The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 16

Stephen’s Tale

I cannot remember how I reached Grandfather Nat. I must have climbed the stairs, and I fancy I ran into him on the landing; but I only remember his grim face, oddly grey under the eyes, as he sat on his bed and took the paper in his hand. I do not know even what I said, and I doubt if I knew then; the only words present to my mind were “all crew saved except first mate”; and very likely that was what I said.

My grandfather drew me between his knees, and I stood with his arm about me and his bowed head against my cheek. I noticed bemusedly that with his hair fresh-brushed the line between the grey and the brown at the back was more distinct than common; and when there was a sudden clatter in the bar below I wondered if Joe had smashed something, or if it were only a tumble of the pewters. So we were for a little; and then Grandfather Nat stood up with a sound between a sigh and a gulp, looking strangely askant at me, as though it surprised him to find I was not crying. For my part I was dimly perplexed to see that neither was he; though the grey was still under his eyes, and his face seemed pinched and older. “Come, Stevy,” he said, and his voice was like a groan; “we’ll have the house shut again.”

I cannot remember that he spoke to me any more for an hour, except to ask if I would eat any breakfast, which I did with no great loss of appetite; though indeed I was trying very hard to think, hindered by an odd vacancy of mind that made a little machine of me.

Breakfast done, my grandfather sent Joe for a cab to take us to Blackwall. I was a little surprised at the unaccustomed conveyance, and rather pleased. When we were ready to go, we found Mr. Cripps and two other regular frequenters of the bar waiting outside. I think Mr. Cripps meant to have come forward with some prepared condolence; but he stopped short when he saw my grandfather’s face, and stood back with the others. The four-wheeler was a wretched vehicle, reeking of strong tobacco and stale drink; for half the employment of such cabs as the neighbourhood possessed was to carry drunken sailors, flush of money, who took bottles and pipes with them everywhere.

Whether it was the jolting of the cab — Wapping streets were paved with cobbles — that shook my faculties into place; whether it was the association of the cab and the journey to Blackwall that reminded me of my mother’s funeral; or whether it was the mere lapse of a little time, I cannot tell. But as we went, the meaning of the morning’s news grew on me, and I realised that my father was actually dead, drowned in the sea, and that I was wholly an orphan; and it struck me with a sense of self-reproach that the fact afflicted me no more than it did. When my mother and my little brother had died I had cried myself sodden and faint; but now, heavy of heart as I was, I felt curiously ashamed that Grandfather Nat should see me tearless. True, I had seen very little of my father, but when he was at home he was always as kind to me as Grandfather Nat himself, and led me about with him everywhere; and last voyage he had brought me a little boomerang, and only laughed when I hove it through a window that cost him three shillings. Thus I pondered blinkingly in the cab; and I set down my calmness to the reflection that my mother would have him always with her now, and be all the happier in heaven for it; for she always cried when he went to sea.

So at last we came in sight of the old quay, and had to wait till the bridge should swing behind a sea-beaten ship, with her bulwarks patched with white plank, and the salt crust thick on her spars. I could see across the lock the three little front windows of our house, shut close and dumb; and I could hear the quick chanty from the quay, where the capstan turned:—

O, I served my time on the Black Ball Line,
Hurrah for the Black Ball Line!
From the South Sea north to the sixty-nine,
Hurrah for the Black Ball Line!

And somehow with that I cried at last.

The ship passed in, the bridge shut, and the foul old cab rattled till it stopped before the well-remembered door. The house had been closed since my mother was buried, Grandfather Nat paying the rent and keeping the key on my father’s behalf; and now the door opened with a protesting creak and a shudder, and the air within was close and musty.

There were two letters on the mat, where they had fallen from the letter-flap, and both were from my father, as was plain from the writing. We carried them into the little parlour, where last we had sat with the funeral party, and my grandfather lifted the blind and flung open the window. Then he sat and put one letter on each knee.

“Stevy,” he said, and again his voice was like a groan; “look at them postmarks. Ain’t one Belize?”

Yes, one was Belize, the other La Guaira; and both for my mother.

“Ah, one’s been lyin’ here; the other must ha’ come yesterday, by the same mail as brought the news.” He took the two letters again, turned them over and over, and shook his head. Then he replaced them on his knees and rested his fists on his thighs, just above where they lay.

“I don’t know as we ought to open ’em, Stevy,” he said wearily. “I dunno, Stevy, I dunno.”

