The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 20

Stephen’s Tale

My father’s death wrought in Grandfather Nat a change that awed me. He looked older and paler — even smaller. He talked less to me, but began, I fancied, to talk to himself. Withal, his manner was kinder than before, if that were possible; though it was with a sad kindness that distressed and troubled me. More than once I woke at night with candle-light on my face, and found him gazing down at me with a grave doubt in his eyes; whereupon he would say nothing, but pat my cheek, and turn away.

Early one evening as I sat in the bar-parlour, and my grandfather stood moodily at the door between that and the bar, a man came into the private compartment whom I had seen there frequently before. He was, in fact, the man who had brought the silver spoons on the morning when I first saw Ratcliff Highway, and he was perhaps the most regular visitor to the secluded corner of the bar. This time he slipped quietly and silently in at the door, and, remaining just within it, out of sight from the main bar, beckoned; his manner suggesting business above the common.

But my grandfather only frowned grimly, and stirred not as much as a finger. The man beckoned again, impatiently; but there was no favour in Grandfather Nat’s eye, and he answered with a growl. At that the man grew more vehement, patted his breast pocket, jerked his thumb, and made dumb words with a great play of mouth.

“You get out!” said Grandfather Nat.

A shade of surprise crossed the man’s face, and left plain alarm behind it. His eyes turned quickly toward the partition which hid the main bar from him, and he backed instantly to the door and vanished.

A little later the swing doors of the main bar were agitated, and an eye was visible between them, peeping. They parted, and disclosed the face of that same stealthy visitor but lately sent away from the other door. Reassured, as it seemed, by what he saw of the company present, he came boldly in, and called for a drink with an elaborate air of unconcern. But, as he took the glass from the potman, I could perceive a sidelong glance at my grandfather, and presently another. Captain Nat, however, disregarded him wholly; while the pale man, aware of he knew not what between them, looked alertly from one to the other, ready to abandon his long-established drink, or to remain by it, according to circumstances.

The man of the silver spoons looked indifferently from one occupant of the bar to the next, as he took his cold rum. There was the pale man, and Mr. Cripps, and a sailor, who had been pretty regular in the bar of late, and who, though noisy and apt to break into disjointed song, was not so much positively drunk as never wholly sober. And there were two others, regular frequenters both. Having well satisfied himself of these, the man of the silver spoons finished his rum and walked out. Scarce had the door ceased to swing behind him, when he was once more in the private compartment, now with a knowing and secure smile, a cough and a nod. For plainly he supposed there must have been a suspicious customer in the house, who was now gone.

Grandfather Nat let fall the arm that rested against the door frame. “Out you go!” he roared. “If you want another drink the other bar’s good enough for you. If you don’t I don’t want you here. So out you go!”

The man was dumbfounded. He opened his mouth as though to say something, but closed it again, and slunk backward.

“Out you go!” shouted the unsober sailor in the large bar. “Out you go! You ‘bey orders, see? Lord, you’d better ‘bey orders when it’s Cap’en Kemp! Ah, I know, I do!” And he shook his head, stupidly sententious.

But the fellow was gone for good, and the pale man was all eyes, scratching his cheek feebly, and gazing on Grandfather Nat.

“Out he goes!” the noisy sailor went on. “That’s cap’en’s orders. Cap’en’s orders or mate’s orders, all’s one. Like father, like son. Ah, I know!’”

“Ah,” piped Mr. Cripps, “a marvellous fine orficer Cap’en Kemp must ha’ been aboard ship, I’m sure. Might you ever ha’ sailed under ’im?”

“Me?” cried the sailor with a dull stare. “Me? Under him? . . . Well no, not under him. But cap’en’s orders or mate’s orders, all’s one.”

“P’raps,” pursued Mr. Cripps in a lower voice, with a glance over the bar, “p’raps you’ve been with young Mr. Kemp — the late?”

“Him?” This with another and a duller stare. “Him? Um! Ah, well — never mind. Never you mind, see? You mind your own business, my fine feller!”

Mr. Cripps retired within himself with no delay, and fixed an abstracted gaze in his half-empty glass. I think he was having a disappointing evening; people were disagreeable, and nobody had stood him a drink. More, Captain Nat had been quite impracticable of late, and for days all approaches to the subject of the sign, or the board to paint it on, had broken down hopelessly at the start. As to the man just sent away, Mr. Cripps seemed, and no doubt was, wholly indifferent. Captain Nat was merely exercising his authority in his own bar, as he did every day, and that was all.

But the pale man was clearly uneasy, and that with reason. For, as afterwards grew plain, the event was something greater than it seemed. Indeed, it was nothing less than the end of the indirect traffic in watches and silver spoons. From that moment every visitor to the private compartment was sent away with the same peremptory incivility; every one, save perhaps some rare stranger of the better sort, who came for nothing but a drink. So that, in course of a day or two, the private compartment went almost out of use; and the pale man’s face grew paler and longer as the hours went. He came punctually every morning, as usual, and sat his time out with the stagnant drink before him, till he received my grandfather’s customary order to “drink up”; and then vanished till the time appointed for his next attendance. But he made no more excursions into the side court after sellers of miscellaneous valuables. From what I know of my grandfather’s character, I believe that the pale man must have been paid regular wages; for Grandfather Nat was not a man to cast off a faithful servant, though plainly the man feared it. At any rate there he remained with his perpetual drink; and so remained until many things came to an end together.

There was a certain relief, and, I think, an odd touch of triumph in Grandfather Nat’s face and manner that night as he kissed me, and bade me good-night. As for myself, I did not realise the change, but I had a vague idea that my grandfather had sent away his customer on my account; and for long I lay awake, and wondered why.

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