The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 15

Stephen’s Tale

The repeated multiplication of twenty by forty sent me to sleep that night, and I woke with that arithmetical exercise still running in my head. A candle was alight in the room — ours was one of several houses in Wapping Wall without gas — and I peeped sleepily over the bed-clothes. Grandfather Nat was sitting with the cash-box on his knees, and the pocket-book open in his hand. He may just have been counting the notes over again, or not; but now he was staring moodily at the photograph that lay with them. Once or twice he turned his eyes aside, and then back again to the picture, as though searching his memory for some old face; then I thought he would toss it away as something valueless; but when his glance fell on the fireless grate he returned the card to its place and locked the box.

When the cash-box was put away in the little cupboard at his bed-head, he came across and looked down at me. At first I shut my eyes, but peeped. I found him looking on me with a troubled and thoughtful face; so that presently I sat up with a jump and asked him what he was thinking about.

“Fox’s sleep, Stevy?” he said, with his hand under my chin. “Well, boy, I was thinking about you. I was thinking it’s a good job your father’s coming home soon, Stevy; though I don’t like parting with you.”

Parting with me? I did not understand. Wouldn’t father be going away again soon?

“Well, I dunno, Stevy, I dunno. I’ve been thinking a lot just lately, that’s a fact. This place is good enough for me, but it ain’t a good place to bring up a boy like you in; not to make him the man I want you to be, Stevy. Somehow it didn’t strike me that way at first, though it ought to ha’ done. It ought to ha’ done, seein’ it struck strangers — an’ not particular moral strangers at that.”

He was thinking of Blind George and Mrs. Grimes. Though at the moment I wondered if his talk with Mr. Viney had set him doubting.

“No, Stevy,” he resumed, “it ain’t giving you a proper chance, keeping you here. You can’t get lavender water out o’ the bilge, an’ this part’s the bilge of all London. I want you to be a better man than me, Stevy.”

I could not imagine anybody being a better man than Grandfather Nat, and the prospect of leaving him oppressed me dismally. And where was I to go? I remembered the terrible group of aunts at my mother’s funeral, and a shadowy fear that I might be transferred to one of those virtuous females — perhaps to Aunt Martha — put a weight on my heart. “Don’t send me away, Gran’fa Nat!” I pleaded, with something pulling at the corners of my mouth; “I haven’t been a bad boy yet, have I?”

He caught me up and sat me on his fore-arm, so that my face almost touched his, and I could see my little white reflection in his eyes. “You’re the best boy in England, Stevy,” he said, and kissed me affectionately. “The best boy in the world. An’ I wouldn’t let go o’ you for a minute but for your own good. But see now, Stevy, see; as to goin’ away, now. You’ll have to go to school, my boy, won’t you? An’ the best school we can manage — a gentleman’s school; boardin’ school, you know. Well, that’ll mean goin’ away, won’t it? An’ then it wouldn’t do for you to go to a school like that, not from here, you know — which you’ll understand when you get there, among the others. My boy — my boy an’ your father’s — has got to be as good a gentleman as any of ’em, an’ not looked down on because o’ comin’ from a Wapping public like this, an’ sent by a rough old chap like me. See?”

I thought very hard over this view of things, which was difficult to understand. Who should look down on me because of Grandfather Nat, of whom I was so fond and so proud? Grandfather Nat, who had sailed ships all over the world, had seen storms and icebergs and wrecks, and who was treated with so much deference by everybody who came to the Hole in the Wall? Then I thought again of the aunts at the funeral, and remembered how they had tilted their chins at him; and I wondered, with forebodings, if people at a boarding school were like those aunts.

