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MISS OLIVER PROFFERS ASSISTANCE.
Although this narrative has faintly attempted to trace it here and there in operation, no one can keep tally with rumour in Polpier, or render any convincing account of its secret ways. It were far easier to hunt thistledown.
The Penhaligon family were packing, preparing for the great move into Aun' Bunney's derelict cottage. 'Bert and 'Beida had been given to understand--had made sure in fact--that the move would be made, at earliest, in the week before Michaelmas Day. For some reason or other Mrs Penhaligon had changed her mind, and was hurrying things forward almost feverishly. 'Beida--who for a year or so had been taken more and more into her mother's confidence--suddenly found herself up against a dead wall of mystery and obstinacy. The growing girl was puzzled--driven to consult 'Bert about it; and a Polpier woman is driven far before she seeks advice from husband or brother.
She might have spared herself the humiliation, too. For 'Bert, when she cornered him, gave no help at all. Yet he was positive enough. [It takes some experience to discover what painted laths men are.]
"Some woman's rot!" decided 'Bert with a shrug of his shoulders. "Father bein' away, she's worryin', an' wants to get it over. She don't consult me, so I've no call to tell her to take things cooler." The trumpet, after thus uttering no uncertain sound, tailed off upon the word 'females.'
"Get along with your 'females'!" fired up 'Beida, springing to arms for her sex. "I'd like to know where the world'd be without us. But don't you see that 'tisn' like Mother to be so daggin' to quit the old house?"
"She wants to get the grievin' over, I tell you," 'Bert maintained.
As for 'Biades, he was rather more--certainly not less--of a nuisance than children of his age usually are when a family intends a move. He asked a thousand questions, wandered among packing-cases as in a maze, and, if his presence were forgotten for a moment, sat down and howled. On being picked up and righted he would account for his emotion quite absurdly yet lucidly and in a way that wrung all hearts. On the second day of packing he looked out from a zareba of furniture under which he had contrived to crawl, and demanded-- "What's a Spy?"
"A Spy?" his mother echoed after he had repeated the question three or four times. "A Spy is a wicked man: worse nor a Prooshian."
"What's a Prooshian?"
"A Prooshian," said Mrs Penhaligon, inverting one bedroom chair on another, "is a kind o' German, and by all accounts the p'isonest. A Spy is worse nor even a Prooshian, because he pretends he isn't till he've wormed hisself into your confidence, an' then he comes out in his true colours, an' the next thing you know you're stabbed in the back in the dark." Mrs Penhaligon might miss to be lucid in explanation, but never to be vivid.
"What's your 'confidence'?" asked 'Biades, after a digestive pause.
His sister 'Beida turned about while she bumped herself up and down in a sitting posture on the lid of an old sea-chest overfilled with pillows, bed-curtains, and other "soft goods."
"It isn't your stummick, on which you're crawlin' at this moment like Satan in the garden. And only yesterday your askin' to be put into weskits on the ground of your age! A nice business 'twould be to keep your front in buttons!" While admonishing 'Biades, 'Beida continued to bump herself on the sea-chest, her speech by consequence coming in short interrupted gushes like water from a pump. "A Spy," she continued, "is a man what creeps in a person's belongings same as you're doin' at this moment, an' then goes off an' gets paid for writin' to Germany about it: which if we didn' know from bitter experience as you couldn't spell a, b, 'ab,' we should be feelin' nervous at this moment, the way you're behavin'."
"How can you tell a Spy?" persisted 'Biades after another pause, ignoring reproof. "Does he go about with a gamey leg, like Mr Nanjivell? Or what?"
"Don't you set up to laugh at gamey legs or any such infirmity," his mother warned him, "when there's an All-seein' Eye about; an', for all we know, around the corner at this moment gettin' ready to strike you comical."
"There's no way to tell a Spy at first," added 'Beida; "an' that's why they're so dangerous. The usual way is that first you have your suspicions, an' then, some day when he's not lookin', you search his premises an' the fat's in the fire."
