The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 6

Stephen’s Tale

High under the tiles of the Hole in the Wall, I had at first a night of disturbed sleep. I was in my old familiar cot, which had been brought during the evening, on a truck. But things were strange, and, in particular, my grandfather, who slept on the opposite side of the room, snored so amazingly, and with a sound so unlike anything I had ever heard before, that I feared he must be choking to death, and climbed out of bed, once, to see. There were noises from without too, sometimes of discordant singing, sometimes of quarrels; and once, from a distance, a succession of dreadful screams. Then the old house made curious sounds of its own; twice I was convinced of stealthy steps on the stair, and all night the very walls creaked aloud. So for long, sleepy as I was, I dozed and started and rolled and lay awake, wondering about the little ship in the bar-parlour, and Mr. Cripps, and the pale man, and the watch with the M on it. Also I considered again the matter of my prayers, which I had already discussed with Grandfather Nat, to his obvious perplexity, by candle-light. For I was urgent to know if I must now leave my mother out, and if I might not put my little dead brother in; being very anxious to include them both. My grandfather’s first opinion was, that it was not the usual thing; which opinion he expressed with hesitation, and a curious look of the eyes that I wondered at. But I argued that God could bless them just as well in heaven as here; and Grandfather Nat admitted that no doubt there was something in that. Whereupon I desired to know if they would hear if I said in my prayers that I was quite safe with him, at the Hole in the Wall; or if I should rather ask God to tell them. And at that my grandfather stood up and turned away, with a rub and a pat on my head, toward his own bed; telling me to say whatever I pleased, and not to forget Grandfather Nat.

So that now, having said what I pleased, and having well remembered Grandfather Nat, and slept and woke and dozed and woke again, I took solace from his authority and whispered many things to my little dead brother, whom I could never play with: of the little ship in the glass case, and the pictures, and of how I was going to the London Dock to-morrow; and so at last fell asleep soundly till morning.

Grandfather Nat was astir early, and soon I was looking from the window by his bed at the ships that lay so thick in the Pool, tier on tier. Below me I could see the water that washed between the slimy piles on which the house rested, and to the left were the narrow stairs that terminated the passage at the side. Several boats were moored about these stairs, and a waterman was already looking out for a fare. Out in the Pool certain other boats caught the eye as they dodged about among the colliers, because each carried a bright fire amidships, in a brazier, beside a man, two small barrels of beer, and a very large handbell. The men were purlmen, Grandfather Nat told me, selling liquor — hot beer chiefly, in the cold mornings — to the men on the colliers, or on any other craft thereabout. It struck me that the one thing lacking for perfect bliss in most rowing boats was just such a brazier of cosy fire as the purl-boat carried; so that after very little consideration I resolved that when I grew up I would not be a sailor, nor an engine-driver, nor any one of a dozen other things I had thought of, but a purlman.

The staircase would have landed one direct into the bar-parlour but for an enclosing door, which strangers commonly mistook for that of a cupboard. A step as light as mine was possibly a rarity on this staircase; for, coming down before my grandfather, I startled a lady in the bar-parlour who had been doing something with a bottle which involved the removal of the cork; which cork she snatched hastily from a shelf and replaced, with no very favourable regard to myself; and straightway dropped on her knees and went to work with a brush and a dustpan. She was scarce an attractive woman, I thought, being rusty and bony, slack-faced and very red-nosed. She swept the carpet and dusted the shelves with an air of angry contempt for everything she touched, and I got into the bar out of her way as soon as I could. The potman was flinging sawdust about the floor, and there, in the same corner, sat the same pale, ragged man that was there last night, with the same full glass of liquor — or one like it — by his side: like a trade fixture that had been there all night.

When Grandfather Nat appeared, I learned the slack-faced woman’s name. “This here’s my little gran’son, Mrs. Grimes,” he said, “as is goin’ to live here a bit, ‘cordin’ as I mentioned yesterday.”

“Hindeed?” said Mrs. Grimes, with a glance that made me feel more contemptible than the humblest article she had dusted that morning. “Hindeed? Then it’ll be more work more pay, Cap’en Kemp.”

