“Oh, take her away!” sobbed Mrs Penhaligon, suddenly breaking down. “Isn’t it enough to lie awake at night with your man at the wars? You’re a gentleman, sir, an’ a doctor, an’ can understand. Do ’ee take her away!”
But Nicky-Nan had pushed forward. “You mean well, ma’am, I don’t doubt,” he said, addressing Mrs Polsue. “But this here War has got upon everybody’s nerves, in a manner o’ speaking.”
“It doesn’t seem to trouble yours,” retorted Mrs Polsue, at bay and vicious; “or maybe it has, and that’s why you’re not with the Reserve.”
Nicky-Nan flushed to the roots of his hair. But he answered pacifically—“Until I go, ma’am, you may take it from me that Mrs Penhaligon shan’t want. I fixed all that up with her husband afore he left. So there’s not need for you callin’ again, if you don’t mind.”
He said it firmly, yet quite respectfully. One or two of the women in the porch murmured approval.
Not so Mrs Climoe.
“O-oh!” said Mrs Climoe, half aloud and all unheeded for the moment. “So that’s the way the wind blows, sure enough!”
Nicky-Nan went back to his parlour, closed the door carefully, mounted the platform again, and resumed his plastering. He felt vexed with himself over that little speech of bravado. It had been incautious, with all those women listening.
Still it might be explained away, and easily enough. That woman Polsue put everybody’s back up. His words had been just a piece of bluff to get rid of her.
He had succeeded, too. He chuckled, recalling Mrs Polsue’s discomfiture; how with a final sniff she had turned and passed out between the ironical files that drew aside for her in the porchway. . . . For a burden had fallen from his heart: his little mistake, just now, weighed as nothing against the assurance that Dr Mant would write a certificate and settle these meddlesome idiots at the Troy Custom-house. . . . Moreover Dr Mant, who passed for a knowledgeable fellow in his profession, had as good as assured him that his leg was nothing to die of; not just yet anyway. Well, he would have it attended to, sometime; his life was valuable now. But he wasn’t going to hurry about it, if a sound leg meant his being taken and ordered off to this dam-fool War. Nicky-Nan pursed up his lips as he worked, whistling to himself a cheerful, tuneless ditty. Some one tapped on the door. “Who’s there?”
“It’s me,” answered the voice of Mrs Penhaligon. “Can I come in?”
“No, you can’t!” he shouted. “Here, wait a minute! . . . And what might be the matter now?” he asked, as he opened the door a very little way. “I’m sorry, ma’am, that I can’t ask ’ee to step inside; but there’s a tidyin’-up goin’ forward.”
“I’d as lief speak to ’ee here, in the passage. Indeed I’d rather,” said Mrs Penhaligon as he emerged, trowel in hand. “Well, what is it?”