MoboReader > Literature > Nicky-Nan, Reservist

   Chapter 6 TREASURE TROVE.

Nicky-Nan, Reservist By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 21371

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The rain-the last, for many weeks, to visit Polpier-cleared up soon after midday. At one o'clock or thereabouts Nicky-Nan, having dined on a stale crust and a slice of bacon, and recovered somewhat from his first alarm (as even so frugal a meal will put courage into a man), ventured to the porch again for a look at the weather. The weather and the set of the wind always come first in a Polpier man's interest. They form the staple of conversation on the Quay-side. Fish ranks next: after fish, religion: after religion, clack about boats and persons; and so we come down to politics, peace and war, the manner of getting to foreign ports and the kind of people one finds in them.

Nicky-Nan could read very few signs of the weather from his dark little parlour. The gully of the river deflected all true winds, and the overhanging houses closed in all but a narrow strip of sky, prolonged study of which was apt to induce a crick in the neck. To be sure, certain winds could be recognised by their voices: a southerly one of any consequence announced itself by a curious droning note which, if it westered a little, rose to a sharp whistle and, in anything above half-a-gale, to a scream. But to see what the weather was like, you must go to the front porch.

Nicky-Nan went to the front porch and gazed skyward. The wind-as the saying is-had "catched in," and was blowing briskly from the north-west, chasing diaphanous clouds across the blue zenith. The roofs still shone wet and dazzling, and there were puddles in the street. But he knew the afternoon was going to be a fine one. He took pleasure in this when, a few moments later, his ear caught the thudding of a distant drum. . . . Yes, yes-it was Bank Holiday, and the children would be assembling, up the valley, for the Anniversary Treat of the Wesleyan Sunday School. There would be waggons waiting to convey them up-inland to Squire Tresawna's pleasure-grounds-to high shaven lawns whereon, for once in the year, they could enjoy themselves running about upon the level. (In Polpier, as any mother there will tell you, a boy has to wear out his exuberance mostly on the seat of his breeches and bring it to a check by digging in his heels somewhere. And the wastage at these particular points of his tailoring persists when he grows up to manhood; for a crabber sits much on the thwart of a boat and drives with his heels against a stretcher. Thus it happens that three-fourths of Billy Bosistow's cobbling is devoted to the "trigging" of boot-heels, while the wives, who mend all the small clothes, have long ago and by consent given up any pretence of harmonising the patch with the original garment. At Troy and at St Martin's they will tell you that every Polpier man carries about his home-address on his person, and will rudely indicate where. Mrs Penhaligon put it one day in more delicate proverbial form. "In a rabbit-warren," she said, "you learn not to notice scuts.")

While Nicky-Nan-who, as we have said, had a fondness for children- stood and eyed the weather with approval, Mrs Penhaligon came bustling out, with her bonnet on.

"Lord sakes!" she exclaimed. "Be that the drum already? What a whirl one does live in!-and if there's one thing I hate more'n another, 'tis to be fussed."

"What about the children, ma'am?"

"The children? . . . Gone on this half-hour, I should hope. 'Beida's a good gel enough, when once ye've coaxed her into her best things. It sobers her you can't think. She'll look after 'Biades an' see that he don't put 'Lead us, Heavenly Father, lead us' into his mouth, though 'tis where he puts most things."

"But you're goin' to the Treat yourself, ma'am?" Nicky-Nan suggested.

"What, in this rig-out? Catch me!" answered Mrs Penhaligon, not with literal intention but idiomatically. "No, I'm but goin' up to see 'em off decent. But I wonder at you liggin' behind, when 'tis the only Bank Holiday randivoo this side o' Troy. . . ."

"'Tidn' for want o' will," Nicky-Nan answered ruefully and truthfully, with a downward glance, which reminded Mrs Penhaligon to be remorseful.

"Eh, but I forgot . . . and you with that leg on your mind!

But you'll forgive a body as has been these two days in a stirabout.

And if you're fittin' to take a stroll before I get back, maybe

you'll not forget to lock the house up."

Nicky-Nan promised. (He and the Penhaligons had separate keys of the main door.) He watched the good woman as she hurried on her way, tying her bonnet-strings as she went.

It occurred to him that, leg or no leg, he felt lonely, and would be all the better for a stroll. So, having fetched his stick and locked the house-door behind him, he dandered down towards the Quay. The street was empty, uncannily silent. "It's queer now," thought Nicky-Nan, "what a difference childern make to a town, an' you never noticin' it till they're gone." All the children had departed-the happy little Wesleyans to climb on board the waggons, the small Church of England minority to watch them, and solace their envy with expectation of their own Treat, a more select one, promised for this-day-fortnight. Then would be their turn, and some people would live to be sorry that they went to Chapel. But a fortnight is a long time, and weather in the West is notoriously uncertain. Of course you cannot eat your cake and have it: but Mrs Penhaligon arrived just in time to stop a fight between 'Bert and Matthey Matthew's ugly boy, who sang in the Church choir, and hoped it would rain. (Odium theologicum.)