“Very well, mum,” my grandfather replied. “If you reckon it out more work ——”

“Ho!” interjected Mrs. Grimes, who could fill a misplaced aspirate with subtle offence; “reckon or not, I s’pose there’s another bed to be made? An’ buttons to be sewed? An’ plates for to be washed? An’ dirt an’ litter for to be cleared up everywhere? To say nothink o’ crumbs — which the biscuit-crumbs in the bar-parlour this mornin’ was thick an’ shameful!”

I had had biscuits, and I felt a reprobate. “Very well, mum,” Grandfather Nat said, peaceably; “we’ll make out extry damages, mum. A few days’ll give us an idea. Shall we leave it a week an’ see how things go?”

“Ham I to consider that a week’s notice, Captain Kemp?” Mrs. Grimes demanded, with a distinct rise of voice. “Ham I or ham I not?”

“Notice!” My grandfather was puzzled, and began to look a trifle angry. “Why, damme, who said notice? What ——”

“Because notice is as easy give as took, Cap’en Kemp, as I’d ‘ave you remember. An’ slave I may be though better brought up than slave-drivers any day, but swore at vulgar I won’t be, nor trampled like dirt an’ litter beneath the feet, an’ will not endure it neither!” And with a great toss of the head Mrs. Grimes flounced through the staircase door, and sniffed and bridled her way to the upper rooms.

Her exit relieved my mind; first, because I had a wretched consciousness that I was causing all the trouble, and a dire fear that Grandfather Nat might dislike me for it; and second, because when he looked angry I had a fearful foreboding vision of Mrs. Grimes being presently whirled round by the ear and flung into the street, as Jim Crute had been. But it was not long ere I learned that Mrs. Grimes was one of those persons who grumble and clamour and bully at everything and everybody on principle, finding that, with a concession here and another there, it pays very well on the whole; and so nag along very comfortably through life. As for herself, as I had seen, Mrs. Grimes did not lack the cunning to carry away any fit of virtuous indignation that seemed like to push her employer out of his patience.

My grandfather looked at the bottle that Mrs. Grimes had recorked.

“That rum shrub,” he said, “ain’t properly mixed. It works in the bottle when it’s left standing, an’ mounts to the cork. I notice it almost every morning.”

The day was bright, and I resigned myself with some impatience to wait for an hour or two till we could set out for the docks. It was a matter of business, my grandfather explained, that he must not leave the bar till a fixed hour — ten o’clock; and soon I began to make a dim guess at the nature of the business, though I guessed in all innocence, and suspected not at all.

Contrary to my evening observation, at this early hour the larger bar was mostly empty, while the obscure compartment at the side was in far greater use than it had been last night. Four or five visitors must have come there, one after another: perhaps half a dozen. And they all had things to sell. Two had watches — one of them was a woman; one had a locket and a boatswain’s silver call; and I think another had some silver spoons. Grandfather Nat brought each article into the bar-parlour, to examine, and then returned it to its owner; which behaviour seemed to surprise none of them as it had surprised the man last night; so that doubtless he was a stranger. To those with watches my grandfather said nothing but “Yes, that seems all right,” or “Yes, it’s a good enough watch, no doubt.” But to the man with the locket and the silver call he said, “Well, if ever you want to sell ’em you might get eight bob; no more”; and much the same to him with the spoons, except that he thought the spoons might fetch fifteen shillings.

Each of the visitors went out with no more ado; and as each went, the pale man in the larger bar rose, put his drink safely on the counter, just beyond the partition, and went out too; and presently he came back, with no more than a glance at Grandfather Nat, took his drink, and sat down again.

At ten o’clock my grandfather looked out of the bar and said to the pale man: “All right — drink up.”

Whereupon the pale man — who would have been paler if his face had been washed — swallowed his drink at last, flat as it must have been, and went out; and Grandfather Nat went out also, by the door into the passage. He was gone scarce two minutes, and when he returned he unlocked a drawer below the shelf on which the little ship stood, and took from it the cash box I had seen last night. His back was turned toward me, and himself was interposed between my eyes and the box, which he rested on the shelf; but I heard a jingling that suggested spoons.

