The Woman Tempted Him
Ah thy people, thy children, thy chosen,
Marked cross from the womb and perverse!
They have found out the secret to cozen
The gods that constrain us and curse;
They alone, they are wise, and none other;
Give me place, even me, in their train,
O my sister, my spouse, and my mother,
Our Lady of Pain.
― 1 ―
Why Nellie Shows Ned Round
NELLIE was waiting for Ned, not in the best of humours.
“I suppose he'll get drunk to celebrate it,” she was saying, energetically drying the last cup with a corner of the damp cloth. “And I suppose she feels as though it's something to be very glad and proud about.”
“Well, Nellie,” answered the woman who had been rinsing the breakfast things, ignoring the first supposition. “One doesn't want them to come, but when they do come one can't help feeling glad.”
“Glad!” said Nellie, scornfully.
“If Joe was in steady work, I wouldn't mind how often it was. It's when he loses his job and work so hard to get—” Here the speaker subsided in tears.
“It's no use worrying,” comforted Nellie, kindly. “He'll get another job soon, I hope. He generally has pretty fair luck, you know.”
“Yes, Joe has had pretty fair luck, so far. But nobody knows how long it'll last. There's my brother wasn't out of work for fifteen years, and now he hasn't done a stroke for twenty-three weeks come Tuesday. He's going out of his mind.”
“He'll get used to it,” answered Nellie, grimly.
“How you do talk, Nellie!” said the other. “To hear you sometimes one would think you hadn't any heart.”
“I haven't any patience.”
― 2 ―
“That's true, my young gamecock!” exclaimed a somewhat discordant voice. Nellie looked round, brightening suddenly.
A large slatternly woman stood in the back doorway, a woman who might possibly have been a pretty girl once but whose passing charms had long been utterly sponged out. A perceptible growth of hair lent a somewhat repulsive appearance to a face which at best had a great deal of the virago in it. Yet there was, in spite of her furrowed skin and faded eyes and drab dress, an air of good-heartedness about her, made somewhat ferocious by the muscularity of the arms that fell akimbo upon her great hips, and by the strong teeth, white as those of a dog, that flashed suddenly from between her colourless lips when she laughed.
“That's true, my young gamecock!” she shouted, in a deep voice, strangely cracked. “And so you're at your old tricks again, are you? Talking sedition I'll be bound. I've half a mind to turn informer and have the law on you. The dear lamb!” she added, to the other woman.
“Good morning, Mrs. Macanany,” said Nellie, laughing. “We haven't got yet so that we can't say what we like, here.”
“I'm not so sure about that. Wait till you hear what I came to tell you, hearing from little Jimmy that you were at home and going to have a holiday with a young man from the country. We'll sherrivvery them if he takes her away from us, Mrs. Phillips, the only one that does sore eyes good to see in the whole blessed neighborhood! You needn't blush, my dear, for I had a young man myself once, though you wouldn't imagine it to look at me. And if I was a young man myself it's her”—pointing Nellie out to Mrs. Phillips—“that I'd go sweethearting with and not with the empty headed chits that—”
“Look here, Mrs. Macanany!” interrupted Nellie. “You didn't come in to make fun of me.”
“Making fun! There, have your joke with the old woman! You didn't hear that my Tom got the run yesterday, did you?”
“Did he? What a pity! I'm very sorry,” said Nellie.
“Everybody'll be out of work and then what'll we all do?” said Mrs. Phillips, evidently cheered, nevertheless, by companionship in misfortune.
“What'll we all do! There'd never be anybody at all out of work if everybody was like me and Nellie there,” answered the amazon.
― 3 ―
“What did he get the run for?” asked Nellie.
“What can we women do?” queried Mrs. Phillips, doleful still.
“Wait a minute till I can tell you! You don't give a body time to begin before you worry them with questions about things you'd hear all about it if you'd just hold your tongues a minute. You're like two blessed babies! It was this way, Mrs. Phillips, as sure as I'm standing here. Tom got trying to persuade the other men in the yard—poor sticks of men they are!—to have a union. I've been goading him to it, may the Lord forgive me, ever since Miss Nellie there came round one night and persuaded my Tessie to join. ‘Tom,’ says I to him that very night, ‘I'll have to be lending you one of my old petticoats, the way the poor weak girls are beginning to stand up for their rights, and you not even daring to be a union man. I never thought I'd live to be ashamed of the father of my children!’ says I. And yesterday noon Tom came home with a face on him as long as my arm, and told me that he'd been sacked for talking union to the men.
“‘It's a man you are again, Tom,’ says I. ‘We've lived short before and we can live it again, please God, and it's myself would starve with you a hundred times over rather than be ashamed of you,’ says I. ‘Who was it that sacked you?’ I asked him.
“‘The foreman,’ says Tom. ‘He told me they didn't want any agitators about.’
“‘May he live to suffer for it,’ says I. ‘I'll go down and see the boss himself.’
“So down I went, and as luck would have it the boy in the front office wasn't educated enough to say I was an old image, I suppose, for would you believe it I actually heard him say that there was a lady, if you please, wanting to see Mister Paritt very particularly on personal business, as I'd told him. So of course I was shown in directly, the very minute, and the door was closed on me before the old villain, who's a great man at church on Sundays, saw that he'd made a little mistake.
“‘What do you want, my good woman?’ says he, snappish like. ‘Very sorry,’ says he, when I'd told him that I'd eleven children and that Tom had worked for him for four years and worked well, too. ‘Very sorry,’ says he, ‘my good woman, but your husband should have thought of that before. It's against my principles,’ says he, ‘to have any unionists about the place. I'm told he's been making the other men discontented. I can't take him back. You must blame him, not me,’ says he.
― 4 ―
“I could feel the temper in me, just as though he'd given me a couple of stiff nobblers of real old whisky. ‘So you won't take Tom back,’ says I, ‘not for the sake of his eleven children when it's their poor heart-broken mother that asks you?’
“‘No,’ says he, short, getting up from his chair. ‘I can't. You've bothered me long enough,’ says he.
“So then I decided it was time to tell the old villain just what I thought of his grinding men down to the last penny and insulting every decent girl that ever worked for him. He got as black in the face as if he was smoking already on the fiery furnace that's waiting for him below, please God, and called the shrimp of an office boy to throw me out. ‘Leave the place, you disgraceful creature, or I'll send for the police,’ says he. But I left when I got ready to leave and just what I said to him, the dirty wretch, I'll tell to you, Mrs. Phillips, some time when she”—nodding at Nellie—“isn't about. She's getting so like a blessed saint that one feels as if one's in church when she's about, bless her heart!”
“You're getting very particular all at once, Mrs. Macanany,” observed Nellie.
“It's a wonder he didn't send for a policeman,” commented Mrs. Phillips.
“Send for a policeman! And pretty he'd look with the holy bible in his hand repeating what I said to him, wouldn't he now?” enquired Mrs. Macanany, once more placing her great arms on her hips and glaring with her watery eyes at her audience.
“Did you hear that Mrs. Hobbs had a son this morning?” questioned Mrs. Phillips, suddenly recollecting that she also might have an item of news.
“What! Mrs. Hobbs, so soon! How would I be hearing when I just came through the back, and Tom only just gone out to wear his feet off, looking for work? A boy again! The Lord preserve us all! It's the devil's own luck the dear creature has, isn't it now? Why didn't you tell me before, and me here gossiping when the dear woman will be expecting me round to see her and the dear baby and wondering what I've got against her for not coming? I must be off, now, and tidy myself a bit and go and cheer the poor creature up for I know very well how one wants cheering at such times. Was it a hard time she had with it? And who is it like, the little angel that came straight from heaven this blessed day?
― 5 ―
The dear woman! 1 must be off, so I'll say good-day to you, Mrs. Phillips, and may the sun shine on you and your sweetheart, Nellie, even if he does take you away from us all, and may you have a houseful of babies with faces as sweet as your own and never miss a neighbour to cheer you a bit when the trouble's on you. The Lord be with us all!”
Nellie laughed as the rough-voiced, kind-hearted woman took herself off, to cross the broken dividing wall to the row of houses that backed closely on the open kitchen door. Then she shrugged her shoulders.
“It's always the way,” she remarked, as she turned away to the other door that led along a little, narrow passage to the street. “What's going to become of the innocent little baby? Nobody thinks of that.”
Mrs. Phillips did not answer. She was tidying up in a wearied way. Besides, she was used to Nellie, and had a dim perception that what that young woman said was right, only one had to work, especially on Saturdays when the smallest children could be safely turned into the street to play with the elder ones, the baby nursed by pressed nurses, who by dint of scolding and coaxing and smacking and promising were persuaded to keep it out of the house, even though they did not keep it altogether quiet.
Mrs. Phillips “tidied up” in a wearied way, without energy, working stolidly all the time as if she were on a tread-mill. She had a weary look, the expression of one who is tired always, who gets up tired and goes to bed tired, and who never by any accident gets a good rest, who even when dead is not permitted to lie quietly like other people but gets buried the same day in a cheap coffin that hardly keeps the earth up and is doomed to be soon dug up to make room for some other tired body in that economical way instituted by the noble philanthropists who unite a keen appreciation of the sacredness of burial with a still keener appreciation of the value of grave-lots. She might have been a pretty girl once or she might not. Nobody would ever have thought of physical attractiveness as having anything to do with her. Mrs. Macanany was distinctly ugly. Mrs. Phillips was neither ugly nor pretty nor anything else. She was a poor thin draggled woman, who tried to be clean but who had long ago given up in despair any attempt at looking natty and had now no ambition for herself but to have something “decent” to go out in. Once it was her ambition also to have a “room.” She
― 6 ―
had scraped and saved and pared in dull times for this “room” and when once Joe had a long run of steady work she had launched out into what those who know how workingmen's wives should live would have denounced as the wildest extravagance. A gilt framed mirror and a sofa, four spidery chairs and a round table, a wonderful display of wax apples under a glass shade, a sideboard and a pair of white lace curtains hanging from a pole, with various ornaments and pictures of noticeable appearance, also linoleum for the floor, had finally been gathered together and were treasured for a time as household gods indeed. In those days there was hardly a commandment in the decalogue that Mephistopheles might not have induced Mrs. Phillips to commit by judicious praise of her “room.” Her occasional “visitors” were ushered into it with an air of pride that was alone enough to illuminate the dingy, musty little place. Between herself and those of her neighbours who had “rooms” there was a fierce rivalry, while those of inferior grade—and they were in the majority—regarded her with an envy not unmixed with dislike.
But those times were gone for poor Mrs. Phillips. We all know how they go, excepting those who do not want to know. Work gradually became more uncertain, wages fell and rents kept up. They had one room of the small five-roomed house let already. They let another—“they” being her and Joe. Finally, they had to let the room. The chairs, the round table and the sofa wore bartered at a second-hand store for bedroom furniture. The mirror and the sideboard were brought out into the kitchen, and on the sideboard the wax fruit still stood like the lingering shrine of a departed faith.
The “room” was now the lodging of two single men, as the good old ship-phrase goes. Upstairs, in the room over the kitchen, the Phillips family slept, six in all. There would have been seven, only the eldest girl, a child of ten, slept with Nellie in the little front room over the door, an arrangement which was not in the bond but was volunteered by the single woman in one of her fits of indignation against pigging together. The other front room was also rented by a single man when they could get him. Just now it was tenantless, an additional cause of sorrow to Mrs. Phillips, whose stock card, “Furnished Lodgings for a Single Man,” was now displayed at the front window, making the house in that respect very similar to half the houses in the
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street, or in this part of the town for that matter. Yet with all this crowding and renting of rooms Mrs. Phillips did not grow rich. She was always getting into debt or getting out of it, this depending in inverse ratio upon Joe being in work or out. When the rooms were all let they barely paid the rent and were always getting empty. The five children—they had one dead and another coming—ate so much and made so much work. There were boots and clothes and groceries to pay for, not to mention bread. And though Joe was not like many a woman's husband yet he did get on the spree occasionally, a little fact which in the opinion of the pious will account for all Mrs. Phillips' weariness and all the poverty of this crowded house. But however that may be she was a weary hopeless faded woman, who would not cause passers-by to turn, pity-stricken, and watch her when she hurried along on her semi-occasional escapes from her prison-house only because such women are so common that it is those who do not look hopeless and weary whom we turn to watch if by some strange chance one passes.
The Phillips' kitchen was a cheerless place, in spite of the mirror that was installed in state over the side-board and the wax flowers. Its one window looked upon a diminutive back yard, a low broken wall and another row of similar two-storied houses. On the plastered walls were some shelves bearing a limited supply of crockery. Over the grated fireplace was a long high shelf whereon stood various pots and bottles. There were some chairs and a table and a Chinese-made safe. On the boarded floor was a remnant of linoleum. Against one wall was a narrow staircase.
It was the breakfast things that Nellie had been helping to wash up. The little American clock on the sideboard indicated quarter past nine.
Nellie went to the front door, opened it, and stood looking out. The view was a limited one, a short narrow side street, blinded at one end by a high bare stone wall, bounded at the other by the almost as narrow by-thoroughfare this side street branched from. The houses in the thoroughfare were three-storied, and a number were used as shops of the huckstering variety, mainly by Chinese. The houses in the side street were two-storied, dingy, jammed tightly together, each one exactly like the next. The pavement was of stone, the roadway of some composite, hard as iron; roadway and pavement were overrun with children. At
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the corner by a dead wall was a lamp-post. Nearly opposite Nellie a group of excited women were standing in an open doorway. They talked loudly, two or three at a time, addressing each other indiscriminately. The children screamed and swore, quarrelled and played and fought, while a shrill-voiced mother occasionally took a hand in the diversion of the moment, usually to scold or cuff some luckless offender. The sunshine radiated that sickly heat which precedes rain.
