The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 25

Stephen’s Tale

I have said something of the change in my grandfather’s habits after the news of the loss of the Juno and my father’s death; something but not all. Not only was he abstracted in manner and aged in look, but he grew listless in matters of daily life, and even doubtful and infirm of purpose: an amazing thing in him, whose decision of character had made his a corner of the world in which his will was instant law. And with it, and through it all, I could feel that I was the cause. “It ain’t the place for you, Stevy, never the place for you,” he would say, wistful and moody; wholly disregarding my protests, which I doubt he even heard. “I’ve put one thing right,” he said once, thinking aloud, as I sat on his knee; “but it ain’t enough; it ain’t enough.” And I was sure that he was thinking of the watches and spoons.

As to that matter, people with valuables had wholly ceased from coming to the private compartment. But the pale man still sat in his corner, and Joe the potman still supplied the drink he neglected. His uneasiness grew less apparent in a day or so; but he remained puzzled and curious, though no doubt well enough content with this, the most patent example of Grandfather Nat’s irresolution.

As for Mr. Cripps, that deliberate artist’s whole practice of life was disorganised by Captain Nat’s indifference, and he was driven to depend for the barest necessaries on the casual generosity of the bar. In particular he became the client of the unsober sailor I have spoken of already: the disciplinarian, who had roared confirmation of my grandfather’s orders when the man of the silver spoons got his dismissal. This sailor was old in the ways of Wapping, as in the practice of soaking, it would seem, and he gave himself over to no crimp. Being ashore, with money to spend, he preferred to come alone to the bar of The Hole in the Wall, and spend it on himself, getting full measure for every penny. Beyond his talent of ceaselessly absorbing liquor without becoming wholly drunk, and a shrewd eye for his correct change, he exhibited the single personal characteristic of a very demonstrative respect for Captain Nat Kemp. He would confirm my grandfather’s slightest order with shouts and threats, which as often as not were only to be quelled by a shout or a threat from my grandfather himself, a thing of instant effect, however. “Ay, ay, sir!” the man would answer, and humbly return to his pot. “Cap’en’s orders” he would sometimes add, with a wink and a hoarse whisper to a chance neighbour. “Always ‘bey cap’en’s orders. Knowed ’em both, father an’ son.”

So that Mr. Cripps’s ready acquiescence in whatever was said loudly, and in particular his own habit of blandiloquence, led to a sort of agreement between the two, and an occasional drink at the sailor’s expense.

But, meantime, his chief patron was grown so abstracted from considerations of the necessities of genius, so impervious to hints, so deaf to all suggestion of grant-in-aid, that Mr. Cripps was driven to a desperate and dramatic stroke. One morning he appeared in the bar carrying the board for the sign; no tale of a board, no description or account of a board, no estimate or admeasurement of a board; but the actual, solid, material board itself.

By what expedient he had acquired it did not fully appear, and, indeed, with him, cash and credit were about equally scarce. But upon one thing he most vehemently insisted: that he dared not return home without the money to pay for it. The ravening creditor would be lying in wait at the corner of his street.

Mr. Cripps’s device for breaking through Captain Nat’s abstraction succeeded beyond all calculation. For my grandfather laid hands on Mr. Cripps and the board together, and hauled both straightway into the skippers’ parlour at the back.

“There’s the board,” he said with decision, “an’ there’s you. Where’s the paints an’ brushes?”

Mr. Cripps’s stock of paints was low, it seemed, or exhausted. His brushes were at home and — his creditor was at the corner of the street.

“If I could take the proceeds”— Mr. Cripps began; but Grandfather Nat interrupted. “Here’s you, an’ here’s the board, an’ we’ll soon get the tools: I’ll send for ’em or buy new. Here, Joe! Joe’ll get ’em. You say what you want, an’ he’ll fetch ’em. Here you are, an’ here you stick, an’ do my signboard!”

Mr. Cripps dared not struggle for his liberty, and indeed a promise of his meals at the proper hours reconciled him to my grandfather’s defiance of Magna Charta. So the skipper’s parlour became his studio; and there he was left in company with his materials, a pot of beer, and a screw of tobacco. I much desired to see the painting, but it was ruled that Mr. Cripps must not be disturbed. I think I must have restrained my curiosity for an hour at least, ere I ventured on tip-toe to peep through a little window used for the passing in and out of drinks and empty glasses. Here my view was somewhat obstructed by Mr. Cripps’s pot, which, being empty, he had placed upside down in the opening, as a polite intimation to whomsoever it might concern; but I could see that Mr. Cripps’s labours having proceeded so far as the selection of a convenient chair, he was now taking relaxation in profound slumber. So I went away and said nothing.

When at last he was disturbed by the arrival of his dinner, Mr. Cripps regained consciousness with a sudden bounce that almost deposited him on the floor.

“Conception,” he gasped, rubbing his eyes, “conception, an’ meditation, an’ invention, is what you want in a job like this!”

“Ah,” replied my grandfather grimly, “that’s all, is it? Then common things like dinner don’t matter. Perhaps Joe’d better take it away?”

But it seemed that Mr. Cripps wanted his dinner too. He had it; but Grandfather Nat made it clear that he should consider meditation wholly inconsistent with tea. So that, in course of the afternoon, Mr. Cripps was fain to paint the board white, and so earn a liberal interval of rest, while it dried. And at night he went away home without the price of the board, but, instead, a note to the effect that the amount was payable on application to Captain Kemp at the Hole in the Wall, Wapping. This note was the production, after three successive failures, of my own pen, and to me a matter of great pride and delight; so that I was sadly disappointed to observe that Mr. Cripps received it with emotions of a wholly different character.

