The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 13

Stephen’s Tale

I found it a busy morning at the Hole in the Wall, that of the two inquests. I perceived that, by some occult understanding, business in one department was suspended; the pale man idled without, and nobody came into the little compartment to exhibit valuables. Grandfather Nat had a deal to do in making ready the club-room over the bar, and then in attending the inquests. And it turned out that Mrs. Grimes had settled on this day in particular to perform a vast number of extra feats of housewifery in the upper floors. Notwithstanding the disturbance of this additional work, Mrs. Grimes was most amazingly amiable, even to me; but she was so persistent in requiring, first the key of one place, then of another, next of a chest of drawers, and again of a cupboard, that at last my grandfather distractedly gave her the whole bunch, and told her not to bother him any more. The bunch held all she could require — indeed I think it comprised every key my grandfather had, except that of his cash-box — and she went away with it amiable still, notwithstanding the hastiness of his expressions; so that I was amazed to find Mrs. Grimes so meek, and wondered vaguely and childishly if it were because she felt ill, and expected to die shortly.

Mr. Cripps was in the bar as soon as the doors were open, in a wonderful state of effervescence. He was to make a great figure at the inquest, it appeared, and the pride and glory of it kept him nervously on the strut, till the coroner came, and Mr. Cripps mounted to the club-room with the jury. He was got up for his part as completely as circumstances would allow; grease was in his hair, his hat stood at an angle, and his face exhibited an unfamiliar polish, occasioned by a towel.

For my own part, I sat in the bar-parlour and amused myself as I might. Blind George was singing in the street, and now and again I could hear the guffaw that signalised some sally that had touched his audience. Above, things were quiet enough for some while, and then my grandfather came heavily downstairs carrying a woman who had fainted. I had not noticed the woman among the people who went up, but now Grandfather Nat brought her through the bar, and into the parlour; and as she lay on the floor just as the stabbed man had lain, I recognised her face also; for she was the coarse-faced woman who had stopped my grandfather near Blue Gate with vague and timid questions, when we were on our way from the London Dock.

Grandfather Nat roared up the little staircase for Mrs. Grimes, and presently she descended, amiable still; till she saw the coarse woman, and was asked to help her. She looked on the woman with something of surprise and something of confusion; but carried it off at once with a toss of the head, a high phrase or so —“likes of ‘er — respectable woman”— and a quick retreat upstairs.

I believe my grandfather would have brought her down again by main force, but the woman on the floor stirred, and began scrambling up, even before she knew where she was. She held the shelf, and looked dully about her, with a hoarse “Beg pardon, sir, beg pardon.” Then she went across toward the door, which stood ajar, stared stupidly, with a look of some dawning alarm, and said again, “Beg pardon, sir — I bin queer”; and with that was gone into the passage.

It was not long after her departure ere the business above was over, and the people came tramping and talking down into the bar, filling it close, and giving Joe the potman all the work he could do. The coroner came down by our private stairs into the bar-parlour, ushered with great respect by my grandfather; and at his heels, taking occasion by a desperately extemporised conversation with Grandfather Nat, came Mr. Cripps.

There had never been an inquest at the Hole in the Wall before, and my grandfather had been at some exercise of mind as to the proper entertainment of the coroner. He had decided, after consideration, that the gentleman could scarce be offended at the offer of a little lunch, and to that end he had made ready with a cold fowl and a bottle of claret, which Mrs. Grimes would presently be putting on the table. The coroner was not offended, but he would take no lunch; he was very pleasantly obliged by the invitation, but his lunch had been already ordered at some distance; and so he shook hands with Grandfather Nat and went his way. A circumstance that had no small effect on my history.

For it seemed to Mr. Cripps, who saw the coroner go, that by dexterous management the vacant place at our dinner-table (for what the coroner would call lunch we called dinner) might fall to himself. It had happened once or twice before, on special occasions, that he had been allowed to share a meal with Captain Nat, and now that he was brushed and oiled for company, and had publicly distinguished himself at an inquest, he was persuaded that the occasion was special beyond precedent, and he set about to improve it with an assiduity and an innocent cunning that were very transparent indeed. So he was affectionately admiring with me, deferentially loquacious with my grandfather, and very friendly with Joe the potman and Mrs. Grimes. It was a busy morning, he observed, and he would be glad to do anything to help.

At that time the houses on Wapping Wall were not encumbered with dust-bins, since the river was found a more convenient receptacle for rubbish. Slops were flung out of a back window, and kitchen refuse went the same way, or was taken to the river stairs and turned out, either into the water or on the foreshore, as the tide might chance. Mrs. Grimes carried about with her in her dustings and sweepings an old coal-scuttle, which held hearth-bushes, shovels, ashes, cinders, potato-peelings, and the like; and at the end of her work, when the brushes and shovels had been put away, she carried the coal-scuttle, sometimes to the nearest window, but more often to the river stairs, and flung what remained into the Thames.