Nellie stood there and waited for Ned. She was 20 or so, tall and slender but well-formed, every curve of her figure giving promise of more luxurious development. She was dressed in a severely plain dress of black stuff, above which a faint line of white collar could be seen clasping the round throat. Her ears had been bored, but she wore no earrings. Her brown hair was drawn away from her forehead and bound in a heavy braid on the back of her neck. But it was her face that attracted one, a pale sad face that was stamped on every feature with the impress of a determined will and of an intense womanliness. From the pronounced jaw that melted its squareness of profile in the oval of the full face to the dark brown eyes that rarely veiled themselves beneath their long-lashed lids, everything told that the girl possessed the indefinable something we call character. And if there was in the drooping corners of her red lips a sternness generally unassociated with conceptions of feminine loveliness one forgot it usually in contemplating the soft attractiveness of the shapely forehead, dashed beneath by straight eyebrows, and of the pronounced cheekbones that crossed the symmetry of a Saxon face. Mrs. Phillips was a drooping wearied woman but there was nothing drooping about Nellie and never could be. She might be torn down like one of the blue gums under which she had drawn in the fresh air of her girlhood, but she could no more bend than can the tree which must stand erect in the fiercest storm or must go down altogether. Pale she was, from the close air of the close street and close rooms, but proud she was as woman can be, standing erect in the doorway amid all this pandemonium of cries, waiting for Ned. Ned was her old playmate, a Darling Downs boy, five years older to be sure, but her playmate in the old days, nevertheless, as lads who have no sisters are apt to be with admiring little girls who have no brothers. Selectors' children, both of them, from neighbouring farms, born above the frost line under the smelting Queensland sun, drifted hither and thither by the fitful gusts of
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Fate as are the paper-sailed ships that boys launch on flood water pools, meeting here in Sydney after long years of separation. Now, Nellie was a dressmaker in a big city shop, and Ned a sunburnt shearer to whom the great trackless West was home. She thought of the old home sadly as she stood there waiting for him.
It had not been a happy home altogether and yet, and yet—it was better than this. There was pure air there, at least, and grass up to the door, and trees rustling overhead; and the little children were brown and sturdy and played with merry shouts, not with these vile words she heard jabbered in the wretched street. Her heart grew sick within her—a habit it had, that heart of Nellie's—and a passion of wild revolt against her surroundings made her bite her lips and press her nails against her palms. She looked across at the group opposite. More children being born! Week in and week out they seemed to come in spite of all the talk of not having any more. She could have cried over this holocaust of the innocents, and yet she shrank with an unreasoning shrinking from the barrenness that was coming to be regarded as the most comfortable state and being sought after, as she knew well, by the younger married women. What were they all coming to? Were they all to go on like this without a struggle until they vanished altogether as a people, perhaps to make room for the round-cheeked, bland-faced Chinaman who stood in the doorway of his shop in the crossing thoroughfare, gazing expressionlessly at her? She loathed that Chinaman. He always seemed to be watching her, to be waiting for something. She would dream of him sometimes as creeping upon her from behind, always with that bland round face. Yet he never spoke to her, never insulted her, only he seemed to be always watching her, always waiting. And it would come to her sometimes like a cold chill, that this yellow man and such men as he were watching them all slowly going down lower and lower, were waiting to leap upon them in their last helplessness and enslave them all as white girls were sometimes enslaved, even already, in those filthy opium joints whose stench nauseated the hurrying passers-by. Perhaps under all their meekness these Chinese were braver, more stubborn, more vigorous, and it was doomed that they should conquer at last and rule in the land where they had been treated as outcasts and intruders. She thought of this—and, just then, Ned turned the corner by the lamp.
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Ned was a Downs native, every inch of him. He stood five feet eleven in his bare feet yet was so broad and strong that he hardly looked over the medium height. He had blue eyes and a heavy moustache just tinged with red. His hair was close-cut and dark; his forehead, nose and chin were large and strong; his lips were strangely like a woman's. He walked with short jerky steps, swinging himself awkwardly as men do who have been much in the saddle. He wore a white shirt, as being holiday-making, but had not managed a collar; his pants were dark-blue, slightly belled; his coat, dark-brown; his boots wore highly polished; round his neck was a silk handkerchief; round his vestless waist, a discoloured leather belt; above all, a wide-brimmed cabbage tree hat, encircled by a narrow leather strap. He swung himself along rapidly, unabashed by the stares of the women or the impudent comment of the children. Nellie, suddenly, felt all her ill-humour turn against him.
He was so satisfied with himself. He had talked unionism to her when she met him two weeks before, on his way to visit a brother who had taken up a selection in the Hawkesbury district. He had laughed when she hinted at the possibilities of the unionism he championed so fanatically. “We only want what's fair,” he said. “We're not going to do anything wild. As long as we get £1 a hundred and rations at a fair figure we're satisfied.” And then he had inconsistently proceeded to describe how the squatters treated the men out West, and how the union would make them civil, and how the said squatters were mostly selfish brutes who preferred Chinese to their own colour and would stop at no trick to beat the men out of a few shillings. She had said nothing at the time, being so pleased to see him, though she determined to have it out with him sometime during this holiday they had planned. But somehow, as he stepped carelessly along, a dashing manliness in every motion, a breath of the great plains coming with his sunburnt face and belted waist, he and his self-conceit jarred to her against this sordid court and these children's desolate lives. How dared he talk as he did about only wanting what was fair, she thought! How had he the heart to care only for himself and his mates while in these city slums such misery brooded! And then it shot through her that he did not know. With a rapidity, characteristic of herself, she made up her mind to teach him.
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“Well, Nellie,” he cried, cheerily, coming up to her. “And how are you again?”
“Hello, Ned,” she answered, cordially, shaking hands. “You look as though you were rounding-up.”
“Do I?” he questioned, seriously, looking down at himself. “Shirt and all? Well, if I am it's only you I came to round up. Are you ready? Did you think I wasn't coming?”
“It won't take me a minute,” she replied. “I was pretty sure you'd come. I took a holiday on the strength of it, anyway, and made an engagement for you to-night. Come in a minute, Ned. You must see Mrs. Phillips while I get my hat. You'll have to sleep here to-night. It'll be so late when we get back. Unless you'd sooner go to a hotel.”
“I'm not particular,” said Ned, looking round curiously, as he followed her in. “I'd never have found the place, Nellie, if it hadn't been for that pub. near the corner, where we saw that row on the other night.”
The women opposite had suspended their debate upon Mrs. Hobbs' latest, a debate fortified by manifold reminiscences of the past and possibilities of the future. It was known in the little street that Nellie Lawton intended taking a holiday with an individual who was universally accepted as her “young man,” and Ned's appearance upon the stage naturally made him a subject for discussion which temporarily over-shadowed even Mrs. Hobbs' baby.
“I'm told he's a sort of a farmer,” said one.
“He's a shearer; I had it from Mrs. Phillips herself,” said another.
“He's a strapping man, whatever he is,” commented a third.
“Well, she's a big lump of a girl, too,” contributed a fourth.
“Yes, and a vixen with her tongue when she gets started, for all her prim looks,” added a fifth.
“She has tricky ways that get over the men-folks. Mine won't hear a word against her.” This from the third speaker, eager to be with the tide, evidently setting towards unfavorable criticism.
“I don't know,” objected the second, timidly. “She sat up all night with my Maggie once, when she had the fever, and Nellie had to work next day, too.”
“Oh, she's got her good side,” retorted the fifth, opening her dress to feed her nursing baby with absolute indifference for
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all onlookers. “But she knows a great deal too much for a girl of her age. When she gets married will be time enough to talk as she does sometimes.” The chorus of approving murmurs showed that Nellie had spoken plainly enough on some subjects to displease some of these slatternly matrons.
“She stays out till all hours, I'm told,” one slanderer said.
“She's a union girl, at any rate,” hazarded Nellie's timid defender. There was an awkward pause at this. It was an apple of discord with the women, evidently. A tall form turning the corner afforded further reason for changing the subject.
“Here's Mrs. Macanany,” announced one. “You'd better not say anything against Nellie Lawton when she's about.” So they talked again of Mrs. Hobbs' baby, making it the excuse to leave undone for a few minutes the endless work of the poor man's wife.
And sad to tell when, a few minutes afterwards, Ned and Nellie came out again and walked off together, the group of gossipers unanimously endorsed Mrs. Macanany's extravagant praises, and agreed entirely with her declaration that if all the women in Sydney would only stand by Nellie, as Mrs. Macanany herself would, there would be such a doing and such an upsetting and such a righting of things that ever after every man would be his own master and every woman would only work eight hours and get well paid for it. Yet it was something that of six women there were two who wouldn't slander a girl like Nellie behind her back.
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Sweating in the Sydney Slums
“WELL! Where shall we go, Nellie?” began Ned jauntily, as they walked away together. To tell the truth he was eager to get away from this poor neighborhood. It had saddened him, made him feel unhappy, caused in him a longing to be back again in the bush, on his horse, a hundred miles from everybody. “Shall we go to Manly or Bondi or Watson's Bay, or do you know of a better place?” He had been reading the newspaper advertisements and had made enquiries of the waitress, as he ate his breakfast, concerning the spot which the waitress would prefer were a young man going to take her out for the day. He felt pleased with himself now, for not only did he like Nellie very much but she was attractive to behold, and he felt very certain that every man they passed envied him. She had put on a little round straw hat, black, trimmed with dark purple velvet; in her hands, enclosed in black gloves, she carried a parasol of the same colour.
“Where would you like to go, Ned?” she answered, colouring a little as she heard her name in Mrs. Macanany's hoarse voice, being told thereby that she and Ned were the topic of conversation among the jury of matrons assembled opposite.
“Anywhere you like, Nellie.”
“Don't you think, Ned, that you might see a little bit of real Sydney? Strangers come here for a few days and go on the steamers and through the gardens and along George-street and then go away with a notion of the place that isn't the true one. If I were you, Ned, right from the bush and knowing nothing of towns, I'd like to see a bit of the real side and not only the show side that everybody sees. We don't all go picnicking all the time and we don't all live by the harbour or alongside the Domain.”
“Do just whatever you like, Nellie,” cried Ned, hardly understanding but perfectly satisfied, “you know best where to take a fellow.”
“But they're not pleasant places, Ned.”
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“I don't mind,” answered Ned, lightly, though he had been looking forward, rather, to the quiet enjoyment of a trip on a harbour steamer, or at least to the delight of a long ramble along some beach where he thought he and Nellie might pick up shells. “Besides, I fancy it's going to rain before night,” he added, looking up at the sky, of which a long narrow slice showed between the tall rows of houses.
There were no clouds visible. Only there was a deepening grey in the hard blueness above them, and the breathless heat, even at this time of day, was stifling.
“I don't know that you'd call this a pleasant place,” he commented, adding with the frankness of an old friend: “Why do you live here, Nellie?”
She shrugged her shoulders. The gesture meant anything and everything.
“You needn't have bothered sending me that money back,” said Ned, in reply to the shrug.
“It isn't that,” explained Nellie. “I've got a pretty good billet. A pound a week and not much lost time! But I went to room there when I was pretty hard up. It's a small room and was cheap. Then, after, I took to boarding there as well. That was pretty cheap and suited me and helped them. I suppose I might get a better place but they're very kind, and I come and go as I like, and—” she hesitated. “After all,” she went on, “there's not much left out of a pound.”
“I shouldn't think so,” remarked Ned, looking at her and thinking that she was very nicely dressed.
“Oh! You needn't look,” laughed Nellie. “I make my own dresses and trim my own hats. A woman wouldn't think much of the stuff either.”
“I want to tell you how obliged I was for that money, Ned,” continued Nellie, an expression of pain on her face. “There was no one else I could ask, and I needed it so. It was very kind—”
“Ugh! That's nothing,” interrupted Ned, hiding his bashfulness under a burst of boisterousness. “Why, Nellie, I'd like you to be sending to me regular. It might just as well come to you as go any other way. If you ever do want a few pounds again, Nellie,” he added, seriously, “I can generally manage it. I've got plenty just now—far more than I'll ever need.” This with wild exaggeration. “You might as well have it as not. I've got nobody.”
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“Thanks, just the same, Ned! When I do want it I'll ask you. I'm afraid I'll never have any money to lend you if you need it, but if I ever do you know where to come.”
“It's a bargain, Nellie,” said Ned. Then, eager to change the subject, feeling awkward at discussing money matters because he would have been so willing to have given his last penny to anybody he felt friends with, much less to the girl by his side: “But where are we going?”
“To see Sydney!” said Nellie.
noteThey had turned several times since they started but the neighborhood remained much the same. The streets, some wider, some narrower, all told of sordid struggling. The shops were greasy, fusty, grimy. The groceries exposed in their windows damaged specimens of bankrupt stocks, discolored tinned goods, grey sugars, mouldy dried fruits; at their doors, flitches of fat bacon, cut and dusty. The meat with which the butchers' shops overflowed was not from show-beasts, as Ned could see, but the cheaper flesh of over-travelled cattle, ancient oxen, ewes too aged for bearing; all these lean scraggy flabby-fleshed carcasses surrounded and blackened by buzzing swarms of flies that invaded the foot-path outside in clouds. The draperies had tickets, proclaiming unparalleled bargains, on every piece; the whole stock seemed displayed outside and in the doorway. The fruiterers seemed not to be succeeding in their rivalry with each other and with the Chinese hawkers. The Chinese shops were dotted everywhere, dingier than any other, surviving and succeeding, evidently, by sheer force of cheapness. The roadways everywhere were hard and bare, reflecting the rays of the ascending sun until the streets seemed to be Turkish baths, conducted on a new and gigantic method. There was no green anywhere, only unlovely rows of houses, now gasping with open doors and windows for air.
Air! That was what everything clamoured for, the very stones, the dogs, the shops, the dwellings, the people. If it was like this soon after ten, what would it be at noon?
