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Nicky-Nan arose with the dawn after a night of little sleep. Very cautiously, with one hand feeling the wall, and in the other carrying his boots, lest he should wake the Penhaligons, he stole downstairs to his parlour. The day being Sunday, he could not dare to risk outraging public opinion by carrying shovel or visgy through the open streets. To be sure nobody was likely to be astir at that hour: for Polpier lies late abed on Sunday mornings, the fishermen claiming it as their week's arrears of sleep. None the less it might happen: Un' Benny, for example, was a wakeful old man, given to rising from his couch unreasonably and walking abroad to commune with his Maker. For certain if Nicky-Nan should be met, going or coming, with a shovel on his shoulder, his dereliction from grace would be trumpeted throughout the parish, and--worse, far worse--it would excite curiosity.
In the parlour he provided himself with the plastering trowel and a sack, and wrapped the one in the other into a tight parcel, easily carried under the crook of his arm-pit. With this he tiptoed along the passage. There was no trouble with latch or bolt: for, save in tempestuous weather, the front door of the old house--like half the front doors of the town--stood open all night long. An enormous sea-shell, supposed of Pernambuco, served it for weight or "dog," holding it tight-jammed against the wall of the passage.
Nicky-Nan seated himself on the bench in the porchway and did on his boots. The light was very dim here, and his fingers trembled, so that he took a long time threading the laces through the eyelet-holes. He became aware that his nerves were shaken. At the best of times, with his hurt leg, he found this operation of lacing his boots one of the worst of the day's jobs. It cost him almost as much time as shaving, and far more pain.
But at length the laces were threaded and tied, and tucking his parcel under his arm he set forth. He had forgotten his walking-staff and dared not go back to fetch it. Moreover, in Polpier it is held to be inauspicious if, once started on an enterprise, you turn back for something you have forgotten: and Nicky-Nan, a sceptic by habit, felt many superstitions assailing him this morning. For instance, he had been careful to lace up his right boot before his left.
A high tide filled the inner pool of the harbour, and on its smooth surface several gulls floated, paddling lazily if at all. These birds know Sunday from week-days as well as any Christian folk: which is nothing very wonderful, for the Polpier boats have lain at home all the night and there is no fish-offal drifting about. Nicky-Nan counted the birds carefully, and drew a breath of relief on assuring himself that they totalled fifteen--an odd number and a lucky one. But he had no sooner done so than, as if they had been waiting for him, to signal misfortune, two of the flock arose, pattered for a moment on the water, wheeled upward twice, thrice, in short circles, and sailed off. His heart sank as he did the small sum in subtraction: but he controlled himself, noting that they sailed off to the right.
It was pretty to see them rising out of the blue liquid shadow of the harbour-pool; rising until, in a flash, they took the morning sun-ray that struck almost level across the top of the chasm, and were transformed into winged jewels, dazzling the eye. But Nicky-Nan scarcely marked this, being preoccupied with his cares and fears: for where a man's treasure is, there will his heart be also. Nor did he note at the bend of the cliff, which brought him in turn, after a long climb, face to face with the sun, that already its beams were warming the dew-drenched cushions of thyme on either side of the track, and drawing delicious odour from them. The ray, smiting full in his eyes for a moment or two, hid from him all details of the landscape ahead and on his left, even as effectually as it hid the stars of night. Nicky-Nan hobbled on for a few paces, blinking. Then, with a catch of the breath, he came to a halt. His vision clearing by degrees, he let out a gasp and his knees shook under him.
A couple of hundred yards away, and for half a mile beyond that, the green turf was populous with soldiery!
For some miles east and west of our haven the coast-front runs, as it were, in two tiers. From the sea rises a sheer face of naked rock, averaging some two hundred feet in height, for the most part unscaleable, but here and there indented with steep gully-ways, down each of which, through thickets of cow-parsley, flax, kale, and brambles, matted curtains of ground-ivy, tussocks of thrift and bladder-campion, a rivulet tumbles to the brine. Above this runs a narrow terrace or plat of short turf, where a man may walk with his hands in his pockets; and here, with many ups and downs, runs the track used by the coastguard, who blaze the stones beside it at intervals with splashes of whitewash, for guidance on dark nights. Above this plateau, which here expands to a width of twenty or thirty feet and anon contracts almost to nothing, the cliff takes another climb, right away now to the skyline; but the acclivity is gentler, with funnel-shaped turfy hollows between bastions of piled rock not unlike Dartmoor tors or South African kopjes in miniature. On top of all runs a second terrace, much broader than the first, and a low hedge, beyond which, out of sight, the cultivated land begins.
