The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 10

Stephen’s Tale

I went to bed early that night — as soon as Mrs. Grimes was gone, in fact. My grandfather had resolved that such a late upsitting as last night’s must be no more than an indulgence once in a way. He came up with me, bringing the cash-box to put away in the little wall-cupboard against his bed-head where it always lay, at night, with a pistol by its side. Grandfather Nat peeped to see the pocket-book safe once more, and chuckled as he locked it away. This done, he sat by my side, and talked till I began to fall asleep.

The talk was of the pocket-book, and what should be done with the money. Eight hundred pounds was the sum, and two five-pound notes over, and I wondered why a man with so much money should come, the evening before, to sell his watch.

“Looks as though the money wasn’t his, don’t it?” commented Grandfather Nat. “Though anyhow it’s no good to him now. You found it, an’ it’s yours, Stevy.”

I remembered certain lessons of my mother’s as to one’s proper behaviour toward lost property, and I mentioned them. But Grandfather Nat clearly resolved me that this was no case in point. “It can’t be his, because he’s dead,” Captain Nat argued; “an’ if it’s the other chap’s — well, let him come an’ ask for it. That’s fair enough, you know, Stevy. An’ if he don’t come — it ain’t likely he will, is it? — then it’s yours; and I’ll keep it to help start you in life when you grow up. I won’t pay it into the bank — not for a bit, anyhow. There’s numbers on bank notes: an’ they lead to trouble, often. But they’re as good one time as another, an’ easy sent abroad later on, or what not. So there you are, my boy! Eight hundred odd to start you like a gentleman, with as much more as Grandfather Nat can put to it. Eh?”

He kissed me and rubbed his hands in my curls, and I took the occasion to communicate my decision as to being a purlman. Grandfather Nat laughed, and patted my head down on the pillow; and for a little I remembered no more.

I awoke in an agony of nightmare. The dead man, with blood streaming from mouth and eyes, was dragging my grandfather down into the river, and my mother with my little dead brother in her arms called me to throw out the pocket-book, and save him; and throw I could not, for the thing seemed glued to my fingers. So I awoke with a choke and a cry, and sat up in bed.

All was quiet about me, and below were the common evening noises of the tavern; laughs, argumentation, and the gurgle of drawn beer; though there was less noise now than when I had come up, and I judged it not far from closing time. Out in the street a woman was singing a ballad; and I got out of bed and went to the front room window to see and to hear; for indeed I was out of sorts and nervous, and wished to look at people.

At the corner of the passage there was a small group who pointed and talked together — plainly discussing the murder; and as one or two drifted away, so one or two more came up to join those remaining. No doubt the singing woman had taken this pitch as one suitable to her ware — for she sang and fluttered at length in her hand one of the versified last dying confessions that even so late as this were hawked about Ratcliff and Wapping. What murderer’s “confession” the woman was singing I have clean forgotten; but they were all the same, all set to a doleful tune which, with modifications, still does duty, I believe, as an evening hymn; and the burden ran thus, for every murderer and any murder:—

Take warning by my dreadful fate,
The truth I can’t deny;
This dreadful crime that I are done
I are condemned to die.

The singular grammar of the last two lines I never quite understood, not having noticed its like elsewhere; but I put it down as a distinguishing characteristic of the speech of murderers.

I waited till the woman had taken her ballads away, and I had grown uncommonly cold in the legs, and then crept back to bed. But now I had fully awakened myself, and sleep was impossible. Presently I got up again, and looked out over the river. Very black and mysterious it lay, the blacker, it seemed, for the thousand lights that spotted it, craft and shore. No purlmen’s fires were to be seen, for work on the colliers was done long ago, but once a shout and now a hail came over the water, faint or loud, far or near; and up the wooden wall I leaned on came the steady sound of the lapping against the piles below. I wondered where Grandfather Nat’s boat — our boat — lay now; if the murderer were still rowing in it, and would row and row right away to sea, where my father was, in his ship; or if he would be caught, and make a dying confession with all the “haves” and “ams” replaced by “ares”; or if, indeed, he had already met providential retribution by drowning. In which case I doubted for the safety of the boat, and Grandfather would buy another. And my legs growing cold again, I retreated once more.

I heard the customers being turned into the street, and the shutters going up; and then I got under the bed-clothes, for I recalled the nightmare, and it was not pleasant. It grew rather worse, indeed, for my waking fancy enlarged and embellished it, and I longed to hear the tread of Grandfather Nat ascending the stair. But he was late to-night. I heard Joe the potman, who slept off the premises, shut the door and go off up the street. For a few minutes Grandfather Nat was moving about the bar and the bar-parlour; and then there was silence, save for the noises — the clicks and the creaks — that the old house made of itself.

I waited and waited, sometimes with my head out of the clothes, sometimes with no more than a contrived hole next my ear, listening. Till at last I could wait no longer, for the house seemed alive with stealthy movement, and I shook with the indefinite terror that comes, some night or another, to the most unimaginative child. I thought, at first, of calling to my grandfather, but that would seem babyish; so I said my prayers over again, held my breath, and faced the terrors of the staircase. The boards sang and creaked under my bare feet, and the black about me was full of dim coloured faces. But I pushed the door and drew breath in the honest lamplight of the bar-parlour at last.

Nobody was there, and nobody was in the bar. Could he have gone out? Was I alone in the house, there, where the blood was still on the carpet? But there was a slight noise from behind the stairs, and I turned to look farther.

Behind the bar-parlour and the staircase were two rooms, that projected immediately over the river, with their frames resting on the piles. One was sometimes used as a parlour for the reception of mates and skippers, though such customers were rare; the other held cases, bottles and barrels. To this latter I turned, and mounting the three steps behind the staircase, pushed open the door; and was mightily astonished at what I saw.

