The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 28

Stephen’s Tale

My grandfather was uncommonly silent all that day, after his interview with Conolly. He bade me good night when I went to bed, and kissed me; but he said no more, though he sat by my bed till I fell asleep, while Joe attended the bar.

I had a way, now and again, of waking when the bar was closed — perhaps because of the noise; and commonly at these times I lay awake till Grandfather Nat came to bed, to bid him good night once more. It was so this night, the night of nights. I woke at the shouting and the stumbling into the street, and lay while the bar was cleared, and the doors banged and fastened.

My grandfather seemed to stay uncommonly long; and presently, as the night grew stiller, I was aware of voices joined in conversation below. I wondered greatly who could be talking with Grandfather Nat at this hour, and I got out of bed to listen at the stair-head. It could not be Bill Stagg, for the voices were in the bar-parlour, and not in the store-place behind; and it was not Joe the potman, for I had heard him go, and I knew his step well. I wondered if Grandfather Nat would mind if I went down to see.

I was doubtful, and I temporised; I began to put on some clothes, listening from time to time at the stair-head, in hope that I might recognise the other voice. But indeed both voices were indistinct, and I could not distinguish one from the other. And then of a sudden the stairfoot door opened, and my grandfather came upstairs, heavy and slow.

I doubted what he might say when he saw my clothes on, but he seemed not to notice it. He brought a candle in from the landing, and he looked strangely grave — grave with a curious composure. He went to the little wall-cupboard at his bed-head, and took out the cash-box, which had not been downstairs since the pale man had ceased work. “Stevy, my boy,” he said, “have you said your prayers?”

“Yes, grandfather.”

“An’ didn’t forget Gran’father Nat?”

“No, grandfather, I never forget you.”

“Good boy, Stevy.” He took the leather pocket-book from the box, and knelt by my side, with his arm about me. “Stevy,” he said, “here’s this money. It ain’t ours, Stevy, neither yours nor mine, an’ we’ve no right to it. I kept it for you, but I did wrong; an’ worse, I was leadin’ you wrong. Will you give it up, Stevy?”

“Why, yes, grandfather.” Truly that was an easy enough thing to say; and in fact I was in some way pleased to know that my mother had been right, after all.

“Right, Stevy; be an honest boy always, and an honest man — better than me. Since I was a boy like you, I’ve gone a long way wrong, an’ I’ve been a bad man, Stevy, a bad man some ways, at least. An’ now, Stevy, I’m goin’ away — for a bit. Presently, when I’m gone, you can go to the stairs an’ call Bill Stagg — he’ll come at once. Call Bill Stagg — he’ll stay with you to-night. You don’t mind Bill Stagg, do you?”

Bill Stagg was an excellent friend of mine, and I liked his company; but I could not understand Grandfather Nat’s going away. Where was he going, and why, so late at night?

“Never mind that just now, Stevy. I’m going away — for a bit; an’ whatever happens you’ll always say prayers night an’ mornin’ for Gran’father Nat, won’t you? An’ be a good boy.”

There was something piteous now in my grandfather’s hard, grave face. “Don’t go, grandfather,” I pleaded, with my arm at his neck, “don’t go! Grandfather Nat! You’re not — not going to die, are you?”

“That’s as God wills, my boy. We must all die some day.”

I think he was near breaking down here; but at the moment a voice called up the stairs.

“Are you coming?” said the voice. “Time’s nearly up!” And it frightened me more than I can say to know this second voice at last for Viney’s.

But my grandfather was firm again at once. “Yes,” he cried, “I’m coming! . . . No more to do, Stevy — snivelling’s no good.” And then Grandfather Nat put his hands clumsily together, and shut his eyes like a little child. “God bless an’ save this boy, whatever happens. Amen,” said Grandfather Nat.

Then he rose and took from the cash-box the watch that the broken-nosed man had sold. “There’s that, too,” he said musingly. “I dunno why I kep’ it so long.” And with that he shut the cash-box, and strode across to the landing. He looked back at me for a moment, but said nothing; and then descended the stairs.

Bewildered and miserably frightened, I followed him.

I could neither reason nor cry out, and I had an agonised hope that I was not really awake, and that this was just such a nightmare as had afflicted me on the night of the murder at our door. I crouched on the lower stairs, and listened. . . .

“Yes, I’ve got it,” said my grandfather, answering an eager question. “There it is. Look at that — count the notes.”

I heard a hasty scrabbling of paper.

“Right?” asked my grandfather.

“Quite right,” Viney answered; and there was exultation in his voice.

“Pack ’em up — put ’em safe in your pocket. Quite safe? There’s the watch, too; I paid for that.”

“Oh, the watch? Well, all right, I don’t mind having that too, since you’re pressing. . . . You might ha’ saved a deal of trouble, yours an’ mine too, if you’d done all this before.”

“Yes, you’re right; but I clear up all now. You’ve got the notes all quite safe, have you?”

“All safe.” There was the sound of a slap on a breast-pocket.

“And the watch?”

“Ay; and the watch.”

“Good! . . . ”

I heard a bounce and a gasp of terror; and then my grandfather’s voice again. “Come! Come, Viney! We’ll be quits to the end. We’re bad men both, an’ we’ll go to the police together. Bring your papers, Viney! Tell ’em about the Florence an’ Dan Webb, an’ I’ll tell ’em about the Juno an’ my boy! I’ve got my witnesses — an’ I’ll find more — a dozen to your one! Come, Viney! I’ll have justice done now, on both of us!”

