When news of the War first came to Polpier, Nicholas Nanjivell (commonly known as Nicky-Nan) paid small attention to it, being preoccupied with his own affairs.
Indeed, for some days the children knew more about it than he, being tragically concerned in it—poor mites!—though they took it gaily enough. For Polpier lives by the fishery, and of the fishermen a large number—some scores—had passed through the Navy and now belonged to the Reserve. These good fellows had the haziest notion of what newspapers meant by the Balance of Power in Europe, nor perhaps could any one of them have explained why, when Austria declared war on Servia, Germany should be taking a hand. But they had learnt enough on the lower deck to forebode that, when Germany took a hand, the British Navy would pretty soon be clearing for action. Consequently all through the last week of July, when the word “Germany” began to be printed in large type in Press headlines, the drifters putting out nightly on the watch for the pilchard harvest carried each a copy of The Western Morning News or The Western Daily Mercury to be read aloud, discussed, expounded under the cuddy lamp in the long hours between shooting the nets and hauling them.
“When the corn
is in the shock,
Then the fish is on the rock.”
A very little of the corn had been shocked as yet; but the fields, right down to the cliffs’ edge, stood ripe for abundant harvest. I doubt, indeed, if in our time they have ever smiled a fairer promise or reward for husbandry than during this last fortnight of July 1914, when the crews, running back with the southerly breeze for Polpier, would note how the crop stood yellower in to-day’s than in yesterday’s sunrise, and speculate when Farmer Best or farmer Bate meant to start reaping. As for the fish, the boats had made small catches—dips among the straggling advance-guards of the great armies of pilchards surely drawing in from the Atlantic. “’Tis early days yet, hows’ever—time enough, my sons—plenty time!” promised Un’ Benny Rowett, patriarch of the fishing-fleet and local preacher on Sundays. Some of the younger men grumbled that “there was no tellin’: the season had been tricky from the start.” The spider-crabs—that are the curse of inshore trammels—had lingered for a good three weeks past the date when by all rights they were due to sheer off. Then a host of spur-dogs had invaded the whiting-grounds, preying so gluttonously on the hooked fish that, haul in as you might, three times out of four the line brought up nothing but a head—all the rest bitten off and swallowed. “No salmon moving, over to Troy. The sean-boats there hadn’t even troubled to take out a licence.” As for lobsters, “they were becomin’ a winter fish, somehow, and up the harbours you started catchin’ ’em at Christmas and lost ’em by Eastertide:” while the ordinary crabbing-grounds appeared to be clean bewitched.