The Return Ticket by Nellie
(Reprinted by permission of The Canadian Ladies' Home Journal.)
In the station at Emerson, the boundary town, we were waiting for the
Soo train, which comes at an early hour in the morning. It was a
bitterly cold, dark, winter morning; the wires overhead sang dismally
in the wind, and even the cheer of the big coal fire that glowed in the
rusty stove was dampened by the incessant mourning of the storm.
Along the walls, on the benches, sat the trackmen, in their sheepskin
coats and fur caps, with earlaps tied tightly down. They were tired and
sleepy, and sat in every conceivable attitude expressive of sleepiness
and fatigue. A red lantern, like an evil eye, gleamed from one dark
corner; in the middle of the floor were several green lamps turned low,
and over against the wall hung one barred lantern whose bright little
gleam of light reminded one uncomfortably of a small, live mouse in a
cage, caught and doomed, but undaunted still. The telegraph instruments
clicked at intervals. Two men, wrapped in overcoats, stood beside the
stove and talked in low tones about the way real estate was increasing
in value in Winnipeg.
The door opened and a big fellow, another snow shoveller, came in
hurriedly, letting in a burst of flying snow that sizzled on the hot
stove. It did not rouse the sleepers from the bench; neither did the
new-comer's remark that it was a "deuce of a night" bring forth any
argument?we were one on that point.
The train was late; the night agent told us that when he came out to
shovel in more coal?"she" was delayed by the storm.
I leaned back and tried to be comfortable. After all, I thought, it
might easily be worse. I was going home after a pleasant visit. I had
many agreeable things to think of, and still I kept thinking to myself
that it was not a cheerful night. The clock, of course, indicated that
it was morning, but the deep black that looked in through the frosted
windows, the heavy shadows in the room, which the flickering lanterns
only seemed to emphasize, were all of the night, and bore no relation
to the morning.
The train came at last with a roar that drowned the voice of the storm.
The sleepers on the bench sprang up like one man, seized their
lanterns, and we all rushed out together. The long coach that I entered
was filled with tired, sleepy-looking people, who had been sitting up
all night. They were curled up uncomfortably, making a brave attempt to
rest, all except one little old lady, who sat upright, looking out into
the black night. When the official came to ask the passengers where
they were going, I heard her tell him that she was a Canadian, and she
had been "down in the States with Annie, and now she was bringing Annie
home," and as she said this she pointed significantly ahead to the
There was something about the old lady that appealed to me. I went over
to her when the official had gone out. No, she wasn't tired, she said;
she "had been up a good many nights, and been worried some, but the
night before last she had had a real good sleep."
She was quite willing to talk; the long black night had made her glad
"I took Annie to Rochester, down in Minnesota, to see the doctors
there?the Mayos?did you ever hear of the Mayos? Well, Dr. Smale, at
Rose Valley, said they were her only hope. Annie had been ailing for
years, and Dr. Smale had done all he could for her. Dr. Moore, our old
doctor, wouldn't hear of it; he said an operation would kill her, but
Annie was set on going. I heard Annie say to him that she'd rather die
than live sick, and she would go to Rochester. Dave Johnston?Annie's
man, that is?he drinks, you know?"
The old lady's voice fell and her tired old face seemed to take on
deeper lines of trouble as she sat silent with her own sad thoughts. I
expressed my sorrow.
"Yes, Annie had her own troubles, poor girl," she said at last; "and
she was a good girl, Annie was, and she deserved something better. She
was a tender-hearted girl, and gentle and quiet, and never talked back
to anyone, to Dave least of all, for she worshipped the very ground he
walked on, and married him against all our wishes. She thought she
could reform him!"
She said it sadly, but without bitterness.
"Was he good to her?" I asked. People draw near together in the stormy
dark of a winter's morning, and the thought of Annie in her narrow box
ahead robbed my question of any rudeness.
"He was good to her in his own way," Annie's mother said, trying to be
quite just, "but it was a rough way. She had a fine, big, brick house
to live in?it was a grand house, but it was a lonely house. He often
went away and stayed for weeks, and her not knowing where he was or how
he would come home. He worried her always. The doctor said that was
part of her trouble?he worried her too much."
"Did he ever try to stop drinking?" I asked. I wanted to think better
of him if I could.
"Yes, he did; he was sober once for nearly a year, and Annie's health
was better than it had been for years, but the crowd around the hotel
there in Rose Valley got after him every chance, and one Christmas Day
they got him going again. Annie never could bear to mention about him
drinkin' to anyone, not even me?it would ha' been easier on her if she
could ha' talked about it, but she wasn't one of the talkin' kind."
We sat in silence, listening to the pounding of the rails.
"Everybody was kind to her in Rochester," she said, after a while.
"When we were sitting there waitin' our turn?you know how the sick
people wait there in two long rows, waitin' to be taken in to the
consultin' room, don't you? Well, when we were sittin' there Annie was
sufferin' pretty bad, and we were still a long way from the top of the
line. Dr. Judd was takin' them off as fast as he could, and the
ambulances were drivin' off every few minutes, takin' them away to the
hospital after the doctors had decided what was wrong with them. Some
of them didn't need to go to the hospital at all?they're the best off,
I think. We got talkin' to the people around us?they are there from
all over the country, with all kinds of diseases, poor people. Well,
there was a man from Kansas City who had been waitin' a week, but had
got up now second to the end, and I noticed him lookin' at Annie. I was
fannin' her and tryin' to keep her cheered up. Her face was a bad color
from the pain she was in, and what did this man do but git up and come
down to us and tell Annie that she could have his place. He said he
wasn't in very bad pain now, and he would take her place. He made very
little of it, but it meant a lot to us, and to him, too, poor fellow.