I could stay no longer. Viney was struggling desperately, reasoning, entreating. I pushed open the staircase door, but neither seemed to note me. My grandfather had Viney by arm and collar, and was shaking him, face downward.

“I’ll go halves, Kemp — I’ll go halves,” Viney gasped hoarsely. “Divide how you like — but don’t, don’t be a fool! Take five hundred! Think o’ the boy!”

“I’ve thought of the boy, an’ I’ve thought of his father! God’ll mind the boy you’ve made an orphan! Come!”

My grandfather flung wide the door, and tumbled Viney up the steps into the court. The little table with the lamp on it rocked from a kick, and I saved it by sheer instinct, for I was sick with terror.

I followed into the court, and saw my grandfather now nearly at the street corner, hustling and dragging his prisoner. “Dan! Dan!” Viney was crying, struggling wildly. “Dan! I’ve got it! Draw him off me, Dan! Go for the kid an’ draw him off! Go for the kid on the stairs!”

And I could see a man come groping between the wall and the posts, a hand feeling from one post to the next, and the stick in the other hand scraping the wall. I ran out to the farther side of the alley.

Viney’s shout distracted my grandfather’s attention, and I saw him looking anxiously back. With that Viney took his chance, and flung himself desperately round the end post. His collar went with a rip, and he ran. For a moment my grandfather stood irresolute, and I ran toward him. “I am safe here,” I cried. “Come away, grandfather!”

But when he saw me clear of the groping man, he turned and dashed after Viney; while from the bar-parlour I heard a curse and a crash of broken glass. I vaguely wondered if Viney’s confederate were smashing windows in the partition; and then I ran my hardest after Grandfather Nat.

Viney had made up the street toward the bridge and Ratcliff Highway, and Captain Nat pursued with shouts of “Stop him!” Breathless and unsteady, I made slow progress with my smaller legs over the rough cobble-stones, which twisted my feet all ways as I ran. But I was conscious of a gathering of other cries ahead, and I struggled on, with throbbing head and bursting heart. Plainly there were more shouts as I neared the corner, and a running of more men than two. And when the corner was turned, and the bridge and the lock before me, I saw that the chase was over.

Three bull’s-eye lanterns were flashing to and fro, pointing their long rays down on the black dock-water, and the policemen who directed them were calling to dockmen on the dark quay, who cried back, and ran, and called again.

“Man in!” cried one and another, hurrying in from the Highway. “Fell off the lock.” “No, he cut his lucky, an’ headered in!” “He didn’t, I tell ye!” “Yes, he did! Why, I see ’im!”

I could not see my grandfather; and for a moment my thumping heart stood still and sick with the fear that it was he who was drowning in the dock. Then a policeman swung his lantern across to the opposite side, and in the passing flash Grandfather Nat’s figure stood hard and clear for an instant and no more. He was standing midway on the lock, staring and panting, and leaning on a stanchion.

With a dozen risks of being knocked into the dock by excited onlookers, I scrambled down to the lock and seized the first stanchion. It creaked and tottered in my hand, but I went forward, gripping at the swaying chain and keeping foothold on the slippery, uneven timbers I knew not how. Sometimes the sagging chain would give till I felt myself pitching headlong, only to be saved by the check of the stanchion against the side of the socket; and once the chain hung so low, where it had slipped through the next stanchion-eye, that I had no choice but to let go, and plunged in the dark for the next upright — it might have been to plunge into space. “Grandfather Nat! Grandfather Nat!”

I reached him somehow at last, and caught tight at his wrist. He was leaning on the stanchion still, and staring at the dark water. “Here I am, grandfather,” I said, “but I am frightened. Stay with me, please!”

For a little while he still peered into the gloom. Then he turned and said quietly: “I’ve lost him, Stevy. He went over — here.”

By the sweep of his hand I saw what had happened, though I could scarce realise the whole matter then and there. As I presently learnt, however, Viney was running full for the bridge, with Captain Nat shouting behind him, when he saw the lanterns of the three policemen barring the bridge as they came on their beat from the Highway. To avoid them he swung aside and made for the lock, with his pursuer hard at his heels. Now a lock of that sort joins in an angle or mitre at the middle, where the two sides meet like a valve, pointing to resist the tide; so that the hazardous path along the top turns off sharply midway. Flying headlong, with thought of nothing but the avenger behind him, Viney overran the angle, meeting the low chain full under his knees; and so was gone, with a yell and a splash.

Grandfather Nat took me by the collar, and turned me round. “We’ll get back, Stevy,” he said. “Go on, I’ll hold you tight.”

And so in the pitchy dark I went back along the way I had come, walking before my grandfather as I had done when first I saw that lock. The dockmen had flung random life-buoys, and now were groping with drags and hooks. Some judged that the man must have gone under like a stone; others thought it quite likely that a good swimmer might have got away quietly. And everybody wished to know who the man was, and why he was running.

To all such questions my grandfather made the same answer. “It was a man I wanted, wanted bad, for the police. You find him, dead or alive, an’ I’ll identify him, an’ say the rest in the proper place; that’s all.” Only once he amplified this answer, and then he said: “You can judge he was as much afraid o’ the police as he was o’ me, or more. Look where he went, when he saw ’em on the bridge!” And again he repeated: “I’ll say the rest when he’s found, not before; an’ nobody can make me.”

He was calm and cool enough now, as I could feel as well as hear, for my hand was buried in his, while he pushed his way stolidly through the little crowd. As for myself, I could neither think, nor speak, nor laugh, nor cry, though dizzily conscious of an impulse to do all four at once. I had Grandfather Nat again, and now he would not go away; that I could realise; and I clung with all my might to as much of his hand as I could grip.

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