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The Why of the Whim

noteNELLIE stopped at the corner of her street, under the lamp-post. Ned stopped by her side, fuming by now, biting his moustache, hardly able to hold his tongue. Nellie looked at him a moment, sadly and sorrowfully. The look of determination that made her mouth appear somewhat cruel was on her whole face; but with it all she looked heart-broken.

“Ned,” she begged. “Don't be angry with me. I can't. Indeed, I can't.”

“Why not?” he demanded, boiling over. “If you wouldn't have had me at first I wouldn't have blamed you. But you say you love me, or as good as say, and then you fly off. Nellie! Nellie, darling! If you only knew how for years I've dreamed of you. When I rode the horse's hoofs kept saying ‘Nellie.’ I used to watch the stars and think them like your eyes, and the tall blue gum and think it wasn't as full of grace as you. Down by the water just now I thought you wouldn't have me because I wasn't fit, and I'm not, Nellie, I'm not, but when I thought it I felt like a lost soul. And then, when I thought you loved me in spite of all, everything seemed changed. I seemed to feel that I was a man again, a good man, fit to live, and all that squatter government of ours could do, the worst they could do, seemed a bit of a joke while you loved me. And —— ”

“Ned! Ned!” begged Nellie, who had put her hands over her face while he was speaking. “Have pity on me! Can't you see? I'm not iron and I'm not ice but I can't do as others do. I cannot. I will not.”

“Why not?” he answered. “I will speak, Nellie. Do you —— ”

“Ned!” she interrupted, evidently forcing herself to speak. “It's no use. I'll tell you why it's not.”

“There can be no reason.”

“There is a reason. Nobody knows but me. When I have said I would never marry people think it is a whim. Perhaps it is, but I have a reason that I thought never to tell anyone. I only tell

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you so that you may understand and we may still be friends, true friends.”

“Go on! I'll convince you that it doesn't mean what you think it does, this reason, whatever it is.”

“Ned! Be reasonable!” She hesitated. She looked up and down the street. Nothing moved. The moon was directly overhead. There were no shadows. It was like day. An engine whistle sounded like a long wail in the distance. In the silence that followed they could hear the rushing of a train. Ned waited, watching her pain-drawn face. A passionate fear assailed him, blotting out his wrath.

“You recollect my sister?” she asked, looking away from him.

He nodded.

“You heard she died? You spoke of her two years ago.”

He nodded again.

“I did not tell you the whole truth then. … I did not tell anybody. … I came down here so as not to tell. … I could not bear to go home, to chance any of them coming down to Brisbane and seeing me. … You know.” She stopped. He could see her hands wringing, a hunted look in the eyes that would not meet his.

“Never mind telling me, Nellie,” he said, a great pity moving him. “I'm a brute. I didn't mean to be selfish but I love you so. It shall be as you say. I don't want to know anything that pains you to tell.”

“That is your own self again, Ned,” she answered, looking at him, smiling sadly, a love in her face that struck him with a bitter joy. “But you have a right. I must tell you for my own sake. Only, I can't begin.” Her mouth trembled. Great tears gathered in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. A lump rose in his throat. He seized her hands and lifted them reverently to his lips. He could not think of a word to say to comfort her.

“Ned!” she said, in a tone almost inaudible, looking at him through her tears. “She died in the hospital but I didn't tell you how.… She died, oh, a terrible death … She had gone … down, Ned. Right down. Down to the streets, Ned.”

He pressed her hands, speechless. They stood thus facing one another, till down his face, too, the sad tears rained in sympathy, sad tears that mourned without reproach the poor dead sister whom the hard world had crushed and scorned, sad tears that fell

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on his passion like rain on fire and left in him only a yearning desire to be a comforter. Nellie, snatching her hands away, pressed them to her mouth to stifle the frantic sobs that began to shake her, long awful sobs that drew breath whistling through clenched fingers. And Ned, drawing her to him, laid her head on his shoulder, stroking her hair as a mother does, kissing her temple with loving, passionless kisses, striving to comfort her with tender brotherly words, to still her wild cries and frantic sobs in all unselfishness. There were none to see them in all this moonlit city. The wearied toilers, packed around them, slumbered or tossed unconsciously. Above them, serene and radiant, the full moon swam on amid the stars.

