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The Return Ticket by Nellie McClung

(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 baggage car.

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 of companionship.

"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 one chance!'"

"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 that!"

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.