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The Man That Came Back.

Another day was closing in upon the thousands that toiled in a thousand claims.

To the past was being added another record of disappointment, and tomorrow these thousands would take up their burden again, strengthened and urged on by that eternal hope which ever dangles golden dreams before the miner.

The Westralian gold rush startled the world contemporaneously with the bank crisis in the East of “ninety-two,” and hundreds of bank clerks, actuated by necessity, flocked to the western State, to become merged into the population of the mining fields—few to return prosperous, some to anchor on a subsistence, but the many to mark the grim path of the pioneer with death or failure.

On this evening in the shaft of a claim near Cue, Harry Thaw, ex-bank clerk, and now, through to circumstance of his own choosing, mining prospector, bent with whitened face over a broken piece of quartz.

It was lined with dull yellow veins that found a counterpart in the jagged rock in the side of the shaft.

As realisation came, he leant back against the sloppy earth with a dazed look on his bronzed face. His pick lay idle in his nerveless hand.

After nearly five years' toil and struggle that had seen him pennfless and facing starvation, a fortune lay at his feet.

His first feeling was one of intense fatigue and bewilderment.

The energy that had stubbornly swung his pick day after day and year after year gave way to an overwhelming lassitude. He was lost for the moment in vacant doubt.

Sudden fortune affects men strangely. I knew a man, a farm labourer, who drew the first horse in a big sweep, a prize of £5000. When the news was conveyed to him by excited informants he was busy ploughing. After they told him he was silent for a few moments; then said, coolly, “Oh, well, I must get on with the ploughing. Get up, boys!” Was it nerve? Not a bit of it. He simply could not realise what it meant. Afterwards when his friends had slowly drilled into him actuality, he went on a wild spree, the typification, unfortunately, in many country towns of supreme joy.

Thaw, although he had not admitted it to himself, had long since given up all hope.

Seeing the many failures and the few successes amongst the thousands who, like himself, flocked to the fascinating West, the many that sank or drifted, his dreams had given place to a desperate content with food and life.

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And those hopes and dreams of the past!

His mind recalled the “Other Side,” and it was a bitter memory.

Five years ago he had left the East pledged to May Morris. She was just a nice girl—one of the many thousands to be met in Australia, not divinely beautiful, but pretty and dainty; not wondrously talented, but sensible and attractive. She was natural and jolly, honest and clean—the type so many thousands of us dream of seeing seated by our own fireside. That is all, but the one girl in the whole land to Thaw.

It was to be a separation of a few months—a few months when he should have returned prosperous, and their dreams of prosperity were not greedy.

A few months—and the months had grown to years, and fortune had become a fleeting vision.

Even his hard-earned savings had slowly disappeared in the struggle for existence, and the time came when he could not return home, for the little won went in keeping life together.

And he wanted to “go back.”

Bad luck is seldom spasmodic. Coward like, it hits the man that is down.

Two years after he left May's father died, and her bright world changed to a dull grey.

From a happy home she had to face the world practically alone. Her few relatives were not able to help her, and with the scanty store left by her father as a reserve, she eked out a bare living teaching music in that little New England town.

And Thaw, held apart by the want of mere passage-money, and perhaps a touch of pride, echoed the lonely note, unintentionally perceptible in her letters, with a heavy heart.

He had at last to write and tell her his own desperate position, and ask her to consider she was not bound to him, for the future seemed hopeless.

The girl wrote a brave little answer, tossing, as brave women do, his fears aside, and full of the golden future that must surely come.

But the years passed in miserable loneliness, broken only by the weekly letter, the one streak of sunshine in his desolate life.

It was a cruel fight in that Western land of sand and fever, of death and failure, and nowhere is failure more pitiful than where fortunes are at times snatched from a hostile soil.

It was melancholy work sitting by the ragged tent as the fading sun smouldered dully across the dusty plain, and the baked earth gasped in the welcome shade of the coming night.

His pipe would go out and his head droop as he pictured his brave, little girl on her dreary path when all might have been so different.

The unutterable silence of the night weighed in about him, crushing his very soul with Nature's grim mercilessness.

And now. … the blood surged to his head as he saw how life had changed, and he could have screamed in his mighty joy. The sodden mining shaft was a palace; the desert land was full of running waters and shady springs.