“She was so good, Ned,” cried Nellie, choking, with sobs, almost inarticulate, pouring out to him the pent-up thinking of long years. “She was so good. And so kind. Don't you remember her, Ned? Such a sweet girl, she was. It killed her, Ned. This cruel, cruel life killed her. But before it killed her—oh!—oh!—oh!—oh! Why are we ever born? Why are we ever born?”

It was heart-rending, her terrible grief, her abandonment of anguish which she vainly endeavoured to thrust back into her throat. With all her capacity for passionate love she bewailed her sister's fate. Ned, striving to soothe her, all the while mingled his tears with hers. A profound sadness overshadowed him. He felt all his hopes numbed and palsied in the face of this omnipotent despair. This girl who was dead seemed for the time the symbol of what Life is. He had hated Society, hated it, but as its blackest abyss opened at his very feet his hate passed from him. He only felt an utter pity for all things, a desire to weep over the helpless hopelessness of the world.

Nellie quieted at last. Her sobs ceased to shake her, her tears dried on her pale face, but still she rested her head on Ned as if finding strength and comfort in him. Her eyelids were closed except for an occasional belated lingering sob she might have been asleep. Her grief had exhausted her. At last a coming footfall roused her. She raised her head, putting her hands instinctively to her hat and hair, pulling herself together with a strong breath.

“You are very kind to me, Ned,” she said, softly. “I've been so silly but I'm better now. I don't often carry on like that.” She smiled faintly. “Let's walk a bit! I shall feel better and I have such a lot to tell you. Don't interrupt! I want you to

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know all about it, Ned.” And so, walking backwards and forwards in the moonlit streets, deserted and empty, passing an occasional night prowler, watched with suspicious eyes by energetic members of the “foorce” whose beats they invaded, stopping at corners or by dead-walls, then moving slowly on again, she told him.

“You know how things were at home on the Darling Downs, Ned. Father a ‘cocky,’ going shearing to make both ends meet, and things always going wrong, what with the drought and the wet and having no money to do things right and the mortgage never being cleared off. It wasn't particularly good land, either, you know. The squatters had taken all that and left only stony ridges for folks like ours. And we were all girls, six of us. Your father was sold up, and he had you boys to help him. Well, my father wasn't sold up but he might as well have been. He worked like a horse and so did mother, what with the cows and the fowls and looking after things when father was away, and we girls did what we could from the time we were little chits. Father used to get up at daybreak and work away after dark always when he was at home. On Sunday mornings after he'd seen to the things he used to lie on his back under that tree in front if it was fine or about the house if it was wet, just dead beat. He used to put a handkerchief over his face but he didn't sleep much. He just rested. In the afternoon he used to have a smoke and a read. Poor father! He was always thought queer, you recollect, because he didn't care for newspapers except to see about farming in and took his reading out of books of poetry that nobody else cared about. On Monday he'd start to work again, with only a few hours for sleep and meals, till Saturday night. Yet we had only just a living. Everything else went in interest on the mortgage. Twelve per cent. Mother used to cry about it sometimes but it had to be paid somehow.

“When Mary was fifteen and I was thirteen, you remember, she went to Toowoomba, to an uncle of ours, mother's brother, who had four boys and no girls and didn't know what to put the boys to. Father and mother thought this a splendid chance for Mary to learn a trade, there were so many of us at home, you know, and so they took one of my cousins and uncle took Mary and she started to learn dressmaking. Uncle was a small contractor, who had a hard time of it, and his wife was a woman

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who'd got frozen about the heart, although she was as good as gold when it melted a little. She was always preaching about the need for working and saving and the folly of wasting money in drink and ribbons and everything but what was ugly. She said that there was little pleasure in the world for those who had to work, so the sooner we made up our minds to do without pleasure the better we'd get on. Mary lived with them a couple of years, coming home once in a while. Then she got the chance of a place where she'd get her board and half-a-crown a week. She couldn't bear aunt and so she took it and I went to live at uncle's and to learn dressmaking, too. That was six months after you went off, Ned. I wasn't quite fifteen and you were eighteen, past. Seven years ago. I was so sorry when you went away, Ned.