Already the smaller children were beginning to weary of play. In narrow courts they lolled along on the flags, exhausted. In wider streets, they sat quietly on door-steps or the kerb, or announced their discomfort in peevish wailings. The elder children quarrelled still and swore from their playground, the gutter, but they avoided now the sun and instinctively sought the shade—and it is pretty hot when a child minds the sun. At shop doors,
― 16 ―
shopmen, sometimes shopwomen, came to wipe their warm faces and examine the sky with anxious eyes. The day grew hotter and hotter. Ned could feel the rising heat, as though he were in an oven with a fire on underneath. Only the Chinese looked cool.
noteNellie led the way, sauntering along, without hurrying. Several times she turned down passages that Ned would hardly have noticed, and brought him out in courts closed in on all sides, from which every breath of air seemed purposely excluded. Through open doors and windows he could see the inside of wretched homes, could catch glimpses of stifling bedrooms and close, crowded little kitchens. Often one of the denizens came to door or window to stare at Nellie and him; sometimes they were accosted with impudent chaff, once or twice with pitiful obscenity.
The first thing that impressed him was the abandonment that thrust itself upon him in the more crowded of these courts and alley-ways and back-streets, the despairing abandonment there of the decencies of living. The thin dwarfed children kicked and tumbled with naked limbs on the ground; many women leaned half-dressed and much unbuttoned from ground floor windows, or came out into the passage-ways slatternly. In one court two unkempt vile-tongued women of the town wrangled and abused each other to the amusement of the neighborhood, where the working poor were huddled together with those who live by shame. The children played close by as heedlessly as if such quarrels were common events, cursing themselves at each other with nimble filthy tongues.
“There's a friend of mine lives here,” said Nellie, turning into one of these narrow alleys that led, as they could see, into a busier and bustling street. “If you don't mind we'll go up and I can help her a bit, and you can see how one sort of sweating is done. I worked at it for a spell once, when dressmaking was slack. In the same house, too.”
She stopped at the doorway of one of a row of three-storied houses. On the doorstep were a group of little children, all barefooted and more or less ragged in spite of evident attempts to keep some of them patched into neatness. They looked familiarly at Nellie and curiously at Ned.
“How's mother, Johnny?” asked Nellie of one of them, a small pinched little fellow of six or seven, who nursed a baby of
― 17 ―
a year or so old, an ill-nourished baby that seemed wilting in the heat.
“She's working,” answered the little fellow, looking anxiously at Nellie as she felt in her pocket.
“There's a penny for you,” said Nellie, “and here's a penny for Dicky,” patting a little five-year-old on the head, “and here's one to buy some milk for the baby.”
Johnny rose with glad eagerness, the baby in his arms and the pennies in his hand.
“I shall buy ‘specks’ with mine,” he cried joyfully.
“What's ‘specks?’” asked Ned, puzzled, as the children went off, the elder staggering under his burden.
“‘Specks!’ Damaged fruit, half rotten. The garbage of the rich sold as a feast to these poor little onesI” cried Nellie, a hot anger in her face and voice that made Ned dumb.
She entered the doorway. Ned followed her through a room where a man and a couple of boys were hammering away at some boots, reaching thereby a narrow, creaking stairway, hot as a chimney, almost pitch dark, being lighted only by an occasional half-opened door, up which he stumbled clumsily. Through one of these open doors he caught a glimpse of a couple of girls sewing; through another of a woman with a baby in arms tidying-up a bare floored room, which seemed to be bedroom, kitchen and dining room in one; from behind a closed door came the sound of voices, one shrilly laughing. Unused to stairways his knees ached before they reached the top. He was glad enough when Nellie knocked loudly at a door through which came the whirring of a sewing machine. The noise stopped for a moment while a sharp voice called them to “come in,” then started again. Nellie opened the door.note
At the open window of a small room, barely furnished with a broken iron bedstead, some case boards knocked together for a table and fixed against the wall, a couple of shaky chairs and a box, a sharp featured woman sat working a machine, as if for dear life. The heat of the room was made hotter by the little grate in which a fire had recently been burning and on which still stood the teapot. Some cups and a plate or two, with a cut loaf of bread and a jam tin of sugar, littered the table. The scanty bed was unmade. The woman wore a limp cotton dress of uncertain colour, rolled up at the sleeves and opened at the neck for greater coolness. She was thin and sharp; she was so busy you understood that
― 18 ―
she had no time to be clean and tidy. She seemed pleased to see Nellie and totally indifferent at seeing Ned, but kept on working after nodding to them.
Nellie motioned Ned to sit down, which he did on the edge of the bed, not caring to trust the shaky chairs. She went to the side of the sharp-featured woman, and sitting down on the foot of the bed by the machine watched her working without a word. Ned could see on the ground, in a paper parcel, a heap of cloth of various colours, and on the bed some new coats folded and piled up. On the machine was another coat, being sewn.
It was ten minutes before the machine stopped, ten minutes for Ned to look about and think in. He knew without being told that this miserable room was the home of the three children to whom Nellie had given the pennies, and that here their mother worked to feed them. Their feeding he could see on the table. Their home he could see. The work that gave it to them he could see. For the first time in his life he felt ashamed of being an Australian.
Finally the machine stopped. The sharp-faced woman took the coat up, bit a thread with her teeth, and laying it on her knee began to unpick the tackings.
“Let me!” said Nellie, pulling off her gloves and taking off her hat. “We came to see you, Ned and I,” she went on with honest truthfulness, “because he's just down from the bush, and I wanted him to see what Sydney was like. Ned, this is Mrs. Somerville.”
Mrs. Somerville nodded at Ned. “You're right to come here,” she remarked, grimly, getting up while Nellie took her place as if she often did it. “You know just what it is, Nellie, and I do, too, worse luck. Perhaps it's good for us. When we're better off we don't care for those who're down. We've got to get down ourselves to get properly disgusted with it.”
She spoke with the accent of an educated woman, moving to the make-shift table and beginning to “tidy-up.” As she passed between him and the light Ned could see that the cotton dress was her only covering.
“How are the children?” asked Nellie.
“How can you expect them to be?” retorted the other.
“You ought to wean the baby,” insisted Nellie, as though it was one of their habitual topics.
“Plenty of work this week?” asked Nellie, changing the subject.
“Yes; plenty of work this week. You know what that means. No work at all when they get a stock ahead, so as to prevent us feeling too independent I suppose.” She paused, then added: “That girl downstairs says she isn't going to work any more. I talked to her a little but she says one might just as well die one way as another, and that she'll have some pleasure first. I couldn't blame her much. She's got a good heart. She's been very kind to the children.”
Nellie did not answer; she did not even look up.
“They're going to reduce prices at the shop,” went on Mrs. Somerville. “They told me last time I went that after this lot they shouldn't pay as much because they could easily get the things done for less. I asked what they'd pay, and they said they didn't know but they'd give me as good a show for work as ever if I cared to take the new prices, because they felt sorry for the children. I suppose I ought to feel thankful to them.”
Nellie looked up now—her face flushed. “Reduce prices again!” she cried. “How can they?”
“I don't know how they can, but they can,” answered Mrs. Somerville. “I suppose we can be thankful so long as they don't want to be paid for letting us work for them. Old Church's daughter got married to some officer of the fleet last week, I'm told, and I suppose we've got to help give her a send-off.”
“It's shameful,” exclaimed Nellie. “What they paid two years ago hardly kept one alive, and they've reduced twice since then. Oh! They'll all pay for it some day.”
“Let's hope so,” said Mrs. Somerville. “Only we'll have to pay them for it pretty soon, Nellie, or there won't be enough strength left in us to pay them with. I've got beyond minding anything much, but I would like to get even with old Church.”
They had talked away, the two women, ignoring Ned. He listened. He understood that from the misery of this woman was drawn the pomp and pride, the silks and gold and glitter of the society belle, and he thought with a cruel satisfaction of what might happen to that society belle if this half-starved woman got hold of her. Measure for measure, pang for pang, what torture, what insults, what degradation, could atone for the life
― 20 ―
that was suffered in this miserable room? And for the life of “that girl downstairs” who had given up in despair?
“How about a union now?” asked Nellie, turning with the first pieces of another coat to the machine.
“Work's too dull,” was the answer. “Wait for a few months till the busy season comes and then I wouldn't wonder if you could get one. The women were all feeling hurt about the reduction, and one girl did start talking strike, but what's the use now? I couldn't say anything, you know, but I'll find out where the others live and you can go round and talk to them after a while. If there was a paper that would show old Church up it might do good, but there isn't.”
Then the rattle of the machine began again, Nellie working with an adeptness that showed her to be an old hand. Ned could see now that the coats were of cheap coarse stuff and that the sewing in them was not fine tailoring. The cut material in Nellie's hands fairly flew into shape as she rapidly moved it to and fro under the hurrying needle with her slim fingers. Her foot moved unceasingly on the treadle. Ned watching her, saw the great beads of perspiration slowly gather on her forehead and then trickle down her nose and cheeks to fall upon the work before her.
“My word! But it's hot!” exclaimed Nellie at last, as the noise stopped for a moment while she changed the position of her work. “Why don't you open the door?”
“I don't care to before the place is tidy,” answered Mrs. Somerville, who had washed her cups and plates in a pan and had just put Ned on one of the shaky chairs while she shook and arranged the meagre coverings of the bed.
“Is he still carrying on?” enquired Nellie, nodding her head at the partition and evidently alluding to someone on the other side.
“Of course, drink, drink, drink, whenever he gets a chance, and that seems pretty well always. She helps him sometimes, and sometimes she keeps sober and abuses him. He kicked her down stairs the other night, and the children all screaming, and her shrieking, and him swearing. It was a nice time.”
Once more the machining interrupted the conversation, which thus was renewed from time to time in the pauses of the noise. The room being “tidied,” Mrs. Somerville sat down on the bed and taking up some pieces of cloth began to tack them together with needle and thread, ready for the machine. It never seemed to occur to her to rest even for a moment.
“Nellie's a quick one,” she remarked to Ned. “At the shop they
― 21 ―
always tell those who grumble what she earned one week. Twenty-four and six, wasn't it, Nellie? But they don't say she worked eighteen hours a day for it.”
Nellie flushed uneasily and Ned felt uncomfortable. Both thought of the repayment of the latter's friendly loan. The girl made her machine rattle still more hurriedly to prevent any further remarks trending in that direction. At last Mrs. Somerville, her tacking finished, got up and took the work from Nellie's hands.
“I'm not going to take your whole morning,” she said. “You don't get many friends from the bush to see you, so just go away and I'll get on. I'm much obliged to you as it is, Nellie.”
Nellie did not object. After wiping her hands, face and neck with her handkerchief she put on her gloves and hat. The sharp-faced woman was already at the machine and amid the din, which drowned their good-byes, they departed as they came. Ned felt more at ease when his feet felt the first step of the narrow creaking stairway. It is hardly a pleasant sensation for a man to be in the room of a stranger who, without any unfriendliness, does not seem particularly aware that he is there. They left the door open. Far down the stifling stairs Ned could hear the ceaseless whirring of the machine driven by the woman who slaved ceaselessly for her children's bread in this Sydney sink. He looked around for the children when they got to the alley again but could not see them among the urchins who lolled about half-suffocated now. The sun was almost overhead for they had been upstairs for an hour. The heat in this mere canyon path between cliffs of houses was terrible. Ned himself began to feel queerly.
“Let's get out of this, Nellie,” he said.
“How would you like never to be able to get out of it?” she answered, as they turned towards the bustling street, opposite to the way they had previously come.note
“Who's that Mrs. Somerville?” he asked, not answering.
“I got to know her when I lived there,” replied Nellie. “Her husband used to be well off, I fancy, but had bad luck and got down pretty low. There was a strike on at some building and he went on as a laborer, blacklegging. The pickets followed him to
― 22 ―
the house, abusing him, and made him stubborn, but I got her alone that night and talked to her and explained things a bit and she talked to him and next day he joined the union. Then he got working about as a labourer, and one day some rotten scaffolding broke, and he came down with it. The union got a few pounds for her, but the boss was a regular swindler who was always beating men out of their wages and doing anything to get contracts and running everything cheap, so there was nothing to be got out of him.”
“Did her husband die?”
“Yes, next day. She had three children and another came seven months after. One died last summer just before the baby was born. She's had a pretty hard time of it, but she works all the time and she generally has work.”
“It seems quite a favour to get work here,” observed Ned.
“If you were a girl you'd soon find out what a favour it is sometimes,” answered Nellie quietly, as they came out into the street.
― 23 ―
Shorn Like Sheep
“HOW many hours do you work?” asked Nellie of the waitress.
“About thirteen,” answered the girl, glancing round to see if the manager was watching her talking. “But it's not the hours so much. It's the standing.” note
“You're not doing any good standing now,” put in Ned. “Why don't you sit down and have a rest?”
“They don't let us,” answered the waitress, cautiously.
“What do they pay?” asked Nellie, sipping her tea and joining in the waitress' look-out for the manager.
“Fifteen! But they're taking girls on at twelve. Of course there's meals. But you've got to room yourself, and then there's washing, clean aprons and caps and cuffs and collars. You've got to dress, too. There's nothing left. We ought to get a pound.”
“S-s-s!” warned the waitress, straightening herself up as the manager appeared.
They were in a fashionable Sydney restaurant, on George-street, a large, painted, gilded, veneered, electro-plated place, full of mirrors and gas-fittings and white-clothed tables. It was not busy, the hour being somewhat late and the day Saturday, and so against the walls, on either side the long halls, were ranged sentinel rows of white-aproned, white-capped, black-dressed waitresses.
They were dawdling over their tea—Ned and Nellie were, not the waitresses—having dined exceedingly well on soup and fish and flesh and pudding. For Ned, crushed by more sight-seeing and revived by a stroll to the Domain and a rest by a fountain under shady trees, further revived by a thunderstorm that suddenly rolled up and burst upon them almost before they could reach the shelter of an awning, had insisted on treating Nellie to “a good dinner,” telling her that afterwards she could take him anywhere she liked but that meanwhile they would have something
― 24 ―
to cheer them up. And Nellie agreed, nothing loth, for she too longed for the momentary jollity of a mild dissipation, not to mention that this would be a favorable opportunity to see if the restaurant girls could not be organised. So they had “a good dinner.”