Just as Mr. Cripps was at his busiest and politest, Mrs. Grimes appeared with the old coal-scuttle, piled uncommonly high with ashes and dust and half-burned pipe-lights. She set it down by the door, gave my grandfather his keys, and turned to prepare the table. Instantly Mr. Cripps, watchful in service, pounced on the scuttle.

“I’ll pitch this ’ere away for you, mum,” he said, “while you’re seein’ to Cap’en Kemp’s dinner”; and straightway started for the stairs.

Mrs. Grimes’s back was turned at the moment, and this gave Mr. Cripps the start of a yard or two; but she flung round and after him like a maniac; so that both Grandfather Nat and I stared in amazement.

“Give me that scuttle!” she cried, snatching at the hinder handle. “Mind your own business, an’ leave my things alone!”

Mr. Cripps was amazed also, and he stuttered, “I— I— I— on’y — on’y ——”

“Drop it, you fool!” the woman hissed, so suddenly savage that Mr. Cripps did drop it, with a start that sent him backward against a post; and the consequence was appalling.

Mr. Cripps was carrying the coal-scuttle by its top handle, and Mrs. Grimes, reaching after it, had seized that at the back; so that when Mr. Cripps let go, everything in the scuttle shot out on the paving-stones; first, of course, the ashes and the pipe-lights; then on the top of them, crowning the heap — Grandfather Nat’s cash-box!

I suppose my grandfather must have recovered from his astonishment first, for the next thing I remember is that he had Mrs. Grimes back in the bar-parlour, held fast by the arm, while he carried his cash-box in the disengaged hand. Mr. Cripps followed, bewildered but curious; and my grandfather, pushing his prisoner into a far corner, turned and locked the door.

Mrs. Grimes, who had been crimson, was now white; but more, it seemed to me, with fury than with fear. My grandfather took the key from his watchguard and opened the box, holding it where the contents were visible to none but himself. He gave no more than a quick glance within, and re-locked it; from which I judged — and judged aright — that the pocket-book was safe.

“There’s witnesses enough here,” said my grandfather — for Joe the potman was now staring in from the bar —“to give you a good dose o’ gaol, mum. ‘Stead o’ which I pay your full week’s money and send you packin’!” He pulled out some silver from his pocket. “Grateful or not to me don’t matter, but I hope you’ll be honest where you go next, for your own sake.”

“Grateful! Honest!” Mrs. Grimes gasped, shaking with passion. “‘Ear ’im talk! Honest! Take me to the station now, and bring that box an’ show ’em inside it! Go on!”

I felt more than a little alarmed at this challenge, having regard to the history of the pocket-book; and I remembered the night when we first examined it, the creaking door, and the soft sounds on the stairs. But Grandfather Nat was wholly undisturbed; he counted over the money calmly, and pushed it across the little table.

“There it is, mum,” he said, “an’ there’s your bonnet an’ shawl in the corner. There’s nothing else o’ yours in the place, I believe, so there’s no need for you to go out o’ my sight till you go out of it altogether. That you’d better do quick. I’ll lay the dinner myself.”

Mrs. Grimes swept up the money and began fixing her bonnet on her head and tying the strings under her chin, with savage jerks and a great play of elbow; her lips screwing nervously, and her eyes blazing with spite.

“Ho yus!” she broke out — though her rage was choking her — as she snatched her shawl. “Ho yus! A nice pusson, Cap’en Nat Kemp, to talk about honesty an’ gratefulness — a nice pusson! A nice teacher for young master ‘opeful, I must say, an’ ‘opin’ ‘e’ll do ye credit! It ain’t the last you’ll see o’ me, Captain Nat Kemp! . . . Get out o’ my way, you old lickspittle!”

Mr. Cripps got out of it with something like a bound, and Mrs. Grimes was gone with a flounce and a slam of the door.

Scold as she was, and furious as she was, I was conscious that something in my grandfather’s scowl had kept her speech within bounds, and shortened her clamour; for few cared to face Captain Nat’s anger. But with the slam of the door the scowl broke, and he laughed.

“Come,” he said, “that’s well over, an’ I owe you a turn, Mr. Cripps, though you weren’t intending it. Stop an’ have a bit of dinner. And if you’d like something on account to buy the board for the sign — or say two boards if you like — we’ll see about it after dinner.”

It will be perceived that Grandfather Nat had no reason to regret the keeping of his cash-box key on his watchguard. For had it been with the rest, in Mrs. Grimes’s hands, she need never have troubled to smuggle out the box among the ashes, since the pocket-book was no such awkward article, and would have gone in her pocket. Mrs. Grimes had taken her best chance and failed. The disorders caused by the inquests had left her unobserved, the keys were in her hands, and the cash-box was left in the cupboard upstairs; but the sedulous Mr. Cripps had been her destruction.

As for that artist, he attained his dinner, and a few shillings under the name of advance; and so was well pleased with his morning’s work.

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