The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 18

On the Cop

When the limy man left Blue Gate he went, first, to the Hole in the Wall, there to make to Captain Kemp some small report on the wharf by the Lea. This did not keep him long, and soon he was on his journey home to the wharf itself, by way of the crooked lanes and the Commercial Road.

He had left Blue Gate an hour and more when Musky Mag emerged from her black stairway, peering fearfully about the street ere she ventured her foot over the step. So she stood for a few seconds, and then, as one chancing a great risk, stepped boldly on the pavement, and, turning her back to the Highway, walked toward Back Lane. This was the nearer end of Blue Gate, and, the corner turned, she stopped short, and peeped back. Satisfied that she had no follower, she crossed Back Lane, and taking every corner, as she came to it, with a like precaution, threaded the maze of small, ill-lighted streets that lay in the angle between the great Rope Walk and Commercial Road. This wide road she crossed, and then entered the dark streets beyond, in rear of the George Tavern; and so, keeping to obscure parallel ways, sometimes emerging into the glare of the main road, more commonly slinking in its darker purlieus, but never out of touch with it, she travelled east; following in the main the later course of the limy man, who had left Blue Gate by its opposite end.

The fog, that had dulled the lights in Ratcliff Highway, met her again near Limehouse Basin; but, ere she reached the church, she was clear of it once more. Beyond, the shops grew few, and the lights fewer. For a little while decent houses lined the way: the houses of those last merchants who had no shame to live near the docks and the works that brought their money. At last, amid a cluster of taverns and shops that were all for the sea and them that lived on it, the East India Dock gates stood dim and tall, flanked by vast raking walls, so that one might suppose a Chinese city to seethe within. And away to the left, the dark road that the wall overshadowed was lined on the other side by hedge and ditch, with meadows and fields beyond, that were now no more than a vast murky gulf; so that no stranger peering over the hedge could have guessed aright if he looked on land or on water, or on mere black vacancy.

Here the woman made a last twist: turning down a side street, and coming to a moment’s stand in an archway. This done, she passed through the arch into a path before a row of ill-kept cottages; and so gained the marshy field behind the Accident Hospital, the beginning of the waste called The Cop.

Here the great blackness was before her and about her, and she stumbled and laboured on the invisible ground, groping for pits and ditches, and standing breathless again and again to listen. The way was so hard as to seem longer than it was, and in the darkness she must needs surmount obstacles that in daylight she would have turned. Often a ditch barred her way; and when, after long search, a means of crossing was found, it was commonly a plank to be traversed on hands and knees. There were stagnant pools, too, into which she walked more than once; and twice she suffered a greater shock of terror: first at a scurry of rats, and later at quick footsteps following in the sodden turf — the footsteps, after all, of nothing more terrible than a horse of inquiring disposition, out at grass.

So she went for what seemed miles: though there was little more than half a mile in a line from where she had left the lights to where at last she came upon a rough road, seamed with deep ruts, and made visible by many whitish blotches where lime had fallen, and had there been ground into the surface. To the left this road stretched away toward the lights of Bromley and Bow Common, and to the right it rose by an easy slope over the river wall skirting the Lea, and there ended at Kemp’s Wharf.

Not a creature was on the road, and no sound came from the black space behind her. With a breath of relief she set foot on the firmer ground, and hurried up the slope. From the top of the bank she could see Kemp’s Wharf just below, with two dusty lighters moored in the dull river; and beyond the river the measureless, dim Abbey Marsh. Nearer, among the sheds, a dog barked angrily at the sound of strange feet.

A bright light came from the window of the little house that made office and dwelling for the wharf-keeper, and something less of the same light from the open door; for there the limy man stood waiting, leaning on the door-post, and smoking his pipe.

He grunted a greeting as Mag came down the bank. “Bit late,” he said. “But it ain’t easy over the Cop for a stranger.”

“Where?” the woman whispered eagerly. “Where is he?”

The limy man took three silent pulls at his pipe. Then he took it from his mouth with some deliberation, and said: “Remember what I said? I don’t want ’im ’ere. I dunno what ‘e’s done, an’ don’t want; but if ‘e likes to come ‘idin’ about, I ain’t goin’ to play the informer. I dunno why I should promise as much as that, just ‘cos my brother married ‘is sister. She ain’t done me no credit, from what I ‘ear now. Though she ‘ad a good master, as I can swear; ‘cos ‘e’s mine too.”

“Where is he?” was all Mag’s answer, again in an anxious whisper.

“Unnerstand?” the limy man went on. “I’m about done with the pair on ’em now, but I ain’t goin’ to inform. ‘E come ’ere a day or two back an’ claimed shelter; an’ seein’ as I was goin’ up to Wappin’ to-night, ‘e wanted me to tell you where ‘e was. Well, I’ve done that, an’ I ain’t goin’ to do no more; see? ‘E ain’t none o’ mine, an’ I won’t ‘ave part nor parcel with ’im, nor any of ye. I keep myself decent, I do. I shan’t say ‘e’s ’ere an’ I shan’t say ‘e ain’t; an’ the sooner ‘e goes the better ‘e’ll please me. See?”

“Yes, Mr. Grimes, sir; but tell me where he is!”

The limy man took his pipe from his mouth, and pointed with a comprehensive sweep of the stem at the sheds round about. “You can go an’ look in any o’ them places as ain’t locked,” he said off-handedly. “The dog’s chained up. Try the end one fust.”

Grimes the wharfinger resumed his pipe, and Mag scuffled off to where the light from the window fell on the white angle of a small wooden shelter. The place was dark within, dusted about with lime, and its door stood inward. She stopped and peered.

“All right,” growled Dan Ogle from the midst of the dark. “Can’t ye see me now y’ ‘ave come?” And he thrust his thin face and big shoulders out through the opening.

“O Dan!” the woman cried, putting out her hands as though she would take him by the neck, but feared repulse. “O Dan! Thank Gawd you’re safe, Dan! I bin dyin’ o’ fear for you, Dan!”

“G-r-r-r!” he snorted. “Stow that! What I want’s money. Got any?”

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