“This reminds me,” said Nellie, as she ate her fish, “of a friend of mine, a young fellow who is always getting hard up and always raising a cheque, as he calls it. He was very hard up a while ago, and met a friend whom he told about it. Then he invited his friend to go and have some lunch. They came here and he ordered chicken and that, and a bottle of good wine. It took his last half-sovereign. When he got the ticket the other man looked at him. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘if you live like this when you're hard up, how on earth do you live when you've got money?’” note
“What did he say?” asked Ned, laughing, wondering at the same time how Nellie came to know people who drank wine and spent half-sovereigns on chicken lunches.
“Oh! He didn't say anything much, he told me. He couldn't manage to explain, he thought, that when he was at work and easy in his mind he didn't care what he had to eat but that when he didn't know what he'd do by the end of the week he felt like having a good meal if he never had another. He thought that made the half-sovereign go furthest. He's funny in some things.”
“I should think he was, a little. How did you know him?”
“I met him where we're going tonight. He's working on some newspaper in Melbourne now. I haven't seen him or heard of him for months.”
She chatted on, rather feverishly.
“Did you ever read ‘David Copperfield?’”
Ned nodded, his mouth being full.
“Do you recollect how he used to stand outside the cookshops? It's quite natural. I used to. It's pretty bad to be hungry and it's just about as bad not to have enough. I know a woman who has a couple of children, a boy and a girl. They were starving once. She said she'd sooner starve than beg or ask anybody to help them, and the little girl said she would too. But the boy said he wasn't going to starve for anybody, and he wasn't going to beg either; he'd steal. And sure enough he slipped out and came back with two loaves that he'd taken from a shop. They lived on that for nearly a week.” Nellie laughed forcedly.note
― 25 ―
“What did they do then?” asked Ned serious1y.
“Oh! She had been doing work but couldn't get paid. She got paid.”
“Where was her husband?”
“Don't husbands die like other people?” she answered, pointedly. “Not that all husbands are much good when they can't get work or will always work when they can get it,” she added.
“Are many people as hard up as that in Sydney, Nellie?” enquired Ned, putting down his knife and fork.
“Some,” she answered. “You don't suppose a lot of the people we saw this morning get over well fed, do you? Oh, you can go on eating, Ned! It's not being sentimental that will help them. They want fair play and a chance to work, and your going hungry won't get that for them. There's lots for them and for us if they only knew enough to stop people like that getting too much.”
By lifting her eyebrows she drew his attention to a stout coarse loudly jewelled man, wearing a tall silk hat and white waistcoat, who had stopped near them on his way to the door. He was speaking in a loud dictatorial wheezy voice. His hands were thrust into his trouser pockets, wherein he jingled coins by taking them up and letting them fall again. The chink of sovereigns seemed sweet music to him. He stared contemptuously at Ned's clothes as that young man looked round; then stared with insolent admiration at Nellie. Ned became crimson with suppressed rage, but said nothing until the man had passed them.note
“Who is that brute?” he asked then.
“That brute! Why, he's a famous man. He owns hundreds of houses, and has been mayor and goodness knows what. He'll be knighted and made a duke or something. He owns the block where Mrs. Somerville lives. You ought to speak respectfully of your betters, Ned. He's been my landlord, though he doesn't know it, I suppose. He gets four shillings a week from Mrs. Somerville. The place isn't worth a shilling, only it's handy for her taking her work in, and she's got to pay him for it being handy. That's her money he's got in his pocket, only if you knocked him down and took it out for her you'd be a thief. At least, they'd say you were and send you to prison.”
“Who's the other, I wonder?” said Ned. “He looks more like a man.”
― 26 ―
The other was a shrewd-looking, keen-faced, sparely-built man, with somewhat aquiline nose and straight narrow forehead, not at all bad-looking or evil-looking and with an air of strong determination; in short, what one calls a masterful man. He was dressed well but quietly. A gold-bound hair watch guard that crossed his high-buttoned waistcoat was his only adornment; his slender hands, unlike the fat man's podgy fingers, were bare of rings. He was sitting alone, and after the fat man left him returned again to the reading of an afternoon paper while he lunched.
“His name's Strong,” said Nellie, turning to Ned with a peculiar smile. “That fat man has robbed me and this lean man has robbed you, I suppose. As he looks more like a man it won't be as bad though, will it?”
“What are you getting at, Nellie?” asked Ned, not understanding but looking at the shrewd man intently, nevertheless.
“Don't you know the name? Of course you don't though. Well, he's managing director of the Great Southern Mortgage Agency, a big concern that owns hundreds and hundreds of stations. At least, the squatters own the stations and the Agency owns the squatters, and he as good as owns the Agency. You're pretty sure to have worked for him many a time without knowing it, Ned.”
Ned's eyes flashed. Nellie had to kick his foot under the table for fear he would say or do something that would attract the attention of the unsuspecting lean man.
“Don't be foolish, Ned,” urged Nellie, in a whisper. “What's the good of spluttering?”
“Why, it was one of their stations on the Wilkes Downs that started cutting wages two years ago. Whenever a manager is particularly mean he always puts it down to the Agency. The Victorian fellows say it was this same concern that first cut wages down their way. And the New Zealanders too. I'd just like to ‘perform’ on him for about five minutes.”
Ned uttered his wish so seriously that Nellie laughed out loud, at which Ned laughed too.
“So he's the man who does all the mischief, is he?” remarked Ned, again glaring at his industrial enemy. “Who'd think it to look at him? He doesn't look a bad sort, does he?”
“He looks a determined man, I think,” said Nellie. “Mr. Stratton says he's the shrewdest capitalist in Australia and that
― 27 ―
he'll give the unions a big fight for it one of these days. He says he has a terrible hatred of unionism and thinks that there's no half-way between smashing them up and letting them smash the employers up. His company pays 25 per cent. regularly every year on its shares and will pay 50 before he gets through with it.”
“How! Out of fellows like you, Ned, who think themselves so mighty independent and can't see that they're being shorn like sheep, in the same way, though not as much yet, as Mrs. Somerville is by old Church and the fat brute, as you call him. But then you rather like it I should think. Anyway, you told me you didn't want to do anything ‘wild,’ only to keep up wages. You'll have to do something ‘wild’ to keep up wages before he finishes.”
“That's all right to talk, Nellie, but what can we do?” asked Ned, pulling his moustache.
“Hire him instead of letting him hire you,” answered Nellie, oracularly. “Those fat men are only good to put in museums, but these lean men are all right so long as you keep them in their place. They are our worst enemies when they're against us but our best friends when they're for us. They say Mr. Strong isn't like most of the swell set. He is straight to his wife and good to his children and generous to his friends and when he says a thing he sticks to it. Only he sees everything from the other side and doesn't understand that all men have got the same coloured blood.”
“How can we hire him?” said Ned, after a pause. “They own everything.”
Nellie shrugged her shoulders.
“You think we might take it,” said Ned.
Nellie shrugged her shoulders again.
“I don't see how it can be done,” he concluded.
“That's just it. You can't see how it can be done, and so nothing's done. Some men get drunk, and some men get religious, and others get enthusiastic for a pound a hundred. You haven't got votes up in Queensland, and if you had you'd probably give them to a lot of ignorant politicians. Men don't know, and they don't seem to want to know much, and they've got to be squeezed by men like him”—she nodded at Strong—“before they take any interest in themselves or in those who belong to them. For those
― 28 ―
who have an ounce of heart, though, I should think there'd been squeezing enough already.”
She looked at Ned angrily. The scenes of the morning rose before him and tied his tongue.
“How do you know all these jokers, Nellie?” he asked. He had been going to put the question a dozen times before but it had slipped him in the interest of conversation.
“I only know them by sight. Mrs. Stratton takes me to the theatre with her sometimes and tells me who people are and all about them.”
“Who's Mrs. Stratton? You were talking of Mr. Stratton, too, just now, weren't you?”
“Yes. The Strattons are very nice people, They're interested in the Labour movement, and I said I'd bring you round when I go to-night. I generally go on Saturday nights. They're not early birds, and we don't want to get there till half-past ten or so.”
“Half-past ten! That's queer time.”
“Yes, isn't it? Only —— ”
At that moment a waitress who had been arranging the next table came and took her place against the wall close behind Nellie. Such an opportunity to talk unionism was not to be lost, so Nellie unceremoniously dropped her conversation with Ned and enquired, as before stated, into the becapped girl's hours. The waitress was tall and well-featured, but sallow of skin and growing haggard, though barely 20, if that. Below her eyes were bluish hollows. She suffered plainly from the disorders caused by constant standing and carrying, and at this end of her long week was in evident pain. note
“You're not allowed to talk either?” she asked the waitress, when the manager had disappeared.
“No. They're very strict. You get fined if you're seen chatting to customers and if you're caught resting. And you get fined if you break anything, too. One girl was fined six shillings last week.”
“Why do you stand it? If you were up in our part of the world we'd soon bring 'em down a notch or two.” This from Ned.
“Out in the bush it may be different,” said the girl, identifying his part of the world by his dress and sunburnt face. “But in towns you've got to stand it.”
― 29 ―
“Couldn't you girls form a union?” asked Nellie.
“What's the use, there's plenty to take our places.”
“But if you were all in a union there wouldn't be enough.”
“Oh, we can't trust a lot of girls. Those who live at home and just work to dress themselves are the worst of the lot. They'd work for ten shillings or five.”
“But they'd be ashamed to blackleg if once they were got into the union,” persisted Nellie. “It's worth trying, to get a rise in wages and to stop fining and have shorter hours and seats while you're waiting.”
“Yes, it's worth trying if there was any chance. But there are so many girls. You're lucky if you get work at all now and just have to put up with anything. If we all struck they could get others to-morrow.”
“But not waitresses. How'd they look here, trying to serve dinner with a lot of green hands?” argued Nellie. “Besides, if you had a union, you could get a lot without striking at all. They know now you can't strike, so they do just exactly as they like.”
“They'd do what they —— ” began the waitress. Then she broke off with another “s-s-s” as the manager crossed the room again.
“They'd do what they like, anyway,” she began once more. “One of our girls was in the union the Melbourne waitresses started. They had a strike at one of the big restaurants over the manager insulting one of the girls. They complained to the boss and wanted the manager to apologise, but the boss wouldn't listen and said they were getting very nice. So at dinner time, when the bell rang, they all marched off and put on their hats. The customers were all waiting for dinner and the girls were all on strike and the boss nearly went mad. He was going to have them all arrested, but when the gentlemen heard what it was about they said the girls were right and if the manager didn't apologise they'd go to some other restaurant always. So the manager went to the girl and apologised.” note
“By gum!” interjected Ned. “Those girls were hummers.”
“I suppose the boss victimised afterwards?” asked Nellie, wiser in such matters.
“That's just it,” said the girl, in a disheartened tone. “In two or three weeks every girl who'd had anything to do with stirring the others up was bounced for something or other. The manager did what he liked afterwards.”
― 30 ―
“Just talk to the other girls about a union, will you?” asked Nellie. “It's no use giving right in, you know.”
“I'll see what some of them say, but there's a lot I wouldn't open my mouth to,” answered the waitress.
“What time do you get away on Thursdays?”
“Next Thursday I'm on till half-past ten.”
“Well, I'll meet you then, outside, to see what they say,” said Nellie. “My name's Nellie Lawton and some of us are trying to start a women's union. You'll be sure to be there?”
“All right,” answered the waitress, a little dubiously. Then she added more cordially, as she wrote out the pay ticket: “My name's Susan Finch. I'll see what I can do.”
So Ned and Nellie got up and, the former having paid at the counter, walked out into the street together. It was nearly three. The rain had stopped, though the sky was still cloudy and threatening. The damp afternoon was chilly after the sultry broiling morning. Neither of them felt in the mood for walking so at Nellie's suggestion they put in the afternoon in riding, on trams and 'busses, hither and thither through the mazy wilderness of the streets that make up Sydney.
Intuitively, both avoided talking of the topics that before had engaged them and that still engrossed their thoughts. For a while they chatted on indifferent matters, but gradually relapsed into silence, rarely broken. The impression of the morning walk, of Mrs. Somerville's poor room, of Nellie's stuffy street, came with full force to Ned's mind. What he saw only stamped it deeper and deeper.note
When, in a bus, they rode through the suburbs of the wealthy, past shrubberied mansions and showy villas, along roads where liveried carriages, drawn by high-stepping horses, dashed by them, he felt himself in the presence of the fat man who jingled sovereigns, of the lean man whose slender fingers reached north to the Peak Downs and south to the Murray, filching everywhere from the worker's hard-earned wage. When in the tram they were carried with clanging and jangling through endless rows of houses great and small, along main thoroughfares on either side of which crowded side-streets extended like fish-bones, over less crowded districts where the cottages were generally detached or semi-detached and where pleasant homely houses were thickly sprinkled, even here he wondered how near those who lived in happier state were to the life of the slum, wondered what
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struggling and pinching and scraping was going on behind the half-drawn blinds that made homes look so cosy.
What started him on this idea particularly was that, in one train, a grey-bearded propertied-looking man who sat beside him was grumbling to a spruce little man opposite about the increasing number of empty houses.
“You can't wonder at it,” answered the spruce little man. “When the working classes aren't prospering everybody feels it but the exporters. Wages are going down and people are living two families in a house where they used to live one in a house, or living in smaller houses.”
“Oh! Wages are just as high. There's been too much building. You building society men have overdone the thing.”
“My dear sir!” declared the spruce little man. “I'm talking from facts. My society and every other building society is finding it out. When men can't get as regular work it's the same thing to them as if wages were coming down. The number of surrenders we have now is something appalling. Working men have built expecting to be able to pay from 6s. to 10s. and 12s. a week to the building societies, and every year more and more are finding out they can't do it. As many as can are renting rooms, letting part of their house and so struggling along. As many more are giving up and renting these rooms or smaller houses. And apparently well-to-do people are often in as bad a fix. It's against my interest to have things this way, but it's so, and there's no getting over it. If it keeps on, pretty well every workingman's house about Sydney will be a rented house soon. The building societies can't stop that unless men have regular work and fair wages.”
“It's the unions that upset trade,” asserted the propertied-looking man.
