The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 4

Stephen’s Tale

Many small matters of my first few hours at the Hole in the Wall were impressed on me by later events. In particular I remember the innocent curiosity with which I asked: “Did you ever kill a man, Gran’fa’ Nat?”

There was a twitch and a frown on my grandfather’s face, and he sat back as one at a moment’s disadvantage. I thought that perhaps he was trying to remember. But he only said, gruffly, and with a quick sound like a snort: “Very nigh killed myself once or twice, Stevy, in my time,” and rose hastily from his chair to reach a picture of a ship that was standing on a shelf. “There,” he said, “that’s a new ’un, just done; pretty picter, ain’t it? An’ that there,” pointing to another hanging on the wall, “that’s the Juno, what your father’s on now.”

I had noticed that the walls, both of the bar and of the bar-parlour, were plentifully hung with paintings of ships; ships becalmed, ships in full sail, ships under bare spars; all with painful blue skies over them, and very even-waved seas beneath; and ships in storms, with torn sails, pursued by rumbustious piles of sooty cloud, and pelted with lengths of scarlet lightning. I fear I should not have recognised my father’s ship without help, but that was probably because I had only seen it, months before, lying in dock, battered and dingy, with a confusion of casks and bales about the deck, and naked yards dangling above; whereas in the picture (which was a mile too small for the brig) it was booming along under a flatulent mountain of clean white sail, and bulwarks and deck-fittings were gay with lively and diversified colour.

I said something about its being a fine ship, or a fine picture, and that there were a lot of them.

“Ah,” he said, “they do mount up, one arter another. It’s one gentleman as did ’em all — him out in the bar now, with the long hair. Sometimes I think I’d rather a-had money; but it’s a talent, that’s what it is!”

The artist beyond the outer bar had been talking to the potman. Now he coughed and said: “Ha — um! Cap’en Kemp, sir! Cap’en Kemp! No doubt as you’ve ‘eard the noos to-day?”

“No,” said Grandfather Nat, finishing the rolling of his shirt-sleeves as he stepped down into the bar; “not as I know on. What is it?”

“Not about Viney and Marr?”

“No. What about ’em?”

Mr. Cripps rose on his toes with the importance of his information, and his eyes widened to a moment’s rivalry with his nose. “Gone wrong,” he said, in a shrill whisper that was as loud as his natural voice. “Gone wrong. Unsolvent. Cracked up. Broke. Busted, in a common way o’ speakin’.” And he gave a violent nod with each synonym.

“No,” said Grandfather Nat; “surely not Viney and Marr?”

“Fact, Cap’en; I can assure you, on ‘igh a’thority. It’s what I might call the universal topic in neighbourin’ circles, an’ a gen’ral subjick o’ local discussion. You’d ‘a ‘eard it ‘fore this if you’d bin at ‘ome.”

My grandfather whistled, and rested a hand on a beer-pull.

“Not a stiver for nobody, they say,” Mr. Cripps pursued, “not till they can sell the wessels. What there was loose Marr’s bolted with; or, as you might put it, absconded; absconded with the proceeds. An’ gone abroad, it’s said.”

“I see the servant gal bringin’ out her box from Viney’s just now,” said Grandfather Nat. “An’ Crooks the ship-chandler was on the steps, very white in the gills, with a paper. Well, well! An’ you say Marr’s bolted?”

“Absconded, Cap’en Kemp; absconded with the proceeds; ‘opped the twig. Viney says ‘e’s robbed ’im as well as the creditors, but I ‘ear some o’ the creditors’ observation is ‘gammon.’ An’ they say the wessels is pawned up to their r’yals. Up to their r’yals!”

“Well,” commented my grandfather, “I wouldn’t ha’ thought it. The Juno was that badly found, an’ they did everything that cheap, I thought they made money hand over fist.”

“Flyin’ too ‘igh, Cap’en Kemp, flyin’ too ‘igh. You knowed Viney long ‘fore ‘e elevated hisself into a owner, didn’t you? What was he then? Why, ‘e was your mate one voy’ge, wasn’t he?”

“Ay, an’ more.”

“So I’ve ‘eard tell. Well, arter that surely ‘e was flyin’ too ‘igh! An’ now Marr’s absconded with the proceeds!”

The talk in the bar went on, being almost entirely the talk of Mr. Cripps; who valued himself on the unwonted importance his news gave him, and aimed at increasing it by saying the same thing a great many times; by saying it, too, when he could, in terms and phrases that had a strong flavour of the Sunday paper. But as for me, I soon ceased to hear, for I discovered something of greater interest on the shelf that skirted the bar-parlour. It was a little model of a ship in a glass case, and it was a great marvel to me, with all its standing and running rigging complete, and a most ingenious and tumultuous sea about it, made of stiff calico cockled up into lumps and ridges, and painted the proper colour. Much better than either of the two we had at home, for these latter were only half-models, each nothing but one-half of a little ship split from stem to stern, and stuck against a board, on which were painted sky, clouds, seagulls, and (in one case) a lighthouse; an exasperating make-believe that had been my continual disappointment.