Next morning Mr. Cripps returned to durance with another pot and another screw of tobacco. Grandfather Nat had business in the Minories in the matter of a distiller’s account; and for this reason divers injunctions, stipulations, and warnings were entered into and laid upon Mr. Cripps before his departure. As for instance:—

It was agreed that Mr. Cripps should remain in the skipper’s parlour.

Also (after some trouble) that no exception should be made to the foregoing stipulation, even in the event of Mr. Cripps feeling it necessary to go out somewhere to study a brick wall (or the hole in it) from nature.

Nor even if he felt overcome by the smell of paint.

Agreed, however: that an exception be granted in the event of the house being on fire.

Further: this with more trouble: that one pot of beer before dinner is enough for any man seriously bent on the pursuit of art.

Moreover: that the board must not be painted white again.

Lastly: that the period of invention and meditation be considered at an end; and that sleep on Mr. Cripps’s part be regarded as an acknowledgment that meals are over for the day.

These articles being at length agreed and confirmed, and Mr. Cripps having been duly witnessed to make certain marks with charcoal on the white board, as a guarantee of good faith, Grandfather Nat and I set out for the Minories.

His moodiness notwithstanding, it was part of his new habit to keep me near him as much as possible, day and night, with a sort of wistful jealousy. So we walked hand in hand over the swing bridge, past Paddy’s Goose, into the Highway, and on through that same pageant of romance and squalor. The tradesmen at their doors saluted Grandfather Nat with a subdued regard, as I had observed most people to do since the news of Juno’s wreck. Indeed that disaster was very freely spoken of, all along the waterside, as a deliberate scuttling, and it was felt that Captain Nat could lay his bereavement to something worse than the fair chance of the seas. Such things were a part of the daily talk by the Docks, and here all the familiar features were present; while it was especially noted that nothing had been seen of Viney since the news came. He meant to lie safe, said the gossips; since, as a bankrupt, he stood to gain nothing by the insurance.

One tradesman alone, a publican just beyond Blue Gate, greeted my grandfather noisily, but he was thoughtless with the pride of commercial achievement. For he was enlarging his bar, a large one already, by the demolition of the adjoining shop, and he was anxious to exhibit and explain his designs.

“Why, good mornin’, Cap’en,” cried the publican, from amid scaffold poles and brick-dust. “You’re a stranger lately. See what I’m doin’? Here: come in here an’ look. How’s this, eh? Another pair o’ doors just over there, an’ the bar brought round like so, an’ that for Bottle an’ Jug, and throw the rest into Public Bar. Eh?”

The party wall had already been removed, and the structure above rested on baulks and beams. The bar was screened off now from the place of its enlargement by nothing but canvas and tarpaulin, and my grandfather and his acquaintance stood with their backs to this, to survey the work of the builders.

Waiting by my grandfather’s side while he talked, I was soon aware that business was brisk in the bar beyond the canvas; and I listened idly to the hum of custom and debate. Suddenly I grew aware of a voice I knew — an acrid voice just within the canvas.

“Then if you’re useless, I ain’t,” said the voice, “an’ I shan’t let it drop.” And indeed it was Mrs. Grimes who spoke.

I looked up quickly at Grandfather Nat, but he was interested in his discussion, and plainly had not heard. Mrs. Grimes’s declaration drew a growling answer in a man’s voice, wholly indistinct; and I found a patch in the canvas, with a loose corner, which afforded a peep-hole.

Mrs. Grimes was nearest, with her back to the canvas, so that her skirts threatened to close my view. Opposite her were two persons, in the nearest of whom I was surprised to recognise the coarse-faced woman I had seen twice before: once when she came asking confused questions to Grandfather Nat about the man who sold a watch, and once when she fainted at the inquest, and Mrs. Grimes was too respectable to stay near her. The woman looked sorrowful and drawn about the eyes and cheeks, and she held to the arm of a tall, raw-boned man. His face was seamed with ragged and blistered skin, and he wore a shade over the hollows where now, peeping upward, I could see no eyes, but shut and sunken lids; so that at first it was hard to recognise the fellow who had been talking to this same coarse-faced woman by Blue Gate, when she left him to ask those questions of my grandfather; and indeed I should never have remembered him but that the woman brought him to my mind.

It was this man whose growling answer I had heard. Now Mrs. Grimes spoke again. “All my fault from the beginning?” she said. “O yes, I like that: because I wanted to keep myself respectable! My fault or not, I shan’t wait any longer for you. If I ain’t to have it, you shan’t. An’ if I can’t get the money I can get something else.”

The man growled again and swore, and beat his stick impotently on the floor. “You’re a fool,” he said. “Can’t you wait till I’m a bit straight? You an’ your revenge! Pah! When there’s money to be had!”

“Not much to be had your way, it seems, the mess you’ve made of it; an’ precious likely to do any better now, ain’t you? An’ as to money — well there’s rewards given ——”

Grandfather Nat’s hand fell on my cap, and startled me. He had congratulated his friend, approved his plans, made a few suggestions, and now was ready to resume the walk. He talked still as he took my hand, and stood thus for a few minutes by the door, exchanging views with the publican on the weather, the last ships in, and the state of trade. I heard one more growl, louder and angrier than the others, from beyond the screen, and a sharper answer, and then there was a movement and the slam of a door; and I got over the step, and stretched my grandfather’s arm and my own to see Mrs. Grimes go walking up the street.

When we were free of the publican, I told Grandfather Nat that I had seen Mrs. Grimes in the bar. He made so indifferent a reply that I said nothing of the conversation I had overheard; for indeed I knew nothing of its significance. And so we went about our business.

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