“It's the land law that's wrong,” contended the spruce man. “If all taxes were put on unimproved land values it would be cheaper to live and there would be more work because it wouldn't pay to keep land out of use. With cheap living and plenty of work the workingman would have money and business would be brisk all round.”
“Nonsense!” exclaimed the propertied man, brusquely.
“It's so,” answered the spruce little man, getting down as the tram stopped, “There's no getting away from facts and that's fact.”
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So even out here, Ned thought, looking at the rows of cottages with little gardens in front which they were passing, the squeeze was coming. Then, watching the passengers, he thought how worried they all seemed, how rarely a pleasant face was to be met with in the dress of the people. And then, suddenly a shining, swaying, coachman-driven brougham whirled by. Ned, with his keen bushman's eyes, saw in it a stout heavy-jawed dame, large of arm and huge of bust, decked out in all the fashion, and insolent of face as one replete with that which others craved. And by her side, reclining at ease, was a later edition of the same volume, a girl of 17 or so, already fleshed and heavy-jawed, in her mimic pride looking for all the world like a well-fed human animal, careless and soulless.
Opposite Nellie a thin-faced woman, one of whose front teeth had gone, patiently dandled a peevish baby, while by her side another child clutched her dingy dust-cloak. This woman's nose was peaked and her chin receded. In her bonnet some gaudy imitation flowers nodded a vigorous accompaniment. She did not seem ever to have had pleasure or to have been young, and yet in the child by her side her patient joyless sordid life had produced its kind.
They had some tea and buttered scones in a cheaper café, where Nellie tried to “organise” another waitress. They lingered over the meal, both moody. They hardly spoke till Ned asked Nellie:
“I don't see what men can get to do but can't single women always get servants' places?”
“Some might who don't, though all women who want work couldn't be domestic servants, that's plain,” answered Nellie. “But by the number of girls that are always looking for places and the way the registry offices are able to bleed them, I should imagine there were any amount of servant girls already. The thing is there are so many girls that mistresses can afford to be particular. They want a girl with all the virtues to be a sort of house-slave, and they're always grumbling because they can't get it. So they're always changing, and the girls are always changing, and that makes the girls appear independent.”
“But they have good board and lodging, as well as wages, don't they?”
“In swell houses, where they keep two or three or more girls, they usually have good board and decent rooms, I think, but they
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don't in most places. Any hole or corner is considered good enough for a servant girl to sleep in, and any scraps are often considered good enough for a servant girl to eat. You look as though you don't believe it, Ned. I'm talking about what I know. The average domestic servant is treated like a trained dog.”
“Did you ever try it?”
“I went to work in a hotel as chamber maid, once. I worked from about six in the morning till after ten at night. Then four of us girls slept in two beds in a kind of box under the verandah stairs in the back yard. We had to leave the window open to get air, and in the middle of the first night a light woke me up and a man was staring through the window at us with a match in his hand. I wanted the twelve shillings so I stood it for a week and then got another place.” note
“What sort was that?”
“Oh! A respectable place, you know. Kept up appearances and locked up the butter. The woman said to me, when I'd brought my box, ‘I'm going to call you Mary, I always call my girls Mary.’ I slept in a dark close den off the kitchen, full of cockroaches that frightened the wits out of me. I was afraid to eat as much as I wanted because she looked at me so. I couldn't rest a minute but she was hunting me up to see what I was doing. I hadn't anybody to talk with or eat with and my one night out I had to be in by ten. I was so miserable that I went back to slop-work. That's what Mrs. Somerville is doing.”
“It isn't all honey, then. I thought town servant girls had a fair time of it.”
“An occasional one does, though they all earn their money, but most have a hard time of it. I don't mean all places are like mine were, but there's no liberty. A working girl's liberty is scanty enough, goodness knows”—she spoke scornfully—“but at least she mixes with her own kind and is on an equality with most she meets. When her work is over, however long it is, she can do just exactly as she likes until it starts again. A servant girl hasn't society or that liberty. For my part I'd rather live on bread again than be at the orders of any woman who despised me and not be able to call a single minute of time my own. They're so ignorant, most of these women who have servants, they don't know how to treat a girl any more than most of their husbands know how to treat a horse.”
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The naïve bush simile pleased Ned a little and he laughed, but soon relapsed again into silence. Then Nellie spoke of “Paddy's Market,” one of the sights of Sydney, which she would like him to see. Accordingly they strolled to his hotel, where he put on a clean shirt and a collar and a waistcoat, while she waited, looking into the shops near by; then they strolled slowly Haymarketwards, amid the thronging Saturday night crowds that overflowed the George-street pavement into the roadway.
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Saturday Night in Paddy's Market
notePADDY'S Market was in its glory, the weekly glory of a Sydney Saturday night, of the one day in the week when the poor man's wife has a few shillings and when the poor caterer for the poor man's wants gleans in the profit field after the stray ears of corn that escape the machine-reaping of retail capitalism. It was filled by a crushing, hustling, pushing mass of humans, some buying, more bartering, most swept aimlessly along in the living currents that moved ceaselessly to and fro. In one of these currents Ned found himself caught, with Nellie. He struggled for a short time, with elbows and shoulders, to make for himself and her a path through the press; experience soon taught him to forego attempting the impossible and simply to drift, as everybody else did, on the stream setting the way they would go.
He found himself, looking around as he drifted, in a long low arcade, brilliant with great flaring lights. Above was the sparkle of glass roofing, on either hand a walling of rough stalls, back and forward a vista of roofing and stalls stretching through distant arches, which were gateways, into outer darkness, which was the streets. On the stalls, as he could see, were thousands of things, all cheap and most nasty.
What were there? What were not there? Boots and bootlaces, fish and china ornaments, fruit, old clothes and new clothes, flowers and plants and lollies, meat and tripe and cheese and butter and bacon! Cheap music-sheets and cheap jewellery! Stockings and pie-dishes and bottles of ink! Everything that the common people buy! Anything by which a penny could be turned by those of small capital and little credit in barter with those who had less.
One old man's face transfixed him for a moment, clung to his memory afterwards, the face of an old man, wan and white, grey-bearded and hollow-eyed, that was thrust through some hosiery hanging on a rod at the back of a stall.note Nobody was buying there, nobody even looked to buy as Ned watched for a minute; the stream swept past and the grizzled face stared on. It had no
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body, no hands even, it was as if hung there, a trunkless head; it was the face of a generation grown old, useless and unloved, which lived by the crumbs that fall from Demos' table and waited wearily to be gone. It expressed nothing, that was the pain in it. It was haggard and grizzled and worn out, that was all. It knew itself no good to anybody, knew that labouring was a pain and thinking a weariness, and hope the delusion of fools, and life a vain mockery. It asked none to buy. It did not move. It only hung there amid the dark draping of its poor stock and waited.
Would he himself ever be like that, Ned wondered. And yet! And yet!
All around were like this. All! All! All! Everyone in this swarming multitude of working Sydney. On the faces of all was misery written. Buyers and sellers and passers-by alike were hateful of life. And if by chance he saw now and then a fat dame at a stall or a lusty huckster pushing his wares or a young couple, curious and loving, laughing and joking as they hustled along arm in arm, he seemed to see on their faces the dawning lines that in the future would stamp them also with the brand of despair.
The women, the poor women, they were most wretched of all; the poor housewives in their pathetic shabbiness, their faces drawn with child-bearing, their features shrunken with the struggling toil that never ceases nor stays; the young girls in their sallow youth that was not youth, with their hollow mirth and their empty faces, and their sharp angles or their unnatural busts; the wizened children that served at the stalls, precocious in infancy, with the wisdom of the Jew and the impudence of the witless babe; the old crones that crawled along—the mothers of a nation haggling for pennies as if they had haggled all their lives long. They bore baskets, most of the girls and housewives and crones; with some were husbands, who sometimes carried the basket but not always; some even carried children in their arms, unable even for an hour to escape the poor housewife's old-man-of-the-seas.
The men were absorbed, hidden away, in the flood of wearied women. There were men, of course, in the crowd, among the stallkeepers—hundreds. And when one noticed them they were wearied also, or sharp like ferrets; oppressed, overborne, or cunning, with the cunning of those who must be cunning to live; imbruted often with the brutishness of apathy, consciousless of
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the dignity of manhood, only dully patient or viciously keen as the ox is or the hawk. Many sottish-looking, or if not sottish with the beery texture of those whose only recreation is to be bestially merry at the drink-shop. This was the impression in which the few who strode with the free air of the ideal Australian workman were lost, as the few comfortable-seeming women were lost in the general weariness of their weary sex.
Jollity there was none to speak of. There was an eager huckling for bargains, or a stolid calculation of values, or a loud commendation of wares, or an oppressive indifference. Where was the “fair” to which of old the people swarmed, glad-hearted? Where was even the relaxed caution of the shopping-day? Where was the gay chaffering, the boisterous bandying of wit? Gone, all gone, and nothing left but care and sadness and a careful counting of hard-grudged silver and pence.
Ned turned his head once or twice to steal a glance at Nellie. He could not tell what she thought. Her face gave no sign of her feeling. Only it came home to him that there were none like her there, at least none like her to him. She was sad with a stern sadness, as she had been all day, and in that stern sadness of hers was a dignity, a majesty, that he had not appreciated until now, when she jostled without rudeness in this jostling crowd. This dark background of submissive yielding, of hopeless patience, threw into full light the unbending resolution carved in every line of her passionate face and lithesome figure. Yet he noticed now on her forehead two faint wrinkles showing, and in the corners of her mouth an overhanging fold; and this he saw as if reflected in a thousand ill-made mirrors around, distorted and exaggerated and grotesqued indeed but nevertheless the self-same marks of constant pain and struggle.
They reached the end of the first alley and passed out to the pavement, slippery with trodden mud. There was a little knot gathered there, a human eddy in the centre of the pressing throng. Looking over the heads of the loiterers, he could see in the centre of the eddy, on the kerb, by the light that came from the gateway, a girl whose eyes were closed. She was of an uncertain age—she might be twelve or seventeen. Beside her was a younger child. Just then she began to sing. He and Nellie waited. He knew without being told that the singer was blind.note
It was a hymn she sang, an old-fashioned hymn that has in its music the glad rhythm of the “revival,” the melodious echoing of
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the Methodist day. He recollected hearing it long years before, when he went to the occasional services held in the old bush schoolhouse by some itinerant preacher. He recalled at once the gathering of the saints at the river; mechanically he softly hummed the tune. It was hardly the tune the blind girl sang though. She had little knowledge of tune, apparently. Her cracked discordant voice was unspeakably saddenirg.note
This blind girl was the natural sequence to the sphinx-like head that he had seen amid the black stockings. Her face was large and flat, youthless, ageless, crowned with an ugly black hat, poorly ribboned; her hands were clasped clumsily on the skirt of her poor cotton dress, ill-fitting. There was no expression in her singing, no effort to express, no instinctive conception of the idea. The people only listened because she was blind and they were poor, and so they pitied her. The beautiful river of her hymn meant nothing, to her or to them. It might be; it might not be; it was not in question. She cried to them that she was blind and that the blind poor must eat if they would live and that they desire to live despite the city by-laws. She begged, this blind girl, standing with rent shoes in the sloppy mud. In Sydney, in 1889, in the workingman's paradise, she stood on the kerb, this blind girl, and begged—begged from her own people. And in their poverty, their weariness, their brutishness, they pitied her. None mocked, and many paused, and some gave.
They never thought of her being an impostor. They did not pass her on to the hateful charity that paid parasites dole out for the rich. They did not think that she made a fortune out of her pitifulness and hunt her with canting harshness as a nuisance and a cheat. Her harsh voice did not jar on them. Her discords did not shock their supersensitive ears. They only knew that they, blinded in her stead, must beg for bread and shelter while good Christians glut themselves and while fat law-makers whitewash the unpleasant from the sight of the well-to-do. In her helplessness they saw, unknowing it, their own helplessness, saw in her Humanity wronged and suffering and in need. Those who gave gave to themselves, gave as an impulsive offering to the divine impulse which drives the weak together and aids them to survive.
Ned wanted to give the blind girl something but he felt ashamed to give before Nellie. He fingered a half-crown in his pocket, with a bushman's careless generosity. By skilful
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manœuvring and convenient yielding to the pressure of the crowd he managed to get near the blind girl as she finished her hymn. Nellie turned round, looking away—he thought afterwards: was it intentionally?—and he slipped his offering into the singer's fingers like a culprit. Then he walked off hastily with his companion, as red and confused as though he had committed some dastardly act. Just as they reached the second arcade they heard another discordant hymn rise amid the shuffling din.note
There were no street-walkers in Paddy's Market, Ned could see. He had caught his foot clumsily on the dress of one above the town-hall, a dashing demi-mondaine with rouged cheeks and unnaturally bright eyes and a huge velvet-covered hat of the Gainsborough shape and had been covered with confusion when she turned sharply round on him with a “Now, clumsy, I'm not a door-mat.” note Then he had noticed that the sad sisterhood were out in force where the bright gas-jets of the better-class shops illuminated the pavement, swaggering it mostly where the kerbs were lined with young fellows, fairly-well dressed as a rule, who talked of cricket and race horses and boating and made audible remarks concerning the women, grave and gay, who passed by in the throng. Nearing the poorer end of George-street, they seemed to disappear, both sisterhood and kerb loungers, until near the Haymarket itself they found the larrikin element gathered strongly under the flaring lights of hotel-bars and music hall entrances. But in Paddy's Market itself there were not even larrikins. Ned did not even notice anybody drunk.
He had seen drinking and drunkenness enough that day. Wherever there was poverty he had seen viciousness flourishing. Wherever there was despair there was a drowning of sorrow in drink. They had passed scores of public houses, that afternoon, through the doors of which workmen were thronging. Coming along George street, they had heard from more than one bar-room the howling of a drunken chorus. Men had staggered by them, and women too, frowsy and besotted. But there was none of this in Paddy's Market. It was a serious place, these long dingy arcades, to which people came to buy cheaply and carefully, people to whom every penny was of value and who had none to throw away, just then at least, either on a brain-turning carouse or on a painted courtesan. The people here were sad and sober and sorrowful. It seemed to Ned that here was collected, as in the centre of a great vortex, all the pained and tired and ill-fed
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and wretched faces that he had been seeing all day. The accumulation of misery pressed on him till it sickened him at the heart. It felt as though something clutched at his throat, as though by some mechanical means his skull was being tightened on his brain. His thoughts were interrupted by an exclamation from Nellie.