But this was altogether so charming and delightful and real, and the little hatches and cuddy-houses so thrilled my fancy, that I resolved to beg of my grandfather to let me call the model my own, and sometimes have the glass case off. So I was absorbed while the conversation in the bar ranged from the ships and their owners to my father, and from him to me; as was plain when my grandfather called me.

“Here he is,” said my grandfather, with a deal of pride in his voice, putting his foot on a stool and lifting me on his knee. “Here he is, an’ a plucked ’un; ain’t ye, Stevy?” He rubbed his hand over my head, as he was fond of doing. “Plucked? Ah! Why, he was agoin’ to keep house all by hisself, with all the pluck in life, till his father come home! Warn’t ye, Stevy boy? But he’s come along o’ me instead, an’ him an’ me’s goin’ to keep the Hole in the Wall together, ain’t we? Pardners: eh, Stevy?”

I think I never afterwards saw my grandfather talking so familiarly with his customers. I perceived now that there was another in the bar in addition to Mr. Cripps; a pale, quiet, and rather ragged man who sat in an obscure corner with an untouched glass of liquor by him.

“Come,” said my grandfather, “have one with me, Mr. Cripps, an’ drink the new pardner’s health. What is it? An’ you — you drink up too, an’ have another.” This last order Grandfather Nat flung at the man in the corner, just in the tones in which I had heard a skipper on a ship tell a man to “get forrard lively” with a rope fender, opposite our quay at Blackwall.

“I’m sure ’ere’s wishin’ the young master every ‘ealth an’ ‘appiness,” said Mr. Cripps, beaming on me with a grin that rather frightened than pleased me, it twisted the nose so. “Every ‘ealth and ‘appiness, I’m sure!”

The pale man in the corner only looked up quickly, as if fearful of obtruding himself, gulped the drink that had been standing by him, and receiving another, put it down untasted where the first had stood.

“That ain’t drinkin’ a health,” said my grandfather, angrily. “There — that’s it!” and he pointed to the new drink with the hand that held his own.

The pale man lifted it hurriedly, stood up, looked at me and said something indistinct, gulped the liquor and returned the glass to the counter; whereupon the potman, without orders, instantly refilled it, and the man carried it back to his corner and put it down beside him, as before.

I began to wonder if the pale man suffered from some complaint that made it dangerous to leave him without a drink close at hand, ready to be swallowed at a moment’s notice. But Mr. Cripps blinked, first at his own glass and then at the pale man’s; and I fancy he thought himself unfairly treated.

Howbeit his affability was unconquerable. He grinned and snapped his fingers playfully at me, provoking my secret indignation; since that was what people did to please babies.

“An’ a pretty young gent ‘e is too,” said Mr. Cripps, “of considerable personal attractions. Goin’ to bring ’im up to the trade, I s’pose, Cap’en Kemp?”

“Why, no,” said Grandfather Nat, with some dignity. “No. Something better than that, I’m hopin’. Pardners is all very well for a bit, but Stevy’s goin’ to be a cut above his poor old gran’father, if I can do it. Eh, boy?” He rubbed my head again, and I was too shy, sitting there in the bar, to answer. “Eh, boy? Boardin’ school an’ a gentleman’s job for this one, if the old man has his way.”

Mr. Cripps shook his head sagaciously, and could plainly see that I was cut out for a statesman. He also lifted his empty glass, looked at it abstractedly, and put it down again. Nothing coming of this, he complimented my personal appearance once more, and thought that my portrait should certainly be painted, as a memorial in my future days of greatness.

This notion seemed to strike my grandfather rather favourably, and he forthwith consulted a slate which dangled by a string; during his contemplation of which, with its long rows of strokes, Mr. Cripps betrayed a certain anxious discomfort. “Well,” said Grandfather Nat at length, “you are pretty deep in, you know, an’ it might as well be that as anything else. But what about that sign? Ain’t I ever goin’ to get that?”

Mr. Cripps knitted his brows and his nose, turned up his eyes and shook his head. “It ain’t come to me yet, Cap’en Kemp,” he said; “not yet. I’m still waiting for what you might call an inspiration. But when it comes, Cap’en Kemp — when it comes! Ah! you’ll ‘ave a sign then! Sich a sign! You’ll ‘ave sich a sign as’ll attract the ‘ole artistic feelin’ of Wapping an’ surroundin’ districks of the metropolis, I assure you. An’ the signs on the other ‘ouses — phoo!” Mr. Cripps made a sweep of the hand, which I took to indicate generally that all other publicans, overwhelmed with humiliation, would have no choice but straightway to tear down their own signs and bury them.

“Umph! but meanwhile I haven’t got one at all,” objected Grandfather Nat; “an’ they have.”

“Ah, yes, sir — some sort o’ signs. But done by mere jobbers, and poor enough too. My hart, Cap’en Kemp — I respect my hart, an’ I don’t rush at a job like that. It wants conception, sir, a job like that — conception. The common sort o’ sign’s easy enough. You go at it, an’ you do it or hexicute it, an’ when it’s done or hexicuted — why there it is. A ship, maybe, or a crown, or a Turk’s ‘ed or three cats an’ a fryin’ pan. Simple enough — no plannin’, no composition, no invention. But a ‘ole in a wall, Cap’en Kemp — it takes a hartist to make a picter o’ that; an’ it takes study, an’ meditation, an’ invention!”