  ― 183 ―

A day's feverish work proved the find was not a “pocket,” but a solid vein, and as the news spread rapidly over the camp Thaw was soon given good offers for his claim.

He was ready and eager to sell. He wanted to “go back”—to go back as quickly as possible to where love waited.

When the sale had been completed his first impulse was to telegraph the news of their great fortune to May. Then a whimsical desire to see her and be the bearer of good tidings mastered him. It was a natural wish, and he would be home as soon as a letter could reach her.

As Thaw started on his journey to the coast and the excitement of it all passed away he felt strangely unwell.

He strove desperately to throw aside the sickness he felt coming upon him, but a few hours after his arrival at Perth he was a delirious patient in the public hospital fighting for life in the grip of typhoid.

And a clerk in the post-office at Cue put aside a letter that came for Thaw from the East a few days later with a smile as he muttered:—“I guess Thaw is proving to that young party by this that there is something better than letters”—and—such things do sometimes happen in these country post-offices—that letter was swept aside, slipped in behind some pigeon-holes, and is probably lying there to-day.

Six weeks later Thaw, emaciated and white, crawled out of the hospital, heedless of the doctor's protests, and shipped for home.

On the voyage the past became gradually adjusted, and he wondered dully why there were no letters from May. But the visions of their coming union brought the long-dormant blood bounding through his worn frame, and he was filled with a mad anticipation. And that powerful tonic, assisted by the sea air, soon chased away the remnants of his disease.

Despite the long train journey from Adelaide—for he could not think of taking the slow trip round by boat—there was little sign of the invalid in the bronzed and bearded figure that stepped off the train at Molac early one autumn morning.

He took mighty gulps of the keen mountain air as he watched the sunrise slowly breaking over the little township with a full, happy heart.

As his eye caught the green fringe of rugged hills behind the distant tree tops, the rolling paddocks marked with the brown patches where the early frost had bitten hungrily at the green grass, the trim hedges and the quiet town where a few chimneys lazily threw out long curling columns of smoke, he thought of the endless barren plains he had left with a thankful shudder that the past was gone.

Throwing his bag into the one waiting cab, he walked briskly up to the hotel.

May was boarding at a private house, and it was too early yet to go to her, although he chafed at the delay with a grim smile as he thought of the delay of the past years which had threatened to be perpetual.

The morning air was biting enough for him to welcome the cosy fire that he found in the little sitting-room, and, with a feeling of having at last reached home, he asked the landlady to give him his breakfast there. With the selfishness of happiness he wished to be alone.

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Although he had been twelve months in the little town, he saw that she did not recognise the dapper bank clerk in the stalwart man before her. Four years of hard manual labour had filled out the little form, hardened the muscles, and worked a great change in his appearance.

Not caring to be bothered with the torrent of inquisitive questions he knew the revelation of his identity would produce, he kept silent.

But the landlady was stout, garrulous, and affable, and chatted merrily as she prepared the table. She was in a state of excitement, and he was soon to learn the cause.

“Dear me,” she said, bustling in and out of the room, and in her haste multiplying her task considerably. “I don't know whether I'm on my head or my heels. We are very busy to-day. Great doings.”

“Eh,” responded Thaw, politely, and without interest.

“Yes. You see there is going to be a wedding in the town, and they are going to have the breakfast here, or rather luncheon, but they call it breakfast, don't they?”

“Oh, a wedding.” Thaw felt curious, for was he not even now dreaming of a wedding, and at no distant date? Why, he thought with a smile, they would probably have their little breakfast at the hotel also.

“Yes,” she repeated volubly, “and, do you know, it is quite romantic. The girl is one of the nicest and best little souls in the town. Not that there are not plenty of nice girls here,” she added loyally, “but this is quite different. You see, she has lived here for years, and a long while ago—nearly five years ago—was engaged to a young fellow in the bank here.”

Her listener started, and the blood beneath the sea bronze slowly receded, leaving his face an ashen grey. A dull fear gripped his heart as he sat gazing into the fire, silent and motionless.

But the woman was too interested in her story to notice this, and went on, uninterrupted by the other.