“There's a friend of mine,” she explained, making her way through the crowd to a brown-bearded man who was seated on the edge of an empty stall, apparently guarding a large empty basket in which were some white cloths. The man's features were fine and his forehead massive, his face indicating a frail constitution and strong intellectuality. He wore an apron rolled up round his waist. He seemed very poor.note
“How d'ye do, Miss Lawton?” said he getting off the stall and shaking hands warmly. “It's quite an age since I saw you. You're looking as well as ever.” Ned saw that his thin face beamed as he spoke and that his dark brown eyes, though somewhat hectic, were singularly beautiful.
“I'm well, thanks,” said Nellie, beaming in return. “And how are you? You seem browner than you did. What have you been doing to yourself?”
“Me! I've been up the country a piece trying my hand at farming. Jones is taking up a selection, you know, and I've been helping him a little now times aren't very brisk. I'm keeping fairly well, very fairly, I'm glad to say.”
“This is Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Sim,” introduced Nellie; the men shook hands.
“Come inside out of the rush,” invited Sim, making room for them in the entrance-way of the stall. “We haven't got any armchairs, but it's not so bad up on the table here if you're tired.” note
“I'm not tired,” said Nellie, leaning against the doorway. Ned sat up on the stall by her side; his feet were sore, unused to the hard paved city streets.
“I suppose Mr. Hawkins is one of us,” said Sim, perching himself up again.
“I don't know what you call ‘one of us,’” answered Nellie, with a smile. “He's a beginner. Some day he may get as far as you and Jones and the rest of the dynamiters.”
Sim laughed genially. “Do you know, I really believe that Jones would use dynamite if he got an opportunity,” he commented. “I'm not joking. I'm positively convinced of it.”
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“Has he got it as bad as that?” asked Nellie. Ned began to feel interested. He also noticed that Sim used book-words.
“Has he got it as bad as that! ‘Bad’ isn't any name for it. He's the stubbornest man I ever met, and he's full of the most furious hatred against the capitalists. He has it as a personal feeling. Then the life he's got is sufficient to drive a man mad.”
“Selecting is pretty hard,” agreed Nellie, sadly.
“Nellie and I know a little about that, Mr. Sim,” said Ned.
“Well, Jones' selection is a hard one,” went on Sim, good-humouredly. “I prefer to sell trotters, when I sell out like this, to attempting it. The soil is all stones, and there is not a drop of water when the least drought comes on. Poor Jones toils like a team of horses and hardly gets sufficient to keep him alive. I never saw a man work as he does. For a man who thinks and has ideas to be buried like that in the bush is terrible. He has no one to converse with. He goes mooning about sometimes and muttering to himself enough to frighten one into a fit.”
“Does he still do any printing?” asked Nellie, archly.
“Oh, the printing,” answered Sim, laughing again. “He initiated me into the art of wood-engraving. You see, Mr. Hawkins”—turning to Ned—“Jones hasn't got any type, and of course he can't afford to buy it, but he's got hold of a little second-hand toy printing press. To print from he takes a piece of wood, cut across the grain and rubbed smooth with sand, and cuts out of it the most revolutionary and blood-curdling leaflets, letter by letter. If you only have patience it's quite easy after a few weeks' practice.” note
“Does he print them?” asked Ned
“Print them! I should say he did. Every old scrap of paper he can collect or get sent him he prints his leaflets on and gets them distributed all over the country. Many a night I've sat up assisting with the pottering little press. Talk about Nihilism! Jones vows that there is only one way to cure things and that is to destroy the rule of Force.”
“He's a long while starting,” remarked Nellie with a slight sneer. “Those people who talk so much never do anything.”
“Oh, Jones isn't like that,” answered Sim, with cheerful confidence. “He'll do anything that he thinks is worth while. But I suppose I'm horrifying you, Mr. Hawkins? Miss Lawton here knows what we are and is accustomed to our talk.”
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“It'll take considerable to horrify me,” replied Ned, standing down as Nellie straightened herself out for a move-on. “You can blow the whole world to pieces for all I care. There's not much worth watching in it as far as I can see.”
“You're pretty well an anarchist,” said the brown-bearded trotter-seller, his kindly intellectual face lighted up. “It'll come some day, that's one satisfaction. Do you think that many here will regret it?” He waved his hand to include the crowd that moved to and fro before them, its voices covered with the din of its dragging feet.
“That'll do, Sim!” said Nellie. “Don't stuff Ned's head with those absurd anarchistical night-mares of yours. We're going; we've got somewhere to go. Good-bye! Tell Jones you saw me when you write, and remember me to him, will you? I like him—he's so good-hearted, though he does rave.”
“He's as good-hearted a man as there is in New South Wales,” corroborated Sim, shaking hands. “I'm expecting to meet a friend here or I'd stroll along. Good-bye! Glad to have met you, Mr. Hawkins.”
He re-mounted the stall again as they moved off. In another minute he was lost to their sight as they were swallowed up once more in the living tide that ebbed and flowed through Paddy's Market.
After that Ned did not notice much, so absorbed was he. He vaguely knew that they drifted along another arcade and then crossed a street to an open cobble-paved space where there were shooting-tunnels and merry-go-rounds and try-your-weights and see-how-much-you-lifts. He looked dazedly at wizen-faced lads who gathered round ice-cream stalls, and at hungry folks who ate stewed peas. Everything seemed grimy and frayed and sordid; the flaring torches smelt of oil; those who shot, or ate, or rode, by spending a penny, were the envied of standers-by. Amid all this drumming and hawking and flaring of lights were swarms of boys and growing girls, precocious and vicious and foul-tongued.
Ten o'clock struck. “For God's sake, let us get out of this, Nellie!” cried Ned, as the ringing bell-notes roused him.
“Have you had enough of Sydney?” she asked, leading the way out.
“I've had enough of every place,” he answered hotly. She did not say any more.note
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As they stood in George-street, waiting for their 'bus, a high-heeled, tightly-corsetted, gaily-hatted larrikiness flounced out of the side door of a hotel near by. A couple of larrikin acquaintances were standing there, shrivelled young men in high-heeled pointed-toed shoes, belled trousers, gaudy neckties and round soft hats tipped over the left ear.note
“Hello, you blokes!” cried the larrikiness, slapping one on the shoulder. “Isn't this a blank of a time you're having?”
It was her ideal of pleasure, hers and theirs, to parade the street or stand in it, to gape or be gaped at.
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Were They Conspirators?
noteNEITHER Ned nor Nellie spoke as they journeyed down George-street in the rumbling 'bus. “I've got tickets,” was all she said as they entered the ferry shed at the Circular Quay. They climbed to the upper deck of the ferry boat in silence. He got up when she did and went ashore by her side without a word. He did not notice the glittering lights that encircled the murky night. He did not even know if it were wet or fine, or whether the moon shone or not. He was in a daze. The horrors of living stunned him. The miseries of poor Humanity choked him. The foul air of these noisome streets sickened him. The wretched faces he had seen haunted him. The oaths of the gutter children and the wailing of the blind beggar-girl seemed to mingle in a shriek that shook his very soul.
If he could have persuaded himself that the bush had none of this, it would have been different. But he could not. The stench of the stifling shearing-sheds and of the crowded sleeping huts where men are packed in rows like trucked sheep came to him with the sickening smell of the slums. On the faces of men in the bush he had seen again and again that hopeless look as of goaded oxen straining through a mud-hole, that utter degradation, that humble plea for charity. He had known them in Western Queensland often in spite of all that was said of the free, brave bush. It was not new to him, this dark side of life; that was the worst of it. It had been all along and he had known that it had been, but never before had he understood the significance of it, never before had he realised how utterly civilisation has failed. And this was what crushed him—the hopelessness of it all, the black despair that seemed to fill the universe, the brutal weariness of living, the ceaseless round of sorrow and sin and shame and unspeakable misery.
Often in the bush it had come to him, lying sleepless at night under the star-lit sky, all alone excepting for the tinkling of his horse-bell: “What is to be the end for me? What is there to look forward to?” And his heart had sunk within him at the
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prospect. For what was in front? What could be? Shearing and waiting for shearing—that was his life. Working over the sweating sheep under the hot iron shed in the sweltering summer time; growing sick and losing weight and bickering with the squatter till the few working months were over; then an occasional job, but mostly enforced idling till the season came round again; looking for work from shed to shed; struggling against conditions; agitating; organising; and in the future years, aged too soon, wifeless and childless, racked with rheumatism, shaken with fevers, to lie down to die on the open plain perchance or crawl, feebled and humbled, to the State-charity of Dunwich. He used to shut his eyes to force such thoughts from him, fearing lest he go mad, as were those travelling swagmen he met sometimes, who muttered always to themselves and made frantic gestures as they journeyed, solitary, through the monotonous wilderness. He had flung himself into unionism because there was nothing else that promised help or hope and because he hated the squatters, who took, as he looked at it, contemptible advantage of the bushmen. And he had felt that with unionism men grew better and heartier, gambling less and debating more, drinking less and planning what the union would do when it grew strong enough. He had worked for the union before it came, had been one of those who preached it from shed to shed and argued for it by smouldering camp fires before turning in. And he had seen the union feeling spread until the whole Western country throbbed with it and until the union itself started into life at the last attempt of the squatter to force down wages and was extending itself now as fast as even he could wish to see it. “We only want what is fair,” he had told Nellie; “we're not going in for anything wild. So long as we get a pound a hundred and rations at a fair figure we're satisfied.” And Nellie had shown him things which had struck him dumb and broken through the veneer of satisfaction that of late had covered over his old doubts and fears.
“What is to be the end for me?” he used to think, then force himself not to think in terror. Now, he himself seemed so insignificant, the union he loved so seemed so insignificant, he was only conscious for the time being of the agony of the world at large, which dulled him with the reflex of its pain. Oh, these puny foul-tongued children! Oh, these haggard weary women! Oh, these hopeless imbruted men! Oh, these young girls steeped
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in viciousness, these awful streets, this hateful life, this hell of Sydney. And beyond it—hell, still hell. Ah, he knew it now, unconsciously, as in a swoon one hears voices. The sorrow of it all! The hatefulness of it all! The weariness of it all! Why do we live? Wherefore? For what end, what aim? The selector, the digger, the bushman, as the townman, what has life for them? It is in Australia as all over the world. Wrong triumphs. Life is a mockery. God is not. At least, so it came gradually to Ned as he walked silently by Nellie's side.
They had turned down a tree-screened side road, descending again towards the harbour. Nellie stopped short at an iron gate, set in a hedge of some kind. A tree spanned the gateway with its branches, making the gloomy night still darker. The click of the latch roused her companion.
“Do you think it's any good living?” he asked her.
noteShe did not answer for a moment or two, pausing in the gateway. A break in the western sky showed a grey cloud faintly tinged with silver. She looked fixedly up at it and Ned, his eyes becoming accustomed to the gloom, thought he saw her face working convulsively. But before he could speak again, she turned round sharply and answered, without a tremor in her voice:
“I suppose that's a question everybody must answer for themselves.”
“Well, do you?”
“For myself, yes.”
“For others, too?”
“For most others, no.” The intense bitterness of her tone stamped her words into his brain.
“Then why for you any more than anybody else?”
“I'll tell you after. We must go in. Be careful! You'd better give me your hand!”
She led the way along a short paved path, down three or four stone steps, then turned sharply along a small narrow verandah. At the end of the verandah was a door. Nellie felt in the darkness for the bell-button and gave two sharp rings.
“Where are you taking me, Nellie?” he asked. “This is too swell a place for me. It looks as though everybody was gone to bed.”
In truth he was beginning to think of secret societies and mysterious midnight meetings. Only Nellie had not mentioned
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anything of the kind and he felt ashamed of acknowledging his suspicions by enquiring, in case it should turn out to be otherwise. Besides, what did it matter? There was no secret society which he was not ready to join if Nellie was in it, for Nellie knew more about such things than he did. It was exactly the place for meetings, he thought, looking round. Nobody would have dreamt that it was only half an hour ago that they two had left Paddy's Market. Here was the scent of damp earth and green trees and heavily perfumed flowers; the rustling of leaves; the fresh breath of the salt ocean. In the darkness, he could see only a semi-circling mass of foliage under the sombre sky, no other houses nor sign of such. He could not even hear the rumbling of the Sydney streets nor the hoarse whispering of the crowded city; not even a single footfall on the road they had come down. For the faint lap-lap-lapping of water filled the pauses, when the puffy breeze failed to play on its leafy pipes. Here a Mazzini might hide himself and here the malcontents of Sydney might gather in safety to plot and plan for the overthrow of a hateful and hated “law and order.” So he thought.note
“Oh, they're not gone to bed,” replied Nellie, confidently. “They live at the back. It overlooks the harbour that side. And you'll soon see they're not as swell as they look. They're splendid people. Don't be afraid to say just what you think.”
“I'm not afraid of that, if you're not.”
“Ah, there's someone.”
An inside door opened and closed again, then they heard a heavy footstep coming, which paused for a moment, whereat a flood of colour streamed through a stained glass fanlight over the door.
“That's Mr. Stratton,” announced Nellie.
Next moment the door at which they stood was opened by a bearded man, wearing loose grey coat and slippers.
“Hello, Nellie!” exclaimed this possible conspirator, opening the door wide. “Connie said it was your ring. Come straight in, both of you. Good evening, sir. Nellie's friends are our friends and we've heard so much of Ned Hawkins that we seem to have known you a long while.” He held out his hand and shook Ned's warmly, giving a strong, clinging, friendly grip, not waiting for any introduction. “Of course, this is Mr. Hawkins, Nellie?” he enquired, seriously, turning to that young woman, whose hands he took in both of his while looking quizzingly from Ned to her and back to Ned again.
