The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 11

Stephen’s Tale

I had never seen either of the partners in the firm of Viney and Marr: as I may have said already. On the day after the man was stabbed at our side door I saw them both.

That morning the tide was low, and Hole-in-the-Wall Stairs ended in a causeway in the midst of a little flat of gravel and mud. So, since the mud was nowhere dangerous, and there was no deep water to fall into, I was allowed to go down the steps alone and play on the foreshore while Grandfather Nat was busy with his morning’s affairs; the two or three watermen lying by the causeway undertaking to keep an eye on me. And there I took my pleasure as I would, now raking in the wet pebbles, and heaving over big stones that often pulled me on to all-fours, now climbing the stairs to peep along the alley, and once or twice running as far as the bar-parlour door to report myself to Grandfather Nat, and inform him of my discoveries.

The little patch of foreshore soon rendered up all its secrets, and its area grew less by reason of the rising tide; so that I turned to other matters of interest. Out in mid-stream a cluster of lighters lay moored, waiting for the turn of the tide. Presently a little tug came puffing and fussing from somewhere alongshore, and after much shoving and hauling and shouting, scuffled off, trailing three of the lighters behind it; from which I conjectured that their loads were needed in a hurry. But the disturbance among the rest of the lighters was not done with when the tug had cleared the three from their midst; for a hawser had got foul of a rudder, and two or three men were at work with poles and hooks, recrimination and forcible words, to get things clear. Though the thing seemed no easy job; and it took my attention for some time.

But presently I tired of it, and climbed the steps to read the bills describing the people who had been found drowned. There were eleven of the bills altogether, fresh and clean; and fragments of innumerable others, older and dirtier, were round about them. Ten men and one woman had been picked up, it would seem, and all within a week or two, as I learned when I had spelled out the dates. I pored at these bills till I had read them through, being horribly fascinated by the personal marks and peculiarities so baldly set forth; the scars, the tattoo marks, the colour of the dead eyes; the clothes and boots and the contents of the pockets — though indeed most of the pockets would seem to have been empty. The woman — they guessed her age at twenty-two — wore one earring; and I entangled myself in conjectures as to what had become of the other.

I was disturbed by a shout from the causeway. I looked and saw Bill Stagg in his boat. “Is your gran’father there?” shouted Bill Stagg. “Tell him they’ve found his boat.”

This was joyful news, and I rushed to carry it. “They’ve found our boat, Grandfather Nat,” I cried. “Bill Stagg says so!”

Grandfather Nat was busy in the bar, and he received the information with calmness. “Ah,” he said, “I knew it ‘ud turn up somewhere. Bill Stagg there?” And he came out leisurely in his shirt sleeves, and stood at the head of the stairs.

“P’lice galley found your boat, cap’en,” Bill Stagg reported. “You’ll have to go up to the float for it.”

“Right. Know where it was?”

“Up agin Elephant stairs”— Bill Stagg pointed across the river —“turned adrift and jammed among the lighters.”

Grandfather Nat nodded serenely. Bill Stagg nodded in reply, shoved off from the causeway and went about his business.

The hawser was still foul among the lighters out in the stream, and a man had pulled over in a boat to help. I had told grandfather of the difficulty, and how long it had baffled the lightermen, and was asking the third of a string of questions about it all, when there was a step behind, and a voice: “Good mornin’, Cap’en Nat.”

My grandfather turned quickly. “Mr. Viney!” he said. “Well. . . . Good mornin’.”

I turned also, and I was not prepossessed by Mr. Viney. His face — a face no doubt originally pale and pasty, but too long sun-burned to revert to anything but yellow in these later years of shore-life — his yellow face was ever stretched in an uneasy grin, a grin that might mean either propitiation or malice, and remained the same for both. He had the watery eyes and the goatee beard that were not uncommon among seamen, and in total I thought he much resembled one of those same hang-dog fellows that stood at corners and leaned on posts in the neighbourhood, making a mysterious living out of sailors; one of them, that is to say, in a superior suit of clothes that seemed too good for him. I suppose he may have been an inch taller than Grandfather Nat; but in the contrast between them he seemed very small and mean.

He offered his hand with a stealthy gesture, rather as though he were trying to pick my grandfather’s waistcoat pocket; so that the old man stared at the hand for a moment, as if to see what he would be at, before he shook it.

“Down in the world again, Cap’en Nat,” said Viney, with a shrug.

“Ay, I heard,” answered Captain Nat. “I’m very sorry; but there — perhaps you’ll be up again soon. . . . ”

“I come to ask you about something,” Viney proceeded, as they walked away toward the bar-parlour door. “Something you’ll tell me, bein’ an old shipmate, if you can find out, I’m sure. Can we go into your place? No, there’s a woman there.”

“Only one as does washin’ up an’ such. I’ll send her upstairs if you like.”

“No, out here’s best; we’ll walk up and down; people get hangin’ round doors an’ keyholes in a place like that. Here we can see who’s near us.”