So I said, “Did the man go to buy the spoons for you, Gran’fa’ Nat?”

My grandfather looked round sharply, with something as near a frown as he ever directed on me. Then he locked the box away hastily, with a gruff laugh. “You won’t starve, Stevy,” he said, “as long as wits finds victuals. But see here,” he went on, becoming grave as he sat and drew me to his knee; “see here, Stevy. What you see here’s my business, private business; understand? You ain’t a tell-tale, are you? Not a sneak?”

I repudiated the suggestion with pain and scorn; for I was at least old enough a boy to see in sneakery the blackest of crimes.

“No, no, that you ain’t, I know,” Grandfather Nat went on, with a pinch of my chin, though he still regarded me earnestly. “A plucked ’un’s never a sneak. But there’s one thing for you to remember, Stevy, afore all your readin’ an’ writin’ an’ lessons an’ what not. You must never tell of anything you see here, not to a soul — that is, not about me buyin’ things. I’m very careful, but things don’t always go right, an’ I might get in trouble. I’m a straight man, an’ I pay for all I have in any line o’ trade; I never stole nor cheated not so much as a farden all my life, nor ever bought anything as I knew was stole. See?”

I nodded gravely. I was trying hard to understand the reason for all this seriousness and secrecy, but at any rate I was resolved to be no tale-bearer; especially against Grandfather Nat.

“Why,” he went on, justifying himself, I fancy, more for his own satisfaction than for my information; “why, even when it’s on’y just suspicious I won’t buy — except o’ course through another party. That’s how I guard myself, Stevy, an’ every man has a right to buy a thing reasonable an’ sell at a profit if he can; that’s on’y plain trade. An’ yet nobody can’t say truthful as he ever sold me anything over that there counter, or anywhere else, barrin’ what I have reg’lar of the brewer an’ what not. I may look at a thing or pass an opinion, but what’s that? Nothin’ at all. But we’ve got to keep our mouths shut, Stevy, for fear o’ danger; see? You wouldn’t like poor old Grandfather Nat to be put in gaol, would ye?”

The prospect was terrible, and I put my hands about my grandfather’s neck and vowed I would never whisper a word.

“That’s right, Stevy,” the old man answered, “I know you won’t if you don’t forget yourself — so don’t do that. Don’t take no notice, not even to me.”

There was a knock at the back door, which opened, and disclosed one of the purlmen, who had left his boat in sight at the stairs, and wanted a quart of gin in the large tin can he brought with him. He was a short, red-faced, tough-looking fellow, and he needed the gin, as I soon learned, to mix with his hot beer to make the purl. He had a short conversation with my grandfather when the gin was brought, of which I heard no more than the words “high water at twelve.” But as he went down the passage he turned, and sang out: “You got the news, Cap’en, o’ course?”

“What? Viney and Marr?”

The man nodded, with a click and a twitch of the mouth. Then he snapped his fingers, and jerked them expressively upward. After which he ejaculated the single word “Marr,” and jerked his thumb over his shoulder. By which I understood him to repeat, with no waste of language, the story that it was all up with the firm, and the junior partner had bolted.

“That,” said Grandfather Nat, when the man was gone —“that’s Bill Stagg, an’ he’s the on’y purlman as don’t come ashore to sleep. Sleeps in his boat, winter an’ summer, does Bill Stagg. How’d you like that, Stevy?”

I thought I should catch cold, and perhaps tumble overboard, if I had a bad dream; and I said so.

“Ah well, Bill Stagg don’t mind. He was A.B. aboard o’ me when Mr. Viney was my mate many years ago, an’ a good A.B. too. Bill Stagg, he makes fast somewhere quiet at night, an’ curls up snug as a weevil. Mostly under the piles o’ this here house, when the wind ain’t east. Saves him rent, ye see; so he does pretty well.”

And with that my grandfather put on his coat and reached the pilot cap that was his everyday wear.

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