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FIRST ATTEMPT AT HIDING.
Nicky-Nan belonged, congenitally and unconsciously, to that happy brotherhood of men--felices sua si bona norint--whom a little liquor exhilarates, but even a great deal has no power to bemuse. But what avails an immunity above your fellows, if life seldom or never gives you opportunity to prove it?
Nicky-Nan had drunk, after long abstinence and upon a fasting stomach, one brandy-and-soda. He was sober as a judge; he walked straight and--bating his weak leg--firmly, yet he trod on air: he looked neither to the right nor to the left, yet he saw nothing of the familiar street through which he steered. For a vision danced ahead of him. Gold in his pockets, golden sunshine now in his veins--thanks to the brandy-and-soda,--a golden vision weaving itself and flickering in the golden August weather, and in his ears a sentence running, chiming, striking upon the word "gold"-- "Ding-a-ding-a-dong! 'Taty-patch a gold mine--'taty-patch a gold mine!" The prosaic Mr Latter had set the chime ringing, as a dull sacristan might unloose the music of a belfry; but like a chime of faery it rippled and trilled, closing ever upon the deep note "gold," and echoed back as from a veritable gong of that metal.
"'Taty-patch a gold mine"--How came it that, until Latter put the idea into his head, he had never thought of this, his one firm holding on earth, as a hiding-place for his treasure? His lodging in the old house, hard as he would fight for it, acknowledged another man's will. But the patch of ground by the cliff was his own. He had claimed its virginity, chosen and tamed it, marked it off, fenced it about, broken the soil, trenched it, wrought it, taught the barren to bear. It lay remote, approachable only by a narrow cliff-track, overlooked by no human dwelling, doubly concealed--by a small twist of the coast-line and a dip of the ground--from the telescopes of the coastguard in their watch-house. Folks had hinted from time to time (but always chaffing him) that the land must belong to some one--to the Crown, maybe, or, more likely, to the Duchy. But he had tilled it for years undisturbed and unchallenged. The parcel had come to be known as "Nicky-Nan's Chapel," because on fine Sundays, when godlier folks were in church, he spent so much of his time there, smoking and watching the Channel and thinking his thoughts. It was inconceivable that any one should dispute his title now, after the hundreds and hundreds of maundfuls of seaweed under which, first and last--in his later years--he had staggered up the path from the Cove, to incorporate them in the soil.
At the turn of the street he fetched up standing, arrested by another bright idea. Why, of course! He would carry up a part of his wealth to the 'taty-patch and bury it. . . . But a man shouldn't put all his eggs in one basket, and--why hadn't he thought of it before? The money had lain those many years, safe and unsuspected, under the false floor of the cupboard. Simplest thing in the world, now that Pamphlett had given him a respite, to plank up the place again with a couple of new boards, plaster up the ceiling of the sitting-room, and restore a good part of the gold to its hiding!--not all of it, though; since Pamphlett might change his mind at any time, and of a sudden. No, a good part of the gold must be conveyed to the 'taty-patch. He would make a start, maybe, that very night--or rather, that very evening in the dusk when the moon rose: for (now he came to remember) the moon would be at her full to-morrow, or next day. While the dusk lasted he could dig, up there, and no passer-by would suspect him of any intent beyond eking out the last glimpse of day. To be surprised in the act of digging by moonlight was another matter, and might start an evil rumour. For one thing, it was held uncanny, in Polpier, to turn the soil by moonlight--a deed never done save by witches or persons in league with Satan. Albeit they may not own to it, two-thirds of the inhabitants of Polpier believe in black magic.
He would make a start, then, towards dusk. There was no occasion to take any great load at one time, or even to be seen with any conspicuous burden. As much gold as his two pockets would carry-- that would serve for a start. To-morrow he might venture to visit Mrs Pengelly and purchase a new and more capacious pair of trousers-- to-morrow, or perhaps the day after. Caution was necessary. He had already astonished Mr Gedye, the ironmonger, with his affluence: and just now again, like a fool, he had been dropping sovereigns about Latter's bar-parlour. That had been an awkward moment. He had extricated himself with no little skill, but it was a warning to be careful against multiplying evidence or letting it multiply. A new pair of trousers, as this narrative has already hinted, is always a somewhat dazzling adventure in Polpier. No. . . . decidedly he had better postpone that investment. Just now he would step around to boatbuilder Jago's and borrow or purchase a short length of eight-inch planking to repair the flooring of the bedroom cupboard. Jago had a plenty of such odd lengths to be had for the asking. "I'll make out the top of the water-butt wants mending," said Nicky-Nan to himself. "Lord! what foolishness folk talk about the contrivances of poverty. Here have I been living in fear and tremblement over a dozen things never likely to befall, and all because my brain has been starving for years, along with my stomach. Start the pump with a dose of brandy, and it rewards ye by working sweet and suent. Here at this moment be a dozen things possible and easy, that two hours agone were worrying me to the grave. Now I know how rich men thrive, and I'll use the secret. Simplicity itself it is: for set me on the Lord Mayor's throne and fill me with expensive meat and drink, and I'll be bold to command the Powers o' Darkness."
This was fine talking. But he had not freed himself from the tremors of wealth: and now again--
Can such things be, And overcome us like a summer cloud, Without our special wonder?
--now and again and for about the twentieth time--now again, as he turned to bend his steps towards Boatbuilder Jago's yard--suddenly and without warning, as a wave the terror took him that in his absence some thief or spy had surprised his hoard. Under its urgency he wheeled right-about and hurried for home, to assure himself that all was safe.