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“Yes, of course,” she answered, laughing. Ned laughed. The possible conspirator laughed as he answered, dropping her hands and turning to shut the door :
“Well, it mightn't have been. By the way, Nellie, you must have sent an astral warning that you were coming along. We were just talking about you.”
They had been discussing Nellie in the Stratton circle, as our best friends will when we are so fortunate as to interest them.
In the pretty sitting-room that overlooked the rippling water, Mrs. Stratton perched on the music stool, was giving, amid many interjections, an animated account of the opera: a dark-haired, grey-eyed, full-lipped woman of 30 or so, with decidedly large nose and broad rounded forehead, somewhat under the medium height apparently but pleasingly plump as her evening dress disclosed. She talked rapidly, in a sweet expressive voice that had a strange charm. Her audience consisted of an ugly little man, with greyish hair, who stood at a bookcase in the corner and made his remarks over his shoulder; a gloomy young man, who sat in a reclining chair, with his arm hanging listlessly by his side; and a tall dark-moustached handsome man, broadly built, who sat on the edge of a table smoking a wooden pipe, and who, from his observations, had evidently accompanied her home from the theatre after the second act. There was also her husband, who leant over her, his back turned to the others, unhooking her fur-edged opera cloak, a tall fair brown bearded man, evidently the elder by some years, whose blue eyes were half hidden beneath a strongly projected forehead. He fumbled with the hooks of the cloak, passing his hands beneath it, smiling slyly at her the while. She, flushing like a girl at the touch, talked away while pressing her knee responsively against his. It was a little love scene being enacted of which the others were all unconscious unless for a general impression that this long-married couple were as foolishly in love as ever and indulged still in all the mild raptures of lovers.
“Ever so much obliged,” she said, pausing in her talk and looking at him at last, as he drew the cloak from her shoulders.
“You should be,” he responded, straightening himself out. “It's quite a labour unhooking one of you fine ladies.”
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“Don't call me names, Harry, or I'll get somebody else to take it off next time. I'm afraid it's love's labour lost. It's quite chilly, and I think I'll wrap it round me.”
“Well, if you will go about half undressed,” he commented, putting the cloak round her again.
“Half undressed! You are silly. The worst of this room is there's no fire in it. I think one needs a fire even in summer time, when it's damp, to take the chill off. Besides, as Nellie says, a blazing fire is the most beautiful picture you can put in a room.”
“Isn't Nellie coming to-night?” asked the man who smoked the wooden pipe.
“Why, of course, Ford. Haven't I told you she said on Thursday that she would come and bring the wild untamed bushman with her? Nellie always keeps her word.”
“She's a wonderful girl,” remarked Ford.
“Wonderful? Why wonderful is no name for it,” declared Stratton, lighting a cigar at one of the piano candles. “She is extraordinary.”
“I tell Nellie, sometimes, that I shall get jealous of her, Harry gets quite excited over her virtues, and thinks she has no faults, while poor I am continually offending the consistencies.”
“Who is Nellie?” enquired the ugly little man, turning round suddenly from the book case which he had been industriously ransacking.
“I like Geisner,” observed Mrs. Stratton, pointing at the little man. “He sees everything, he hears everything, he makes himself at home, and when he wants to know anything he asks a straightforward question. I think you've met her, though, Geisner.”
“Perhaps. What is her other name?”
“Lawton—Nellie Lawton. She came here once or twice when you were here before, I think, and for the last year or so she's been our—our—what do you call it, Harry? You know—the thing that South Sea Islanders think is the soul of a chief.” note
“You're ahead of me, Connie. But it doesn't matter; go on.”
“There's nothing to go on about. You ought to recollect her, Geisner. I'm sure you met her here.”
“I think I do. Wasn't she a tall, between-colours girl, quite young, with a sad face and queer stern mouth—a trifle cruel, the mouth, if I recollect. She used to sit across there by the piano, in a plain black dress, and no colour at all except one of your roses.” note
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“Good gracious! What a memory! Have you got us all ticketed away like that?”
“It's habit,” pleaded Geisner. “She didn't say anything, and only that she had a strong face, I shouldn't have noticed her. Has she developed?”
“Something extraordinary,” struck in Stratton, puffing great clouds of smoke. “She speaks French, she reads music, she writes uncommonly good English, and in some incomprehensible way she has formed her own ideas of Art. Not bad for a dressmaking girl who lives in a Sydney back street and sometimes works sixteen hours a day, is it?” note
“Well, no. Only you must recollect, Stratton, that if she's been in your place pretty often, most of the people she meets here must have given her a wrinkle or two.”
“You're always in opposition, Geisner,” declared Mrs. Stratton. “I never heard you agree with anybody else's statement yet. Nellie is wonderful. You can't shake our faith in that. There is but one Womanity and Nellie is its prophet.”
“It's all right about her getting wrinkles here, Geisner,” contributed Ford, “for of course she has. It was what made her, Mrs. Stratton getting hold of her. But at the same time she is extraordinary. When she's been stirred up I've heard her tackle the best of the men who come here and down them. On their own ground too. I don't see how on earth she has managed to do it in the time. She's only twenty now.” note
“I'll tell you, if you'll light the little gas stove for me, Ford, and put the kettle on,” said Mrs. Stratton, drawing her cloak more tightly round her shoulders. “I know some of you men don't believe it, but it is the truth nevertheless that Feeling is higher than Reason. Isn't it chilly? You see, after all, you can only reason as to why you feel. Well, Nellie feels. She is an artist. She has got a soul.”
“What do you call an artist?” queried Geisner, partly for the sake of the argument, partly to see the little woman flare up.
“An artist is one who feels—that's all. Some people can fashion an image in wood or stone, or clay, or paint, or ink, and then they imagine that they are the only artists, when in reality three-quarters of them aren't artists at all but the most miserable mimics and imitators—highly trained monkeys, you know. Nellie is an artist. She can understand dumb animals and hear music in the wind and the waves, and all sorts of things. And
― 51 ―
to her the world is one living thing, and she can enjoy its joys and worry over its sorrows, and she understands more than most why people act as they do because she feels enough to put herself in their place. She is such an artist that she not only feels herself but impels those she meets to feel. Besides, she has a freshness that is rare nowadays. I'm very fond of Nellie.”
“Evidently,” said Geisner; “I've got quite interested. Is she dressmaking still?”
“Yes; I wanted her to come and live with us but she wouldn't. Then Harry got her a better situation in one of the government departments. You know how those things are fixed. But she wouldn't have it. You see she is trying to get the girls into unions.”
“Then she is in the movement?” asked Geisner, looking up quickly.
Mrs. Stratton lifted her eye-brows. “In the movement! Why, haven't you understood? My dear Geisner, here we've been talking for fifteen minutes and—there's Nellie's ring. Harry, go and open the door while I pour the coffee.”
The opera cloak dropped from her bare shoulders as she rose from the stool. She had fine shoulders, and altogether was of fashionable appearance, excepting that there was about her the impalpable, but none the less pronounced, air of the woman who associates with men as a comrade. As she crossed the room to the verandah she stopped beside the gloomy young man, who had said nothing. He looked up at her affectionately.
“You are wrong to worry,” she said, softly. “Besides, it makes you bad company. You haven't spoken to a soul since we came in. For a punishment come and cut the lemon.”
They went out on to the verandah together, her hand resting on his arm. There, on a broad shelf, a kettle of water was already boiling over a gas stove.
“What are you thinking of,” she chattered. “We shall have some more of your ferocious poetry, I suppose. I notice that about you, Arty. Whenever you get into your blue fits you always pour out blood and thunder verses. The bluer you are the more volcanic you get. When you have it really bad you simply breathe dynamite, barricades, brimstone, everything that is emphatic. What is it this time?” note
He laughed. “Why won't you let a man stay blue when he feels like it?”
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She did not seem to think an answer necessary, either to his question or her own. “Have you a match?” she went on. “Ah! There is one thing in which a man is superior to woman. He can generally get a light without running all over the house. That is so useful of him. It's his one good point. I can't imagine how any woman can tolerate a man who doesn't smoke. I suppose one gets used to it, though.”
He laughed again, turning up the gas-jet he had lighted, which flickered in the puffs of wind that came off the water below. “I could tell you a good story about that.”
“That is what I like, a good story. Gas is a nuisance. I wish we had electric lights. Sydney only wants two things to be perfect, never to rain and moonlight all the time. Why I declare! If there aren't Hero and Leander! Well, of all the spooniest, unsociable, selfish people, you two are the worst. You haven't even had the kindness to let us know you were in all the time, and you actually see Arty and me toiling away at the coffee without offering to help. I've given you up long ago, Josie, but I did expect better things of you, George.”
While she had been speaking, pouring the boiling water into the coffee-pot meanwhile, Arty cutting lemons into slices, the two lovers discovered by the flickering gaslight got out of a hammock slung across the end of the verandah and came forward.
“You seemed to be getting along so well we didn't like to disturb you, Mrs. Stratton,” explained George, shaking hands. He was bronzed and bright-eyed, not handsome but strong and kindly-looking; he had a kindly voice, too; he wore a white flannel boating costume under a dark cloth coat. Josie also wore a sailor dress of dark blue with loose white collar and vest; a scarlet wrap covered her short curly hair; her skin was milk-white and her features small and irregular. Josie and Connie could never be mistaken for anything but sisters, in spite of the eleven years between them. Only Josie was pretty and plastic and passionless, and Connie was not pretty nor plastic nor passionless. They were the contrast one sees so often in children kin-born of the summer and autumn of life.
“Don't tell me!” said Mrs. Stratton. “I know all about that.”
“Connie knows,” said Josie, putting her arms over her sister's shoulders—the younger was the taller—and drawing her face back. “Do you know, Arty, I daren't go into a room in a house I know without knocking. The lady has been married twelve
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years and when her husband is away he writes to her every day, and though they have quite big children they send them to bed and sit for hours in the same chair, billing and cooing. I've known them—”
“I wonder who they can be,” interrupted Mrs. Stratton, twisting herself free, her face as red as Josie's shawl. “There's Nellie's voice. They'll be wondering what we're doing here. Do come along!” And seizing a tray of cups and saucers, on which she had placed the coffeepot and the saucer of sliced lemon, she beat a dignified retreat amid uproarious laughter.
Ned found himself in a narrow hall that ran along the side of the house at right angles to the verandah and the road. The floor was covered with oil-cloth; the walls were hung with curios, South Sea spears and masks, Japanese armour, boomerangs, nullahs, a multitude of quaint workings in wood and grass and beads. Against the wall facing the door was an umbrella stand and hat rack of polished wood, with a mirror in the centre. There were two pannelled doors to the left; a doorless stairway, leading downwards, and a large window to the right; at the end of the passage a glazed door, with coloured panes. A gas jet burned in a frosted globe noteand seeing him look at this Stratton explained the contrivance for turning the light down to a mere dot which gave no gleam but could be turned up again in a second.note
“My wife is enthusiastic about household invention,” he concluded, smiling. “She thinks it assists in righting women's wrongs. Eh, Nellie? The freed and victorious female will put her foot on abject man some day? Eh?”
Nellie laughed again. She held the handle of the nearest door in one hand. Mr. Stratton had turned to take Ned's hat, apologising for neglecting to think of that before. Ned saw the girl's other hand move quickly up to where the gas bracket met the wall and then the light went out altogether. “That's for poking fun,” he heard her say. The door slammed, a key turned in it and he heard her laughing on the other side.
“Larrikin!” shouted Stratton, boisterously. “Come out here and see what we'll do to you. She's always up to her tricks,” he added, striking a match and turning the gas on again. “She is a fine girl. We are as fond of her as though she were one of the family. She is one of the family, for that matter.”
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Ned hardly believed his ears or his eyes, either. He had not seen Nellie like this before. She had been grave and rather stern. Only at the gate he had thought he detected in her voice a bitterness which answered well to his own bitter heartache; he had thought he saw on her face the convulsive suppression of intense emotion. Certainly this very day she had shown him the horrors of Sydney and taught him, as if by magic, the misery of living. Now, she laughed lightly and played a trick with the quickness of a thoughtless school girl. Besides, how did it happen that she was so at home in this house of well-to-do people, and so familiar with this man of a cultured class? Ned did not express his thoughts in such phrases of course, but that was the effect of them. He had laughed, but he was still sad and sick at heart and somehow these pleasantries jarred on him. It looked as if there were some secret understanding certainly, some bond that he could not distinguish, between the girl of the people and this courteous gentleman. Nellie had told him simply that the Strattons were “interested in the Labour movement” and were very nice, but Stratton spoke of her as “one of the family” and she turned out his gas and locked one of his own doors in his face. If it was a secret society, well and good, no matter how desperate its plan. But why did they laugh and joke and play tricks? He was not in the humour. For the time his soul abhorred what seemed to him frippery. He sought intuitively to find relief in action and he began impatiently to look for it here.
“Hurry, Nellie!” cried Stratton. “Coffee's nearly ready.”
“You won't touch me?” answered her merry voice.
“No, we'll forgive you this once, but look out for the next time.”
She opened the door forthwith and stepped out quickly. Ned caught a glimpse of a large bedroom through the doorway. She had taken off her hat and gloves and smoothed the hair that lay on her neck in a heavy plait. At the collar of the plain black dress that fell to her feet over the curving lines of her supple figure she had placed a red rose, half blown. She was tall and straight and graceful, more than beautiful in her strong fresh womanhood, as much at home in such a house as this as in the wretched room where he had watched her sewing slop-clothes that morning. His aching heart went out towards her in a burst of unspoken feeling which he did not know at the time to be Love.
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“Mrs. Stratton always puts a flower for me. She loves roses.” So she said to Ned, seeing him looking astonishedly at her. Then she slipped one hand inside the arm that Stratton bent towards her, and took hold of Ned's arm with the other. Stratton turned down the gas. Linked thus together the three went cautiously down the dim passage hall-way, towards the glass door through one side of which coloured light came.