“He went away to West Australia to seek his fortune; but, poor chap, did not seem to have any luck. He was a nice fellow, what I remember of him, and she was awfully fond of him. A couple of years ago her father died. He was postmaster here, and she had to keep herself. Poor little girl, it was a hard battle. She was teaching two of my little ones music, and coming here so often I got very fond of her. She was always trying to be bright and hopeful, and talking of when her Harry should come back.

“But he never seemed to do any good, and I remember her telling me he had written to her saying she was free if she liked. Fancy a man writing like that to a girl that worshipped him. But, there, you can never tell what a man will do, and I suppose he was down on his luck and all that. But if I had been him I'd have got home somehow, if I'd had to swim; for a girl can't go on like that for ever, and even if he had been broke she'd been happier having him here, and a man can generally get hold of something to do. I don't see much in this Western Australia, anyway!”

Thaw's head sank a little lower, a little heavier, and the shadow of regret crept slowly into his eyes.

  ― 185 ―

The old lady had bustled out to get something for the table, but soon returned, and eagerly resumed her story, glad of a new audience.

“Anyhow, about twelve months ago she met Tom Mason. He is a good fellow, who has a fine place out here a few miles that his father bought for him. He seemed to fall in love with May—yes, that's her name, May Morris—as soon as he met her, I think. Of course, I used to hear all about it, and made no bones about telling her what a fine fellow he was, for I'm so fond of her that I wanted to see her happily married, and—God bless her—she is lady enough to be a pride to any man. Not that there is any need to tell Mr. Mason that.

“But she was very loyal to the other fellow, the old boy in the West, and had he come back Tom would not have had much show as far as I could see”—Thaw smothered a deep sigh by a hasty movement in his chair, and fidgetted with a pipe that was never lit—“but as the months rolled past, what with seeing Tom every day and all that sort of thing she began to get very fond of him. No doubt, and I don't blame her, the thought of a home of her own and a good husband was very tempting. And they can say what they like, but when a girl is fighting along by herself, and is lonely and miserable, love, when the man is a thousand miles away and has not the sense to come back, ain't much to go on!”

“Well, at last she began to waver—Tom was very persistent—and wrote to the one that was away. Of course, I did not see the letter—she was too loyal for that—but from what she told me after, for she used to come here a lot and talk to me, having no mother or father, poor dear, I don't think she broke it off altogether, but sort of told him she was weary of waiting, and left him a chance to answer and come back. But that was months ago, and no answer came—not even a line—and I think that was mean of him, for she waited long enough!”

“But it was all for the best, for she is fond of Tom, I'm sure—fonder than she ever was of the other, perhaps—and it was so long ago. I think it was more a feeling of loyalty and keeping her word, for girls are like that sometimes, although they should think of their hearts only,” she added, philosophically. “Anyhow, it's all settled now, and they are to be married to-day, and there is not a soul in Molac that is not for wishing them good luck.”

Somewhat out of breath, the old lady turned to her neglected table as she finished speaking, and there was silence for a moment in the room—a silence in which a man's hopes were shattered and a strong heart broken.

Then Thaw gave a short husky cough as he said, “But it is a bit rough on the other fellow, isn't it? Suppose the letter went astray or he was sick, or anything. It's a rough country over there, they tell me.”

“Of course,” she answered carelessly, “that might happen. But what is the good of bothering? She is going to be married to a good man that she loves. And, anyhow, the other did not come back.”

“Yes; but suppose,” he continued, with curious persistency she thought, “he came back, rich and true. Supposing he were here now.”

“Well, of course, that is not likely,” she replied with a short laugh, as

  ― 186 ―
she adjusted the cutlery carefully, “and if he did and was a true man he would say nothing! Do nothing! What's the use? It's better to suffer than spoil another's life. It's too late now.”

Thaw rose from his chair with a gruff laugh, and said, as he moved towards the table, “Oh, well, these love stories are very interesting, but I reckon breakfast is more to the point, eh?”

“Yes, sir. Dearie, me! Here I am chatting away and you there waiting for your breakfast. What am I thinking of?”

“It's all right! By the way, I won't want a room, as I'm going on by the midday train.”

“Very well, sir. Nothing more you want?”

“Nothing more, thanks. Nothing more!”