The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 12

In the Club-Room

By the side of the bills stuck at the corner of Hole-in-the-Wall Stairs — the bills that had so fascinated Stephen — a new one appeared, with the heading “Body Found.” It particularised the personal marks and description of the unhappy Marr; his “fresh complexion,” his brown hair, his serge suit and his anklejacks. The bill might have stood on every wall in London till it rotted, and never have given a soul who knew him a hint to guess the body his: except Viney, who knew the fact already. And the body might have been buried unidentified ere Viney would have shown himself in the business, were it not for the interference of Mr. Cripps. For industry of an unprofitable kind was a piece of Mr. Cripps’s nature; and, moreover, he was so regular a visitor at the mortuary as to have grown an old friend of the keeper. His persistent prying among the ghastly liers-in-state, at first on plea of identifying a friend — a contingency likely enough, since his long-shore acquaintance was wide — and later under the name of friendly calls, was an indulgence that had helped him to consideration as a news-monger, and twice had raised him to the elevation of witness at an inquest; a distinction very gratifying to his simple vanity. He entertained high hopes of being called witness in the case of the man stabbed at the side door of the Hole in the Wall; and was scarce seen at Captain Nat’s all the next day, preferring to frequent the mortuary. So it happened that he saw the other corpse that was carried thence from Hole-in-the-Wall Stairs.

“There y’are,” said the mortuary-keeper. “There’s a fresh ’un, just in from the river, unknown. You dunno ’im either, I expect.”

But Mr. Cripps was quite sure that he did. Curious and eager, he walked up between the two dead men, his grimy little body being all that divided them in this their grisly reunion. “I do know ’im,” he insisted, thoughtfully. “Leastways I’ve seen ’im somewheres, I’m sure.” The little man gazed at the dreadful head, and then at the rafters: then shut his eyes with a squeeze that drove his nose into amazing lumps and wrinkles; then looked at the head again, and squeezed his eyelids together once more; and at last started back, his eyes rivalling his very nose itself for prominence. “Why!” he gasped, “it is! It is, s’elp me! . . . It’s Mr. Marr, as is pardners with Mr. Viney! I on’y see ’im once in my life, but I’ll swear it’s ’im! . . . Lord, what a phenomenal go!”

And with that Mr. Cripps rushed off incontinent to spread the news wherever anybody would listen. He told the police, he told the loafers, he told Captain Nat and everybody in his bar; he told the watermen at the stairs, he shouted it to the purlmen in their boats, and he wriggled into conversation with perfect strangers to tell them too. So that it came to pass that Viney, being called upon by the coroner’s officer, was fain to swallow his reluctance and come forward at the inquest.

That was held at the Hole in the Wall twenty-four hours after the body had been hauled ashore. The two inquests were held together, in fact, Marr’s and that of the broken-nosed man, stabbed in the passage. Two inquests, or even three, in a day, made no uncommon event in those parts, where perhaps a dozen might be held in a week, mostly ending with the same doubtful verdict — Found Drowned. But here one of the inquiries related to an open and witnessed murder, and that fact gave some touch of added interest to the proceedings.

Accordingly a drifting group hung about the doors of the Hole in the Wall at the appointed time — just such an idle, changing group as had hung there all the evening after the man had been stabbed; and in the midst stood Blind George with his fiddle, his vacant white eye rolling upward, his mouth full of noisy ribaldry, and his fiddle playing punctuation and chorus to all he said or sang. He turned his ear at the sound of many footsteps leaving the door near him.

“There they go!” he sang out; “there they go, twelve on ’em!” And indeed it was the jury going off to view the bodies. “There they go, twelve good men an’ true, an’ bloomin’ proud they are to fancy it! Got a copper for Blind George, gentlemen? Not a brown for pore George? . . . Not them; not a brass farden among the ‘ole dam good an’ lawful lot. . . . Ahoy! ain’t Gubbins there — the good an’ lawful pork-butcher as ‘ad to pay forty bob for shovin’ a lump o’ fat under the scales? Tell the crowner to mind ‘is pockets!”

The idlers laughed, and one flung a copper, which Blind George snatched almost before it had fallen. “Ha! ha!” he cried, “there’s a toff somewhere near, I can tell by the sound of his money! Here goes for a stave!” And straightway be broke into:—

O they call me Hanging Johnny,
With my hang, boys, hang!

The mortuary stood at no great distance and soon the jury were back in the club-room over the bar, and at work on the first case. The police had had some difficulty as to identification of the stabbed man. The difficulty arose not only because there were no relations in the neighbourhood to feel the loss, but as much because the persons able to make the identification kept the most distant possible terms with the police, and withheld information from them as a matter of principle. Albeit a reluctant ruffian was laid hold of who was induced sulkily to admit that he had known the deceased to speak to, and lodged near him in Blue Gate; that the deceased was called Bob Kipps; that he was quite lately come into the neighbourhood; and that he had no particular occupation, as far as witness knew. It needed some pressure to extract the information that Kipps, during the short time he was in Blue Gate, chiefly consorted with one Dan Ogle, and that witness had seen nothing of Ogle that day, nor the day before.