"What's an infirmity?" asked 'Biades. Getting no answer, after half a minute he asked, "What's premises?"
Still there was no answer. With a sigh he wriggled backwards out of his shelter. Seizing the moment when his sister had at length pressed down the lid and his mother was kneeling to lock it, he slipped out of the room and betook himself to the water-side, where he fell into deep thought.
This happened on Tuesday. During Wednesday and the morning of Thursday the child was extraordinarily well-behaved. As Mrs Penhaligon observed to her daughter--
"You kept warnin' me he'd be a handful, messin' about an' unpackin' things as soon as they was packed. Whereas if he'd been his own father, he couldn' ha' been more considerate in keepin' out o' the way. 'Tis wonderful how their tender intellec's turn steady when there's trouble in the family."
"But there isn't."
"Well, you know what I mean. For the last two days the blessed child might not ha' been in existence, he's such a comfort."
"Well," said 'Beida, "you may be right. But I never yet knowed 'Biades quiet for half this time 'ithout there was somebody's bill to pay at the end o't."
That same afternoon as Miss Charity Oliver came down the hill on her first errand as Relief Visitor, at the corner by Mrs Pengelly's she happened on young 'Biades, posted solitary before the shop-window. There was something queer in this: for the elder children had started a game of tig, down by the bridge--that is to say, within earshot-- and as a rule any such game attracted 'Biades fatally to its periphery, where he would stand with his eyes rounded and his heart sick for the time when he would be grown up and invited to join in. To-day his back was turned to the fun.
Miss Oliver, however, knew no more of 'Biades ways than that on her approach as a rule he either fled precipitately or, if no retreat offered itself, stood stock-still, put a finger in his mouth, and seemed to be calling on some effort of the will to make him invisible. To-day he met her accost easily, familiarly, even with what in a grown male might have been taken for a drunken leer.
"Well, my little man!" said Miss Oliver. "And what might you be doing here, all by yourself?"
"Choosin'," answered 'Biades. Reluctantly he withdrew his eyes again from gloating on Mrs Pengelly's miscellaneous exhibits. "I 'spect it'll end in peppermint lumps, but I'd rather have trousers if a whole penny would run to 'em."
He held out his palm, exhibiting a coin over which his fingers quickly closed again.
"What's that money you have?" asked Miss Oliver sharply.
"A penny," answered the child. "A whole penny. I like peppermint lumps, but they smell so strong in your breath that 'Bert and 'Beida would find out an' want to share. Of course trousers are found out quite as easy, or easier. But you can't go shares in trousers: not," added 'Biades thoughtfully, "if you try ever so."
"May I see the pretty penny?" coaxed Miss Oliver: for in the glimpse allowed her it had seemed an extraordinarily bright and yellow one.
"You mustn' come no nearer than you are now," said 'Biades, backing a little. After an inward struggle he opened his fingers and disclosed the coin.
"Where did you get that?" Miss Oliver's eyes were notoriously sharp. Her voice rapped out the question in a way that made 'Biades blink and clasp the coin again as he cast a desperate look behind him in search of retreat.
"Mr Nanjivell gave it to me."
"Mr Nanjivell! . . . He couldn't!" Miss Oliver took a step forward. 'Biades lowered his head.
"If you come a step closer I'll butt 'ee!" He threatened. "Mr Nanjivell gave it to me," he repeated, and, seeing her taken aback, soared upon the wing of falsehood. "Mother's changing houses, an' Mr Nanjivell said I'd behaved so quiet I deserved a penny if ever a boy did in this world."
"A penny?" Miss Oliver echoed. "But where did he--how did he come across that kind of penny? Such a bright penny, I mean."