“Simplest thing o’ the lot,” said Captain Nat. “A wall, an’ a hole in it. Simplest thing o’ the lot!”

“As you observe, Cap’en Kemp, it may seem simple enough; that’s because you’re thinkin’ o’ subjick, instead o’ treatment. A common jobber, if you’ll excuse my sayin’ it, ‘ud look at it just in that light — a wall with a ‘ole in it, an’ ‘e’d give it you, an’ p’rhaps you’d be satisfied with it. But I soar ‘igher, sir, ‘igher. What I shall give you’ll be a ‘ole in the wall to charm the heye and delight the intelleck, sir. A dramatic ‘ole in the wall, sir, a hepic ‘ole in the wall; a ‘ole in the wall as will elevate the mind and stimilate the noblest instinks of the be’older. Cap’en Kemp, I don’t ‘esitate to say that my ‘ole in the wall, when you get it, will be — ah! it’ll be the moral palladium of Wapping!”

When I get it,” my grandfather replied with a chuckle, “anything might happen without surprisin’ me. I think p’rhaps I might be so startled as to forget the bit you’ve had on account, an’ pay full cash.”

Mr. Cripps’s eyes brightened at the hint. “You’re always very ‘andsome in matters o’ business, Cap’en Kemp,” he said, “an’ I always say so. Which reminds me, speakin’ of ‘andsome things. This morning goin’ to see my friend as keeps the mortuary, I see as ‘andsome a bit o’ panel for to paint a sign as ever I come across. A lovely bit o’ stuff to be sure — enough to stimulate anybody’s artistic invention to look at it, that it was. Not dear neither — particular moderate in fact. I’m afraid it may be gone now; but if I’d ‘a ‘ad the money ——”

A noise of trampling and singing without neared the door, and with a bang and a stagger a party of fresh customers burst in and swept Mr. Cripps out of his exposition. Two were sun-browned sailors, shouting and jovial, but the rest, men and women, sober and villainous in their mock jollity, were land-sharks plain to see. The foremost sailor drove against Mr. Cripps, and having almost knocked him down, took him by the shoulders and involved him in his flounderings; apologising, meanwhile, at the top of his voice, and demanding to know what Mr. Cripps would drink. Whereupon Grandfather Nat sent me back to the bar-parlour and the little ship, and addressed himself to business and the order of the bar.

And so he was occupied for the most of the evening. Sometimes he sat with me and taught me the spars and rigging of the model, sometimes I peeped through the glass at the business of the house. The bar remained pretty full throughout the evening, in its main part, and my grandfather ruled its frequenters with a strong voice and an iron hand.

But there was one little space partitioned off, as it might be for the better company: which space was nearly always empty. Into this quieter compartment I saw a man come, rather late in the evening, furtive and a little flustered. He was an ugly ruffian with a broken nose; and he was noticeable as being the one man I had seen in my grandfather’s house who had no marks of seafaring or riverside life about him, but seemed merely an ordinary London blackguard from some unmaritime neighbourhood. He beckoned silently to Grandfather Nat, who walked across and conferred with him. Presently my grandfather left the counter and came into the bar-parlour. He had something in his closed hand, which he carried to the lamp to examine, so that I could see it was a silver watch; while the furtive man waited expectantly in the little compartment. The watch interested me, for the inward part swung clean out from the case, and hung by a single hinge, in a way I had never seen before. I noticed, also, that a large capital letter M was engraved on the back.

Grandfather Nat shut the watch and strode into the bar.

“Here you are,” he said aloud, handing it to the broken-nosed man. “Here you are. It seems all right — good enough watch, I should say.”

The man was plainly disconcerted — frightened, indeed — by this public observation; and answered with an eager whisper.

“What?” my grandfather replied, louder than ever; “want me to buy it? Not me. This ain’t a pawnshop. I don’t want a watch; an’ if I did, how do I know where you got it?”

Much discomposed by this rebuff, the fellow hurried off. Whereupon I was surprised to see the pale man rise from the corner of the bar, put his drink, still untasted, in a safe place on the counter, beyond the edge of the partition, and hurry out also. Cogitating this matter in my grandfather’s arm-chair, presently I fell asleep.

What woke me at length was the loud voice of Grandfather Nat, and I found that it was late, and he was clearing the bar before shutting up. I rubbed my eyes and looked out, and was interested to see that the pale man had come back, and was now swallowing his drink at last before going out after the rest. Whereat I turned again, drowsily enough, to the model ship.

But a little later, when Grandfather Nat and I were at supper in the bar-parlour, and I was dropping to sleep again, I was amazed to see my grandfather pull the broken-nosed man’s watch out of his pocket and put it in a tin cash-box. At that I rubbed my eyes, and opened them so wide on the cash-box, that Grandfather Nat said, “Hullo, Stevy! Woke up with a jump? Time you was in bed.”

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