There was also a woman called to identify — a woman more reluctant than the man; a woman of coarse features, dull eyes, tousled hair, and thick voice, sluttish with rusty finery. Name, Margaret Flynn; though at the back of the little crowd that had squeezed into the court she was called Musky Mag. It was said there, too, that Mag, in no degree one of the fainting sort, had nevertheless swooned when taken into the mortuary — gone clean off with a flop; true, she explained it, afterward, by saying that she had only expected to see one body, but found herself brought face to face with two; and of course there was the other there — Marr’s. But it was held no such odds between one corpse and two that an outer-and-outer like Mag should go on the faint over it. This was reasonable enough, for the crowd. But not for a woman who had sat to drink with three men, and in a short hour or so had fallen over the battered corpse of one of them, in the dark of her room; who had been forced, now, to view the rent body of a second, and in doing it to meet once again the other, resurrected, bruised, sodden and horrible; and who knew that all was the work of the last of the three, and that man in peril of the rope: the man, too, of all the world, in her eye. . . .

Her evidence, given with plain anxiety and a nervous unsteadiness of the mouth, added nothing to the tale. The man was Bob Kipps; he was a stranger till lately — came, she had heard tell, from Shoreditch or Hoxton; saw him last a day or two ago: knew nothing of his death beyond what she had heard; did not know where Dan Ogle was (this very vehemently, with much shaking of the head); had not seen him with deceased — but here the police inspector handed the coroner a scribbled note, and the coroner having read it and passed it back, said no more. Musky Mag stood aside; while the inspector tore the note into small pieces and put the pieces in his pocket.

Nathaniel Kemp, landlord of the house, told the story of the murder as he saw it, and of his chase of the murderer. Did not know deceased, and should be unable to identify the murderer if he met him again, having seen no more than his figure in the dark.

All this time Mr. Cripps had been standing, in eager trepidation, foremost among the little crowd, nodding and lifting his hand anxiously, strenuous to catch the coroner’s officer’s attention at the dismissal of each witness, and fearful lest his offer of evidence, made a dozen times before the coroner came, should be forgotten. Now at last the coroner’s officer condescended to notice him, and being beckoned, Mr. Cripps swaggered forward, his greasy widewake crushed under his arm, and his face radiant with delighted importance. He bowed to the coroner, kissed the book with a flourish, and glanced round the court to judge how much of the due impression was yet visible.

The coroner signified that he was ready to hear whatever Mr. Cripps knew of this matter.

Mr. Cripps “threw a chest,” stuck an arm akimbo, and raised the other with an oratorical sweep so large that his small voice, when it came, seemed all the smaller. “Hi was in the bar, sir,” he piped, “the bar, sir, of this ’ouse, bein’ long acquainted with an’ much respectin’ Cap’en Kemp, an’ in the ‘abit of visitin’ ’ere in the intervals of the pursoot of my hart. Hem! Hi was in the bar, sir, when my attention was attracted by a sudden noise be’hind, or as I may say, in the rear of, the bar-parlour. Hi was able to distinguish, gentlemen of the jury, what might be called, in a common way o’ speakin’, a bump or a bang, sich as would be occasioned by an unknown murderer criminally shoving his un’appy victim’s ‘ed agin the back-door of a public-’ouse. Hi was able to distinguish it, sir, from a ‘uman cry which follered: a ‘uman cry, or as it might be, a holler, sich as would be occasioned by the un’appy victim ‘avin’ ‘is ‘ed shoved agin the back-door aforesaid. Genelmen, I ‘esitated not a moment. I rushed forward.”

Mr. Cripps paused so long to give the statement effect that the coroner lost patience. “Yes,” he said, “you rushed forward. Do you mean you jumped over the bar?”

For a moment Mr. Cripps’s countenance fell; truly it would have been more imposing to have jumped over the bar. But he was on his oath, and he must do his best with the facts. “No, sir,” he explained, a little tamely, “not over the bar, but reether the opposite way, so to speak, towards the door. I rushed forward, genelmen, in a sort of rearwards direction, through the door, an’ round into the alley. Immediate as I turned the corner, genelmen, I be’eld with my own eyes the unknown murderer; I see ’im a-risin’ from over ‘is un’appy victim, an’ I see as the criminal tragedy had transpired. I— I rushed forward.”

The sensation he looked for being slow in coming, another rush seemed expedient; but it fell flat as the first, and Mr. Cripps struggled on, desperately conscious that he had nothing else to say.