The most of the mothers had departed also, either to "assist" at the Treat or to watch the embarkation: while those of the men whom the War had not claimed had tramped it over to Troy, which six weeks ago-and long before the idea of a European War had occurred to any one-had advertised a small regatta for Bank Holiday, with an afternoon's horse-racing.

The tunding of the drum up the valley seemed to Nicky-Nan to emphasise the loneliness all about him. But down by the Quay-head he came in sight of Policeman Rat-it-all (so named from his only and frequent expletive), seated on a bollard and staring up at the sky.

Nicky-Nan hesitated: hung, indeed, for a moment, on the edge of flight. This was Bank Holiday, and until to-morrow's sunrise a constable was powerless as Satan in a charmed circle. Still, the man might have the ejectment order in his pocket-would, if not already furnished with it, almost certainly know about it. On the other hand there was a chance-it might be worth while-to discover how much Rat-it-all knew. Forewarned is forearmed. Moreover, when your country is at war, and silence holds the city, there is great comfort in a chat. Nicky-Nan advanced with a fine air of nonchalance.

"Lookin' at the sky?" said he. "Wind's back in the nor'-west again. Which, for settled weather, I'd rather it took off-shore a bit later in the afternoon. It'll last though, for all that, I shoudn' wonder."

Policeman Rat-it-all withdrew his gaze from the firmament.

"I wasn' thinkin' of the wind," said he. "I take no account of the elements, for my part. Never did; and now never shall-havin' been born up to Bodmin, where the prison is."

"Oh!" said Nicky-Nan suspiciously. "What's it like?"

"Bodmin?" Policeman Rat-it-all seemed to reflect for a moment. "Well, I wouldn't just say it's altogether like any place in particular. There's a street, of course, . . . and there's the prison, and the barracks, and an asylum where they keep the lunatics, and a workhouse and what-not. But if you put to me, in so many words, what it's like-"

"I-I meant the prison," explained Nicky-Nan; that being the only feature of Bodmin in which he felt any instant concern.

"It's a place," answered Policeman Rat-it-all with painful lucidity, "where they shut people up. Sometimes there's an execution. But not often; not very often; once in a while, as you might say. There's a monument, too,-upon a hill they call the Beacon. I'm very fond of Bodmin. It's the County Town, you know; and with these little things going on, in one way and another, why, that enlarges the mind."

"Does it so?" asked Nicky-Nan, a trifle puzzled.

"It do indeed," the constable assured him with conviction. "Take me, now, at this present moment, for instance. You comes upon me suddent, and what do you catch me doin'? You catches me,"-here his voice became impressive-"you catches me lookin' up at the sky. And why am I lookin' up at the sky? It is to say to you, 'Nicholas Nanjivell, the wind is sot in the sou'-west?'"

"Not if you expect me to believe 'ee. 'Tisn' a point off north-an-by-west."

"-Or," the constable continued, lifting a hand, "is it to say to you, 'It is sot in the north-west,' as the case may be? Or is it I was wastin' the day in idleness, same as some persons I could mention in the Force if there wasn' such a thing as discipline? Not so. I was lookin' up in the execution of my duty. An' what do you suppose I was lookin' for?"

"I'm sure I can't tell 'ee," answered Nicky-Nan after a painful effort at guessing. "It couldn' be for obscene language; nor yet for drunks."

Policeman Rat-it-all leant forward and touched him on the top button of his waistcoat.

"Zepp-a-lins!" he said mysteriously.

"Eh?"

"Zepp-a-lins!"

"Oh!"-Nicky-Nan's brow cleared-"You mean them German balloon things the papers make so much fuss about."

"Die-rigitable," added Rat-it-all. "That's the point."

"Well? . . . Have 'ee seen any?" Nicky-Nan lifted his gaze skyward.

"I won't go so far as to say that I've seen anything answerin' to that description knockin' about-not up to the present. But these are times when a man must keep his eyes liftin' if he doesn' want Old England to be taken with what the newspapers call a Bolt from the Blue."

"I've come across the expression," said Nicky-Nan.

"Well, what I say is, Down here, in this corner of the world-though, mind you, I'm not sayin' anything against it-you don't reelise things: you reely don't. Now I come from Bodmin, as I think I must have told you."

"You did."

"Where you see the soldiers goin' about with the stripes down their trowsers: but they've done away with that except for the Yeomanry (which is black, or dark blue, I forget which), and that's how you know the difference. So your mind gets enlarged almost without your knowin' it, and you feel what's at stake."

