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Tales of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett

Part 4 out of 4

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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 again.

'Now then, there,' the park-keeper shouted to the man with the sailor's
cap, '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 three thousand tons aboard in two days.'

'Talking of platefuls reminds me of sausage and mash,' said Darkey.

'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 the coal.'

'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 shan'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.

II

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, patronizing 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 theorized 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 Five Towns.'

'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 lamp.

In the ring of light under the lamp was an open book, an inkstand 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, and 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
confused, 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--someone who knew him,
someone 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 his eyes.

The doctor and the nurse came slowly up the ward, pausing here and
there. They stopped before his bed, and he held his breath.

'Not roused up again, I suppose?'

'No.'

'H'm! 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 not 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 indifferent. Remembering his father's
death, he reflected that it was probably less disturbing to die one's
self than to watch another pass.

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 her.

'Nurse!' he cried out, in a thin, weak voice.

'Ssh!'

She was by his side directly, but not before he had lost consciousness
again.

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 letter. 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 me.

'WILLIE.

'_Mrs. Hancock_----'

He got no further with the address.

III

By some 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. Hancock--here it
is.'

'That'll be his mother; he did tell me about her--lived at Knype,
Staffordshire, he said. I'll see to it.'

They gave Darkey the letter.

'So his name's Hancock,' he soliloquized, 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--the letter.

'I tell you what I'd do. I'd--'

He slowly and meditatively tore the letter in two, dropped one piece on
the floor, thrust the other into a convenient gas-jet, and applied it to
the tobacco.

'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 the pipe.

'After you, mate,' said a man sitting near, who was just biting the end
from a cigar.

THE END.

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