Annie didn't want to do it, but he insisted. Sick folks know how to be
kind to sick folks, I tell you."
The dawn began to show blue behind the frost ferns on the window and
the lamps overhead looked pale and sickly in the grey light.
"Annie had her operation on Monday," she went on after a long pause.
"She was lookin' every day for a letter from Dave, and when the doctor
told her they would operate on her on Monday morning early, she asked
him if he would mind putting it off until noon. She thought there would
be a letter from Dave, for sure, on that morning's mail. The doctor was
very kind to her?they understand a lot, them Mayos?and he did put it
off. In the ward with Annie there was a little woman from Saskatchewan,
that was a very bad case. She talked to us a lot about her man and her
four children. She had a real good man by what she said. They were on a
homestead near Quill Lake, and she was so sure she'd get well. The
doctor was very hopeful of Annie, and said she had nine chances out of
ten of getting better, but this little woman's was a worse case. Dr.
Will Mayo told her she had just one chance in ten?-but, dear me, she
was a brave woman; she spoke right up quick, and says she, 'That's all
I want; I'll get well if I've only half a chance. I've got to; Jim and
the children can't do without me.' Jim was her man. When they came to
take her out into the operating room they couldn't give her ether, some
way. She grabbed the doctor's hand, and says she, kind of chokin' up,
all at once, 'You'll do your best for Jim's sake, won't you?' and he
says, says he, 'My dear woman, I'll do my best for your sake.' Busy and
all as they are, they're the kindest men in the world, and just before
they began to operate the nurse brought her a letter from Jim and read
it to her, and she held it in her hand through it all, and when they
wheeled her back into the ward after the operation, it was still in her
hand, though she had fainted dead away."
"Did Annie get her letter?" I asked her.
My companion did not answer at once, but I knew very well that the
letter had not come.
"She didn't ask for it at the last; she just looked at me before they
put the gauze thing over her face. I knew what she meant. I had been
down to see if it had come, and they told me all the mails were in for
the day from the West. She just looked at me so pitiful, but it was
like Annie not to ask. A letter from Dave would have comforted her so,
but it didn't come, though I wired him two days before telling him when
the operation would be. Annie was wonderful cheerful and calm, but I
was trembling like a leaf when they were givin' her the ether, and when
they wheeled her out all so stiff and white I just seemed to feel I'd
lost my girl."
I took the old lady's hand and tried to whisper words of comfort. She
returned the pressure of my hand; her eyes were tearless, and her voice
did not even waver, but the thought of poor Annie going into the valley
unassured by any loving word gave free passage to my tears.
"Did Dave write or wire?" I asked when I could speak.
"No, not a word; he's likely off on a spree." The old lady spoke
bitterly now. "Everybody was kind to my Annie but him, and it was a
word from him that would have cheered her the most. Dr. Mayo came and
sat beside her just an hour before she died, and says he, 'You still
have a chance, Mrs. Johnston,' but Annie just thanked him again for his
kindness and sort o' shook her head?..
"The little woman from Saskatchewan didn't do well at all after the
operation, and Dr. Mayo was afraid she wouldn't pull through. She asked
him what chance she had, and he told her straight?the Mayos always
tell the truth?that she had only one chance in a hundred. She was so
weak that he had to bend down to hear her whisperin', 'I'll take that
"And did she?" I asked eagerly.
"She was still living when I left. She will get better, I think. She
has a very good man, by what she was tellin' us, and a woman can stand
a lot if she has a good man," the old lady said, with the wisdom born
of experience. "I've nursed around a lot, and I've always noticed
I have noticed it, too, though I've never "nursed around."
"Dave came with us to the station the day we left home. He was sober
that day, and gave Annie plenty of money. Annie told him to get a
return ticket for her, too. I said he'd better get just a single for
her, for she might have to stay longer than a month; but she said no,
she'd be back in a month, all right. Dave seemed pleased to hear her
talk so cheerful. When she got her ticket she sat lookin' at it a long
time. I knew what she was thinkin'. She never was a girl to talk
mournful, and when the conductor tore off the goin' down part she gave
me the return piece, and she says, 'You take this, mother.' I knew that
she was thinkin' what the return half might be used for."
We changed cars at Newton, and I stood with the old lady and watched
the trainmen unload the long box. They threw off trunks, boxes and
valises almost viciously, but when they lifted up the long box their
manner changed and they laid it down as tenderly as if they had known
something of Annie and her troubled life.
We sent another telegram to Dave, and then sat down in the waiting-room
to wait for the west train. The wind drove the snow in billows over the
prairie, and the early twilight of the morning was bitterly cold.
Her train came first, and again the long box was gently put aboard. On
the wind-swept platform Annie's mother and I shook hands without a
word, and in another minute the long train was sweeping swiftly across
the white prairie. I watched it idly, thinking of Annie and her sad
home-going. Just then the first pale beams of the morning sun glinted
on the last coach, and touched with fine gold the long white smoke
plume, which the wind carried far over the field. There is nothing so
cheerful as the sunshine, and as I sat in the little grey waiting-room,
watching the narrow golden beam that danced over the closed wicket, I
could well believe that a rest remains for Annie, and that she is sure
of a welcome at her journey's end. And as the sun's warmth began to
thaw the tracery of frost on the window, I began to hope that God's
grace may yet find out Dave, and that he too may "make good" in the
years to come. As for the little woman from Quill Lake, who was still
willing to take the one chance, I have never had the slightest doubt.