A Letter Home
By Enoch Arnold Bennett
RAIN was falling—it had fallen steadily through the night—but
the sky showed promise of fairer weather. As the first
streaks of dawn appeared, the wind died away, and the young
leaves on the trees were almost silent. The birds were insistently
clamorous, vociferating times without number that it was a healthy
spring morning and good to be alive.
A little, bedraggled crowd stood before the park gates, awaiting
the hour named on the notice board when they would be admitted
to such lodging and shelter as iron seats and overspreading
branches might afford. A weary, patient-eyed, dogged crowd—a
dozen men, a boy of thirteen, and a couple of women, both past
middle age—which had been gathering slowly since five o’clock.
The boy appeared to be the least uncomfortable. His feet were
bare, but he had slept well in an area in Grosvenor Place, and was
not very damp yet. The women had nodded on many doorsteps,
and were soaked. They stood apart from the men, who seemed
unconscious of their existence. The men were exactly such as
one would have expected to find there—beery and restless as to
the eyes, quaintly shod, and with nondescript greenish clothes which
for the most part bore traces of the yoke of the sandwich board.
Only one amongst them was different.
He was young, and his cap, and manner of wearing it, gave sign
of the sea. His face showed the rough outlines of his history.
Yet it was a transparently honest face, very pale, but still boyish
and fresh enough to make one wonder by what rapid descent he
had reached his present level. Perhaps the receding chin, the
heavy, pouting lower lip, and the ceaselessly twitching mouth
offered a key to the problem.
” Say, Darkey,” he said.
” Well ?”
” How much longer ?”
” Can’t ye see the clock ? It’s staring ye in the face.”
” No. Something queer’s come over my eyes.”
Darky was a short, sturdy man, who kept his head down and
his hands deep in his pockets. The rain-drops clinging to the
rim of an ancient hat fell every now and then into his grey
beard, which presented a drowned appearance. He was a person
of long and varied experiences ; he knew that queer feeling in the
eyes, and his heart softened.
” Come, lean against the pillar,” he said, ” if you don’t want to
tumble. Three of brandy’s what you want. There’s four minutes
to wait yet.”
With body flattened to the masonry, legs apart, and head
thrown back, Darkey’s companion felt more secure, and his
mercurial spirits began to revive. He took off his cap, and
brushing back his light brown curly hair with the hand which
held it, he looked down at Darkey through half-closed eyes, the
play of his features divided between a smile and a yawn. He had
a lively sense of humour, and the irony of his situation was not
lost on him. He took a grim, ferocious delight in calling up the
might-have-beens and the ” fatuous ineffectual yesterdays ” of life.
There is a certain sardonic satisfaction to be gleaned from a
frank recognition of the fact that you are the architect of your
own misfortune. He felt that satisfaction, and laughed at Darkey,
who was one of those who bleat about ” ill-luck ” and ” victims of
” No doubt,” he would say, ” you’re a very deserving fellow,
Darkey, who’s been treated badly. I’m not.” To have attained
such wisdom at twenty-five is not to have lived altogether in
A park-keeper presently arrived to unlock the gates, and the
band of outcasts straggled indolently towards the nearest sheltered
seats. Some went to sleep at once, in a sitting posture. Darkey
produced a clay pipe, and, charging it with a few shreds of tobacco
laboriously gathered from his waistcoat pocket, began to smoke.
He was accustomed to this sort of thing, and with a pipe in his
mouth could contrive to be moderately philosophical upon occasion.
He looked curiously at his companion, who lay stretched at full
length on another bench.
” I say, pal,” he remarked, ” I’ve known ye two days ; ye’ve
never told me yer name, and I don’t ask ye to. But I see ye’ve
not slep’ in a park before.”
” You hit it, Darkey ; but how ?”
” Well, if the keeper catches ye lying down he’ll be on to ye.
Lying down’s not allowed.”
The man raised himself on his elbow.
” Really now,” he said, ” that’s interesting. But I think I’ll
give the keeper the opportunity of moving me. Why, it’s quite
fine, the sun’s coming out and the sparrows are hopping round—
cheeky little devils ! I’m not sure that I don’t feel jolly.”
