The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 5

In the Highway

The Hole in the Wall being closed, its customers went their several ways; the sailors, shouting and singing, drifting off with their retinue along Wapping Wall toward Ratcliff; Mr. Cripps, fuller than usual of free drinks — for the sailors had come a long voyage and were proportionally liberal — scuffling off, steadily enough, on the way that led to Limehouse; for Mr. Cripps had drunk too much and too long ever to be noticeably drunk. And last of all, when the most undecided of the stragglers from Captain Nat Kemp’s bar had vanished one way or another, the pale, quiet man moved out from the shadow and went in the wake of the noisy sailors.

The night was dark, and the streets. The lamps were few and feeble, and angles, alleys and entries were shapes of blackness that seemed more solid than the walls about them. But instead of the silence that consorts with gloom, the air was racked with human sounds; sounds of quarrels, scuffles, and brawls, far and near, breaking out fitfully amid the general buzz and whoop of discordant singing that came from all Wapping and Ratcliff where revellers rolled into the open.

A stone’s throw on the pale man’s way was a swing bridge with a lock by its side, spanning the channel that joined two dock-basins. The pale man, passing along in the shadow of the footpath, stopped in an angle. Three policemen were coming over the bridge in company — they went in threes in these parts — and the pale man, who never made closer acquaintance with the police than he could help, slunk down by the bridge-foot, as though designing to make the crossing by way of the narrow lock; no safe passage in the dark. But he thought better of it, and went by the bridge, as soon as the policemen had passed.

A little farther and he was in Ratcliff Highway, where it joined with Shadwell High Street, and just before him stood Paddy’s Goose. The house was known by that name far beyond the neighbourhood, among people who were unaware that the actual painted sign was the White Swan. Paddy’s Goose was still open, for its doors never closed till one; though there were a few houses later even than this, where, though the bars were cleared and closed at one, in accordance with Act of Parliament, the doors swung wide again ten minutes later. There was still dancing within at Paddy’s Goose, and the squeak of fiddles and the thump of feet were plain to hear. The pale man passed on into the dark beyond its lights, and soon the black mouth of Blue Gate stood on his right.

Blue Gate gave its part to the night’s noises, and more; for a sudden burst of loud screams — a woman’s — rent the air from its innermost deeps; screams which affected the pale man not at all, nor any other passenger; for it might be murder or it might be drink, or sudden rage or fear, or a quarrel; and whatever it might be was common enough in Blue Gate.

Paddy’s Goose had no monopoly of music, and the common plenty of street fiddlers was the greater as the early houses closed. Scarce eighty yards from Blue Gate stood Blind George, fiddling his hardest for a party dancing in the roadway. Many were looking on, drunk or sober, with approving shouts; and every face was ghastly phosphorescent in the glare of a ship’s blue-light that a noisy negro flourished among the dancers. Close by, a woman and a man were quarrelling in the middle of a group; but the matter had no attention till of a sudden it sprang into a fight, and the man and another were punching and wrestling in a heap, bare to the waist. At this the crowd turned from the dancers, and the negro ran yelping to shed his deathly light on the new scene.

The crowd howled and scrambled, and a drunken sailor fell in the mud. Quick at the chance, a ruffian took him under the armpits and dragged him from among the trampling feet to a near entry, out of the glare. There he propped his prey, with many friendly words, and dived among his pockets. The sailor was dazed, and made no difficulty; till the thief got to the end of the search in a trouser pocket, and thence pulled a handful of silver. With that the victim awoke to some sense of affairs, and made a move to rise; but the other sprang up and laid him over with a kick on the head, just as the pale man came along. The thief made off, leaving a few shillings and sixpences on the ground, which the pale man instantly gathered up. He looked from the money to the man, who lay insensible, with blood about his ear; and then from the man to the money. Then he stuffed some few of the shillings into the sailor’s nearest pocket and went off with the rest.

The fight rose and fell, the crowd grew, and the blue light burned down. In twenty seconds the pale man was back again. He bent over the bleeding sailor, thrust the rest of the silver into the pocket, and finally vanished into the night. For, indeed, though the pale man was poor, and though he got a living now in a way scarce reputable: yet he had once kept a chandler’s shop. He had kept it till neither sand in the sugar nor holes under the weights would any longer induce it to keep him; and then he had fallen wholly from respectability. But he had drawn a line — he had always drawn a line. He had never been a thief; and, with a little struggle, he remembered it now.

Back in Blue Gate the screams had ceased. For on a black stair a large bony man shook a woman by the throat, so that she could scream no more. He cursed in whispers, and threatened her with an end of all noise if she opened her mouth again. “Ye stop out of it all this time,” he said, “an’ when ye come ye squall enough to bring the slops from Arbour Square!”

“O! O!” the woman gasped. “I fell on it, Dan! I fell on it! I fell on it in the dark! . . . ”

There was nothing commoner in the black streets about the Highway than the sight of two or three men linked by the arms, staggering, singing and bawling. Many such parties went along the Highway that night, many turned up its foul tributaries; some went toward and over the bridge by the lock that was on the way to the Hole in the Wall. But they were become fewer, and the night noises of the Highway were somewhat abated, when a party of three emerged from the mouth of Blue Gate. Of them that had gone before the songs were broken and the voices unmelodious enough; yet no other song sung that night in the Highway was so wild as the song of these men — or rather of two of them, who sang the louder because of the silence of the man between them; and no other voices were so ill-governed as theirs. The man on the right was large, bony and powerful; he on the left was shorter and less to be noticed, except that under some rare and feeble lamp it might have been perceived that his face was an ugly one, with a broken nose. But what reveller so drunk, what drunkard so insensible, what clod so silent as the man they dragged between them? His feet trailed in the mire, and his head, hidden by a ragged hat, hung forward on his chest. So they went, reeling ever where the shadows were thickest, toward the bridge; but in all their reelings there was a stealthy hasting forward, and an anxious outlook that went ill with their song. The song itself, void alike of tune and jollity, fell off altogether as they neared the bridge, and here they went the quicker. They turned down by the bridge foot, though not for the reason the pale man had, two hours before, for now no policeman was in sight; and soon were gone into the black shadow about the lock-head. . . .

It was the deep of the night, and as near quiet as the Highway ever knew; with no more than a cry here or there, a distant fiddle, and the faint hum of the wind in the rigging of ships. Off in Blue Gate the woman sat on the black stair, with her face in her hands, waiting for company before returning to the room where she had fallen over something in the dark.

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