The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 7

Stephen’s Tale

We walked first to the head of the stairs, where opened a wide picture of the Thames and all its traffic, and where the walls were plastered with a dozen little bills, each headed “Found Drowned,” and each with the tale of some nameless corpse under the heading.

“That’s my boat, Stevy,” said my grandfather, pointing to a little dinghy with a pair of sculls in her; “our boat, if you like, seeing as we’re pardners. Now you shall do which you like; walk along to the dock, where the sugar is, or come out in our boat.”

It was a hard choice to make. The glory and delight of the part ownership of a real boat dazzled me like another sun in the sky; but I had promised myself the docks and the sugar for such a long time. So we compromised; the docks to-day and the boat to-morrow.

Out in the street everybody seemed to know Grandfather Nat. Those who spoke with him commonly called him Captain Kemp, except a few old acquaintances to whom he was Captain Nat. Loafers and crimps gazed after him and nodded together; and small ship-chandlers gave him good morning from their shop-doors.

A hundred yards from the Hole in the Wall, at a turn, there was a swing bridge and a lock, such as we had by the old house in Blackwall. At the moment we came in hail the men were at the winch, and the bridge began to part in the middle; for a ship was about to change berth to the inner dock. “Come, Stevy,” said my grandfather, “we’ll take the lock ‘fore they open that. Not afraid if I’m with you, are you?”

No, I was not afraid with Grandfather Nat, and would not even be carried. Though the top of the lock was not two feet wide, and was knotted, broken and treacherous in surface and wholly unguarded on one side, where one looked plump down into the foul dock-water; and though on the other side there was but a slack chain strung through loose iron stanchions that staggered in their sockets. Grandfather Nat gripped me by the collar and walked me before him; but relief tempered my triumph when I was safe across; my feet never seemed to have twisted and slipped and stumbled so much before in so short a distance — perhaps because in that same distance I had never before recollected so many tales of men drowned in the docks by falling off just such locks, in fog, or by accidental slips.

A little farther along, and we came upon Ratcliff Highway. I saw the street then for the first time, and in truth it was very wonderful. I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of. Much that I saw I could not understand, child as I was; and by so much the more was I pleased with it all, when perhaps I should have been shocked. From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers, often engraved with suggestive maxims. A flash of memory recalls the favourite: “Never draw me without cause, never sheathe me without honour.” I have since seen the words “cause” and “honour” put to uses less respectable.

The pawn-shops had nothing in them that had not come straight from a ship — sextants and boatswain’s pipes being the choice of the stock. And pawn-shops, slop-shops, tobacco-shops — every shop almost — had somewhere in its window a selection of those curiosities that sailors make abroad and bring home: little ship-models mysteriously erected inside bottles, shells, albatross heads, saw-fish snouts, and bottles full of sand of different colours, ingeniously packed so as to present a figure or a picture when viewed from without.

Men of a dozen nations were coming or going in every score of yards. The best dressed, and the worst, were the negroes; for the black cook who was flush went in for adornments that no other sailor-man would have dreamed of: a white shirt, a flaming tie, a black coat with satin facings — even a white waistcoat and a top hat. While the cleaned-out and shipless nigger was a sad spectacle indeed. Then there were Spaniards, swart, long-haired, bloodshot-looking fellows, whose entire shore outfit consisted commonly of a red shirt, blue trousers, anklejacks with the brown feet visible over them, a belt, a big knife, and a pair of large gold ear-rings. Big, yellow-haired, blue-eyed Swedes, who were full pink with sea and sun, and not brown or mahogany-coloured, like the rest; slight, wicked-looking Malays; lean, spitting Yankees, with stripes, and felt hats, and sing-song oaths; sometimes a Chinaman, petticoated, dignified, jeered at; a Lascar, a Greek, a Russian; and everywhere the English Jack, rolling of gait — sometimes from habit alone, sometimes for mixed reasons — hard, red-necked, waistcoatless, with his knife at his belt, like the rest: but more commonly a clasp-knife than one in a sheath. To me all these strangely bedight men were matter of delight and wonder; and I guessed my hardest whence each had come last, what he had brought in his ship, and what strange and desperate adventures he had encountered on the way. And wherever I saw bare, hairy skin, whether an arm, or the chest under an open shirt, there were blue devices of ships, of flags, of women, of letters and names. Grandfather Nat was tattooed like that, as I had discovered in the morning, when he washed. He had been a fool to have it done, he said, as he flung the soapy water out of window into the river, and he warned me that I must be careful never to make such a mistake myself; which made me sorry, because it seemed so gallant an embellishment. But my grandfather explained that you could be identified by tattoo-marks, at any length of time, which might cause trouble. I remembered that my own father was tattooed with an anchor and my mother’s name; and I hoped he would never be identified, if it were as bad as that.