” I wish I’d got the price of a pint about me,” sighed Darkey,
and the other man dropped his head and appeared to sleep. Then
Darkey dozed a little and heard in his waking sleep the heavy,
crunching tread of an approaching park-keeper ; he started up to
warn his companion, but thought better of it, and closed his eyes
” Now then, there,” the park-keeper shouted to the man with
the sailor hat, ” get up ! This ain’t a fourpenny doss, you
know. No lying down.” A rough shake accompanied the
words, and the man sat up.
” All right, my friend.” The keeper, who was a good-humoured
man, passed on without further objurgation.
The face of the younger man had grown whiter.
” Look here, Darkey,” he said, ” I believe I’m done for.”
” Never say die.
” No, just die without speaking.” His head fell forward and
his eyes closed.
” At any rate, this is better than some deaths I’ve seen,” he
began again with a strange accession of liveliness. ” Darkey, did
I tell you the story of the five Japanese girls ?”
” What, in Suez Bay ?” said Darkey, who had heard many sea
stories during the last two days, and recollected them but hazily.
“No, man. This was at Nagasaki. We were taking in a
cargo of coal for Hong Kong. Hundreds of little Jap girls pass
the coal from hand to hand over the ship’s side in tiny baskets that
hold about a plateful. In that way you can get 3000 tons aboard
in two days.”
” Talking of platefuls reminds me of sausage and mash,” said
” Don’t interrupt. Well, five of these gay little dolls wanted
to go to Hong Kong, and they arranged with the Chinese sailors
to stow away ; I believe their friends paid those cold-blooded
fiends something to pass them down food on the voyage and give
them an airing at nights. We had a particularly lively trip,
battened everything down tight, and scarcely uncovered till we got
into port. Then I and another man found those five girls among
” Dead, eh ? ”
“They’d simply torn themselves to pieces. Their bits of frock
things were in strips, and they were scratched deep from top to
toe. The Chinese had never troubled their heads about them at
all, although they must have known it meant death. You may
bet there was a row. The Japanese authorities make you search
ship before sailing, now.”
” Well ?”
” Well, I sha’n’t die like that. That’s all.”
He stretched himself out once more, and for ten minutes
neither spoke. The park-keeper strolled up again.
” Get up, there ! ” he said shortly and gruffly.
” Up ye get, mate,” added Darkey, but the man on the bench
did not stir. One look at his face sufficed to startle the keeper,
and presently two policemen were wheeling an ambulance cart to
the hospital. Darkey followed, gave such information as he could,
and then went his own ways.
In the afternoon the patient regained full consciousness. His
eyes wandered vacantly about the illimitable ward, with its rows of
beds stretching away on either side of him. A woman with a
white cap, a white apron, and white wristbands bent over him,
and he felt something gratefully warm passing down his throat.
For just one second he was happy. Then his memory returned,
and the nurse saw that he was crying. When he caught the
nurse’s eye he ceased, and looked steadily at the distant ceiling.
” You’re better ? ”
” Yes.” He tried to speak boldly, decisively, nonchalantly.
He was filled with a sense of physical shame, the shame which
bodily helplessness always experiences in the presence of arrogant,
patronising health. He would have got up and walked briskly
away if he could. He hated to be waited on, to be humoured, to
be examined and theorised about. This woman would be wanting
to feel his pulse. She should not ; he would turn cantankerous.
No doubt they had been saying to each other, ” And so young,
too ! How sad !” Confound them.
” Have you any friends that you would like to send for ? ”
” No, none.”
The girl (she was only a girl) looked at him, and there was that
in her eye which overcame him.
” None at all ?”
” Not that I want to see.”
” Are your parents alive ?”
” My mother is, but she lives away in the North.”
” You’ve not seen her lately, perhaps ? ”
He did not reply, and the nurse spoke again, but her voice
sounded indistinct and far off.
When he awoke it was night. At the other end of the ward
was a long table covered with a white cloth, and on this table a
In the ring of light under the lamp was an open book, an ink-
stand and a pen. A nurse (not his nurse) was standing by the
table, her fingers idly drumming the cloth, and near her a man in
evening dress. Perhaps a doctor. They were conversing in low
tones. In the middle of the ward was an open stove, arid the
restless flames were reflected in all the brass knobs of the bedsteads
and in some shining metal balls which hung from an unlighted
chandelier. His part of the ward was almost in darkness. A con-
fused, subdued murmur of little coughs, breathings, rustlings, was
continually audible, and sometimes it rose above the conversation
at the table. He noticed all these things. He became conscious,
too, of a strangely familiar smell. What was it ? Ah, yes !
