The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 2

In Blue Gate

While his mother’s relations walked out of Stephen’s tale, and left his grandfather in it, the tales of all the world went on, each man hero in his own.

Viney and Marr were owners of the brig Juno, away in tropic seas, with Stephen’s father chief mate; and at this time the tale of Viney and Marr had just divided into two, inasmuch as the partners were separated and the firm was at a crisis — the crisis responsible for the withholding of Mrs. Kemp’s half-pay. No legal form had dissolved the firm, indeed, and scarce half a mile of streets lay between the two men; but in truth Marr had left his partner with uncommon secrecy and expedition, carrying with him all the loose cash he could get together; and a man need travel a very little way to hide in London. So it was that Mr. Viney, left alone to bear the firm’s burdens, was loafing, sometimes about his house in Commercial Road, Stepney, sometimes in the back streets and small public-houses hard by; pondering, no doubt, the matter contained in a paper that had that afternoon stricken the colour from the face of one Crooks, ship-chandler, of Shadwell, and had hardly less disquieted others in related trades. While Marr, for the few days since his flight no more dressed like the business partner in a shipowning concern, nor even like a clerk, but in serge and anklejacks, like a foremast hand, was playing up to his borrowed character by being drunk in Blue Gate.

The Blue Gate is gone now — it went with many places of a history only less black when Ratcliff Highway was put to rout. As you left High Street, Shadwell, for the Highway — they made one thoroughfare — the Blue Gate was on your right, almost opposite an evil lane that led downhill to the New Dock. Blue Gate Fields, it was more fully called, though there was as little of a field as of a gate, blue or other, about the place, which was a street, narrow, foul and forbidding, leading up to Back Lane. It was a bad and a dangerous place, the worst in all that neighbourhood: worse than Frederick Street — worse than Tiger Bay. The sailor once brought to anchor in Blue Gate was lucky to get out with clothes to cover him — lucky if he saved no more than his life. Yet sailors were there in plenty, hilarious, shouting, drunk and drugged. Horrible draggled women pawed them over for whatever their pockets might yield, and murderous ruffians were ready at hand whenever a knock on the head could solve a difficulty.

Front doors stood ever open in the Blue Gate, and some houses had no front doors at all. At the top of one of the grimy flights of stairs thus made accessible from the street, was a noisy and ill-smelling room; noisy because of the company it held; ill-smelling partly because of their tobacco, but chiefly because of the tobacco and the liquor of many that had been there before, and because of the aged foulness of the whole building. There were five in the room, four men and a woman. One of the men was Marr, though for the present he was not using that name. He was noticeable amid the group, being cleaner than the rest, fair-haired, and dressed like a sailor ashore, though he lacked the sunburn that was proper to the character. But sailor or none, there he sat where many had sat before him, a piece of the familiar prey of Blue Gate, babbling drunk and reasonless. The others were watchfully sober enough, albeit with a great pretence of jollity; they had drunk level with the babbler, but had been careful to water his drink with gin. As for him, he swayed and lolled, sometimes on the table before him, sometimes on the shoulder of the woman at his side. She was no beauty, with her coarse features, dull eyes, and tousled hair, her thick voice and her rusty finery; but indeed she was the least repulsive of that foul company.

On the victim’s opposite side sat a large-framed bony fellow, with a thin, unhealthy face that seemed to belong to some other body, and dress that proclaimed him long-shore ruffian. The woman called him Dan, and nods and winks passed between the two, over the drooping head between them. Next Dan was an ugly rascal with a broken nose; singular in that place, as bearing in his dress none of the marks of waterside habits, crimpery and the Highway, but seeming rather the commonplace town rat of Shoreditch or Whitechapel. And, last, a blind fiddler sat in a corner, fiddling a flourish from time to time, roaring with foul jest, and roiling his single white eye upward.

“No, I won’av another,” the fair-haired man said, staring about him with uncertain eyes. “Got bishness ‘tend to. I say, wha’ pubsh this? ‘Tain’ Brown Bear, ish’t? Ish’t Brown Bear?”

“No, you silly,” the woman answered playfully. “‘Tain’t the Brown Bear; you’ve come ‘ome along of us.”

“O! Come home — come home. . . . I shay — this won’ do! Mus’n’ go ‘ome yet — get collared y’know!” This with an owlish wink at the bottle before him.

Dan and the woman exchanged a quick look; plainly something had gone before that gave the words significance. “No,” Marr went on, “mus’n’ go ‘ome. I’m sailor man jus’ ‘shore from brig Juno in from Barbadoes. . . . No, not Juno, course not. Dunno Juno. ‘Tain’ Juno. D’year? ‘Tain’ Juno, ye know, my ship. Never heard o’ Juno. Mine’s ‘nother ship. . . . I say, wha’sh name my ship?”

“You’re a rum sailor-man,” said Dan, “not to know the name of your own ship ten minutes together. Why, you’ve told us about four different names a’ready.”

The sham seaman chuckled feebly.

“Why, I don’t believe you’re a sailor at all, mate,” the woman remarked, still playfully. “You’ve just bin a-kiddin’ of us fine!”

The chuckle persisted, and turned to a stupid grin. “Ha, ha! Ha, ha! Have it y’r own way.” This with a clumsily stealthy grope at the breast pocket — a movement that the others had seen before, and remembered. “Have it y’r own way. But I say; I say, y’know”— suddenly serious —“you’re all right, ain’t you? Eh? All right, you know, eh? I s-say — I hope you’re — orright?”

“Awright, mate? Course we are!” And Dan clapped him cordially on the shoulder.

“Awright, mate?” shouted the blind man, his white eye rolling and blinking horribly at the ceiling. “Right as ninepence! An’ a ‘a’penny over, damme!”