"I wonder you didn' want to enlist," said Nicky-Nan.

"I did: but I was too tall-too tall and too strong," sighed the policeman, bending his arm and causing his biceps to swell up mountainously. "You haven't a notion how strong I am-if, for instance, I t

ook it into my head to catch you up and heave you over the Quay here. Yes, yes, I am wonderfully well made! And on top of that, Mother picked up some nonsense against soldiering off a speaker at a Pleasant Sunday Afternoon. There was nothing for it but the Force. So here I AM. But give me the wings of a dove, and I'd join the Royal Flyin' Corps to-morrow, where they get higher pay because of the risk, same as with the submarines. If you ask me, every Englishman's post at this moment is in the firing line."

Nicky-Nan winced, and changed the subject in haste.

"Well, it must be a great consolation to have such strength as yours," he said pleasantly. "But I wonder-with nothing else doin', and on a Bank Holiday too-you could manage to stay away from the School Treat."

"Rat it all!" broke out the constable, and checked himself. "I thought I was igsplaining to you," he went on as one who reasons patiently with an infant, "that a man has to think of something above an' beyond self in these days."

"I never found time to think out the rights an' wrongs o' warfare, for my part," said Nicky-Nan.

"Ah, I daresay not." Policeman Rat-it-all blew out his chest.

"It's a deep subject," he added, wagging his head solemnly.

"A very deep subject; and I quite understand your not having time for

it lately. How about that Ejectment Order?"

Nicky-Nan jumped like a man shot. "Ha-have you got the-the thing about 'ee?" he twittered. "Don't tell me that Pamphlett has got 'em to send it down? . . . But there, you can't do anything on a Bank Holiday, anyway."

"Have I got the thing about me?" echoed the policeman slowly. "You talk as if 'twas a box o' matches. . . . Well, I may, or I mayn't; but anyways I've followed the case before Petty Sessions; and if you haven't a leg to stand on, the only thing is to walk out peaceably. Mind, I'm puttin' it unofficial, as between friends."

"And what if I don't?"

"Then, rat it all!-I mean," the constable corrected himself to a tolerant smile and gazed down on his mighty hands and arms-"then I got to put you into the street."

Nicky-Nan leaned on his stick and the stick shook with his communicated fury. "Try it-try it-try it!" he blazed out. "Try it, you Bodmin fathead!"

He shuffled away, nodding his head with wrath. He roamed the cliff-paths for an hour, pausing now and again to lean his back against an out-cropping mass of rock and pass the back of his hand across his eyes, that at first were bloodshot with fury. He had a great desire to kill Policeman Rat-it-all. As his passion died down and he limped forward, to pause and again limp forward, his gait and the backward cast of his eye were not unlike those of a hunted hare.

He reached the house door at nightfall, just as Mrs Penhaligon came shepherding her offspring home down the dusky street, 'Biades had yielded to the sleep of exhaustion, and lay like a log in his mother's arms. 'Bert, for no other reason than that he had tired himself out, was sulky and uncommunicative. But 'Beida-whose whole manner ever changed when once she had been persuaded into fine clothes-wore an air of sustained gentility.

"Squire Tresawna keeps seven gardeners," she reported. "He has three motor-cars and two chauffeurs. The gardeners keep the front lawn so short with their mowing-machines that 'Biades couldn't possibly have made the front of his blouse in the mess it is unless he had purposely crawled on his stomach to lower me in the eyes of all. When it got to a certain point I pretended to have no connection with him. There was nothing else to do. Then he felt sorry and wanted to hug me in front of everybody. . . . Oh, thank you . . . yes, I've enjoyed myself very much! Mrs Tresawna wears a toque: but I suppose that when you get to a certain position you can carry on with toques long after every one else has given them up. She has two maids; one of them in a grey velours dress that must have been one of Mrs Tresawna's cast-offs, for it couldn't possibly have come out of her wages; though, by the fit, it might have been made for her."

A little before ten o'clock Nicky-Nan climbed the stairs painfully to his bedroom, undressed in part, and lay down-but not to sleep. For a while he lay without extinguishing the candle-his last candle. He had measured it carefully, and it reached almost to an inch beyond the knuckle of his forefinger. It would last him a good two hours at least, perhaps three.

He lay for a while almost luxuriously, save for the pain in his leg, and watched the light flickering on the rafters. They had a few more days to abide, let Pamphlett's men be never so sharp: but this was his last night under them. His enemies-some of them until this morning unsuspected-were closing in around him. They had him, now, in this last corner.

But that was for to-morrow. The very poor live always on the edge of to-morrow; and for that reason the night's sleep, which parts them from it, seems a long time.