“I rushed forward, sir; seein’ which the miscreant absconded — absconded, no doubt with — with the proceeds; an’ seein’ Cap’en Kemp abscondin’ after him, I turned an’ be’eld the un’appy victim — the corpse now in custody, sir — a-layin’ in the bar-parlour, ‘elpless an’— an’ decimated. . . . I— rushed forward.”

It was sad to see how little the coroner was impressed; there was even something in his face not unlike a smile; and Mr. Cripps was at the end of his resources. But if he could have seen the face of Musky Mag, in the little crowd behind him, he might have been consoled. She alone, of all who heard, had followed his rhetoric with an agony of attention, word by word: even as she had followed the earlier evidence. Now her strained face was the easier merely by contrast with itself when Mr. Cripps was in full cry; and a moment later it was tenser than ever.

“Yes, yes, Mr. Cripps,” the coroner said; “no doubt you were very active, but we don’t seem to have increased the evidence. You say you saw the man who stabbed the deceased in the passage. Did you know him at all? Ever see him before?”

Here, mayhap, was some chance of an effect after all. Mr. Cripps could scarce have distinguished the murderer from one of the posts in the alley; but he said, with all the significance he could give the words: “Well, sir, I won’t go so far as to swear to ‘is name, sir; no, sir, not to ‘is name, certainly not.” And therewith he made his sensation at last, bringing upon himself the twenty-four eyes of the jury all together.

The coroner looked up sharply. “Oh,” he said, “you know him by sight then? Does he belong to the neighbourhood?”

Now it was not Mr. Cripps who had said he knew the murderer by sight, but the coroner. Far be it from him, thought the aspirant for fame, to contradict the coroner, and so baulk himself of the credit thus thrust upon him. So he answered with the same cautious significance and a succession of portentous nods. “Your judgment, sir, is correct; quite correct.”

“Come then, this is important. You would be able to recognise him again, of course?”

There was no retreat — Mr. Cripps was in for it. It was an unforeseen consequence of the quibble, but since plunge he must he plunged neck and crop. “I’d know ’im anywhere,” he said triumphantly.

There was an odd sound in the crowd behind, and a fall. Captain Nat strode across, and the crowd wondered; for Musky Mag had fainted again.

The landlord lifted her, and carried her to the stairs. When the door had closed behind them, and the coroner’s officer had shouted the little crowd into silence, the inquest took a short course to its end.

Mr. Cripps, in the height of his consequence, began to feel serious misgivings as to the issue of his stumble beyond the verities; and the coroner’s next words were a relief.

“I think that will be enough, Mr. Cripps,” the coroner said; “no doubt the police will be glad of your assistance.” And with that he gave the jury the little summing up that the case needed. There was the medical evidence, and the evidence of the stabbing, and that evidence pointed to an unmistakable conclusion. Nobody was in custody, nor had the murderer been positively identified, and such evidence as there was in this respect was for the consideration of the police. He thought the jury would have no difficulty in arriving at a verdict. The jury had none; and the verdict was Murder by some Person or Persons unknown.

The other inquest gave even less trouble. Mr. Henry Viney, shipowner, had seen the body, and identified it as that of his partner Lewis Marr. Marr had suddenly disappeared a week ago, and an examination of his accounts showed serious defalcations, in consequence of which witness had filed his petition in bankruptcy. Whether or not Marr had taken money with him witness could not say, as deceased had entire charge of the accounts; but it seemed more likely that embezzlement had been going on for some time past, and Marr had fled when detection could no longer be averted. This might account for his dressing, and presumably seeking work, as a sailor.

The divisional surgeon of police had examined the body, and found a large wound on the head, fully sufficient to have caused death, inflicted either by some heavy, blunt instrument, or by a fall from a height on a hard substance. One thigh was fractured, and there were other wounds and contusions, but these, as well as the broken thigh, were clearly caused after death. The blow on the head might have been caused by an accident on the riverside, or it might have been inflicted wilfully by an assailant.

Then there was the evidence of the man who had found the body foul of a rudder and a hawser, and of the police who had found nothing on the body. And there was no more evidence at all. The coroner having sympathised deeply with Mr. Viney, gave the jury the proper lead, and the jury with perfect propriety returned the open verdict that the doctor’s evidence and the coroner’s lead suggested. The case, except for the circumstances of Marr’s flight, was like a hundred others inquired upon thereabout in the course of a few weeks, and in an hour it was in a fair way to be forgotten, even by the little crowd that clumped downstairs to try both cases all over again in the bar of the Hole in the Wall.

To the coroner, the jury, and the little crowd, these were two inquests with nothing to connect them but the accident of time and the convenience of the Hole in the Wall club-room. But Blind George, standing in the street with his fiddle, and getting the news from the club-room in scraps between song and patter, knew more and guessed better.

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