The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 8

Stephen’s Tale

I found it quite true that one might eat the loose sugar wherever he judged it clean enough — as most of it was. And nothing but Grandfather Nat’s restraining hand postponed my first bilious attack.

Thus it was that I made acquaintance with the Highway, and with the London Docks, in their more picturesque days, and saw and delighted in a thousand things more than I can write. Port was drunk then, and hundreds of great pipes lay in rows on a wide quay where men walked with wooden clubs, whacking each pipe till the “shive” or wooden bung sprang into the air, to be caught with a dexterity that pleased me like a conjuring trick. And many a thirsty dock-labourer, watching his opportunity, would cut a strip of bread from his humble dinner as he strolled near a pipe, and, absorbed in the contemplation of the indefinite empyrean, absently dip his sippet into the shive-hole as he passed; recovering it in a state so wet and discoloured that its instant consumption was imperative.

And so at last we came away from the docks by the thoroughfare then called Tanglefoot Lane; not that that name, or anything like it, was painted at the corner; but because it was the road commonly taken by visitors departing from the wine-vaults after bringing tasting-orders.

As we passed Blue Gate on our way home, I saw, among those standing at the corner, a coarse-faced, untidy woman, talking to a big, bony-looking man with a face so thin and mean that it seemed misplaced on such shoulders. The woman was so much like a score of others then in sight, that I should scarce have noted her, were it not that she and the man stopped their talk as we passed, with a quick look, first at my grandfather, and then one at the other; and then the man turned his back and walked away. Presently the woman came after us, walking quickly, glancing doubtfully at Grandfather Nat as she passed; and at last, after twice looking back, she turned and waited for us to come up.

“Beg pardon, Cap’en Kemp,” she said in a low, but a very thick voice, “but might I speak to you a moment, sir?”

My grandfather looked at her sharply. “Well,” he said, “what is it?”

“In regards to a man as sold you a watch las’ night ——”

“No,” Grandfather Nat interrupted with angry decision, “he didn’t.”

“Beg pardon, sir, jesso sir —‘course not; which I mean to say ‘e sold it to a man near to your ’ouse. Is it brought true as that party — not meanin’ you, sir, ‘course not, but the party in the street near your ’ouse — is it brought true as that party’ll buy somethink more — somethink as I needn’t tell now, sir, p’raps, but somethink spoke of between that party an’ the other party — I mean the party as sold it, an’ don’t mean you, sir, ‘course not?”

It was plain that the woman, who had begun in trepidation, was confused and abashed the more by the hard frown with which Captain Nat regarded her. The frown persisted for some moments; and then my grandfather said: “Don’t know what you mean. If somebody bought anything of a friend o’ yours, an’ your friend wants to sell him something else, I suppose he can take it to him, can’t he? And if it’s any value, there’s no reason he shouldn’t buy it, so far as I know.” And Grandfather Nat strode on.

The woman murmured some sort of acknowledgment, and fell back, and in a moment I had forgotten her; though I remembered her afterward, for good reason enough.

In fact, it was no later than that evening. I was sitting in the bar-parlour with Grandfather Nat, who had left the bar to the care of the potman. My grandfather was smoking his pipe, while I spelled and sought down the narrow columns of Lloyd’s List for news of my father’s ship. It was my grandfather’s way to excuse himself from reading, when he could, on the plea of unsuitable eyes; though I suspect that, apart from his sight, he found reading a greater trouble than he was pleased to own.

“There’s nothing here about the Juno, Grandfather Nat,” I said. “Nothing anywhere.”

“Ah,” said my grandfather, “La Guaira was the last port, an’ we must keep eyes on the list for Barbadoes. Maybe the mail’s late.” Most of Lloyd’s messages came by mail at that time. “Let’s see,” he went on; “Belize, La Guaira, Barbadoes”; and straightway began to figure out distances and chances of wind.

Grandfather Nat had been considering whether or not we should write to my father to tell him that my mother was dead, and he judged that there was little chance of any letter reaching the Juno on her homeward passage.

“Belize, La Guaira, Barbadoes,” said Grandfather Nat, musingly. “It’s the rough reason thereabout, an’ it’s odds she may be blown out of her course. But the mail ——”

He stopped and turned his head. There was a sudden stamp of feet outside the door behind us, a low and quick voice, a heavy thud against the door, and then a cry — a dreadful cry, that began like a stifled scream and ended with a gurgle.

Grandfather Nat reached the door at a bound, and as he flung it wide a man came with it and sank heavily at his feet, head and one shoulder over the threshold, and an arm flung out stiffly, so that the old man stumbled across it as he dashed at a dark shadow without.

I was hard at my grandfather’s heels, and in a flash of time I saw that another man was rising from over the one on the doorsill. But for the stumble Grandfather Nat would have had him. In that moment’s check the fellow spun round and dashed off, striking one of the great posts with his shoulder, and nearly going down with the shock.

All was dark without, and what I saw was merely confused by the light from the bar-parlour. My grandfather raised a shout and rushed in the wake of the fugitive, toward the stairs, and I, too startled and too excited to be frightened yet, skipped over the stiff arm to follow him. At the first step I trod on some object which I took to be my grandfather’s tobacco-pouch, snatched it up, and stuffed it in my jacket pocket as I ran. Several men from the bar were running in the passage, and down the stairs I could hear Captain Nat hallooing across the river.

“Ahoy!” came a voice in reply. “What’s up?” And I could see the fire of a purl-boat coming in.

“Stop him, Bill!” my grandfather shouted. “Stop him! Stabbed a man! He’s got my boat, and there’s no sculls in this damned thing! Gone round them barges!”

And now I could distinguish my grandfather in a boat, paddling desperately with a stretcher, his face and his shirt-sleeves touched with the light from the purl-man’s fire.

The purl-boat swung round and shot off, and presently other boats came pulling by, with shouts and questions. Then I saw Grandfather Nat, a black form merely, climbing on a barge and running and skipping along the tier, from one barge to another, calling and directing, till I could see him no more. There were many men on the stairs by this time, and others came running and jostling; so I made my way back to the bar-parlour door.

It was no easy thing to get in here, for a crowd was gathering. But a man from the bar who recognised me made a way, and as soon as I had pushed through the crowd of men’s legs I saw that the injured man was lying on the floor, tended by the potman; while Mr. Cripps, his face pallid under the dirt, and his nose a deadly lavender, stood by, with his mouth open and his hands dangling aimlessly.

The stabbed man lay with his head on a rolled-up coat of my grandfather’s, and he was bad for a child to look at. His face had gone tallowy; his eyes, which turned (and frightened me) as I came in, were now directed steadily upward; he breathed low and quick, and though Joe the potman pressed cloths to the wound in his chest, there was blood about his lips and chin, and blood bubbled dreadfully in his mouth. But what startled me most, and what fixed my regard on his face despite my tremors, so that I could scarce take my eyes from it, was the fact that, paleness and blood and drawn cheeks notwithstanding, I saw in him the ugly, broken-nosed fellow who had been in the private compartment last night, with a watch to sell; the watch, with an initial on the back, that now lay in Grandfather Nat’s cash-box.

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