"He spat upon it, an' rubbed it on his trousers," answered 'Biades with a glibness that astonished himself, 'peeking' between his fingers to make sure that they really held the prize. Inspiration took the child, once started, and he lied as one lifted far above earth. "Mr Nanjivell said as it might help me to forget Father's bein' away at the War. Mr Nanjivell said as I couldn' learn too early to lay by against a rainy day, and I was to take it to Missis Pengelly's and if it took the form of trousers he didn' mind. Mother wanted me to put it in the savings bank, but he wouldn' hear of it. He said they weren't to be trusted any longer--not savings banks. He said--"
"But where did he get it?"
'Biades blinked, and set his face hardily. He had the haziest notions of how money was acquired. But from infancy he had perforce attended chapel.
"He took up a collection."
"He took up a collection, Miss: the same as Mr Pamphlett does on Sunday. Back-along, when he was at sea--"
"Alcibiades," said Miss Oliver on a sudden impulse, feeling for her purse. "What would you say if I gave you two pennies for your bright new one? Two pennies will buy twice as much as one, you know."
"O' course I know that," said 'Biades cunningly. "But what for?"
"Because you have told me such a pretty story."
'Biades hesitated. He had been driven--in self-defence, to be sure-- into saying things at the bare thought of which he felt a premonitory tingling in the rearward part of his person. But somehow the feel of the coin in his hand seemed to enfranchise him. He had at once a sense of manly solidity, and of having been floated off into a giddy atmosphere in which nothing succeeded like success and the law of gravity had lost all spanking weight. He backed towards Mrs Pengelly's shop door, greedy, suspicious, irresolute.
Miss Oliver produced two copper coins, and laid them in his palm. As the exchange was made he backed upon Mrs Pengelly's shop door, and the impact set a bell clanging. The sense of it shot up his spine of a sudden, and at each stroke of the clapper he felt he had sold his soul to the devil. But Miss Oliver stood in front of him, with a smile on her face that seemed to waver the more she fixed it: and at this moment the voice of Mrs Pengelly--a deep contralto--called--
Some women are comfortable, others uncomfortable. In the language of Polpier, "there be bitter and there be bowerly." Mrs Pengelly was a bowerly woman, and traded in lollipops. Miss Oliver--
Anyhow, the child 'Biades turned and took refuge in the shop, hurling back the door-flap and its clanging bell.
This left Miss Oliver without, in the awkwardest of situations: since she had a conscience as well as curiosity. In her palm lay a guinea-piece: which meant that (at the very least, or the current rate of exchange) she had swindled a child out of twenty shillings and tenpence. This would never do, of course. . . . Yet she could not very well follow in at this moment and explain to Mrs Pengelly.
Moreover, here was a mystery connected with Nanjivell. In the midst of her embarrassment she felt a secret assurance that she was in luck; that she held a clue; that she had in her grasp something to open Mrs Polsue's eyes in envy.
"The first thing," she decided, "is to take this piece of gold to the child's mother, and instanter."
But, as fate would have it, she had scarcely reached the porch of the Old Doctor's house when Nicky-Nan himself emerged from it: and at the sight of him her fatal curiosity triumphed.
"Mr Nanjivell!" she called.
Nicky-Nan turned about. "Good mornin', Miss. Was that you a-callin'?"
Having yielded to her impulse, Miss Oliver suddenly found herself at a loss how to proceed. Confusion and the call to improvise an opening movement mantled her cheeks with that crimson tint which her friend Mary-Martha so often alleged to be unbecoming.
"I stopped you," she answered, stammering a little, "because, with all our little differences in Polpier, we're all one family in a sense, are we not? We have a sort of fellow-feeling--eh?--whether in trouble or prosperity. And as a Polpier woman, born and bred, I'd like to be one of the first to wish you joy of your good fortune."
Nicky-Nan's face did not flush. On the contrary, it turned to an ashen grey, as he stood before her and leant for support on his stick. He was making inarticulate sounds in his throat.
"Who told you?" he gasped hoarsely. Recollecting himself, he hastily changed the form of the question. "What lies have they been tellin' up about me now?"
Miss Oliver had meant to disclose the guinea in her palm, and tell him of her meeting with the child 'Biades. But now she clutched the coin closer, and it gave her confidence--a feeling that she held her trump card in reserve.
