 5 THE ANONYMOUS LETTER.

Nicky-Nan, Reservist By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 15165

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


Just about seven o'clock next morning Nicky-Nan, who had breakfasted early and taken post early in the porchway to watch against any possible ruse of the foe-for, Bank Holiday or no Bank Holiday, he was taking no risks-spied Lippity-Libby the postman coming over the bridge towards him with his dot-and-go-one gait.

Lippity-Libby, drawing near, held out a letter in his hand and flourished it.

"Now don't excite yourself," he warned Nicky-Nan. "When first I seed your name 'pon the address I said to myself 'What a good job if that poor fella's luck should be here at last, and this a fortun' arrived from his rich relatives in Canada!' That's the very words I said to myself."

"As it happens, I han't got no rich relatives, neither here nor in Canada," answered Nicky-Nan. "Is that letter for me? Or are you playin' me some trick?"

"A man of your descent," said Lippity-Libby, "can't help havin' relatives in great quantities dispersed about the world. I've figured it out, and the sum works like that old 'un we used to do on our slates about a horse-shoe. Your great-grandfather married your great-grandmother, and that set the ball rollin'-to go no farther back than the head will carry. Six sons an' daughters they had, for the sake of argyment, and each married and had six again. Why, damme, by that time there's not a quarter in Europe where a rich chap deceased mayn't be croppin' up and leavin' you his money, for no better reason than that you're a Nanjivell. That always seemed to me one of the advantages of good birth. For my part," the postman continued, "my father and mother never spoke of such matters, though she was a Collins and married in Lanteglos parish, where I daresay the whole pedigary could be looked up, if one wasn't a postman and could spare the time. But in the long evenings since my poor wife's death I often find time to think of you, Mr Nanjivell; bein' both of us lame of the right leg as it happens. Hows'ever 'tisn' no news o' riches for 'ee to-day, sorry as I be to say it: for the postmark's 'Polpier.'"

He tendered the letter. Nicky-Nan stretched out a hand, but drew it back on a sudden suspicion.

"No," he said. "You may take an' keep it. 'Tis a trick, I doubt."

"You can't mean that, surely?" Lippity-Libby eyed the letter almost greedily, holding it between finger and thumb. "Of course, if I thought you meant it-I don't remember gettin' more 'n three letters in all my life; that's if you don't count the trade they send me at election times, tellin' me where to put my cross. Three letters all told, and one o' they was after my poor Sarah died, threatenin' me about the rates, that had slipped out o' my head, she bein' in the habit of payin' them when alive. The amount o' fault she'd find in 'em, too, an' the pleasure she'd take in it, you'd never believe. I've often thought how funny she must be feelin' it up there-the good soul-with everything of the best in lighting an' water, an' no rates at all-or that's how I read the last chapter o' Revelations. . . . Yes, only three letters of my own, that have handed so many to other people, with births, marriages, an' deaths, shipwrecks an' legacies an' lovin' letters from every port in the world. Telegrams too-I'd dearly like to get a telegram of my own. . . . But Government be a terrible stickler. You may call it red tape, if you will: but if Mrs Pengelly caught me holdin' back any person's letter, even though I knowed it held trouble for 'en, she'd be bound to report me, poor soul, an' then like enough I'd lose place an' livelihood. So I thank 'ee, naybour, for bein' so forward to give me a bit o' pleasure; but 'twon't do-no, by the Powers Above it won't." He shook his head sadly. Then of a sudden his eye brightened. "I tell 'ee what, though. There's no rule of His Majesty's Service why I shouldn' stand by while you reads it aloud."

"No, no," said Nicky-Nan hastily. "Here, hold hard a moment-Is it in Pamphlett's hand-writin' by any chance?"

The question wounded Lippity-Libby's feelings, and he showed it.

"As if I shouldn' ha' told you!" he protested, gently reproachful.

"Nor his clerk's?"

"What, Hendy?-Hendy makes all his long letters straight up an' down, while these be made with loops. The writin's sloped backwards too, with a rake on it, same as was fash'nable on some o' the tea-clippers in my young days, but now 'tis seldom carried 'nless by a few steam-yachts."

"Well, hand me over the thing-I'll risk it," said Nicky-Nan.

He took the missive and glanced at the address-"Mr N. Nanjivell, Naval Reservist, Polpier R.S.O., Cornwall." The words "Naval Reservist" underlined gave him a tremor. But it was too late to draw back. He broke open the envelope, drew forth the letter, unfolded it, and ran his eye hurriedly overleaf, seeking the signature.