Hard by the foot of one of these rock-bastions, on a fan-shaped plat of green, backed by clumps of ivy and wind-tortured thorns, a group of tents had sprung up like a cluster of enormous mushrooms. More tents aligned the upper terrace, under the lee of the hedge: and here also five or six waggons stood against the sky-line, with men busy about them. Smaller knots of men in khaki toiled in the hollows, dragging down poles, sleepers, bundles of rope, parcels of picks and entrenching spades for the lower camp. Twos and threes, perched precariously on the rock-ridges, held on to check-ropes, guiding the descent of the heavier gear. The sound of voices shouting orders came borne on the clear morning air; and above it, as Nicky-Nan halted, rose the note of a bugle, on which somebody was practising to make up for time lost in days of peace.
Nicky-Nan pulled his wits together and stumbled forward, terror in his heart. Could he reach the 'taty-patch and snatch his treasure before these invaders descended upon it?
The patch (as has been told) lay in a hollow, concealed from sight of the pilot-house. The cliff-track crossed a sharp knoll and brought you upon it suddenly. Nicky-Nan's heart beat fast, and unconsciously he accelerated his hobble almost to a run. As he pulled up short on the edge of the dip a sob broke from him--almost a cry.
Below him a couple of men in khaki were measuring the hollow with a field-tape; while a third--an officer--stood almost midway between them pencilling notes in a book. The tape stretched clean across the potato-patch.
"Right!" announced the officer, not perceiving Nicky, whose shadow, of course, lay behind on the path.
The nearer man--a stout corporal--dropped his end of the measuring-tape. The other wound it up slowly.
"We'll have to lay the trench through here," said the officer; and quoted, "'I'm sorry for Mr Naboth--I'm sorry to cause him pain;' but you, corporal, must find him and tell him he'll get compensation for disturbance." He pocketed his note-book, turned, and mounted the slope towards the encampment. The soldier holding the spool on the far side of the dip finished winding the tape very leisurably; which gave it the movement and appearance of a long snake crawling back to him across Nicky-Nan's potato-tops and over Nicky-Nan's fence. Then, shutting the spool with a click, he turned away and followed his officer. The stout corporal, left alone, seated himself on a soft cushion of thyme, drew forth a pipe from his hip-pocket, and was in the act of lighting it when Nicky-Nan descended upon him.
"And 'oo may you be?" asked the stout corporal, turning about as he puffed.
"You--you've no business here!" stammered Nicky wrathfully. "The first sojer I catch trespassin' on my piece o' ground, I'll have the law on him!"
"Hullo! Be you the owner o' this patch, then?"
"Yes, I be: and I tell 'ee you've no business messin' around my property."
The corporal removed the pipe from his mouth and rubbed its bowl softly against the side of his nose. "So you said, to be sure. I didn' laugh at the moment, not bein' a triggerish chap at a joke. But it'll come in time. That's why I joined the sappers."
"I takes a pleasure in redoocin' things. . . . Well, if you be the owner o' this here patch, the pleasure is mootual, for you've saved me time an' trouble over and above your speakin' so humorous. And what might your name be, makin' so bold?"
"You don't say so! . . . Christian name?"
"'Tis a fair co-incidence," mused the corporal aloud. "I knew a man once by the name of Nanjivell--a fish-dealer; but he was called Daniel, an' he's dead, what's more. I remember him all the better, because once upon a time, in my young days, I made a joke upon him, so clever it surprised myself. It began with my sendin' in a bill 'Account rendered' that he'd already paid. I started by tellin' 'ee that I was young at the time. 'Twas before I married my wife to look after the books, an' I won't say that I wasn' a bit love-struck an' careless. Anyway, in went that dam bill; and he'd kep' the receipt, which made him fair furious. Mad as fire he was, an' wrote me a letter about it. Such a saucy letter! 'Twas only last Christmas or thereabouts I found it in my desk an' tore it up. But I got even with him. 'Dear sir,'--I wrote back, 'your favour of the 5th instant received an' unchristian spirit of the same duly noted. On inquiry I find the 3 lb. of sausages to esteemed order was paid for on Lady-day: which on cooler thoughts you will see in the light of a slip as might have happened to anybody. Which in fact it did in this case. P.S.--Nanjivell ought to rhyme with civil. What a mistake when it rhymes with D--!--Yours faithfully'--and I signed my name. Then, on second thoughts, I tacked on another pos'script. At this distance o' time I can't be sure if 'twas 'Flee from the Wrath to Come' or 'The Wages o' Sin is Death'--but I think the latter, as bein' less easily twisted into a threat. . . . That," added the corporal after a pause, "closed the correspondence."