He turned each over once more, and shut his fists again. “I dunno, I dunno. . . . Man an’ wife, between ‘emselves. . . . Wouldn’t do it, living. . . . Stevy boy, we’ll take ’em home an’ burn ’em.”

But to me the suggestion seemed incomprehensible — even shocking. I could see no reason for burning my father’s last message home. “Perhaps there’s a little letter for me, Gran’father Nat,” I said. “He used to put one in sometimes. Can’t we look? And mother used to read me her letters too.”

My grandfather sat back and rubbed his hand up through his hair behind, as he would often do when in perplexity. At last he said, “Well, well, it’s hard to tell. We should never know what we’d burnt, if we did. . . . We’ll look, Stevy. . . . An’ I’ll read no further than I need. Come, the Belize letter’s first. . . . Send I ain’t doin’ wrong, that’s all.”

He tore open the cover and pulled out the sheets of flimsy foreign note-paper, holding them to the light almost at arm’s length, as long-sighted men do. And as he read, slowly as always, with a leathery forefinger following the line, the grey under the old man’s eyes grew wet at last, and wetter. What the letter said is no matter here. There was talk of me in it, and talk of my little brother — or sister, as it might have been for all my father could know. And again there was the same talk in the second letter — the one from La Guaira. But in this latter another letter was enclosed, larger than that for my mother, which was in fact uncommonly short. And here, where the dead spoke to the dead no more, but to the living, was matter that disturbed my grandfather more than all the rest.

The enclosure was not for me, as I had hoped, but for Grandfather Nat himself; and it was not a simple loose sheet folded in with the rest, but a letter in its own smaller envelope, close shut down, with the words “Capn. Kemp” on the face. My grandfather read the first few lines with increasing agitation, and then called me to the window.

“See here, Stevy,” he said, “it’s wrote small, to get it in, an’ I’m slow with it. Read it out quick as you can.”

And so I read the letter, which I keep still, worn at the folds and corners by the old man’s pocket, where he carried it afterward.

DEAR FATHER — Just a few lines private hoping they find you
well. This is my hardest trip yet, and the queerest, and I
write in case anything happens and I don’t see you again. This
is for yourself, you understand, and I have made it all
cheerful to the Mrs., specially as she is still off her health,
no doubt. Father, the Juno was not meant to come home this
trip, and if ever she rounds Blackwall Point again it will be
in spite of the skipper. He had his first try long enough back,
on the voyage out, and it was then she was meant to go; for she
was worse found than ever I saw a ship — even a ship of Viney’s;
and not provisioned for more than half the run out, proper
rations. And I say it plain, and will say it as plain to
anybody, that the vessel would have been piled up or dropped
under and the insurance paid months before you get this if I
had not pretty nigh mutinied more than once. He said he would
have me in irons, but he shan’t have the chance if I can help
it. You know Beecher. Four times I reckon he has tried to pile
her up, every time in the best weather and near a safe
port —foreign. The men would have backed me right
through — some of them did — but they deserted one after another
all round the coast, Monte Video, Rio and Bahia, and small
blame to them, and we filled up with half-breeds and such. The
last of the ten and the boy went at Bahia, so that now I have
no witness but the second mate, and he is either in it or a
fool — I think a fool: but perhaps both. Not a man to back me.
Else I might have tried to report or something, at Belize,
though that is a thing best avoided of course. No doubt he has
got his orders, so I am not to blame him, perhaps. But I have
got no orders — not to lose the ship, I mean — and so I am doing
my duty. Twice I have come up and took the helm from him, but
that was with the English crew aboard. He has been quiet
lately, and perhaps he has given the job up; at any rate I
expect he won’t try to pile her up again — more likely a quiet
turn below with a big auger. He is still mighty particular
about the long-boat being all right, and the falls clear, etc.
If he does it I have a notion it may be some time when I have
turned in; I can’t keep awake all watches. And he knows I am
about the only man aboard who won’t sign whatever he likes
before a consul. You know what I mean; and you know Beecher
too. Don’t tell the Mrs. of course. Say this letter is about a
new berth or what not. No doubt it is all right, but it came in
my head to drop you a line, on the off chance, and a precious
long line I have made of it. So no more at present from — Your
Affectionate Son,


P.S. I am in half a mind to go ashore at Barbadoes, and report.
But perhaps best not. That sort of thing don’t do.

While I read, my grandfather had been sitting with his head between his hands, and his eyes directed to the floor, so that I could not see his face. So he remained for a little while after I had finished, while I stood in troubled wonder. Then he looked up, his face stern and hard beyond the common: and his was a stern face at best.