In the street oyster-stalls stood, and baked-potato cans; one or two sailors were buying, and one or two fiddlers, but mostly the customers were the gaudy women, who seemed to make a late breakfast in this way. Some had not stayed to perform a greater toilet than to fling clothes on themselves unhooked and awry, and to make a straggling knot of their hair; but the most were brilliant enough in violet or scarlet or blue, with hair oiled and crimped and hung in thick nets, and with bright handkerchiefs over their shoulders — belcher yellows and kingsmen and blue billies. And presently we came on one who was dancing with a sailor on the pavement, to the music of one of the many fiddlers who picked up a living hereabouts; and she wore the regular dancing rig of the Highway — short skirts and high red morocco boots with brass heels. She covered the buckle and grape-vined with great precision, too, a contrast with her partner, whose hornpipe was unsteady and vague in the figures, for indeed he seemed to have “begun early”— perhaps had not left off all night. Two more pairs of these red morocco boots we saw at a place next a public house, where a shop front had been cleared out to make a dancing room, with a sort of buttery-hatch communicating with the tavern; and where a flushed sailor now stood with a pot in each hand, roaring for a fiddler.

But if the life and the picturesqueness of the Highway in some sort disguised its squalor, they made the more hideously apparent the abomination of the by-streets: which opened, filthy and menacing, at every fifty yards as we went. The light seemed greyer, the very air thicker and fouler in these passages; though indeed they formed the residential part whereof the Highway was the market-place. The children who ran and tumbled in these places, the boy of nine equally with the infant crawling from doorstep to gutter, were half naked, shoeless, and disguised in crusted foulness; so that I remember them with a certain sickening, even in these latter days; when I see no such pitiably neglected little wretches, though I know the dark parts of London well enough.

At the mouth of one of these narrow streets, almost at the beginning of the Highway, Grandfather Nat stopped and pointed.

It was a forbidding lane, with forbidding men and women hanging about the entrance; and far up toward the end there appeared to be a crowd and a fight; in the midst whereof a half-naked man seemed to be rushing from side to side of the street.

“That’s the Blue Gate,” said my grandfather, and resumed his walk. “It’s dangerous,” he went on, “the worst place hereabout — perhaps anywhere. Wuss’n Tiger Bay, a mile. You must never go near Blue Gate. People get murdered there, Stevy — murdered — many’s a man; sailor-men mostly; an’ nobody never knows. Pitch them in the Dock sometimes, sometimes in the river, so’s they’re washed away. I’ve known ’em taken to Hole-in-the-Wall Stairs at night.”

I gripped my grandfather’s hand tighter, and asked, in all innocence, if we should see any, if we kept watch out of window that night. He laughed, thought the chance scarce worth a sleepless night, and went on to tell me of something else. But I overheard later in a bar conversation a ghastly tale of years before; of a murdered man’s body that had been dragged dripping through the streets at night by two men who supported its arms, staggering and shouting and singing, as though the three were merely drunk; and how it was dropped in panic ere it was brought to the waterside, because of a collision with three live sailors who really were drunk.

One or two crimps’ carts came through from the docks as we walked, drawn by sorry animals, and piled high with shouting sailors and their belongings — chief among these the giant bolster-bags. The victims went to their fate gloriously enough, hailing and chaffing the populace on the way, and singing, each man as he list. Also we saw a shop with a window full of parrots and monkeys; and a very sick kangaroo in a wooden cage being carried in from a van.

And so we came to the London Dock at last. And there, in the sugar-sheds, stood more sugar than ever I had dreamed of in my wildest visions — thousands of barrels, mountains of sacks. And so many of the bags were rat-bitten, or had got a slit by accidentally running up against a jack-knife; and so many of the barrels were defective, or had stove themselves by perverse complications with a crowbar; that the heavy, brown, moist stuff was lying in heaps and lumps everywhere; and I supposed that it must be called “foot-sugar” because you couldn’t help treading on it.

It was while I was absorbed in this delectable spectacle, that I heard a strained little voice behind me, and turned to behold Mr. Cripps greeting my grandfather.

“Good mornin’, Cap’en Kemp, sir,” said Mr. Cripps. “I been a-lookin’ at the noo Blue Crosser — the Emily Riggs. She ought to be done, ye know, an’ a han’some picter she’d make; but the skipper seems busy. Why, an’ there’s young master Stephen, I do declare; ‘ow are ye, sir?”