Such was his haste that in passing the corner of the bridge he scarcely observed a knot of children gathered thereby, until 'Beida's voice hailed him and brought him to a halt.
"Hey! Is that you, Missy?" Nicky-Nan wheeled half-about.
"If you had eyes in your head, you wouldn' be starin' at me," said 'Beida, "but at 'Bert. Look at him--And you, 'Biades, can stand there an' look up at him so long as you like, provided you don't bust out cryin' at his altered appearance: no, nor crick your neck in doin' it, but bear in mind that mother used up the last of the arnica when you did it last time tryin' to count the buttons up Policeman Rat-it-all's uniform, an' that if the wind should shift of a sudden and catch you with your eyes bulgin' out of your head like they'm doin' at this moment, happen 'twill fix you up comical for life: an' then instead of your growin' up apprenticed to a butcher, as has been your constant dream, we'll have to put you into a travellin' show for a gogglin' May-game, an' that's where your heart will be turnin' ever, far from the Old Folks at Home. . . . You'll excuse me, Mr Nanjivell, but the time an' trouble it costs to wean that child's eyes off anything in the shape of a novelty you'd hardly believe. . . . Well, what do you say to 'Bert?"
"I'd say," answered Nicky-Nan slowly, contemplating the boy--who wore a slouch hat, a brown shirt with a loosely tied neckerchief, dark-blue cut-shorts and stockings that exhibited some three inches of bare knee--"I'd say, if he came on me sudden, that he was Buffalo Bill or else Baden Powell, or else the pair rolled into one."
"You wouldn't be far wrong either. He's a Boy Scout, that's what he is. Walked over to St Martin's this mornin' an' joined up. A kind lady over there was so took with his appearance that she had to improve it or die on the spot, out of her own pocket. He's walked back with his own trousers in a parcel, lookin'--well, like what you see. I think it becomin', on the whole. He tells me his motto is 'Be British,' an' he has to do a kind action every day of his life: which he won't find easy, in a little place like Polpier."
As 'Beida drew breath, the boy faced Nicky-Nan half sulkily.
"They put me into this outfit. I didn't ask for it."
"If you want my opinion, 'Bert," said Nicky-Nan, "it suits 'ee very well; an' you look two inches taller in it already."
He hurried on in the direction of Boatbuilder Jago's yard, which stands close above the foreshore, on the eastern side of the little haven. When he returned, with the boards under his arm, it was to find 'Bert the centre of a knot of boys, all envious--though two or three were making brave attempts to hide it under a fire of jocose criticism. It was plain, however, that morally 'Bert held the upper hand. Whilst they had been playing silly games around the Quay, he had walked to St Martin's and done the real thing. No amount of chaff could hide that his had been the glory of the initiative. Indeed, he showed less of annoyance with his critics than of boredom with 'Biades, who, whichever way his big brother turned, revolved punctually as a satellite, never relaxing his rapt, upward gaze of idolatry.
"You can shut your heads, the whole lot," said 'Bert airily. "First thing to-morrow mornin' the half of 'ee'll be startin' over for St Martin's to enlist; an' you know it. Better fit you went off home and asked your dear mammies to put 'ee to bed early. Because there's not only the walk to St Martin's an' back--which is six mile--but when you've passed the doctor for bandy legs or weak eyesight, you may be started on duty that very night. I ben't allowed to say more just now," he added with a fine air of official reticence. "And as for you"--he turned impatiently on 'Biades--"I wish you'd find your sister, to fetch an' shut 'ee away somewhere. Where's 'Beida to?"
"She's breakin' the news to mother," answered 'Biades.
By seven o'clock Nicky-Nan had measured and cut his boards to size. He fitted them loosely to floor the bedroom cupboard. Later on he would fix them securely in place with screws. But by this time daylight was dusking in, and more urgent business called him.
Returning to the parlour downstairs, he refilled his pockets with the gold of which he had lightened himself for his carpentry, knotted another twenty sovereigns tightly in his handkerchief, picked up the lighter of his two spades--for some months he had eschewed the heavier--and took his way through the streets, up the cliff-track by the warren, and so past the coastguard watch-house.
The sun had dropped behind the hill, leaving the West one haze of gold: but southward and seaward this gold grew fainter and fainter, paling into an afterglow of the most delicate blue-amber. In the scarce-canny light, as he rounded the corner of the cliff, he perceived two small figures standing above the hollow which ran down funnel-wise containing his patch, and recognised them.
"Drat them children!" he muttered; but kept on his way, and, drawing near, demanded to know what business brought them so far from home at such an hour.
"I might ask you the same question," retorted 'Beida. "Funny time,-- isn't it?--to start diggin' potatoes? An' before now I've always notice you use a visgy for the job. Yet you can't be plantin--not at this season--"
"I find the light spade handier to carry," explained Nicky-Nan in some haste. "But you haven't answered my question."
"Well, if you must know, I'm kissin' goodnight to 'Bert here. They've started him upon coast-watchin', and he's given this beat till ten-thirty, from the watch-house half-way to the Cove. I shouldn' wonder if he broke his neck."
"No fear," put in 'Bert, proudly exhibiting and flashing a cheap electric torch. "They gave me this at St Martin's--and in less than an hour the moon'll be up."
"But the paper says there be so many spies about--eh, Mr Nanjivell?"
"Damme," groaned Nicky-Nan, "I should think there were! Well, if there's military work afoot, at this rate, I'd better clear. --Unless 'Bert would like me to stay here an' chat with 'en for company."
"We ben't allowed to talk--not when on duty," declared young 'Bert stoutly.
"Then kiss your brother, Missy, an' we'll trundle-ways home."
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