The stranger walked into the corner grocery with the air of one who had come back after many years to see someone who would be glad to see him. He shed his swag and stood it by the wall with great deliberation; then he rested his elbow on the counter, stroked his beard, and grinned quizzically at the shopman, who smiled back presently in a puzzled way.
'Good afternoon,' said the grocer.
'Nice day,' said the grocer.
'Anything I can do for you?'
'Yes; tell the old man there's a chap wants to speak to him for a minute.'
'Old man? What old man?'
'Hake, of course―old Ben Hake! Ain't he in?'
The grocer smiled.
'Hake ain't here now. I'm here.'
'Why, he sold out to me ten years ago.'
'Well, I suppose I'll find him somewhere about town?'
'I don't think you will. He left the colonies when he sold out. He's―he's dead now.'
'Dead! Old Ben Hake?'
'Yes. You knew him, then?'
The stranger seemed to have lost a great deal of his assurance. He turned his side to the counter, hooked his elbow on it, and gazed out through the door along Sunset Track.
'You can give me half-a-pound of nailrod,' he said, in a quiet tone―'I s'pose young Hake is in town?'
'No; the whole family went away. I think there's one of the sons in business in Sydney now.'
'I s'pose the M'Lachlans are here yet?'
'No; they are not. The old people died about five years ago; the sons are in Queensland, I think; and both the girls are married and in Sydney.'
'Ah, well!…I see you've got the railway here now.'
'Oh, yes! Six years.'
'Times is changed a lot.'
'I s'pose―I s'pose you can tell me where I'll find old Jimmy Nowlett?'
'Jimmy Nowlett? Jimmy Nowlett? I never heard of the name. What was he?'
'Oh, he was a bullock driver. Used to carry from the mountains before the railway was made.'
'Before my time, perhaps. There's no one of that name round here now.'
'Ah, well!…I don't suppose you knew the Duggans?'
'Yes, I did. The old man's dead, too, and the family's gone away―Lord knows where. They weren't much loss, to all accounts. The sons got into trouble, I b'lieve―went to the bad. They had a bad name here.'
'Did they? Well, they had good hearts―at least, old Malachi Duggan and the eldest son had.…You can give me a couple of pounds of sugar.'
'Right. I suppose it's a long time since you were here last?'
'Yes. I don't s'pose I remind you of anyone you know round here?'
'N―no!' said the grocer, with a smile. 'I can't say you do.'
'Ah, well! I s'pose I'll find the Wilds still living in the same place?'
'The Wilds? Well, no. The old man is dead, too, and———'
'And―and where's Jim? He ain't dead?'
'No; he's married and settled down in Sydney.'
'Can you―' said the stranger, hesitatingly; 'did you―I suppose you knew Mary―Mary Wild?'
'Mary?' said the grocer, smilingly. 'That was my wife's maiden name. Would you like to see her?'
'No, no! She mightn't remember me!'
He reached hastily for his swag, and shouldered it.
'Well, I must be gettin' on.'
'I s'pose you'll camp here over Christmas?'
'No; there's nothing to stop here for―I'll push on. I did intend to have a Christmas here―in fact, I came a long way out of my road a-purpose.…I meant to have just one more Christmas with old Ben Hake an' the rest of the boys―but I didn't know as they'd moved on so far west. The old bush school is dyin' out.'
There was a smile in his eyes, but his bearded lips twitched a little.
'Things is changed. The old houses is pretty much the same, an' the old signs want touchin' up and paintin' jest as bad as ever; an' there's that old palin' fence that me an' Ben Hake an' Jimmy Nowlett put up twenty year ago. I've tramped and travelled long ways since then. But things is changed―at least, people is.…Well, I must be goin'. There's nothing to keep me here. I'll push on and get into my track again. It's cooler travellin' in the night.'
'Yes, it's been pretty hot to-day.'
'Yes, it has. Well, s'long.'
'Grood day. Merry Christmas!'
'Eh? What? Oh, yes! Same to you! S'long!'
He drifted out and away along Sunset Track.