As he bent and the nose neared, I was seized with a horrid fear that he was going to kiss me. But he only shook hands, after all — though it was not at all a clean hand that he gave.

“Why, Cap’en Kemp,” he went on, “this is what I say a phenomenal coincidence; rather unique, in fact. Why, you’ll ‘ardly believe as I was a thinkin’ o’ you not ‘arf an hour ago, scarcely! Now you wouldn’t ‘a’ thought that, would ye?”

There was a twinkle in Grandfather Nat’s eye. “All depends,” he said.

“Comin’ along from the mortuary, I see somethink ——”

“Ah, something in the mortuary, no doubt,” my grandfather interrupted, quizzically. “Well, what was in the mortuary? I bet there was a corpse in the mortuary.”

“Quite correct, Cap’en Kemp, so there was; three of ’em, an’ a very sad sight; decimated, Cap’en Kemp, by the watery element. But it wasn’t them I was ——”

“What! It wasn’t a corpse as reminded you of me? That’s rum. Then I expect somebody told you some more about Viney and Marr. Come, what’s the latest about Viney an’ Marr? Tell us about that.”

Grandfather Nat was humorously bent on driving Mr. Cripps from his mark, and Mr. Cripps deferred. “Well, it’s certainly a topic,” he said, “a universal topic. Crooks the ship-chandler’s done for, they say — unsolvent. The Minerva’s reported off Prawle Point in to-day’s list, an’ they say as she’ll be sold up as soon as she’s moored. But there — she’s hypotenused, Cap’en Kemp; pawned, as you might say; up the flue. It’s a matter o’ gen’ral information that she’s pawned up to ‘er r’yals — up to ‘er main r’yals, sir. Which reminds me, speakin’ o’ r’yals, there’s a timber-shop just along by the mortuary ——”

“Ah, no doubt,” Grandfather Nat interrupted, “they must put ’em somewhere. Any news o’ the Juno?”

“No, sir, she ain’t reported; not doo Barbadoes yet, or mail not in, any’ow. They’ll sell ‘er too, but the creditors won’t get none of it. She’s hypotenused as deep as the other — up to her r’yals; an’ there’s nothin’ else to sell. So it’s the gen’ral opinion there won’t be much to divide, Marr ‘avin’ absconded with the proceeds. An’ as regards what I was agoin’ to ——”

“Yes, you was goin’ to tell me some more about Marr, I expect,” my grandfather persisted. “Heard where he’s gone?”

Mr. Cripps shook his head. “They don’t seem likely to ketch ’im, Cap’en Nat. Some says ‘e’s absconded out o’ the country, others says ‘e’s ‘idin’ in it. Nobody knows ’im much, consequence o’ Viney doin’ all the outdoor business — I on’y see ’im once myself. Viney, ‘e thinks ‘e’s gone abroad, they say; an’ ‘e swears Marr’s the party as ‘as caused the unsolvency, ‘avin’ bin a-doin’ of ’im all along; ’im bein’ in charge o’ the books. An’ it’s a fact, Cap’en Kemp, as you never know what them chaps may get up to with the proceeds as ‘as charge o’ books. The paper’s full of ’em every week — always absconding with somebody’s proceeds! An’ by the way, speakin’ o’ proceeds ——”

This time Captain Nat made no interruption, but listened with an amused resignation.

“Speakin’ o’ proceeds,” said Mr. Cripps, “it was bein’ temp’ry out o’ proceeds as made me think o’ you as I come along from the mortuary. For I see as ‘andsome a bit o’ panel for to paint a sign on as ever I come across. It was ——”

“Yes, I know. Enough to stimilate you to paint it fine, only to look at it, wasn’t it?”

“Well, yes, Cap’n Kemp, so it was.”

“Not dear, neither?”

“No — not to say dear, seein’ ‘ow prices is up. If I’d ‘ad ——”

“Well, well, p’raps prices’ll be down a bit soon,” said Grandfather Nat, grinning and pulling out a sixpence. “I ain’t good for no more than that now, anyhow!” And having passed over the coin he took my hand and turned away, laughing and shaking his head.

Seeing that my grandfather wanted his sign, it seemed to me that he was losing an opportunity, and I said so.

“What!” he said, “let him buy the board? Why, he’s had half a dozen boards for that sign a’ready!”

“Half a dozen?” I said. “Six boards? What did he do with them?”

“Ate ’em!” said Grandfather Nat, and laughed the louder when I stared.

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