We’re awright,” growled the broken-nosed man, thickly.

We don’t tell no secrets,” said the woman.

“Thash all very well, but I was talkin’ about the Juno, y’know. Was’n I talkin’ about Juno?” A look of sleepy alarm was on the fair man’s face as he turned his eyes from one to another.

“Ay, that’s so,” answered the fellow at his side. “Brig Juno in from Barbadoes.”

“Ah! Thash where you’re wrong; she ain’t in — see?” Marr wagged his head, and leered the profoundest sagacity. “She ain’t in. What’s more, ‘ow d’you know she ever will come in, eh? ‘Ow d’ye know that? Thash one for ye, ole f’ler! Whar’ll ye bet me she ever gets as far as — but I say, I say; I say, y’know, you’re all right, ain’t you? Qui’ sure you’re orrigh’?”

There was a new and a longer chorus of reassurance, which Dan at last ended with: “Go on; the Juno ain’t ever to come back; is that it?”

Marr turned and stared fishily at him for some seconds. “Wha’rr you mean?” he demanded, at length, with a drivelling assumption of dignity. “Wha’rr you mean? N-never come back? Nishe remark make ‘spectable shipowner! Whassor’ firm you take us for, eh?”

The blind fiddler stopped midway in a flourish and pursed his lips silently. Dan looked quickly at the fiddler, and as quickly back at the drunken man. Marr’s attitude and the turn of his head being favourable, the woman quietly detached his watch.

“Whassor’ firm you take us for?” he repeated. “D’ye think ‘cause we’re —‘cause I come here —‘cause I come ’ere an’——” he stopped foolishly, and tailed off into nothing, smiling uneasily at one and another.

The woman held up the watch behind him — a silver hunter, engraved with Marr’s chief initial — a noticeably large letter M. Dan saw it, shook his head and frowned, pointed and tapped his own breast pocket, all in a moment. And presently the woman slipped the watch back into the pocket it came from.

“‘Ere, ‘ave another drink,” said Dan hospitably. “‘Ave another all round for the last, ‘fore the fiddler goes. ‘Ere y’are, George, reach out.”

“Eh?” ejaculated the fiddler. “Eh? I ain’t goin’! Didn’t the genelman ask me to come along? Come, I’ll give y’ a toon. I’ll give y’ a chant as ‘ll make yer ‘air curl!”

“Take your drink, George,” Dan insisted, “we don’t want our ‘air curled.”

The fiddler groped for and took the drink, swallowed it, and twangled the fiddle-strings. “Will y’ave Black Jack?” he asked.

“No,” Dan answered with a rising voice. “We won’t ‘ave Black Jack, an’ what’s more we won’t ‘ave Blind George, see? You cut your lucky, soon as ye like!”

“Awright, awright, cap’en,” the fiddler remonstrated, rising reluctantly. “You’re ‘ard on a pore blind bloke, damme. Ain’t I to get nothin’ out o’ this ’ere? I ask ye fair, didn’t the genelman tell me to come along?”

Marr, ducking and lolling over the table, here looked up and said, “Whassup? Fiddler won’ go? Gi’m twopence an’ kick’m downstairs. ‘Ere y’are!” and he pulled out some small change between his fingers, and spilt it on the table.

Dan and the broken-nosed man gathered it up and thrust it into the blind man’s hand. “This ain’t the straight game,” he protested, in a hoarse whisper, as they pushed him through the doorway. “I want my reg’lars out o’ that lot. D’ye ‘ear? I want my reg’lars!”

But they shut the door on him, whereupon he broke into a torrent of curses on the landing; and presently, having descended several of the stairs, reached back to let drive a thump at the door with his stick; and so went off swearing into the street.

Marr sniggered feebly. “Chucked out fiddler,” he said. “Whash we do now? I won’ave any more drink. I ‘ad ‘nough. . . . Think I’ll be gett’n’ along. . . . Here, what you after, eh?”

He clapped his hand again to his breast pocket, and turned suspiciously on the woman. “You keep y’r hands off,” he said. “Wha’ wan’ my pocket?”

“Awright, mate,” the woman answered placidly. “I ain’t a touchin’ yer pockets. Why, look there — yer watchguard’s ‘angin’; you’ll drop that presently an’ say it’s me, I s’pose!”

“You’d better get away from the genelman if you can’t behave yourself civil,” interposed Dan, pushing the woman aside and getting between them. “‘Ere, mate, you got to ‘ave another drink along o’ me. I’ll turn her out arter the fiddler, if she ain’t civil.”

“I won’ave another drink,” said Marr, thickly, struggling unsteadily to his feet and dropping back instantly to his chair. “I won’avanother.”

“We’ll see about that,” replied Dan. “‘Ere, you get out,” he went on, addressing the woman as he hauled her up by the shoulders. “You get out; we’re goin’ to be comf’table together, us two an’ ’im. Out ye go!” He thrust her toward the door and opened it. “I’m sick o’ foolin’ about,” he added in an angry undertone; “quick’s the word.”

“O no, Dan — don’t,” the woman pleaded, whispering on the landing. “Not that way! Not again! I’ll get it from him easy in a minute! Don’t do it, Dan!”

“Shut yer mouth! I ain’t askin’ you. You shove off a bit.”

“Don’t, Dan!”

But the door was shut.

“I tell ye I won’avanother!” came Marr’s voice from within.

The woman went down the stairs, her gross face drawn as though she wept, though her eyes were dry. At the door she looked back with something like a shudder, and then turned her steps down the street.

The two partners in Viney and Marr were separated indeed; but now it was by something more than half a mile of streets.

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