"And where," Nicky-Nan asked, "might all this have happened?"
"At Penryn: which, for electoral purposes, is one borough with Falmouth. . . . I hoped as you would ha' laughed: but I'm glad to find you interested, anyway. Sandercock is my name, if you can make anything o' that,--Eli Sandercock, Fore Street, Penryn, pork and family butcher. You've heard o' Sandercock's hogs-puddin's I don't doubt?"
"Haven't travelled much, maybe?"
"Knocked about a little. . . . Mostly on the China station an' South Pacific."
"Ah, they're hot climates, by all accounts. They wouldn't--no, o' course they wouldn't--"
"Bring you into contact, so to speak. . . . You should see my vi'lets, too."
"They go together. You may notice the same thing in Truro: everybody that sells pork sells vi'lets."
"Damme if I can see the connexion--"
"You wouldn't--not at first. Vi'lets is a delicate way of advertisin' that there's an r in the month, an' your pork by consequence can be relied on. My wife, too, is never happy without a great bowlful o' vi'lets on the counter, done up in bunches: she thinks they suit her complexion. Now this patch o' yours'd be the very place to raise vi'lets. I was thinkin' so just now when I measured it. Suffer much from red-spider in these parts?"
"Not so far as I know. . . . But 'tis a curious thing," went on Nicky-Nan, "to find a man like you turned to sojerin'."
"Ah," cried Corporal Sandercock, eager for sympathy, "yes, well you may say that! It seems like a dream. . . . Of course in the pork-business August is always a slack month, an' this blasted War couldn' have happened at a more convenient season for pork, not if the Kaiser had consulted me."
"But what drove 'ee to it?"
"Into the Engineers? Well, 'tis hard to say. . . . I always had leanin's: an' then the sausages preyed on my mind--they look so much like fuses. So, what with one thing and another, and my wife likin' to see me in scarlet, with piping down my legs, which is what we wear on Sundays--'Tis a long story, however, an' we can talk it over as we're diggin' up yer 'taties."
"'Diggin' up my 'taties'?" Nicky-Nan echoed with a quaver. "Let me catch you tryin' it!"
"Now, we're comin' to business," said Corporal Sandercock. "That's what the O.C. told me--Captain Whybro, commandin' Number 4 Works Company, Cornwall Fortress Royal Engineers. 'Here's where we carry our first trench,' says he; 'an' here, if wit o' man can grasp the why or the wherefore,' says he, 'is a filthy potato-patch lyin' slap across our line. Corporal,' says he to me, 'you're a family man an' tactful. I detach you,' says he, 'to search the blighter out an' request him to lift his crop without delay. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again,' says he, 'an' the more you run around the better it'll be for your figure, an' the more you'll thank me,' he winds up, 'when we march together into Berlin.' So now you understand how welcome you dropped in. . . . 'Tis a terribly hilly country hereabouts."
"If there's law in England," Nicky-Nan threatened, "you'll keep clear o' this here patch o' mine, or it'll be the worse for 'ee!"
Corporal Sandercock seated himself leisurably on a hillock of thyme, began to knock out his pipe against the edge of his boot-sole, and suddenly exploded in laughter so violent that he was forced to hold his sides. The exhibition took Nicky-Nan right aback. He could but stand and stare.
"Oh, oh!" panted the corporal. After another paroxysm he gasped, "You'll excuse me, but that's how I get taken. 'You've got no business here' was your words." (Another paroxysm.) "You can't think how comical you said it, either."
"Comical or not, I mean it," Nicky-Nan assured him, with a saturnine frown. "If you can give over holdin' your belly an' listen, I don't mind tellin' you my opinion o' this here War; which is, that 'tis a put-up job from start to finish, with no other object than to annoy folks."
