The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 24

On the Cop

Once he had cut clear from his lodgings without delay and trouble, Viney fell into an insupportable nervous impatience, which grew with every minute. His reasons for the day’s postponement now seemed wholly insufficient: it must have been, he debated with himself, that the first shock of the suggestion had driven him to the nearest excuse to put the job off, as it were a dose of bitter physic. But now that the thing was resolved upon, and nothing remained to do in preparation, the suspense of inactivity became intolerable, and grew to torment. It was no matter of scruple or compunction; of that he never dreamed. But the enterprise was dangerous and novel, and, as the vacant hours passed, he imagined new perils and dreamed a dozen hangings. Till at last, as night came on, he began to fear that his courage could not hold out the time; and, since there was now no reason for delay, he ended with a resolve to get the thing over and the money in his pockets that same night, if it were possible. And with that view he set out for the Cop. . . .

Meantime no nervousness troubled his confederate; for him it was but a good stroke of trade, with a turn of revenge in it; and the penniless interval mattered nothing — could be slept off, in fact, more or less, since there was nothing else to do.

The sun sank below London, and night came slow and black over the marshes and the Cop. Grimes, rising from the doorstep of his office, knocked the last ashes from his pipe and passed indoors. Dan Ogle, sitting under the lee of his shed, found no comfort in his own empty pipe, and no tobacco in his empty pocket. He rose, stretched his arms, and looked across the Lea and the Cop. He could see little or nothing, for the dark was closing on him fast. “Blind man’s holiday,” muttered Dan Ogle; and he turned in for a nap on his bed of sacks.

A sulky red grew up into the darkening western sky, as though the extinguished sun were singeing all the world’s edge. So one saw London’s nimbus from this point every night, and saw below it the scattered spangle of lights that were the suburban sentries of the myriads beyond. The Cop and the marshes lay pitch-black, and nothing but the faint lap of water hinted that a river divided them.

Here, where an hour’s habit blotted the great hum of London from the consciousness, sounds were few. The perseverance of the lapping water forced a groan now and again from the moorings of an invisible barge lying by the wharf; and as often a ghostly rustle rose on the wind from an old willow on the farther bank. And presently, more distinct than either, came a steady snore from the shed where Dan Ogle lay. . . .

A rustle, that was not of any tree, began when the snore was at its steadiest; a gentle rustle indeed, where something, some moving shadow in the black about it, crept over the river wall. Clearer against a faint patch, which had been white with lime in daylight, the figure grew to that of a man; a man moving in that murky darkness with an amazing facility, address, and quietness. Down toward the riverside he went, and there stooping, dipped into the water some small coarse bag of cloth, that hung in his hand. Then he rose, and, after a listening pause, turned toward the shed whence came the snore.

With three steps and a pause, and three steps more, he neared the door: the stick he carried silently skimming the ground before him, his face turned upward, his single eye rolling blankly at the sky that was the same for him at night or noon; and the dripping cloth he carried diffused a pungent smell, as of wetted quick-lime. So, creeping and listening, he reached the door. Within, the snore was regular and deep.

Nothing held the door but a latch, such as is lifted by a finger thrust through a hole. He listened for a moment with his ear at this hole, and then, with infinite precaution, inserted his finger, and lifted the latch. . . .

Up by the George Tavern, beyond Stepney, Henry Viney was hastening along the Commercial Road to call Dan Ogle to immediate business. Ahead of him by a good distance, Musky Mag hurried in the same direction, bearing food in a saucer and handkerchief, and beer in a bottle. But hurry as they might, here was a visitor well ahead of both. . . .

The door opened with something of a jar, and with that there was a little choke in the snore, and a moment’s silence. Then the snore began again, deep as before. Down on his knees went Dan Ogle’s visitor, and so crawled into the deep of the shed.

He had been gone no more than a few seconds, when the snore stopped. It stopped with a thump and a gasp, and a sudden buffeting of legs and arms; and in the midst arose a cry: a cry of so hideous an agony that Grimes the wharf-keeper, snug in his first sleep fifty yards away, sprang erect and staring in bed, and so sat motionless for half a minute ere he remembered his legs, and thrust them out to carry him to the window. And the dog on the wharf leapt the length of its chain, answering the cry with a torrent of wild barks.

Floundering and tumbling against the frail boards of the shed, the two men came out at the door in a struggling knot: Ogle wrestling and striking at random, while the other, cunning with a life’s blindness, kept his own head safe, and hung as a dog hangs to a bull. His hands gripped his victim by ear and hair, while the thumbs still drove at the eyes the mess of smoking lime that clung and dripped about Ogle’s head. It trickled burning through his hair, and it blistered lips and tongue, as he yelled and yelled again in the extremity of his anguish. Over they rolled before the doorway; and Ogle, snatching now at last instead of striking, tore away the hands from his face.

“Fight you level, Dan Ogle, fight you level now!” Blind George gasped between quick breaths. “Hit me now you’re blind as me! Hit me! Knock me down! Eh?”

Quickly he climbed to his feet, and aimed a parting blow with the stick that hung from his wrist. “Dead?” he whispered hoarsely. “Not afore I’ve paid you! No!”