Acetic acid—his mother used it for her rheumatics.
Suddenly, magically, a great longing came over him. He must
see his mother, or his brothers, or his little sister—some one who
knew him, same one who belonged to him. He could have cried
out in his desire. This one thought consumed all his faculties.
If his mother could but walk in just now through that doorway ! If
only old Spot, even, could amble up to him, tongue out and tail
furiously wagging ! He tried to sit up, and he could not move !
Then despair settled on him, and weighed him down. He closed
The doctor and the nurse came slowly up the ward, pausing
here and there. They stopped before his bed, and he held his
” Not roused up again, I suppose ?”
” Hm ! He may flicker on for forty-eight hours. Not more.”
They went on, and with a sigh of relief he opened his. eyes
again. The doctor shook hands with the nurse, who returned to
the table and sat down.
Death ! The end of all this ! Yes, it was coming. He felt
it. His had been one of those wasted lives of which he used to
read in books. How strange ! Almost amusing ! He was one
of those sons who bring sorrow and shame into a family. Again,
how strange ! What a coincidence that he, just he and
the man in the next bed, should be one of those rare, legendary
good-for-nothings who go recklessly to ruin. And yet, he
was sure that he was not such a bad fellow after all. Only
somehow he had been careless. Yes, careless, that was the
word . . . . nothing worse. . . . . As to death, he was indiffer-
ent. Remembering his father’s death, he reflected that it
was probably less disturbing to die oneself than to watch
He smelt the acetic acid once more, and his thoughts reverted
to his mother. Poor mother ! No, great mother ! The
grandeur of her life’s struggle filled him with a sense of awe.
Strange that until that moment he had never seen the heroic
side of her humdrum, commonplace existence ! He must
write to her, now, at once, before it was too late. His
letter would trouble her, add another wrinkle to her face, but
he must write ; she must know that he had been thinking of
” Nurse,” he cried out, in a thin, weak voice.
” Ssh !” She was by his side directly, but not before he had lost
The following morning he managed with infinite labour to
scrawl a few lines :
” DEAR MAMMA,
” You will be surprised but not glad to get this
I’m done for, and you will never see me again. I’m sorry for
what I’ve done, and how I’ve treated you, but it’s no use saying
anything now. If Pater had only lived he might have kept me
in order. But you were too kind, you know. You’ve had a
hard struggle these last six years, and I hope Arthur and
Dick will stand by you better than I did, now they are
growing up. Give them my love, and kiss little Fannie for
” Mrs. Hancock—”
He got no further with the address.
By some strange turn of the wheel, Darkey gathered several
shillings during the next day or two, and feeling both elated and
benevolent, he called one afternoon at the hospital, “just to
inquire like. ” They told him the man was dead.
” By the way, he left a letter without an address. Mrs. Han-
cock—here it is.”
” That’ll be his mother , he did tell me about her—lived at
Endon, Staffordshire, he said. I ll see to it.”
They gave Darkey the letter.
” So his name’s Hancock,” he soliloquised, when he got into the
street. ” I knew a girl of that name—once. I’ll go and have a
pint of four half.”
At nine o’clock that night Darkey was still consuming four
half, and relating certain adventures by sea which, he averred, had
happened to himself. He was very drunk.
” Yes,” he said, ” and them five lil’ gals was lying there without
a stitch on ’em, dead as meat ; ‘s’true as I’m ‘ere. I’ve seen a
thing or two in my time, I can tell ye.”
” Talking about these Anarchists—” said a man who appeared
anxious to change the subject.
” An—kists,” Darkey interrupted. ” I tell ye what I’d do
with that muck.” He stopped to light his pipe, looked in vain
for a match, felt in his pockets, and pulled out a piece of paper—
” I tell you what I’d do. I’d—” He slowly and medita-
tively tore the letter in two, dropped one piece, on the floor,
thrust the other into a convenient gas jet, and applied it to the
” I’d get ’em ‘gether in a heap and I’d—Damn this
pipe.” He picked up the other half of the letter, and relighted
” After you, mate,” said a man sitting near, who was just
biting the end from a cigar.
Bennett, Enoch Arnold. “A Letter Home.” The Yellow Book, vol. 6, July 1895, pp. 93-102. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020. https://1890s.ca/YBV6_bennett_letter/