"Why, of course, they have been putting up lies, as you say," she answered cunningly. "There was never such a place as Polpier for tittle-tattle. They've even gone so far as to set it about that it came from Germany: which was the reason you haven't joined up with the colours."
"What came from Germany?"
"And of course it is partly your own fault, isn't it?--if you will make such a secret of the thing? . . . Yet, I'm sure I don't blame you. Living the solitary life you do must make it specially trying to feel that every one is canvassing your affairs. For my part, I said, 'If it does come from Germany,' I said, 'you may be sure 'tis through one of those lotteries.'" On a swift thought she added, "But that tale is all nonsense, of course: because the Germans wouldn't pay in guineas, would they?"
"'Guineas'?" repeated Nicky-Nan, as the solid earth seemed to fail beneath his feet and his supporting stick.
Miss Oliver, grasping the advantage of his evident distress, decided in a flash (1) that here, before her, stood the wreck of a well-connected man, cleanly in person, not ill to look upon; and (2) that she would a little longer withhold disclosure of the guinea.
"Well, I heard it took the form of guineas, Mr Nanjivell. But of course I don't wish to be inquisitive."
"That devil Pamphlett has been talkin'," muttered Nicky-Nan to himself.
"I only suggest," Miss Oliver went on, "that if 'twas known--I don't seek to know the amount: but if I had your authority to say that 'twas all in good coin of this realm--with my opportunities I might hush up half this silly talk about your being a spy and in German pay--"
"What? . . . ME, a German spy?" The words seemed fairly to strangle him.
"It's a positive fact, I assure you. I mean it's a positive fact somebody has been putting that story about."
"If I knawed the critter, male or female--" Nicky-Nan gripped his stick.
Miss Oliver could not help admiring his demeanour, his manly indignation. The man had fine features, too--a touch of ancestry. She grew bolder.
"Well, I rather think I do know the creature, as you put it-though I am not going to tell you," she added almost archly. Then, of a sudden, "Has Constable Rat-it-all been paying you any attention lately?"
"Well . . . I'll be danged!"
Miss Oliver laughed pleasantly. "The fact is, Mr Nanjivell, you want a woman's wit to warn you, as every man does in your position. And just now it took me of a sudden, happening upon you in this way and knowing how you were surrounded by evil tongues, that I'd cast prudence to the winds and speak to you openly for your good, as a neighbour. You don't think the worse of me, I hope?"
"Why, no, Miss Oliver. Contrariwise I ought to be--if you hadn' taken me so sudden!" he concluded lamely.
"We'll say no more about that. All I suggest is that, until you find some one worthier of your confidence, if you care to count on me as an old friend and neighbour--"
"Good Lord!" Nicky-Nan cast a hand to his brow. "You'll excuse my manners, Miss--but if you'll let me go off an' think it over--"
He turned as if to flee into the house. Then, as if headed off by the noise of hammering within, he faced about and made across the bridge for the quay-head and his favourite bollard. There, as a man in a dream, he found a seat, and vainly for ten minutes strove to collect and arrange his thoughts. Suspicion, fear, wild anger wove dances in his brain--witch-dances immingled with cursings upon the heads of Pamphlett and Policeman Rat-it-all. . . . Of a sudden he sat up and stiffened with a new fright.
"By the manner of her conversation, that woman was makin' love to me!"
Left to herself, and as Nicky-Nan passed out of sight around the corner beyond the bridge, Miss Charity Oliver warily opened her palm and examined the guinea.
"By rights," she mused, "I ought to take this in to Mrs Penhaligon at once, and caution her about Alcibiades. . . . No, I won't, though. I'll call first and have it out with Mary-Martha. She thinks she knows everything, and she has a way of making others believe it. But she has proved herself a broken reed over this affair: and," said Miss Oliver to herself with decision, "I rather fancy I'll make Mary-Martha sensible of it."
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