Over the Sliprails

They Wait on the Wharf in Black

Henry Lawson

“Seems to me that honest, hard-working men seem to accumulate
the heaviest swags of trouble in this world.”—Steelman.
WE were coming back from West Australia, steerage—Mitchell, the Oracle, and I. I had gone over saloon, with a few pounds in my pocket. Mitchell said this was a great mistake—I should have gone over steerage with nothing but the clothes I stood upright in, and come back saloon with a pile. He said it was a very common mistake that men made, but, as far as his experience went, there always seemed to be a deep-rooted popular prejudice in favour of going away from home with a few pounds in one’s pocket and coming back stumped; at least amongst rovers and vagabonds like ourselves—it wasn’t so generally popular or admired at home, or in the places we came back to, as it was in the places we went to. Anyway it went, there wasn’t the slightest doubt that our nearest and dearest friends were, as a rule, in favour of our taking away as little as we could possibly manage with, and coming back with a pile, whether we came back saloon or not; and that ought to settle the matter as far as any chap that had the slightest consideration for his friends or family was concerned.

There was a good deal of misery, underneath, coming home in that steerage. One man had had his hand crushed and amputated out Coolgardie way, and the stump had mortified, and he was being sent to Melbourne by his mates. Some had lost their money, some a couple of years of their life, some their souls; but none seemed to have lost the heart to call up the quiet grin that southern rovers, vagabonds, travellers for “graft” or fortune, and professional wanderers wear in front of it all. Except one man—an elderly eastern digger—he had lost his wife in Sydney while he was away.

They sent him a wire to the Boulder Soak, or somewhere out back of White Feather, to say that his wife was seriously ill; but the wire went wrong, somehow, after the manner of telegrams not connected with mining, on the lines of “the Western”. They sent him a wire to say that his wife was dead, and that reached him all right—only a week late.

I can imagine it. He got the message at dinner-time, or when they came back to the camp. His mate wanted him to sit in the shade, or lie in the tent, while he got the billy boiled. “You must brace up and pull yourself together, Tom, for the sake of the youngsters.” And Tom for long intervals goes walking up and down, up and down, by the camp—under the brassy sky or the gloaming—under the brilliant star-clusters that hang over the desert plain, but never raising his eyes to them; kicking a tuft of grass or a hole in the sand now and then, and seeming to watch the progress of the track he is tramping out. The wife of twenty years was with him—though two thousand miles away—till that message came.

I can imagine Tome sitting with his mates round the billy, they talking in quiet, subdued tones about the track, the departure of coaches, trains and boats—arranging for Tom’s journey East, and the working of the claim in his absence. Or Tom lying on his back in his bunk, with his hands under his head and his eyes fixed on the calico above—thinking, thinking, thinking. Thinking, with a touch of his boyhood’s faith perhaps; or wondering what he had done in his long, hard-working married life, that God should do this thing to him now, of all times.

“You’d best take what money we have in the camp, Tom; you’ll want it all ag’in’ the time you get back from Sydney, and we can fix it up arterwards. . . . There’s a couple o’ clean shirts o’ mine —you’d best take ’em—you’ll want ’em on the voyage. . . . You might as well take them there new pants o’ mine, they’ll only dry-rot out here—and the coat, too, if you like—it’s too small for me, anyway. You won’t have any time in Perth, and you’ll want some decent togs to land with in Sydney.”


“I wouldn’t ’a’ cared so much if I’d ’a’ seen the last of her,” he said, in a quiet, patient voice, to us one night by the rail. “I would ’a’ liked to have seen the last of her.”

“Have you been long in the West?”

“Over two years. I made up to take a run across last Christmas, and have a look at ’em. But I couldn’t very well get away when ’exemption-time’ came. I didn’t like to leave the claim.”

“Do any good over there?”

“Well, things brightened up a bit the last month or two. I had a hard pull at first; landed without a penny, and had to send back every shilling I could rake up to get things straightened up a bit at home. Then the eldest boy fell ill, and then the baby. I’d reckoned on bringing ’em over to Perth or Coolgardie when the cool weather came, and having them somewheres near me, where I could go and have a look at ’em now and then, and look after them.”

“Going back to the West again?”

“Oh, yes. I must go for the sake of the youngsters. But I don’t seem to have much heart in it.” He smoked awhile. “Over twenty years we struggled along together—the missus and me—and it seems hard that I couldn’t see the last of her. It’s rough on a man.”

“The world is damned rough on a man sometimes,” said Mitchell, “most especially when he least deserves it.”

The digger crossed his arms on the rail like an old “cocky” at the fence in the cool of the evening, yarning with an old crony.

“Mor’n twenty years she stuck to me and struggled along by my side. She never give in. I’ll swear she was on her feet till the last, with her sleeves tucked up—bustlin’ round. . . . And just when things was brightening and I saw a chance of giving her a bit of a rest and comfort for the end of her life. . . . I thought of it all only t’other week when things was clearing up ahead; and the last ’order’ I sent over I set to work and wrote her a long letter, putting all the good news and encouragement I could think of into it. I thought how that letter would brighten up things at home, and how she’d read it round. I thought of lots of things that a man never gets time to think of while his nose is kept to the grindstone. And she was dead and in her grave, and I never knowed it.”