After all, what could his enemies do to him? If he sat passive, the onus would rest on them. If Policeman Rat-it-all flung him into the street, why then in the street he would sit, to the scandal of Polpier. If, on the other hand, Government claimed him for a deserter, still Government would have to fetch a cart to convey him to jail: his leg would not allow him to walk. Of wealth and goods God Almighty had already eased him. Cantat vacuus . . . He slid a hand under the bed-clothes and rubbed the swelling on his leg, softly, wondering if condemned men felt as little perturbed-or some of them-on the eve of execution.

He ceased rubbing and lay still again, staring up at the play of light on the rafters. Fine old timbers they were . . . solid English oak. Good old families they had sheltered in their time; men and women that feared God and honoured the King-now all gone to decay in churchyard, all as cold as homeless fellows. The Nanjivells had been such a family, and now-what would his poor old mother think of this for an end? Yet it was the general fate. Pushing men, your Pamphletts, rise in the world. Old families go down, . . . it couldn't be worked else. If he had only been born with push, now! If it could only be started over again, . . . if he had been put to a trade, instead of being let run to sea-

He broke off to wonder at the different things the old beams had looked down upon. Marriages, births-and deaths. The Old Doctor (he knew) had died in the fore-room, for convenience-the room where the Penhaligons slept: and even so, the family had been forced to lift the coffin in and out of the window, because of that twist in the stairs. There wasn't that difficulty with people's coming into the world. No doubt in its time this room must have seen a mort of births too. . . . And the children? All gone, the same way! Drizzle o' rain upon churchyard graves. . . . "And you, too,"-with a flicker of his closing eyelids threatening the flicker on the beams- "you, too, doomed, my billies! Pamphlett'll take me to-morrow, you the day after; as in time the Devil'll take him and his!"

Nicky-Nan rolled over on his side and, perceiving the candle to be burnt down to a short inch, hastily blew it out. Almost in the act of relaxing the elbow on which he had raised himself for this effort he dropped asleep to his pillow.

For three hours he lay like a log. Then his troubled brain began to reassert itself. At about two in the morning he sat bolt upright in his bed. For twenty minutes or so he had been thinking rather than dreaming, yet with his thought held captive by sleep.

He reached for his matchbox and struck a light. . . . The whole world was after him, hunting him down, tearing down the house above his head! . . . Well, he would go down with the house. Pamphlett, or Government, might take his house: but there was the old hiding-cupboard to the right of the chimney-breast. . . .

When they summoned him to-morrow, he would have vanished. Only by uncovering his last shelter should they discover what was left of him. He would perish with the house.

He lit the candle and carried it to the cupboard; opened this, and peered into the well at his feet: lifted one of the loose bottom-boards, and, holding himself steady by a grip on the scurtain, thrust a naked leg down, feeling into vacancy.

The ball of his foot touched some substance, hard and apparently firm. He supposed it to be a lower ceiling of the hole, and, after pressing once or twice to make sure, put all his weight upon it.

With a creak and a rush of masonry the whole second flooring of the cupboard gave way beneath him, leaving his invalid leg dangling, in excruciating pain. But that the crook of his elbow caught across the scurtain (shooting darts as of fire up the jarred funny-bone), he had made a part of the avalanche, the noise of which was enough to wake the dead. Luckily, too, he had set his candle on the planching floor, just wide of the cupboard entrance, and it stood burning as though nothing had happened.

With pain which surely must be worse than any pain of death, he heaved himself back and on to the bedroom floor again. The cascade of plaster, timber, masonry, must (he judged) have shot itself straight down into his parlour below.

He picked up the candle, and warily-while his leg wrung him with torture at every step-crept down the stairs to explore.

The parlour door opened inwards. He thrust it open for a short way quite easily. Then of a sudden it jammed: but it left an aperture through which he could squeeze himself. He did so, and held the candle aloft.

While he stared, first at a hole in the ceiling, then at the "scree" which had broken through it and lay spread, fan-shaped, on the solid floor at his feet, he heard a footstep, and Mrs Penhaligon's voice in the passage without.

"Mr Nanjivell! Is that Mr Nanjivell?"

"Yes, ma'am!"

"Oh, what has happened?"

"Nothing, ma'am. Only a downrush of soot in the chimney," answered Nicky-Nan, gasping: for the heap of dust and mortar at his feet lay scattered all over with golden coins!

"But the noise was terrible. I-I thought for sure it must be the

Germans," came in Mrs Penhaligon's voice.

"Nothing of the sort. You exaggerate things," answered Nicky-Nan, commanding his voice. "A rush of soot down the chimney, that's all. I've been expectin' it for weeks."

"You mustn't mind my bein' easily alarmed-left alone as I be with a family-"

"Not in the least, ma'am." Nicky-Nan resolutely closed the door and lifted his candle to confirm the miracle.

The candle, which had been guttering, shot up one last flame and died on a flicker of gold.

(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top

shares