"Why, 'tisn' signed!"

"Not signed?" echoed Lippity-Libby. "That's as much as to say 'nonymous." Suddenly he slapped his thigh. "There now! O' course- why, what a forgetful head is mine! And simme I knew that hand, too, all the while."

"Eh?"

"Yes, to be sure-'tis the same that, up to two years ago, used to write an' send all the 'nonymous letters in Polpier. The old woman an' I, we tracked it down to one of two, an' both females. It lay between 'em, and I was for old Ann' Bunney-she bein' well known for a witch. But now that can't be, for the woman's gone to Satan these three months. . . . An' my missus gone too-poor tender heart-an' lookin' down on me, that was rash enough to bet her sixpence on it, an' now no means to pay up."

"Who was the other?" demanded Nicky-Nan, frowning over the letter, his face flushing as he frowned.

"You're goin' to read it to me, ben't you?"

"Damned if I do," answered Nicky-Nan curtly. "But I'd like to know who wrote it."

"It don't stand with Government reggilations, as I read 'em," said Lippity-Libby, "for a postman to be tellin' who wrote every 'nonymous letter he carries. . . . Well, I be wastin' time; but if you'll take my advice, Mr Nanjivell, and it isn' too late, you'll marry a woman. She'll probably increase your comfort, and-I don't care who she is- she'll work out another woman that writes 'nonymous. Like a stoat in a burrow she will, specially if she happens to take in washin' same as my lost Sarah did. She was shown a 'nonymous letter with 'Only charitable to warn' in it. Dang me, if she didn' go straight an' turn up a complaint about 'One chemise torn in wash,' an' showed me how, though sloped different ways, the letters were alike, twiddles an' all, to the very daps. I wouldn' believe it at the time, the party bein' a female in good position. But my wife was certain of it, an' all the more because she never allowed to her last breath that the woman's shimmy had been torn at all. Well, so long!"

Nicky-Nan carried the letter indoors to his small, dark sitting-room, and there spelled it through painfully, holding the paper close up to the window-pane. It ran:-

Sunday, 2/8/14.

Mr N. Nanjivell.

Sir,-As an inhabitant of Polpier, born in the town and anxious for its good name, besides being a ratepayer and one that pays taxes to His Majesty, I was naterally concerned to-day at your not taking your place along with the other men that went off to fight for their country. I am given to understand that you were served with a paper, same as the rest, and the Customs Officer was put out by your not going. I don't wonder at it. Such want of pluck.

Its no good your saying you are not Abel. If you are Abel to be a Reservist and draw pay, you ar

e Abel to Fight thats how I look at it. I would let you to know the Public doesnt pay money for gamey legs that go about taking all they can get until the Pinch comes.

Theres a good many things want looking into in Polpier, It has reached me that until the present sistem came in and put a stop to it you drew pay for years for drills that you never atended.

This is a time when as Lord Nelson said England expects every

Man to Do his Duty. I think so bad of your case that I am

writing by same post to the Custom House at Troy about it.

So I warn you as

A Well-Wisher.

Nicky-Nan read this amiable missive through, and re-read it almost to the end before realising the menace of it. At the first perusal his mind was engaged with the mechanical task of deciphering the script and with speculating on its authorship. . . . He came to the end with no full grasp of the purport.

His wits were dulled, too, being preoccupied-in spite of Lippity-Libby-with suspicions of Mr Pamphlett. He recognised the hand of an enemy; and though conscious of possessing few friends in the world (none, maybe-he did not care how many or how few, anyway), he was aware of one only enemy-Pamphlett. He held this tenement which Pamphlett openly coveted: but what besides had he that any one could envy? Who else could wish him worse off than he was? His broken past, his present poverty and daily mental anguish, his future sans hope-any one who wanted these might take 'em and welcome!

But when, on the second reading, he reached the last paragraph but one, his heart stood still for a moment as if under a sudden stab.

Yes, . . . in the man or woman who had written this letter he had an enemy who indeed wished him worse off than he was, and not only worse but much worse; who would take from him not only the roof over his head, but even the dreadful refuge of the Workhouse; who would hunt him down even into jail. That talk about his not going to the War was all nonsense. How could all the Coastguard or Custom-house Officers in Christendom force a man to go to the War with a growth under his thigh as big as your fist? Damn the War!-he'd scarcely given a thought to it (being so worried with other matters) until last night. He hadn't a notion, at this moment, what it was all about. But anyhow that stuff about "want of pluck" was silly nonsense,-almost too silly to vex a man. He would have gone fast enough had he been able. In truth, Nicky-Nan's conscience had no nerve to be stung by imputations of cowardliness. He had never thought of himself as a plucky man-it wasn't worth while, and, for that matter, he wasn't worth while. He had, without considering it, always found himself able to take risks alongside of the other fellows. Moreover, what did he amount to, with his destinies, hopes, and belongings all told, to be chary of losing them or himself?