He might have stayed to strike again, but his own hands were blistered in the struggle, and he hastened off toward the bank, there to wash them clear of the slaking lime. Away on the wharf the dog was yelping and choking on its chain like a mad thing.

Screaming still, with a growing hoarseness, and writhing where he lay, the blinded wretch scratched helplessly at the reeking lime that scorched his skin and seared his eyes almost to the brain. Grimes came running in shirt and trousers, and, as soon as he could find how matters stood, turned and ran again for oil. “Good God!” he said. “Lime in his eyes! Slaking lime! Why — why — it must be the blind chap! It must! Fight him level, he said — an’ he’s blinded him! . . . ”

There was a group of people staring at the patients’ door of the Accident Hospital when Viney reached the spot. He was busy enough with his own thoughts, but he stopped, and stared also, involuntarily. The door was an uninteresting object, however, after all, and he turned: to find himself face to face with one he well remembered. It was the limy man he had followed from Blue Gate to the Hole in the Wall, and then lost sight of.

Grimes recognised Viney at once as Ogle’s visitor of the morning. “That’s a pal o’ yourn just gone in there,” he said.

Viney was taken aback. “A pal?” he asked. “What pal?”

“Ogle — Dan Ogle. He’s got lime in his eyes, an’ blinded.”

“Lime? Blinded? How?”

“I ain’t goin’ to say nothing about how — I dunno, an’ ‘tain’t my business. He’s got it, anyhow. There’s a woman in there along of him — his wife, I b’lieve, or something. You can talk to her about it, if you like, when she comes out. I’ve got nothing to do with it.”

Grimes had all the reluctance of his class to be “mixed up” in any matter likely to involve trouble at a police-court; and what was more, he saw himself possibly compromised in the matter of Ogle’s stay at the Wharf. But Viney was so visibly concerned by the news that soon the wharf-keeper relented a little — thinking him maybe no such bad fellow after all, since he was so anxious about his friend. “I’ve heard said,” he added presently in a lower tone, “I’ve heard said it was a blind chap done it out o’ spite; but of course I dunno; not to say myself; on’y what I heard, you see. I don’t think they’ll let you in; but you might see the woman. They won’t let her stop long, ‘specially takin’ on as she was.”

Indeed it was not long ere Musky Mag emerged, reluctant and pallid, trembling at the mouth, staring but seeing nothing. Grimes took her by the arm and led her aside, with Viney. “Here’s a friend o’ Dan’s,” Grimes said, not unkindly, giving the woman a shake of the arm. “He wants to know how he’s gettin’ on.”

“What’s ‘nucleate?” she asked hoarsely, with a dull look in Viney’s face. “What’s ‘nucleate? I heard a doctor say to let ’im rest to-night an’ ‘nucleate in the mornin’. What’s ‘nucleate?”

“Some sort o’ operation,” Grimes hazarded. “Did they say anything else?”

“Blinded,” the woman answered weakly. “Blinded. But the pain’s eased with the oil.”

“What did he say?” interposed Viney, fullest of his own concerns. “Did he say someone did it?”

“He told me about it — whispered. But I shan’t say nothing; nor him, not till he comes out.”

“I say — he mustn’t get talkin’ about it,” Viney said, anxiously. “It — it’ll upset things. Tell him when you see him. Here, listen.” He took her aside out of Grimes’s hearing. “It wouldn’t do,” he said, “it wouldn’t do to have anybody charged or anything just now. We’ve got something big to pull off. I say — I ought to see him, you know. Can’t I see him? But there — someone might know me. No. But you must tell him. He mustn’t go informing, or anything like that, not yet. Tell him, won’t you?”

“Chargin’? Infornin’?” Mag answered, with contempt in her shaking voice. “‘Course ‘e wouldn’t go informin’, not Dan. Dan ain’t that sort —‘e looks arter hisself, ‘e does; ‘e don’t go chargin’ people. Not if ‘e was dyin’.”

Indeed Viney did not sufficiently understand the morals of Blue Gate: where to call in the aid of the common enemy, the police, was a foul trick to which none would stoop. In Blue Gate a man inflicted his own punishments, and to ask aid of the police was worse than mean and scandalous: it was weak; and that in a place where the weak “did not last,” as the phrase went. It was the one restraint, the sole virtue of the place, enduring to death; and like some other virtues, in some other places, it had its admixture of necessity; for everybody was “wanted” in turn, and to call for the help of a policeman who might, as likely as not, begin by seizing oneself by the collar, would even have been poor policy: bad equally for the individual and for the community. So that to resort to the law’s help in any form was classed with “narking” as the unpardonable sin.

“You’re sure o’ that, are you?” asked Viney, apprehensively.

“Sure? ‘Course I’m sure. Dunno what sort o’ chap you take ’im for. ’E’s no nark. An’ besides —‘e can’t. There’s other things, an’——”

She turned away with a sigh that was near a sob, and her momentary indignation lapsed once more into anxious grief.

Viney went off with his head confused and his plans in the melting-pot. Ogle’s scheme was gone by the board, and alone he could scarce trust himself in any enterprise so desperate. What should he do now? Make what terms he might with Captain Nat? Need was pressing; but he must think.

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