“What, secrets?”

“Ay.” Viney gave an ugly twist to his grin. “I know some o’ yours — one big un’ at any rate, Cap’en Nat, don’t I? So I can afford to let you into a little ’un o’ mine, seein’ I can’t help it. Now I’d like to know if you’ve seen anything of Marr.”

“No — haven’t seen him for months. Bolted, they tell me, an’— well you know better’n me, I expect.”

“I don’t know,” Viney replied with emphasis. “I ought to know, but I don’t. See here now. Less than a week ago he cleared out, an’ then I filed my petition. He might ha’ been gone anywhere — bolted. Might be abroad, as would seem most likely. In plain fact he was only coming down in these parts to lie low. See? Round about here a man can lie low an’ snug, an’ safer than abroad, if he likes. And he had money with him — all we could get together. See?” And Viney frowned and winked, and glanced stealthily over his shoulder.

“Ah,” remarked Captain Nat, drily, “I see. An’ the creditors ——”

“Damn the creditors! See here, Cap’en Nat Kemp. Remember a man called Dan Webb?”

Captain Nat paled a little, and tightened his lips.

“Remember a man called Dan Webb?” Viney repeated, stopping in his walk and facing the other with the uneasy grin unchanged. “A man called Dan Webb, aboard o’ the Florence along o’ you an’ me? ‘Cause I do, anyhow. That’s on’y my little hint — we’re good friends altogether, o’ course, Cap’en Nat; but you know what it means. Well, Marr had money with him, as I said. He was to come to a quiet anchorage hereabout, got up like a seaman, an’ let me know at once.”

Captain Nat, his mouth still set tight, nodded, with a grunt.

“Well, he didn’t let me know. I heard nothing at all from him, an’ it struck me rather of a heap to think that p’raps he’d put the double on me, an’ cleared out in good earnest. But yesterday I got news. A blind fiddler chap gave me some sort o’ news.”

Captain Nat remembered the meeting at the street corner in the evening after the funeral. “Blind George?” he queried.

“Yes, that was all the name he gave me; a regular thick ’un, that blind chap, an’ a flow o’ language as would curl the sheathing off a ship’s bottom. He came the evening before, it seems, but found the place shut up — servant gal took her hook. Well now, he’d done all but see Marr down here at the Blue Gate — he’d seen him as clear as a blind man could, he said, with his ears: an’ he came to me to give me the tip an’ earn anything I’d give him for it. It amounted to this. It was plain enough Marr had come along here all right, an’ pitched on some sort o’ quarters; but it was clear he wasn’t fit to be trusted alone in such a place at all. For the blind chap found him drunk, an’ in tow with as precious a pair o’ bully-boys as Blue Gate could show. Not only drunk, neither, but drunk with a slack jaw — drunk an’ gabbling, drunk an’ talkin’ business —my business — an’ lettin’ out all there was to let — this an’ that an’ t’other an’ Lord knows what! It was only because of his drunken jabber that the blind man found out who he was.”

“And this was the day before yesterday?” asked Captain Nat.

“Yes.”

Captain Nat shook his head. “If he was like that the day before yesterday,” he said, “in tow with such chaps as you say — well, whatever he had on him ain’t on him now. An’ it ‘ud puzzle a cleverer man than me to find it. You may lay to that.”

Viney swore, and stamped a foot, and swore again. “But see,” he said, “ain’t there a chance? It was in notes, all of it. Them chaps’ll be afraid to pass notes. Couldn’t most of it be got back on an arrangement to cash the rest? You can find ’em if you try, with all your chances. Come — I’ll pay fair for what I get, to you an’ all.”

“See how you’ve left it,” remarked Captain Nat; and Viney swore again. “This was all done the day before yesterday. Well, you don’t hear of it yourself till yesterday, an’ now you don’t come to me till to-day.”

Viney swore once more, and grinned twice as wide in his rage. “Yes,” he said, “that was Blind George’s doing. I sent him back to see what he could do, an’ ain’t seen him since. Like as not he’s standing in with the others.”

“Ay, that’s likely,” the old man answered, “very likely. Blind George is as tough a lot as any in Blue Gate, for all he’s blind. You’d never ha’ heard of it at all if they’d ha’ greased him a bit at first. I expect they shut him out, to keep the plant to themselves; an’ so he came to you for anything he could pick up. An’ now ——”

Viney cursed them all, and Blind George and himself together; but most he cursed Marr; and so talking, the two men walked to and fro in the passage.

I could see that Viney was angry, and growing angrier still. But I gave all my attention to the work at the fouled hawser. The man in the boat, working patiently with a boat-hook, succeeded suddenly and without warning, so that he almost pitched headlong into the river. The rope came up from its entanglement with a spring and a splash, flinging some amazing great object up with it, half out of water; and the men gave a cry as this thing lapsed heavily to the surface.

