Nicky-Nan dropped off again into a sleep punctuated by twinges of pain.
Towards dawn, as the pain eased, his slumber grew deeper and undisturbed. He was awakened by—What?
At first it seemed to be the same sound of sobbing to which he had listened early in the night. Then, with a start, he knew it to be something quite different—an impatient knocking at the foot of his bed-chamber stairs.
Nicky-Nan shuffled out of bed, opened his door, and peered down the stairway.
“Who’s there?” he challenged. “And what’s your business? Hullo!”— catching sight of Bill Varco, coastguardsman, on the flat below—“the house afire? Or what brings you?”
“The Reserves are called out,” answered up Bill Varco. “You’ll get your paper later. But the Chief Officer’s here from Troy with a little fellow from the Customs there, and I be sent round with first news. I’ve two dozen yet to warn . . . In the King’s name! An’ there’ll be a brake waiting by the bridge-end at ten-thirty. If War isn’t declared, it mighty soon will be. Take notice!”
Bill Varco disappeared, sharp on the word. Nicky-Nan paused a moment, hobbled back to bed and sat on the edge of it, steadying himself, yet half-awake.
“It’s some trick of Pamphlett’s to get me out,” he decided, and went downstairs cautiously.
HOW THE MEN WENT.
In the passage he found Mrs Penhaligon standing, alone, rigid as a statue. By her attitude she seemed to be listening. Yet she had either missed to hear or, hearing, had missed to understand Varco’s call up the stairs. At Nicky-Nan’s footstep she turned, with a face white and set.
“Sam’s got to go,” she said. Her lips twitched.
“Nonsense, woman! Some person’s playin’ a trick ’pon the town.”
“They start from the bridge at ten-thirty. There’s no trick about it. Go an’ see for yourself.” She motioned with her hand.
Nicky-Nan limped to the porch and peeked out (as they say at Polpier). Up the street the women stood clacking the news just as though it were a week-day and the boats had brought in a famous haul. Feminine gossip in Polpier is not conducted in groups, as the men conduct theirs on the Quay. By tradition each housewife takes post on her own threshold-slate, and knits while she talks with her neighbours to right and left and across the road; thus a bit of news, with comment and embellishment zigzags from door to door through the town like a postal delivery. To-day being Sunday, the women had no knitting; but it was observable that while Mrs Trebilcock, two doors away, led the chorus as usual, her hands moved as though plying imaginary needles: and so did the hands of Sarah Jane Johns over the way.
Down by the bridge-end two men in uniform sat side by side on the low parapet, sorting out a small pile of blue papers. They were Mr Irons, the chief officer of Coastguard at Troy, and a young custom-house officer—a stranger to Nicky-Nan. The morning sunlight played on their brass buttons and cap-rims.