“Aunt wasn't pleasant to live with. I used to try to get on with her and I think she liked me in her way but she made me miserable with her perpetual lecturing about the sin of liking to look nice and the wickedness of laughing and the virtue of scraping every ha'penny. I used to help in the house, of course, when I came from work and I was always getting into trouble for reading books, that I borrowed, at odd minutes when aunt thought I ought to be knitting or darning or slaving away somehow at keeping uncomfortable. I used to tell Mary and Mary used to wish that I could come to work where she did. We used to see each other every dinner hour and in the evening she'd come round and on Sundays we used to go to church together. She was so kind to me, and loving, looking after me like a little mother. She used to buy little things for me out of her half-crown and say that when she was older aunt shouldn't make me miserable. Besides aunt, I didn't like working in a close shop, shut up. I didn't seem to be able to take a good breath. I used to think as I sat, tacking stuff together or unpicking threads that seemed to be endless, how it was out in the bush and who was riding old Bluey to get the cows in now I was gone and whether the hens laid in the same places and if it was as still and fresh as it used to be when we washed our faces and hands under the old lean-to before breakfast. And Toowoomba is fresher than Sydney. I don't know what I'd have thought of Sydney then. I used to tell Mary everything and she used to cheer me up. Poor Mary!

“For a long while she had the idea of going to Brisbane to work. She said there were chances to make big wages there, because forewomen and draping hands were wanted more and

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girls who had anything in them had a better show than in a little place. I used to remind her that it was said there were lots too many girls in Brisbane and that unless you had friends there you couldn't earn your bread. But she used to say that one must live everywhere and that things couldn't be worse than they were in Toowoomba. You see she was anxious to be able to earn enough to help with the mortgage. Father had been taken sick shearing: and had to knock off and so didn't earn what he expected and that year they'd got deeper into debt and things looked worse than ever. One day he came into Toowoomba with his cart, looking ten years older. Next day, Mary told me she didn't care what happened, she was going to Brisbane to see if she couldn't earn some money or else they'd lose the selection and that she'd spoken for her place for me and I was to have it. She'd been saving up for a good while what she could by shillings and sixpences and pennies, doing sewing work for anybody who'd pay her anything in her own time. She said that when she'd got a five-pound-a-week place she'd come back for a visit and bring me a new dress, and mother and father and the others all sorts of things and pay the interest all herself and that I should have the next best place in the shop and come to live with her. We talked about going into business together and whether it wouldn't be better for father to throw up the selection after a while and live with us in Brisbane. Ah! What simple fools we were! If we had but known!

“So Mary went to Brisbane, with just a few shillings beside her ticket and hardly knowing a soul in the big town. I went to the station with her in the middle of the night. She was going by the night train because then she'd get to Brisbane in the morning and have the day in front of her and she had nowhere to go if she got in at night. I recollect thinking how sweetly pretty she looked as she sat in the carriage all alone.

“You remember her, Ned? Well, she got prettier and prettier as she grew older, not tall and big and strong-looking like me but smaller than I was even then and with a fresh round face that always smiled at you. She had small feet and hands and hair that curled naturally and her skin was dark, not fair like mine. People in Toowoomba used to turn and look at her when she went out and everybody liked her. She was so kind to everybody. And she was full of courage though she did cry a little when she kissed me good-bye, because I cried so. I could never have stopped crying had I but known how I should see her again.

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“She wrote in two or three days to say that she had got a place, just enough to pay her board, and expected to get a better one soon. She was always expecting something better when she wrote and my aunt when I saw her wagged her head and said that rolling stones gathered no moss. The interest-day came round and father just managed to scrape the money together. They'd got so poor and downhearted that I used to cry at night thinking of them and I used to tell Mary when I wrote. I used to blame myself for it once but I don't now. We all get to believe at last in what must be will be, Ned. And then I had a letter from Mary telling me she had a much better place and in two or three weeks mother wrote such a proud pleased letter to say that Mary had sent them a five-pound note. And for about a year Mary sent them two or three pounds every month and at Christmas five pounds again. Then her letters stopped altogether, both to them and to me. To me she had kept writing always the same, kind and chatty and about herself. She told me she had to save and scrape a little but that she had hope some day to be able to get me down. I never dreamed it was not so, not even when the letters stopped, though afterwards, when I went through them, I saw that the handwriting, in the later ones, was shaky a little.

