In the Dead-Letter Office [poem by R. Stewart]

[Editor: This poem by R. Stewart was published in The Bulletin Reciter, 1901.]

In the Dead-Letter Office.

Come, rip the mail-bags open, chaps, and sort the stuff away ;
A thumping mail again from Perth — we ’ll have some work to-day.
Two thousand unclaimed letters here, if there ’s a single one ;
So bustle round the tables, boys, and get the sorting done
That we may have them opened up and let the senders know
The reason why there ’s no reply come back from “Westward-Ho !”

For wives have husbands over there, and girls their sweethearts, too,
And sons who found the old land hard sought fortune in the new ;
And some died in the hospitals, who nameless there have lain,
And some lie dead where no man knows upon the scorching plain ;
And some have glared on blazing skies and cruel desert sands
Till reeling brain and bursting heart they stilled with desp’rate hands;
And timid men stay near the towns, — but some in quest of gold
Have wandered from the mailman’s track : no letters reach the bold.

Then stir yourselves and toss them out ; for some are on the rack
These three months past with sorrowing when no reply came back ;
A gleam of hope to many send who mourn their loved to-day,
For oft the envelopes are marked Unclaimed or Gone Away ;
But some have scored across the face the mournful legend, Dead,
Or Died in Hospital. — Ah me ! sad missives never read.

The daring heart that crossed the sea to win his dear ones bread
Had perished ’neath the fever-pang, no friend beside his bed ;
And hardly had his sunken eyes filmed in approaching death,
And still his frame seemed quivering with one last sobbing breath,
When from his wife the letter came so full of loving cheer :
“I ’m longing for your safe return ; God bless and keep you, dear !

The children all are well and strong — they send their love to you ;
We manage just to get along; but one week’s rent is due,
And that can wait, the landlord says — he’s better than we thought ;
He thinks, perhaps, you ’ll strike the gold; there’s plenty there ; you ought.”

Ah, well ! such tales are common now, they ’re multiplying fast —
See! yonder lazy fourth-class man is working hard at last !
He ’s crusty and cantankerous, and selfish as can be :
He growls and grumbles all the day, and little work does he ;
His tongue is always on the nag; but since the goldfields’ mail
Comes once a month from Albany with many a mournful tale,
He ’s seized with a desire to show a heart he does not lack.
And grafts away with might and main to send the letters back.

The junior clerks are writing fast, their pen-nibs fairly fly ;
The usual chatt’ring is not heard, and little wonder why —
When sending back to some poor girl the tender, loving note
That never met the eyes of him for whose dear sake she wrote ;
And right across the envelope a legend, scrawled in red,
Tells how, while she poured forth her heart, the youth lay stark and dead.

* * * * * *

Alas for those unfortunates whose hopes are in the West, —
With husbands, fathers, toiling there for gold in fierce unrest !
For fever, drought, and pestilence will reap a harvest grand —
The stoutest hearts Australia owns throb in that deadly land :
So, when you pass our office by, and hear no noisy din,
You ’ll maybe murmur with a sigh, “The Perth Dead Mail is in.”

R. Stewart.

A.G. Stephens (editor). The Bulletin Reciter: A Collection of Verses for Recitation from “The Bulletin” [1880-1901], The Bulletin Newspaper Company, Sydney, 1902 [first published 1901], pages 48-51

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