The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 14

Stephen’s Tale

A policeman brought my grandfather a bill, which was stuck against the bar window with gelatines; and just such another bill was posted on the wall at the head of Hole-in-the-Wall Stairs, above the smaller bills that advertised the found bodies. This new bill was six times the size of those below; it was headed “Murder” in grim black capitals, and it set forth an offer of fifty pounds reward for information which should lead to the apprehension of the murderer of Robert Kipps.

The offer gave Grandfather Nat occasion for much solemn banter of Mr. Cripps; banter which seemed to cause Mr. Cripps a curious uneasiness, and time and again stopped his eloquence in full flood. He had been at the pains to cut from newspapers such reports of the inquest as were printed; and though they sadly disappointed him by their brevity, and all but two personally affronted him by disregarding his evidence and himself altogether, still he made great play with the exceptional two, in the bar. But he was quick to drop the subject when Captain Nat urged him in pursuit of the reward.

“Come,” my grandfather would say, “you’re neglecting your fortune, you know. There’s fifty pound waitin’ for you to pick up, if you’d only go an’ collar that murderer. An’ you’d know him anywhere.” Whereupon Mr.

Cripps would look a little frightened, and subside.

I did not learn till later how the little painter’s vanity had pushed him over bounds at the inquest, so far that he committed himself to an absolute recognition of the murderer. The fact alarmed him not a little, on his return to calmness, and my grandfather, who understood his indiscretion as well as himself, and enjoyed its consequences, in his own grim way, amused himself at one vacant moment and another by setting Mr. Cripps’s alarm astir again.

“You’re throwing away your luck,” he would say, perhaps, “seein’ you know him so well by sight. If you’re too well-off to bother about fifty pound, give some of us poor ‘uns a run for it, an’ put us on to him. I wish I’d been able to see him so clear.” For in truth Grandfather Nat well knew that nobody had had so near a chance of seeing the murderer’s face as himself; and that Mr. Cripps, at the top of the passage — perhaps even round the corner — had no chance at all.

It was because of Mr. Cripps’s indiscretion, in fact — this I learned later still — that the police were put off the track of the real criminal. For after due reflection on the direful complications whereinto his lapse promised to fling him, that distinguished witness, as I have already hinted, fell into a sad funk. So, though he needs must hold to the tale that he knew the man by sight, and could recognise him again, he resolved that come what might, he would identify nobody, and so keep clear of further entanglements. Now the police suspicions fell shrewdly on Dan Ogle, a notorious ruffian of the neighbourhood. He had been much in company of the murdered man of late, and now was suddenly gone from his accustomed haunts. Moreover, there was the plain agitation of the woman he consorted with, Musky Mag, at the inquest: she had fainted, indeed, when Mr. Cripps had been so positive about identifying the murderer. These things were nothing of evidence, it was true; for that they must depend on the witness who saw the fellow’s face, knew him by sight, and could identify him. But when they came to this witness with their inquiries and suggestions the thing went overboard at a breath. Was the assassin a tall man? Not at all — rather short, in fact. Was he a heavy-framed, bony fellow? On the contrary, he was fat rather than bony. Did Mr. Cripps ever happen to have seen a man called Dan Ogle, and was this man at all like him? Mr. Cripps had been familiar with Dan Ogle’s appearance from his youth up (this was true, for the painter’s acquaintance was wide and diverse) but the man who killed Bob Kipps was as unlike him as it was possible for any creature on two legs to be. Then, would Mr. Cripps, if the thing came to trial, swear that the man he saw was not Dan Ogle? Mr. Cripps was most fervently and desperately ready and anxious to swear that it was not, and could not by any possibility be Dan Ogle, or anybody like him.

This brought the police inquiries to a fault; even had their suspicions been stronger and better supported, it would have been useless to arrest Dan Ogle, supposing they could find him; for this, the sole possible witness to identity, would swear him innocent. So they turned their inquiries to fresh quarters, looking among the waterside population across the river — since it was plain that the murderer had rowed over — for recent immigrants from Wapping. For a little while Mr. Cripps was vexed and disquieted with invitations to go with a plain-clothes policeman and “take a quiet look” at some doubtful characters; but of course with no result, beyond the welcome one of an occasional free drink ordered as an excuse for waiting at bars and tavern-corners; and in time these attentions ceased, for the police were reduced to waiting for evidence to turn up; and Mr. Cripps breathed freely once more. While Dan Ogle remained undisturbed, and justice was balked for a while; for it turned out in the end that when the police suspected Dan Ogle they were right, and when they went to other conjectures they were wrong.

All this was ahead of my knowledge at the moment, however, as, indeed, it is somewhat ahead of my story; and for the while I did no more than wonder to see Mr. Cripps abashed at an encouragement to earn fifty pounds; for he seemed not a penny richer than before, and still impetrated odd coppers on account of the signboard of promise.

Once or twice we saw Mr. Viney, and on each occasion he borrowed money off Grandfather Nat. The police were about the house a good deal at this time, because of the murder, or I think he might have come oftener. The first time he came I heard him telling my grandfather that he had got hold of Blind George, that Blind George had told him a good deal about the missing money, and that with his help he hoped for a chance of saving some of it. He added, mysteriously, that it had been “nearer hereabouts than you might think, at one time”; a piece of news that my grandfather received with a proper appearance of surprise. But was it safe to confide in Blind George? Viney swore for answer, and said that the rascal had stipulated for such a handsome share that it would pay him to play square.

On the last of these visits I again overheard some scraps of their talk, and this time it was angrier. I judged that Viney wanted more money than my grandfather was disposed to give him. They were together in the back room where the boxes and bottles were — the room into which I had seen Bill Stagg’s head and shoulders thrust by way of the trap-door. My grandfather’s voice was low, and from time to time he seemed to be begging Viney to lower his; so that I wondered to find Grandfather Nat so mild, since in the bar he never twice told a man to lower his voice, but if once were not enough, flung him into the street. And withal Viney paid no heed, but talked as he would, so that I could catch his phrases again and again.

“Let them hush as is afraid — I ain’t,” he said. And again: “O, am I? Not me. . . . It’s little enough for me, if it does; not the rope, anyway.” And later, “Yes, the rope, Cap’en Kemp, as you know well enough; the rope at Newgate Gaol. . . . Dan Webb, aboard o’ the Florence. . . . The Florence that was piled up on the Little Dingoes in broad day. . . . As you was ordered o’ course, but that don’t matter. . . . That’s what I want now, an’ no less. Think it lucky I offer to pay back when I get — . . . Well, be sensible — . . . I’m friendly enough. . . . Very well.”

Presently my grandfather, blacker than common about brow and eyes, but a shade paler in the cheek, came into the bar-parlour and opened the trade cash-box — not the one that Mrs. Grimes had hidden among the cinders, but a smaller one used for gold and silver. He counted out a number of sovereigns — twenty, I believe — put the box away, and returned to the back room. And in a few minutes, with little more talk, Mr. Viney was gone.

Grandfather Nat came into the bar-parlour again, and his face cleared when he saw me, as it always would, no matter how he had been ruffled. He stood looking in my face for a little, but with the expression of one whose mind is engaged elsewhere. Then he rubbed his hand on my head, and said abstractedly, and rather to himself, I fancied, than to me: “Never mind, Stevy; we got it back beforehand, forty times over.” A remark that I thought over afterward, in bed, with the reflection that forty times twenty was eight hundred.

But Mr. Viney’s talk in the back room brought most oddly into my mind, in a way hard to account for, the first question I put to my grandfather after my arrival at the Hole in the Wall: “Did you ever kill a man, Grandfather Nat?”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58