“We waited and waited to hear from her but no letter came to anybody. There was a girl I knew whose father had been working in Toowoomba and who was in the same shop for a little while and her father was going to Brisbane to a job and they were all going. He was a carpenter. She and I had got to be friendly after Mary went away and she promised to find her but couldn't. You see we were bush folks still and didn't think anything of streets and addresses and thought the post office enough. And when two months passed and no letter came mother wrote half crazy, and I didn't know what to do, and I wrote to the girl I knew to ask her to get me work so that I could go to look for Mary. It just happened that they wanted a body hand in her shop and they promised me the place and I went the next day I heard. They wanted a week's notice where I was working and didn't want to give up my things without but aunt went and got them and gave me the money for my fare and told me if I wanted to come back to write to her and she'd find the money again. Poor old aunt! I shall never forget her. Her heart was all right if she had got hard and unhappy. That's how I got to Brisbane to look for Mary.

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“I went to board with the girl I knew. I was earning ten shillings a week and paid that for my board and helped with the ironing for my washing. Her father had got out of work again for times were bad and they were glad to get my money. Lizzie got ten shillings a week and she had a brother about fourteen who earned five shillings. That was about all they had to live on often, nine in the family with me and the rent seven shillings for a shell of a place that was standing close up against other humpies in a sort of yard. There were four little rooms unceiled and Lizzie and I slept together in a sort of shelf bedstead, with two little sisters sleeping on the floor beside us. When it was cold we used to take them in with us and heap their bedclothes on top of us. The wind came through the walls everywhere. Out in the bush one doesn't mind that but in town, where you're cooped up all day, it doesn't seem the same thing. We had plenty of bread and meat and tea generally but the children didn't seem to thrive and got so thin and pale-looking that I thought they were going to be ill. Lizzie's father used to come home, after tramping about for work, looking as tired as my father did after his long day in the fields and her mother fretted and worried and you could see things getting shabbier and shabbier every week. I don't know what I should have done only Lizzie and I now and then got a dress to make for a neighbour or some sewing to do, night-times. Lizzie's mother had a machine and we used that and they always made me keep my half of what we got that way, no matter how hard up they were. They never thought of asking for interest for the use of the machine. And all the while I was looking for Mary.

“I used to stand watching as the troops of girls went by to work and from work, morning and evening, going to a new place every day so that I shouldn't miss her and in the dinner hours I used to go round the work rooms to see if she worked in one of them or if anybody knew her. At first, when I had a shilling to spare, I put an advertisement that she would understand in the paper, but I gave that up soon. I never dreamed of going to the police station, any more than we had dreamed of it in Toowoomba. I just looked and looked but I couldn't find her.

“I shall never forget the first time I got out of work. One Saturday, without a minute's warning, a lot of us were told that we wouldn't be wanted for a week or two. Lizzie and I were both told. She could hardly keep herself from crying but I couldn't

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cry. I was too wretched. I thought of everything and there seemed nothing to do anywhere. At home they couldn't help me. I shrank from asking aunt, for she'd only offered to help me to come back and what could I do in Toowoomba if I got there? And how could I find Mary? I had only ten shillings in the world and I owed it all for my board. I got to imagining where I should sleep and how long I could go without dying of hunger and I hated so to go into the house with Lizzie to tell them. Lizzie's mother cried when she heard it and Lizzie cried, but I went into the bedroom when I'd put my money on the table and began to put my things in my box. They called me to dinner and when I didn't come and they found out that I meant to go because I couldn't pay any more they were so angry. Lizzie's mother wanted to know if they looked altogether like heathens and then we three cried like babies and I felt better. I used to cry a good deal in those days, I think.

“Lizzie's father got a job next week a few miles out of Brisbane and went away to it and on the Monday I answered an advertisement for a woman to do sewing in the house and was the first and got it. She was quite young, the woman I worked for, and very nice. She got talking to me and I told her how I'd got out of work and about Mary. I suppose she was Socialist for she talked of what I didn't understand much then, of how we ought to have a union to get wages enough to keep us when work fell off and of the absurdity of men and women having to depend for work upon a few employers who only worked them when they could get profit. She thought I should go to the police-station about Mary but I said Mary wouldn't like that. What was more to me at the time, she paid me four shillings a day and found me work for two weeks, though I don't think she wanted it. There are kind people in the world, Ned.