There was my grandfather, kneeling, and there was one half of Bill Stagg the purlman, standing waist-deep in the floor. For a moment it was beyond me to guess what he was standing on, seeing that there was nothing below but water; but presently I reasoned that the tide was high, and he must be standing in his boat. He was handing my grandfather some small packages, and he saw me at once and pointed. Grandfather Nat turned sharply, and stared, and for a moment I feared he was angry. Then he grinned, shook his finger at me, and brought it back to his lips with a tap.

“All right — my pardner,” he whispered, and Bill Stagg grinned too. The business was short enough, and in a few seconds Bill Stagg, with another grin at me, and something like a wink, ducked below. My grandfather, with noiseless care, put back in place a trap-door — not a square, noticeable thing, but a clump of boards of divers lengths that fell into place with as innocent an aspect as the rest of the floor. This done, he rolled a barrel over the place, and dropped the contents of the packages into a row of buckets that stood near.

“What’s that, Grandfather Nat?” I ventured to ask, when all was safely accomplished.

My grandfather grinned once more, and shook his head. “Go on,” he said, “I’ll tell you in the bar-parlour. May as well now as let ye find out.” He blew out the light of his candle and followed me.

“Well,” he said, wrapping my cold feet in my nightgown as I sat on his knee. “What brought ye down, Stevy? Did we make a noise?”

I shook my head. “I— I felt lonely,” I said.

“Lonely? Well, never mind. An’ so ye came to look for me, eh? Well, now, this is another one o’ the things as you mustn’t talk about, Stevy — a little secret between ourselves, bein’ pardners.”

“The stuff in the pail, Gran’fa’ Nat?”

“The stuff in the pail, an’ the hole in the floor. You’re sure you won’t get talkin’, an’ get your poor old gran’father in trouble?”

Yes, I was quite sure; though I could not see as yet what there was to cause trouble.

“The stuff Bill Stagg brought, Stevy, is ‘bacca. ‘Bacca smashed down so hard that a pound ain’t bigger than that matchbox. An’ I pitch it in the water to swell it out again; see?”

I still failed to understand the method of its arrival. “Did Bill Stagg steal it, gran’father?” I asked.

Grandfather Nat laughed. “No, my boy,” he said; “he bought it, an’ I buy it. It comes off the Dutch boats. But it comes a deal cheaper takin’ it in that way at night-time. There’s a big place I’ll show you one day, Stevy — big white house just this side o’ London Bridge. There’s a lot o’ gentlemen there as wants to see all the ‘bacca that comes in from aboard, an’ they take a lot o’ trouble over it, and charge too, fearful. So they’re very angry if parties — same as you an’ me — takes any in without lettin’ ’em know, an’ payin’ ’em the money. An’ they can get you locked up.”

This seemed a very unjust world that I had come into, in which Grandfather Nat was in danger of such terrible penalties for such innocent transactions — buying a watch, or getting his tobacco cheap. So I said: “I think people are very wicked in this place.”

“Ah!” said my grandfather, “I s’pose none of us ain’t over good. But there — I’ve told you about it now, an’ that’s better than lettin’ you wonder, an’ p’raps go asking other people questions. So now you know, Stevy. We’ve got our little secrets between us, an’ you’ve got to keep ’em between us, else — well, you know. Nothing about anything I buy, nor about what I take in there,”— with a jerk of the thumb —“nor about ‘bacca in buckets o’ water.”

“Nor about the pocket-book, Gran’fa’ Nat?”

“Lord no. ‘Specially not about that. You see, Stevy, pardners is pardners, an’ they must stick together, eh? We’ll stick together, won’t we?”

I nodded hard and reached for my grandfather’s neck.

“Ah, that we will. What others like to think they can; they can’t prove nothing, nor it wouldn’t be their game. But we’re pardners, an’ I’ve told you what — well, what you might ha’ found out in a more awkward way. An’ it ain’t so bad a thing to have a pardner to talk to, neither. I never had one till now — not since your gran’mother died, that you never saw, Stevy; an’ that was twenty years ago. I been alone most o’ my life — not even a boy, same as it might be you. ‘Cause why? When your father was your age, an’ older, I was always at sea, an’ never saw him, scarcely; same as him an’ you now.”

And indeed Grandfather Nat and I knew each other better than my father knew either of us. And so we sat for a few minutes talking of ourselves, and once more of the notes in the pocket-book upstairs; till the tramp of the three policemen on the beat stayed in the street without, and we heard one of the three coming down the passage.

He knocked sharply at the bar-parlour door, and Grandfather Nat put me down and opened it.

“Good evenin’, Cap’en Kemp,” said the policeman. “We knew you was up, seein’ a bit o’ light.” Then he leaned farther in, and in a lower voice, said: “He ain’t been exactly identified yet, but it’s thought some of our chaps knows ’im. Know if anything’s been picked up?”

My heart gave a jump, as probably did my grandfather’s. “Picked up?” he repeated. “Why, what? What d’ye mean?”

“Well, there was nothing partic’lar on the body, an’ our chaps didn’t see the knife. We thought if anybody about ‘ad picked up anything, knife or what not, you might ‘ear. So there ain’t nothing?”

“No,” Grandfather Nat answered blankly. “I’ve seen no knife, nor heard of none.”

“All right, Cap’en Kemp — if you do hear of anything, give us the tip. Good night!”

Grandfather Nat looked oddly at me, and I at him. I think we had a feeling that our partnership was sealed. And so with no more words we went to bed.

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Last updated Monday, March 17, 2014 at 17:11