The Hole in the Wall, by Arthur Morrison

Chapter 9

Stephen’s Tale

Somebody had gone for a doctor, it was said, but a doctor was not always easy to find in Wapping. Mrs. Grimes, who was at some late work upstairs, was not disturbed at first by the noise, since excitement was not uncommon in the neighbourhood. But now she came to the stairfoot door, and peeped and hurried back. For myself, I squeezed into a far corner and stared, a little sick; for there was a deal of blood, and Joe the potman was all dabbled, like a slaughterman.

My grandfather returned almost on the doctor’s heels, and with my grandfather were some river police, in glazed hats and pilot coats. The doctor puffed and shook his head, called for cold water, and cloths, and turpentine, and milk. Cold water and cloths were ready enough, and turpentine was easy to get, but ere the milk came it was useless. The doctor shook his head and puffed more than ever, wiped his hands and pulled his cuffs down gingerly. I could not see the man on the floor, now, for the doctor was in the way; but I heard him, just before the doctor stood up. The noise sent my neck cold at the back; though indeed it was scarce more than the noise made in emptying a large bottle by up-ending it.

The doctor stood up and shook his head. “Gone,” he said. “And I couldn’t have done more than keep him alive a few minutes, at best. It was the lung, and bad — two places. Have they got the man?”

“No,” said Grandfather Nat, “nor ain’t very likely, I’d say. Never saw him again, once he got behind a tier o’ lighters. Waterside chap, certain; knows the river well enough, an’ these stairs. I couldn’t ha’ got that boat o’ mine off quicker, not myself.”

“Ah,” said one of the river policemen, “he’s a waterside chap, that’s plain enough. Any other ‘ud a-bolted up the street. Never said nothing, did he — this one?” He was bending over the dead man; while the others cleared the people back from the door, and squeezed Mr. Cripps out among them.

“No, not a word,” answered Joe the potman. “Couldn’t. Tried to nod once when I spoke to ’im, but it seemed to make ’im bleed faster.”

“Know him, Cap’en Nat?” asked the sergeant.

“No,” answered my grandfather, “I don’t know him. Might ha’ seen him hanging about p’raps. But then I see a lot doin’ that.”

I wondered if Grandfather Nat had already forgotten about the silver watch with the M on it, or if he had merely failed to recognise the man. But I remembered what he had said in the morning, after he had bought the spoons, and I reflected that I had best hold my tongue.

And now voices without made it known that the shore police were here, with a stretcher; and presently, with a crowding and squeezing in the little bar-parlour that drove me deeper into my corner and farther under the shelf, the uncomely figure was got from the floor to the stretcher, and so out of the house.

It was plain that my grandfather was held in good regard by the police; and I think that his hint that a drop of brandy was at the service of anybody who felt the job unpleasant might have been acted on, if there had not been quite as many present at once. When at last they were gone, and the room clear, he kicked into a heap the strip of carpet that the dead man had lain on; and as he did it, he perceived me in my corner.

“What — you here all the time, Stevy?” he said. “I thought you’d gone upstairs. Here — it ain’t right for boys in general, but you’ve got a turn; drink up this.”

I believe I must have been pale, and indeed I felt a little sick now that the excitement was over. The thing had been very near, and the blood tainted the very air. So that I gulped the weak brandy and water without much difficulty, and felt better. Out in the bar Mr. Cripps’s thin voice was raised in thrilling description.

Feeling better, as I have said, and no longer faced with the melancholy alternatives of crying or being ill, I bethought me of my grandfather’s tobacco-pouch. “You dropped your pouch, Gran’father Nat,” I said, “and I picked it up when I ran out.”

And with that I pulled out of my jacket pocket — not the pouch at all; but a stout buckled pocket-book of about the same size.

“That ain’t a pouch, Stevy,” said Grandfather Nat; “an’ mine’s here in my pocket. Show me.”

He opened the flap, and stood for a moment staring. Then he looked up hastily, turned his back to the bar, and sat down. “Whew! Stevy!” he said, with amazement in his eyes and the pocket-book open in his hand; “you’re in luck; luck, my boy. See!”

Once more he glanced quickly over his shoulder, toward the bar; and then took in his fingers a folded bunch of paper, and opened it. “Notes!” he said, in a low voice, drawing me to his side. “Bank of England notes, every one of ’em! Fifties, an’ twenties, an’ tens, an’ fives! Where was it?”

I told him how I had run out at his heels, had trodden on the thing in the dark, and had slipped it into my pocket, supposing it to be his old leather tobacco-pouch, from which he had but just refilled his pipe; and how I had forgotten about it, in my excitement, till the people were gone, and the brandy had quelled my faintness.

“Well, well,” commented Grandfather Nat, “it’s a wonderful bit o’ luck, anyhow. This is what the chap was pulling away from him when I opened the door, you can lay to that; an’ he lost it when he hit the post, I’ll wager; unless the other pitched it away. But that’s neither here nor there. . . . What’s that?” He turned his head quickly. “That stairfoot door ain’t latched again, Stevy. Made me jump: fancied it was the other.”

There was nothing else in the pocket-book, it would seem, except an old photograph. It was a faded, yellowish thing, and it represented a rather stout woman, seated, with a boy of about fourteen at her side; both very respectably dressed in the fashion of twenty years earlier. Grandfather Nat put it back, and slipped the pocket-book into the same cash-box that had held the watch with the M engraved on its back.

The stairfoot door clicked again, and my grandfather sent me to shut it. As I did so I almost fancied I could hear soft footsteps ascending. But then I concluded I was mistaken; for in a few moments Mrs. Grimes was plainly heard coming downstairs, with an uncommonly full tread; and presently she presented herself.

“Good law, Cap’en Kemp,” exclaimed Mrs. Grimes, with a hand clutching at her chest, and her breath a tumultuous sigh; “Good law! I am that bad! What with extry work, an’ keepin’ on late, an’ murders under my very nose, I cannot a-bear it — no!” And she sank into a chair by the stairfoot door, letting go her brush and dustpan with a clatter.

Grandfather Nat turned to get the brandy-bottle again. Mrs. Grimes’s head drooped faintly, and her eyelids nearly closed. Nevertheless I observed that the eyes under the lids were very sharp indeed, following my grandfather’s back, and traversing the shelf where he had left the photograph; yet when he brought the brandy, he had to rouse her by a shake.

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