The corporal sat up, wiping his eyes. "That's a point o' voo," he admitted, and added guardedly, "I don't say as I agree: but I'd like to know how, comin' upon all of us so suddent, it strikes a man like you, dwellin' in these out-o'-the-way parts. My wife declares she've seen matters workin' up to it for years."
"I never thought about it, one way or t'other, an' I don't want to think about it now. Who in the world wants war? Not I, for one."
"Me either, if it comes to that," Corporal Sandercock allowed, refilling his pipe. "If the matter had rested with me, I'd ha' gone on forming fours every Wednesday an' Saturday, contented enough, all the rest o' my life. But the great ones of earth will have it, the Kaiser especially: and, after that, there's no more to say. The Kaiser wants a place in the sun, as he puts it; an' 'tis our bounden duty as true Britons to see he don't get any such thing."
"I never heard tell as he expressed a hankerin' for my 'taty-patch," answered Nicky Nan sourly. "The way I look at it is, he leaves me alone in quiet, an' you don't. A pack o' sojers messin' about a spot like this!" he added with scorn. "It affronts a decent man's understandin'. But 'tis always the same wi' sojers. In the Navy, when I belonged it, we had a sayin'--'A messmate afore a ship-mate, a ship mate afore a dog, an' a dog afore a sojer.'"
"To judge by your appearance," said the corporal with no sign of umbrage, "that was some time ago, afore they started the Territorial movement. . . . Ever study what they call Stradegy? No?--I thought not. Stradegy means that down below your patch there's a cove o' sorts: where there's a cove there's a landin'-place; where you can get a light gun ashore you can clear the shore till you find a spot to land heavy guns. Once you've landed heavy guns you've a-took Plymouth in the rear. You follow me?" Corporal Sandercock stood up and picked up a crumb or two of tobacco from the creases of his tunic. "I'll go fetch a fatigue party to harvest these spuds o' yours," said he. "There'll be compensation for disturbance. If you like, you can come along an' bargain it out wi' the O.C."
"No," said Nicky-Nan, snatching at this happy chance. "I'm a lame one, as you see. What must be, must, I suppose: but while you step along I'll bide here."
"So long, then!"
The corporal had no sooner turned his back than Nicky began to unwrap his bundle in a fumbling haste. He watched the rotund figure as it waddled away over the rise; and so, dropping on his knees, fell to work furiously. The sun was already making its warmth felt. In less than five minutes the sweat trickled off his forehead and dropped on his wrists as he dug with his unhandy trowel and grabbed at the soil.
Something more than a quarter of an hour had passed when, looking up for the fiftieth time, he spied the corporal returning down the grassy slope, alone. By this time his job was nearly done; and after finishing it he had the presence of mind to dig up a quart or so of potatoes and spread them over the gold coins in his sack.
"What in thunder's your hurry?" demanded the corporal, halting for a moment on the crest of the rise and gazing down. "I told you as I'd fetch a party to clear the patch for you; an', what's more, the spuds shall be delivered to your door sometime this very day. But the Captain can't spare a man this side o' nine o'clock, an' so I was to tell you." He descended the slope, mopping his brow. "Pretty good tubers?"
Nicky-Nan hypocritically dived a hand into the sack, drew forth a fistful, and held them out in his open palm.
"Ay, and a very tidy lot," the corporal nodded. "And what might be the name of 'em?"
"Duchess o' Cornwall they're called: one o' the new Maincrops, an' one o' the best. East-country grown. You may pull half a dozen or so for yourself if you'll do me the favour to accept 'em."
"Thank 'ee, friend. There's nothin' I relish more than a white-fleshed 'taty, well-grown an' well-boiled. Not a trace o' disease anywhere," observed the corporal, running his eye over the rows and bringing it to rest on the newly-turned soil at his feet. "Eh? Hullo!"
He stooped and picked up a sovereign.
"That's mine!" Nicky-Nan claimed it hastily. "I must ha' dropped it--"
"Well, I didn', anyway--an' that's honest." The corporal handed it over with just a trace of reluctance. "But it only shows," he added, eyeing Nicky-Nan thoughtfully, "as there's nothing in this world so deceptive as appearances."
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