“I got back to regular work again, not in the same shop but in another, and then Lizzie's folks moved out to where her father was working. I and another girl got a room that we paid five shillings a week for, furnished, with the use of the kitchen. It cost us about ten shillings a week between us for food, and I got raised to twelve-and-six a week because they wanted me back where I'd worked before. So we weren't so badly off, and we kept a week ahead. Of course we lived anyhow, on dry bread and tea very often, with cakes now and then as a treat, boiled eggs sometimes and a chop. There was this about

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it, we felt free. Sometimes we got sewing to do at night from people we got to hear of. So we managed to get stuff for our dresses and we kept altering our hats and we used to fix our boots up with waxed threads. And all the time I kept looking for Mary and couldn't see her or hear of her.

“I had got to understand how Mary might live for years in a place like Brisbane without being known by more than a very few, but I puzzled more and more as to how she'd got the money she'd sent home. The places where she might have earned enough seemed so few that everybody knew of them. In all dressmaking places the general run of girls didn't earn enough to keep themselves decently unless they lived at home as most did. Even then they had a struggle to dress neatly and looked ill-fed, for, you see, it isn't only not getting enough it's not getting enough of the right food and getting it regularly. Most of the girls brought their lunch with them in a little paper parcel, bread and butter, and in some places they made tea. Some had lots of things to eat and lots to wear and plenty of pocket money and didn't seem to have to work but they weren't my sort or Mary's.

“What made me think first how things might be was seeing a girl in the second place I worked at. She looked so like Mary, young and fresh and pretty and lively, always joking and laughing. She was very shabby and made-over when I saw her first, with darned gloves and stitched-up boots down at heel and bits of ribbon that she kept changing to bring the best side up. Then she got a new dress all at once and new boots and gloves and hat and seemed to have money to spend and the girls began to pass remarks about her when she wasn't hearing and sometimes to her face when they had words with her. I didn't believe anything bad at first but I knew she wasn't getting any more pay and then, all at once, I recollected being behind her one night when we came out of the shop and seeing a young fellow waiting in a door-way near. He was a good-looking young fellow, well-dressed and well to do, and as she passed with some other girls he dropped his stick out in front of her and spoke to her. She laughed and ran back to the shop when we'd gone on a little further and spoke to him for a second or two as she passed him. It was after that she was well dressed and I saw her out with him once or twice and—and—I began to think of Mary. You see, I knew how hard the life was and how wearying it is to have to slave and half-starve all the time, and then Mary wanted money so to send home to help

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them. And when the girls talked at work they spoke of lots of things we never heard of in the bush and gradually I got to know what made me sick at heart.

“I was nearly mad when I thought of that about Mary, my sister Mary who was so good and so kind. I hated myself for dreaming of such a thing but it grew and grew on me and at last I couldn't rest till I found out. I didn't think it was so but it began to seem just possible, a wild possibility that I must satisfy to myself, the more I couldn't find her. I somehow felt she was in Brisbane somewhere and I learnt how easily one slips down to the bottom when one starts slipping and has no friends. So I used to go on Queen Street at night and look for her there. But I never saw her. I wanted to ask about her but I couldn't bear to. I thought of asking the Salvation Army people but when I went one night I couldn't.

“At last one night when we'd been working late at the shop, till eleven, as we did very often in busy times without getting any overtime pay though they turned us off as they pleased when work got slack, I saw a girl coming that I thought I'd ask. She was painted up and powdered and had flaring clothes but she looked kind. It was a quiet street where I met her and before I had time to change my mind she got to me and I stopped and asked her. I told her I'd lost my sister and did she know anything of her. She didn't laugh at me or say anything rude but talked nice and said she didn't think so and I mustn't think about that but if I liked she'd find out. I told her the name but she said that wasn't any good because girls always changed their name and she looked like crying when she said this. I had a photograph of Mary's that I always carried with me to show anybody who might have seen her without knowing her and the girl said if I'd trust her with it for a week she'd find Mary if she was in Brisbane and meet me.note So I lent it to her. And we were just talking a bit and she was telling me that she was from London and that when she was a little girl a great book-writer used to pat her on the head and call her a pretty little thing and give her pennies and how she'd run away from home with a young officer, who got into trouble afterwards and came out to Australia without her and how she came out to find him and would some day, when a policeman came along and asked us what we were doing. She said we weren't doing anything and that he'd better mind his business and he said he knew her and she'd better keep a civil