“So I’ve been thinking, Stevy, I’ve been thinking,” my grandfather went on, after a pause. “Now, there’s the wharf on the Cop. The work’s gettin’ more, and Grimes is gettin’ older. But you don’t know about the wharf. Grimes is the man that manages there for me; he’s Mrs. Grimes’s brother-in-law, an’ when his brother died he recommended the widder to me, an’ that’s how she came: an’ now she’s gone; but that’s neither here nor there. Years ago Grimes himself an’ a boy was enough for all the work there was; now there’s three men reg’lar, an’ work for more. Most o’ the lime comes off the barges there for the new gas-works, an’ more every week. Now there’s business there, an’ a respectable business — too much for Grimes. An’ if your father’ll take on a shore job — an’ it’s a hard life, the sea — here it is. He can have a share — have the lot if he likes — for your sake, Stevy; an’ it’ll build up into a good thing. Grimes’ll be all right — we can always find a job for him. An’ you can go an’ live with your father somewhere respectable an’ convenient; not such a place as Wapping, an’ not such people. An’ you can go to school from there, like any other young gentleman. We’ll see about it when your father comes home.”

“But shan’t I ever see you, Gran’fa’ Nat?”

“See me, my boy? Ay, that you will — if you don’t grow too proud — that you will, an’ great times we’ll have, you an’ your father an’ me, all ashore together, in the holidays, won’t we? An’ I’ll take care of your own little fortune — the notes — till you’re old enough to have it. I’ve been thinking about that, too.” Here he stood me on my bed and playfully pushed me back and forward by the shoulders. “I’ve been thinking about that, an’ if it was lyin’ loose in the street I’d be puzzled clean to say who’d really lost it, what with one thing an’ another. But it ain’t in the street, an’ it’s yours, with no puzzle about it. But there — lie down, Stevy, an’ go to sleep. Your old grandfather’s holdin’ forth worse’n a parson, eh? Comes o’ bein’ a lonely man an’ havin’ nobody to talk to, except myself, till you come. Lie down an’ don’t bother yourself. We must wait till your father comes home. We’ll keep watch for the Juno in the List — she ought to ha’ been reported at Barbadoes before this. An’ we must run down to Blackwall, too, an’ see if there’s any letters from him. So go to sleep now, Stevy — we’ll settle it all — we’ll settle it all when your father comes home!”

So I lay and dozed, with words to send me to sleep instead of figures: till they made a tune and seemed to dance to it. “When father comes home: when father comes home: we’ll settle it all, when father comes home!” And presently, in some unaccountable way, Mr. Cripps came into the dance with his “Up to their r’yals, up to their r’yals: the wessels is deep in, up to their r’yals!” and so I fell asleep wholly.

In the morning I was astir early, and watching the boats and the shipping from the bedroom window ere my grandfather had ceased his alarming snore. It was half an hour later, and Grandfather Nat was busy with his razor on the upper lip that my cheeks so well remembered, when we heard Joe the potman at the street door. Whereat I took the keys and ran down to let him in; a feat which I accomplished by aid of a pair of steps, much tugging at heavy bolts, and a supreme wrench at the big key.

Joe brought Lloyd’s List in with him every morning from the early newsagent’s in Cable Street. I took the familiar journal at once, and dived into the midst of its quaint narrow columns, crowded with italics, in hope of news from Barbadoes. For I wished to find for myself, and run upstairs, with a child’s importance, to tell Grandfather Nat. But there was no news from Barbadoes — that is, there was no news of my father’s ship. The name Barbadoes stood boldly enough, with reports below it, of arrivals and sailings, and one of an empty boat washed ashore; but that was all. So I sat where I was, content to wait, and to tell Grandfather Nat presently, offhand from over my paper, like a politician in the bar, that there was no news. Thus, cutting the leaves with a table-knife, my mind on my father’s voyage, it occurred to me that I could not spell La Guaira, the name of the port his ship was last reported from; and I turned the paper to look for it. The name was there, with only one message attached, and while I was slowly conning the letters over for the third time, I was suddenly aware of a familiar word beneath — the name of the Juno herself. And this was the notice that I read:

LA GUAIRA, Sep. 1.

The Juno (brig) of London, Beecher, from this for Barbadoes,
foundered N of Margarita. Total loss. All crew saved except
first mate. Master and crew landed Margarita.

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