But it was a fact, as the letter hinted, that some years ago, and for two successive seasons, the Reservists' training happening to fall at a time when fish was plentiful and all hands making money, he, with one or two other men, had conspired with a knavish Chief Officer of Coastguard to put a fraudulent trick on the Government. It was the Chief Officer who actually played the trick, entering them up as having served a course which they had never attended, and he had kept their training pay as his price. What his less guilty conspirators gained was the retention of their names on the strength, to qualify them in due time for their pensions.

This and other abuses of the old system had been abolished when the Admiralty decided that every reservist must put in his annual spell of training at sea. The trick at the time had lain heavily upon Nicky-Nan's conscience: but with time he had forgotten it. Since the new order came into force, he had fulfilled his obligations regularly enough-until the year before last, by which time his leg really disabled him. It had fortuned, however, that one afternoon on the Quay, loafing around less on the chance of a job (for odd jobs are scarce at Polpier) than to wile away time, he had encountered Dr Mant, the easy-going practitioner from St Martin's. Dr Mant fancying an excursion after the mackerel, at that time swarming close inshore, Nicky-Nan had rowed him out and back along the coast to St Martin's. The bargain struck for half-a-crown, the doctor sent his trap back by road.

Some way out at sea he inquired, "Hullo! what's wrong with that right knee of yours?"

"Ricked it," answered Nicky-Nan mendaciously, and added, "I was thinkin' to consult you, sir. I be due for trainin' with the Reserve in a fortni't's time."

"Want a certificate? Here, let me have a feel what's wrong." The Doctor interrupted his whiffing for a moment to reach forward and feel Nicky's knee professionally, outside the thick sea-cloth trousers. "Hurts, does it? You've a nasty swelling there, my man."

"It hurts a bit, sir, and no mistake. If I could only have a certificate now-"

"All right; I'll give you one," said the Doctor, and turned his attention again to the mackerel.

Before stepping ashore at St Martin's, he pulled out a fountain-pen and scribbled the certificate on a leaf torn from his note-book. Having with this and one shilling compounded for his trip, he said as he traced up his catch-

"There, stick that in an envelope and post it. You're clearly not fit for service afloat till that swelling goes down."

Nicky-Nan duly posted the certificate, which Dr Mant had characteristically forgotten to date. After a week it came back with an official note drawing Nicky's attention to this, and requesting that the date should be inserted.

"Red tape," said Nicky. He borrowed a pen from Mrs Penhaligon, and wrote the date quite accurately at the foot of the document.

Then, for some reason or other, his conscience smote him. He put off posting the letter; and at this point again fortune helped him. Word came to him by a chance wind that the staff of the Coastguard had been shifted, over at Troy. Also (though he never discovered this) the Chief Officer of Customs, after returning the certificate, had left for his summer holiday.

So Nicky-Nan kept it in his pocket; and nothing happened.

The next year-so easy is the slope of Avernus-Nicky-Nan, who had felt many qualms over filling in a date which (though accurate) should by rights have been filled in by the Doctor, felt none at all in adding a slight twiddle of the pen which changed "1912" into "1913"; by which he escaped again, and again went undetected.

It had all been contrived so easily, and had succeeded so easily! Everything said and done, his leg was worse. Any doctor alive, if brought in, would bear witness that it incapacitated him.

Also any man, who looks ahead, will fight for the pension which alone stands between him and the workhouse.

With such arguments Nicky-Nan had salved his conscience; and his conscience had slept under them.

Now in a moment, with eyes fixed on the fatal handwriting, he saw every bandage of false pretence, all his unguents of conscience, stripped away, laying his guilt bare to the world.

An enemy was on his track-one who knew and could call up fatal evidence.

The light in the window-pane had been growing darker for some minutes. The morning had broken squally, with intervals of sunshine. A fierce gust came howling up the little river between its leaning houses and broke in rain upon the bottle-glass quarrels of the window.

Nicky-Nan started, as though it were a hand arresting him.

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