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tongue in her head. Then he wanted to know what my name was and where I lived and the girl told me not to tell him or he'd play a trick on me and I didn't. But I told him I worked at dressmaking and roomed with another girl and he gave a kind of laugh and said he thought so and that if I didn't give him my name and address I'd have to come along with him. I began to cry and the girl told him he ought to be ashamed of himself ruining a poor hard-working girl who was looking for her sister and he only laughed again and said he knew all about that. I don't know what would have happened only just then an oldish man came along, wearing spectacles and with a kind sharp face, who stopped and asked what was the matter. The policeman was very civil to him and seemed to know him and told him that I wouldn't give him my address and that I was no good and that he was only doing his duty. The girl called the policeman names and told how it really was, only not my name, and the man looked at me and told the policeman I was shabby enough to be honest and that he'd answer for me and the policeman touched his hat and said ‘good-night, sir,’ and went on.note Then the man told me I'd had a narrow escape and that it should be a lesson to me to keep out of bad company and I told him the girl had told the truth and he laughed, but not like the policeman, and said that was all the more reason to be careful because policemen could do what they liked with dressmakers who had no friends. Then be pulled out some money and told me to be a good girl and offered it to me, so kindly, but of course I didn't take it. Then he shook hands and walked off. There are kind people in the world, Ned, but we don't always meet them when we need them. I didn't know then how much he did for me or what cruel, wicked laws there are.

“Next week I met the girl again. I wanted so to find Mary I didn't care for all the policemen. I knew when I saw her coming that she'd found her. I didn't seem to care much, only as though something had snapped. It was only afterwards, when Mary was dead, that I used to get nearly crazy. I never told anybody, not even my room-mate, that I'd found her.

note “She was in the hospital, dying, Mary was. I've heard since how that awful life kills the tender-hearted ones soon and Mary wasn't 21. She was in a bleak, bare ward, with a screen round her, and near by you could hear other girls laughing and shouting. You wouldn't have known her. Only her eyes were the same, such loving, tender eyes, when she opened them and saw me.

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She looked up and saw me standing there by the bedside and before she could shrink away I put my arms round her neck and kissed her forehead, where I used to kiss her, because I was the tallest, just where the hair grew. And I told her that she mustn't mind me and that she was my dear, dear sister and that she should have let me known because it had taken me so long to find her. And she didn't say anything but clung tight to me as though she would never let me go and then all at once her arms dropped and when I lifted my head she had fainted and her eyelids were wet.

“She died three days after. I made some excuse to get away and saw her every day. She hardly spoke she was so weak but she liked to lie with my hand in hers and me fanning her. She said that first day, when she came to, that she thought I would come. But she wouldn't have written or spoken a word, Mary wouldn't. She didn't even ask after the folks at home or how I was getting on. She said once she was so tired waiting and I knew she meant waiting to die. She didn't want to live. The last day she lay with her eyes half-closed, looking at me, and all at once her lips moved. I bent down to her and heard her murmur: ‘I did try, Nellie, I did try,’ and I saw she was crying. I put my arms round her and kissed her on the forehead and told her that I knew she had, and then she smiled at me, such a sweet pitiful smile, and then she stopped breathing. That was the only change.

“I couldn't stay in Brisbane. I was afraid every minute of meeting somebody who'd known Mary and who might ask me about her, or of father or uncle or somebody coming down. I wrote home and said I'd found out that Mary had died in the hospital of fever and they never thought of wanting to know any more, they were so full of grief. And then I got wondering how I should get away, somewhere, where nobody would be likely to come to ask me about her, and I couldn't go because I had no money and I was just wishing one day that I could see you when who should I meet but that Long Jack. He gave me your address and I wrote to ask you to lend me thirty shillings, the fare to Sydney, and you sent me five pounds, Ned. That's how I came here. Mary wouldn't have anybody know if she could help it and I couldn't have stayed there to meet people who knew her and would have talked of her.”