“Stevy,” he said, “do you know what that means, that you’ve been a-readin’?”

I looked from his face to the letter, and back again. “It means — means . . . I think the skipper sank the ship on purpose.”

“It means Murder, my boy, that’s what it means. Murder, by the law of England! ‘Feloniously castin’ away an’ destroyin’;’ that’s what they call the one thing, though I’m no lawyer-man. An’ it means prison; though why, when a man follows orders faithful, I can’t say; but well I know it. An’ if any man loses his life thereby it’s Murder, whether accidental or not; Murder an’ the Rope, by the law of England, an’ bitter well I know that too! O bitter well I know it!”

He passed his palm over his forehead and eyes, and for a moment was silent. Then he struck the palm on his knee and broke forth afresh.

“Murder, by the law of England, even if no more than accident in God’s truth. How much the more then this here, when the one man as won’t stand and see it done goes down in his berth? O, I’ve known that afore, too, with a gimlet through the door-frame; an’ I know Beecher. But orders is orders, an’ it’s them as gives them as is to reckon with. I’ve took orders myself. . . . Lord! Lord! an’ I’ve none but a child to talk to! A little child! . . . But you’re no fool, Stevy. See here now, an’ remember. You know what’s come to your father? He’s killed, wilful; murdered, like what they hang people for, at Newgate, Stevy, by the law. An’ do you know who’s done it?”

I was distressed and bewildered, as well as alarmed by the old man’s vehemence. “The captain,” I said, whimpering again.

“Viney!” my grandfather shouted. “Henry Viney, as I might ha’ served the same way, an’ I wish I had! Viney and Marr’s done it; an’ Marr’s paid for it already. Lord, Lord!” he went on, with his face down in his hands and his elbows on his knees. “Lord! I see a lot of it now! It was what they made out o’ the insurance that was to save the firm; an’ when my boy put in an’ stopped it all the voyage out, an’ more, they could hold on no longer, but plotted to get out with what they could lay hold of. Lord! it’s plain as print, plain as print! Stevy!” He lowered his hands and looked up. “Stevy! that money’s more yours now than ever. If I ever had a doubt — if it don’t belong to the orphan they’ve made — but there, it’s sent you, boy, sent you, an’ any one ‘ud believe in Providence after that.”

In a moment more he was back at his earlier excitement. “But it’s Viney’s done it,” he said, with his fist extended before him. “Remember, Stevy, when you grow up, it’s Viney’s done it, an’ it’s Murder, by the law of England. Viney has killed your father, an’ if it was brought against him it ‘ud be Murder!”

“Then,” I said, “we’ll go to the police station and they will catch him.”

My grandfather’s hand dropped. “Ah, Stevy, Stevy,” he groaned, “you don’t know, you don’t know. It ain’t enough for that, an’ if it was — if it was, I can’t; I can’t — not with you to look after. I might do it, an’ risk all, if it wasn’t for that. . . . My God, it’s a judgment on me — a cruel judgment! My own son — an’ just the same way — just the same way! . . . I can’t, Stevy, not with you to take care of. Stevy, I must keep myself safe for your sake, an’ I can’t raise a hand to punish Viney. I can’t, Stevy, I can’t; for I’m a guilty man myself, by the law of England — an’ Viney knows it! Viney knows it! Though it wasn’t wilful, as God’s my judge!”

Grandfather Nat ended with a groan, and sat still, with his head bowed in his hands. Again I remembered, and now with something of awe, my innocent question: “Did you ever kill a man, Grandfather Nat?”

Still he sat motionless and silent, till I could endure it no longer: for in some way I felt frightened. So I went timidly and put my arm about his neck. I fancied, though I was not sure, that I could feel a tremble from his shoulders; but he was silent still. Nevertheless I was oddly comforted by the contact, and presently, like a dog anxious for notice, ventured to stroke the grey hair.

Soon then he dropped his hands and spoke. “I shouldn’t ha’ said it, Stevy; but I’m all shook an’ worried, an’ I talked wild. It was no need to say it, but there ain’t a soul alive to speak to else, an’ somehow I talk as it might be half to myself. But you know what about things I say — private things — don’t you? Remember?” He sat erect again, and raised a forefinger warningly, even sternly. “Remember, Stevy! . . . But come — there’s things to do. Give me the letter. We’ll get together any little things to be kep’, papers an’ what not, an’ take ’em home. An’ I’ll have to think about the rest, what’s best to be done; sell ’em, or what. But I dunno, I dunno!”

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