They Wait on the Wharf in Black
by Henry Lawson
An Extract from,
Over the Sliprails
"Seems to me that honest, hard-working men seem to accumulate
the heaviest swags of trouble in this world." — Steelman.
Told by Mitchell's Mate.
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
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
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
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
"'Ello, Jack, how are you getting on?"
"All right, father," said the boy, brightening up, and seeming
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."