The man in the boat snatched his hook again and reached for the thing as it floated. Somebody threw him a length of line, and with this he made it fast to his boat, and began pulling toward the stairs, towing it. I was puzzled to guess what the object might be. It was no part of the lighter’s rudder, for it lay in, rather than on, the water, and it rolled and wallowed, and seemed to tug heavily, so that the boatman had to pull his best. I wondered if he had caught some curious water-creature — a porpoise perhaps, or a seal, such as had been flung ashore in a winter storm at Blackwall a year before.

Viney and Grandfather Nat had turned their steps toward the stairs, and as they neared, my grandfather, lifting his eyes, saw the boatman and his prize, and saw the watermen leaving their boats for the foreshore. With a quick word to Viney he hastened down the stairs; and Viney himself, less interested, followed half way down, and waited.

The boatman brought up alongside the foreshore, and he and another hauled at the tow-rope. The thing in the water came in, rolling and bobbing, growing more hideously distinct as it came; it checked at the mud and stones, turned over, and with another pull lay ashore, staring and grey and streaming: a dead man.

The lips were pulled tight over the teeth, and, the hair being fair, it was the plainer to see that one side of the head and forehead was black and open with a great wound. The limbs lay limp and tumbled, all; but one leg fell aside with so loose a twist that plainly it was broken, and I heard, afterwards, that it was the leg that had caused the difficulty with the hawser.

Grandfather Nat, down at the waterside, had no sooner caught sight of the dead face than with wide eyes he turned to Viney, and shouted the one word “Look!” Then he went and took another view, longer and closer; and straightway came back in six strides to the stairs, whereon Viney was no longer standing, but sitting, his face tallowy and his grin faded.

“See him?” cried Grandfather Nat in a hushed voice. “See him! It’s Marr himself, if I know him at all! Come — come and see!”

Viney pulled his arm from the old man’s grasp, turned, and crawled up a stair or two. “No,” he said faintly, “I— I won’t, now — I— they’d know me p’raps, some of them.” His breath was short, and he gulped. “Good God,” he said presently, “it’s him — it’s him sure enough. And the clothes he had on. . . . But . . . Cap’en — Cap’en Nat; go an’ try his pockets. — Go on. There’s a pocket-book — leather pocket-book. . . . Go on!”

“What’s the good?” asked Captain Nat, with a lift of the eyebrows, and the same low voice. “What’s the good? I can’t fetch it away, with all them witnesses. Go yourself, an’ say you’re his pardner; you’d have a chance then.”

“No — no. I— it ain’t good enough. You know ’em; I don’t. I’ll stand in with you — give you a hundred if it’s all there! Square ’em — you know ’em!”

“If they’re to be squared you can do it as well as me. There’ll be an inquest on this, an’ evidence. I ain’t going to be asked what I did with the man’s pocket-book. No. I don’t meddle in this, Mr. Viney. If it ain’t good enough for you to get it for yourself, it ain’t good enough for me to get it for you.”

“Kemp, I’ll go you halves — there! Get it, an’ there’s four hundred for you. Eight hundred an’ odd quid, in a pocket-book. Come, that’s worth it, ain’t it? Eight hundred an’ odd quid — in a leather pocket-book! An’ I’ll go you halves.”

Captain Nat started at the words, and stood for a moment, staring. “Eight hundred!” he repeated under his breath. “Eight hundred an’ odd quid. In a leather pocket-book. Ah!” And the stare persisted, and grew thoughtful.

“Yes,” replied Viney, now a little more himself. “Now you know; and it’s worth it, ain’t it? Don’t waste time — they’re turning him over themselves. You can manage all these chaps. Go on!”

“I’ll see if anything’s there,” answered Captain Nat. “More I can’t; an’ if there’s nothing that’s an end of it.”

He went down to where the men were bending over the body, to disengage the tow-line. He looked again at the drawn face under the gaping forehead, and said something to the men; then he bent and patted the soddened clothes, now here, now there; and at last felt in the breast-pocket.

Meantime Viney stood feverishly on the stairs, watching; fidgeting nervously down a step, and then down another, and then down two more. And so till Captain Nat returned.

The old man shook his head. “Cleaned out,” he reported. “Cleaned out, o’ course. Hit on the head an’ cleaned out, like many a score better men before him, down these parts. Not a thing in the pockets anywhere. Flimped clean.”

Viney’s eyes were wild. “Nothing at all left?” he said. “Nothing of his own? Not a watch, nor anything?”

“No, not a watch, nor anything.”

Viney stood staring at space for some moments, murmuring many oaths. Then he asked suddenly, “Where’s this blind chap? Where can I find Blind George?”

Grandfather Nat shook his head. “He’s all over the neighbourhood,” he answered. “Try the Highway; I can’t give you nearer than that.”

And with no more counsel to help him, Mr. Viney was fain to depart. He went grinning and cursing up the passage and so toward the bridge, without another word or look. And when I turned to my grandfather I saw him staring fixedly at me, lost in thought, and rubbing his hand up in his hair behind, through the grey and out at the brown on top.

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