Mitchell dug his elbow into my ribs and made signs for the matches to light his pipe.

“An’ yer never knowed,” reflected the Oracle.

“But I always had an idea when there was trouble at home,” the digger went on presently, in his quiet, patient tone. “I always knowed; I always had a kind of feeling that way—I felt it— no matter how far I was away. When the youngsters was sick I knowed it, and I expected the letter that come. About a fortnight ago I had a feeling that way when the wife was ill. The very stars out there on the desert by the Boulder Soak seemed to say: ‘There’s trouble at home. Go home. There’s trouble at home.’ But I never dreamed what that trouble was. One night I did make up my mind to start in the morning, but when the morning came I hadn’t an excuse, and was ashamed to tell my mates the truth. They might have thought I was going ratty, like a good many go out there.” Then he broke off with a sort of laugh, as if it just struck him that we might think he was a bit off his head, or that his talk was getting uncomfortable for us. “Curious, ain’t it?” he said.

“Reminds me of a case I knowed,——” commenced the Oracle, after a pause.

I could have pitched him overboard; but that was a mistake. He and the old digger sat on the for’ard hatch half the night yarning, mostly about queer starts, and rum go’s, and curious cases the Oracle had knowed, and I think the Oracle did him a lot of good somehow, for he seemed more cheerful in the morning.

We were overcrowded in the steerage, but Mitchell managed to give up his berth to the old digger without letting him know it. Most of the chaps seemed anxious to make a place at the first table and pass the first helpings of the dishes to the “old cove that had lost his missus.”

They all seemed to forget him as we entered the Heads; they had their own troubles to attend to. They were in the shadow of the shame of coming back hard up, and the grins began to grow faint and sickly. But I didn’t forget him. I wish sometimes that I didn’t take so much notice of things.

There was no mistaking them—the little group that stood apart near the end of the wharf, dressed in cheap black. There was the eldest single sister—thin, pale, and haggard-looking— that had had all the hard worry in the family till her temper was spoilt, as you could see by the peevish, irritable lines in her face. She had to be the mother of them all now, and had never known, perhaps, what it was to be a girl or a sweetheart. She gave a hard, mechanical sort of smile when she saw her father, and then stood looking at the boat in a vacant, hopeless sort of way. There was the baby, that he saw now for the first time, crowing and jumping at the sight of the boat coming in; there was the eldest boy, looking awkward and out of place in his new slop-suit of black, shifting round uneasily, and looking anywhere but at his father. But the little girl was the worst, and a pretty little girl she was, too; she never took her streaming eyes off her father’s face the whole time. You could see that her little heart was bursting, and with pity for him. They were too far apart to speak to each other as yet. The boat seemed a cruel long long time swinging alongside—I wished they’d hurry up. He’d brought his traps up early, and laid ’em on the deck under the rail; he stood very quiet with his hands behind him, looking at his children. He had a strong, square, workman’s face, but I could see his chin and mouth quivering under the stubbly, iron-grey beard, and the lump working in his throat; and one strong hand gripped the other very tight behind, but his eyelids never quivered— only his eyes seemed to grow more and more sad and lonesome. These are the sort of long, cruel moments when a man sits or stands very tight and quiet and calm-looking, with his whole past life going whirling through his brain, year after year, and over and over again. Just as the digger seemed about to speak to them he met the brimming eyes of his little girl turned up to his face. He looked at her for a moment, and then turned suddenly and went below as if pretending to go down for his things. I noticed that Mitchell —who hadn’t seemed to be noticing anything in particular— followed him down. When they came on deck again we were right alongside.

“’Ello, Nell!” said the digger to the eldest daughter.

“’Ello, father!” she said, with a sort of gasp, but trying to smile.

“’Ello, Jack, how are you getting on?”

“All right, father,” said the boy, brightening up, and seeming greatly relieved.

He looked down at the little girl with a smile that I can’t describe, but didn’t speak to her. She still stood with quivering chin and mouth and great brimming eyes upturned, full of such pity as I never saw before in a child-face—pity for him.

“You can get ashore now,” said Mitchell; “see, they’ve got the gangway out aft.”

Presently I saw Mitchell with the portmanteau in his hand, and the baby on his arm, steering them away to a quiet corner of the shed at the top of the wharf. The digger had the little girl in his arms, and both hers were round his neck, and her face hidden on his shoulder.

When Mitchell came back, he leant on the rail for a while by my side, as if it was a boundary fence out back, and there was no hurry to break up camp and make a start.

“What did you follow him below that time for, Mitchell?” I asked presently, for want of something better to say.

Mitchell looked at me out of the corners of his eyes.

“I wanted to score a drink!” he said. “I thought he wanted one and wouldn’t like to be a Jimmy Woodser.”

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