“Anybody particular here?” asked Nellie.
“That's a nice question,” retorted Stratton. “Geisner is here, if you call him ‘anybody particular.’”
“Geisner! Is he back again?” exclaimed the girl. Ned felt her hand clutch him nervously. A sudden repulsion to this Geisner shot through him. He pulled his arm from her grasp.
They had reached the end of the passage, however, and she did not notice. Stratton turned the handle and opened the door, held back the half-drawn curtain that hung on the further side and they passed in. “Here we are,” he cried. “Geisner says he recollects you, Nellie.”
noteNed could have described the room to the details if he had been struck blind that minute. It was a double room, long and low and not very broad, running the whole width of the house, for there were windows on two sides and French lights on another. The glazed door opened in the corner of the windowless side. Opposite were the French lights, the further one swung ajar and showing a lighted verandah beyond from which came a flutter of voices. Beyond still were dim points of light that he took at first for stars. Folding doors, now swung right back, divided the long linoleum-floored room into two apartments, a studio and a sitting-room. The studio in which they stood was littered with things strange to him; an easel, bearing a half-finished drawing; a black-polished cabinet; a table-desk against the window, on it slips of paper thrown carelessly about, the ink-well open, a file full of letters, a handful of cigarettes, a tray of tobacco ash, a bespattered palette, pens, coloured crayons, a medley of things; a revolving office chair, with a worn crimson footrug before it; a many-shelved glass case against the blank wall, crammed to overflowing with shells and coral and strange grasses, with specimens of ore, with Chinese carvings, with curious lacquer-work; a large brass-bound portfolio stand; on the painted walls plaster-casts of hands and arms and feet, boxing gloves, fencing foils, a glaring tiger's
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head, a group of photographs; in the corner, a suit of antique armour stood sentinel over a heap of dumb-bells and Indian clubs.
In the sitting room beyond the folded doors, a soft coloured rug carpet lay loosely on the floor. There were easy chairs there and a red lounge that promised softness; a square cloth-covered table; a whatnot in the corner; fancy shelves; a pretty walnut-wood piano, gilt lined, the cover thrown back, laden with music; on the music-stool a woman's cloak was lying, on the piano a woman's cap. A great book-case reached from ceiling to floor, filled with books, its shelves fringed with some scalloped red stuff. Everywhere were nick-nacks in china, in glass, in terra-cotta, in carved woods, in ivory; photo frames; medallions. On the walls, bright with striped hangings, were some dainty pictures. Half concealed by the hangings was another door. Lying about on the table, here and there on low shelves, were more books. The ground-glass globes of the gaslights were covered with crimson shades. There was a subdued blaze of vivid colouring, of rich toned hues, of beautiful things loved and cherished, over all. Sitting on the edge of the table was the moustached man who smoked the wooden pipe. And turning round from the book-case, an open book in his hand, was the ugly little man. Ned felt that this was Geisner.
The ugly little man put down his book, and came forward holding out his hand. He smiled as he came. Ned was angered to see that when he smiled his face became wonderfully pleasant.note
“Yes; I think we know one another, Miss Lawton,” he said, meeting them on the uncarpeted floor.
“I am so glad you are here to-night,” she replied, greeting him warmly, almost effusively. “I recollect you so well. And Ned will know you, too—Mr. Geisner, Mr. Hawkins.” Ned felt his reluctantly extended hand enclosed in a strong friendly clasp.
“Hawkins is the Queenslander we were expecting,” said Stratton cheerfully. “You will excuse my familiarity, won't you?” he added, laying his hand on Ned's shoulder. “We don't ‘Mister’ our friends much here. I think it sounds cold and distant; don't you?”
“We don't ‘Mister’ much where I come from,” answered Ned. He felt at home already. The atmosphere of kindness in this place stole over him and prevented him thinking that it was too “swell” for him.note
“I don't know Queensland much ——, ” Geisner was beginning, when the farther verandah door was swung wide and the dark-
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haired little woman swept in, tray in hand, the train of her dress trailing behind her.
“I heard you, Nellie dear,” she cried. “That unfeeling Josie was saying the cruellest things to me. I feel as red as red.” Putting the tray down on the table she hurried to them, threw her plump bare arms round Nellie's neck and kissed her warmly on both cheeks. Then she drew back quickly and raised her finger threateningly. “Worrying again, Nellie, I can tell. My word! What with you and what with Arty I'm made thoroughly wretched. You mayn't think so to look at me, Mr. Hawkins,” she rattled on, holding out her hand to Ned; “but it is so. You see I know you. I heard Nellie introducing you. That husband of mine must leave all conventionalism to his guests, it seems. You're incorrigible, Harry.”
There was a welcome in her every word and look. She put him on a friendly footing at once.
“You have enough conventionalism to-night for us both, my fine lady,” twitted Stratton, pinching her arm.
“Stop that! Stop, this minute! Nellie, hit him for me. Mr. Hawkins, this is Bohemia. You do as you like. You say what you like. You are welcome to-night for Nellie's sake. You will be welcome always because I like your looks. I do, Harry, so there. And I'm going to call you Ned because Nellie always does. Oh! I forgot—Mr. Hawkins, Mr. Ford. Mr. Ford thinks he can cartoon. I don't know what you think you can do. And now, everybody, come to coffee.” note
The others came in from the verandah, still laughing, whereat Mrs. Stratton flushed red again and denounced Josie and George for hiding away, then introduced them and Arty to Ned. There was a babel of conversation for awhile, Josie and George talking of their boating, Connie and Ford of the opera, Stratton and Arty of a picture they had seen that evening. Geisner sat by Ned and Nellie, the three chatting of the beauty of Sydney harbour, the little man waxing indignant at the vandalism which the naval authorities were perpetrating on Garden Island. Mrs Stratton, all the time, attended energetically to her coffee-pot: Finally she served them all, in small green-patterned china cups, with strong black coffee guiltless of milk, in each cup a slice of lemon floating, in each saucer a biscuit.note
“I hope you like your coffee, Ned,” she exclaimed, a moment
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after. “I forgot to ask you. I'm always forgetting to ask newcomers. You see all the ‘regulars’ like it this way.”
“I've never tasted it this way before,” answered Ned. “I suppose liking it's a habit, like smoking. I think I'll try it.”
She nodded, being engaged in slowly sipping her own. Geisner looked at Ned keenly. There was silence for a little while, broken only by the clatter of cups and an occasional observation. From outside came the ceaseless lap-lap-lapping of the waves, as if rain water was gurgling down from the roof.
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“We Have Seen the Dry Bones Become Men”
NED'S thoughts were in tumult, as he sat balancing his spoon on his cup after forcing himself to swallow the, to him, unpleasant drink that the others seemed to relish so. There were no conspirators here, that was certain. Nellie he could understand being one, even with the red rose at her neck, but not this friendly chattering woman whose bare arms and shoulders shimmered in the tinted light and from whose silk dress a subtle perfume stole all over the room; and most certainly not this pretty, mild-looking girl in sailor-costume who appeared from the previous conversation to have passed the evening swinging in a hammock with her sweetheart. And the men! Why, they got excited over music and enraptured over the “tone” of somebody's painting, while Geisner had actually gone back to the book-case, coffee cup in hand, and stood there nibbling a biscuit and earnestly studying the titles of books. It was pleasant, of course, too pleasant. It seemed a sin to enjoy life like this on the very edge of the horrible pit in which the poor wore festering like worms in an iron pot. Was it for this that Nellie had brought him here? To idle away an evening among well-meaning people who were “interested in the Labour movement” and in some strange way, some whim probably, had taken to this working girl who in her plain black dress queened them all. He looked round the room and hated it. To his sickened soul its beauty blasphemed the lot of the toilers, insulted the wretchedness, the foulness, the hideousness, that he had seen this very day, that he had known and struggled against, all unconsciously, throughout his wayward life. And Geisner, Geisner at whom Nellie was looking fondly, Geisner who he supposed had written a book or a bit of poetry or could play the flute, and who raved about the spoiling of a bit of an islandnote when the happiness of millions upon millions was being spoiled—well, he would just like to tell Geisner what he thought of him in emphatic bush lingo. Nellie, herself, seemed peacefully happy. Yet Mrs. Stratton had accused her of “worrying.”
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When Ned thought of this he felt as he did when fording a strange creek, running a banker. He did not know what was underneath.
“Try a cigar, Hawkins?” asked Stratton, pushing a box towards him.
“Thank you, but I don't smoke.”
“Don't you really! Do you know I thought all bushmen were great smokers.”
“Some are and some aren't,” said Ned. “We're not all built to one pattern any more than folks in town.”
“That's right, Ned,” put in Connie, suddenly recollecting that she was chilly. “Will you hand me my cloak, please? You see,” she went on as he brought it, “Harry imagines every bushman as just six feet high, proportionally broad, with bristling black beard streaked with grey, longish hair, bushy eyebrows, bloodshot eyes, moleskins, jean shirt, leathern belt, a black pipe, a swag—you call it ‘swag,’ don't you?—over his shoulders, and a whisky bottle in his hand whenever he is ‘blowing in his cheque,’ which is what Nellie says you call ‘going on the spree.’ Complimentary, isn't it?”
“Connie's libelling both me and my typical bushman,” said Stratton, lighting his cigar, having passed the box around. Ned was laughing against his will. Connie had mimicked her husband's imaginary bushman in a kindly humorous way that was very droll.
The musical debate had started up again behind them. Ford and George argued for the traditional rendering of music. Nellie and Arty battled for the musical zeit-geist, the national sense that sees through mere notation to the spirit that breathes behind. They waxed warm and threw authorities and quotations about, hardly waiting for each other to finish what they wished to say. Connie turned round to the disputants and threw herself impetuously into the quarrel, strengthening with her wit and trained criticism the cause of the zeit-geist. Stratton, to Ned's surprise, putting his arms over her shoulders, opposed her arguments and controverted her assertions with unsparing keenness. Josie leaned back on the lounge and smiled across at Ned. The smile said plainly: “It really doesn't matter, does it?” Ned, fuming inwardly, thought it certainly did not. What a waste of words when the world outside needed deeds! This verbiage was as
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empty as the tobacco smoke which began to hang about the room in bluish clouds.
Suddenly Mrs. Stratton stood up. “Geisner!” she cried. “I'm ashamed of you. You hear us getting overwhelmed by these English heresies, and you don't come to the rescue. We have talked ourselves dry and you haven't said a word. Who says wine?”
noteGeisner slowly put down his book and went to the piano. “This is the only argument worth the name,” he said. He ran his fingers over the keys, struck two or three chords apparently at hap-hazard, then sat down to play. A volume of sound rose, of clashing notes in fierce, swinging movement, a thrilling clamour of soul-stirring melody, at once short and sharp and long-drawn, at once soft as a mother's lullaby and savage as a hungry tiger's roar. It was the song of the world, the Marseillaise, the song that rises in every land when the oppressed rise against the oppressor, the song that breathes of wrongs to be revenged and of liberty to be won, of flying foes in front and a free people marching, and of blood shed like water for the idea that makes all nations kin. The hand of a master struck the keys and brought the notes out, clear and rhythmic, full strong notes that made the blood boil and the senses swim.note
As the glorious melody rose and fell, sinking to a murmur, swelling out in heroic strains that rang like trumpet pealings, a great lump rose in Ned's throat and a mist of unquenchable tears filled his eyes. Roget de Lisle, dead and dust for generations, rose from the silent grave and spoke to him, spoke as heart speaks to heart, spoke and called and lived and breathed and was there, spoke of tortured lives and enslaved millions and of the fetid streets of great towns and of the slower anguish of the plundered country side, spoke of an Old Order based on the robbery of those who labour and on their weakness and on their ignorant sloth, spoke of virtue trampled down and little children weeping and Humanity bleeding at every pore and womanhood shamed and motherhood made a curse, spoke of all he hated and all he loved, pilloried the Wrong in front of him and bade him—to arms, to arms. “To arms!” with the patriot army whose trampling was the background of the music. “To arms!” with those whose desperate hands feared nothing and at whose coming thrones melted and kingdoms vanished and tyranny fled. To arms! To certain victory! To crash forward like a flood and
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sweep before the armed people all those who had worked it wrong!
Down Ned's cheeks the great tears rolled. He did not heed them. Why did not some one beat this mighty music through the Sydney slums, through those hateful back streets, through those long endless rows of mortgaged cottages and crowded apartment-houses? Why was it not carried out to the great West, hymned from shed to shed, told of in the huts and by the waterholes, given to the diggers in the great claims, to the drovers travelling stock, borne wherever a man was to be found who had a wrong to right and a long account to square? Ah! How they would all leap to it! How they would swell its victorious chanting and gather in their thousands and their hundred thousands to march on, march on, tramping time to its majestic notes! If he could only take it to them! If he could only make them feel as he felt! If he could only give to them in their poverty and misery all this wondrous music sounding here in this luxurious room! He could not; he could not. This Geisner could and would not, and he who would could not. The tears rained down his cheeks because of his utter impotence.
The music stopped. With a start he came to himself, ashamed of his weakness, and hastily blew his nose, fussing pretentiously with his handkerchief. But only one had noticed him—Geisner, who seemed to see and hear everything. Connie was sobbing quietly with her arms round Harry's neck, holding his head closely to her as he bent over her chair; all the while her foot beat time. Arty had suddenly grown moody again and sat with bent head, his cigar gone out in his listless hand. Ford had got up and was perched again on a corner of the table, smoking critically, apparently wholly engaged in watching the smoke wreaths he blew. George and Josie had taken each other's hands and sat breathlessly side by side on the lounge. Nellie lay back in her chair, her face flushed, a twisted handkerchief stretched over her eyes by both hands.note
“I think that's the official version,” observed Geisner, running his fingers softly over the keys again.
“It's above disputation, whatever it is,” remarked Ford.
“Why should it be, if all true music isn't? And why should not this be the best rendering?”
He struck the grand melody again and it sounded softened, spiritualised, purified. Its fierce clamour, its triumphant crashing,
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were gone. It told of defeat and overthrow, of martyrs walking painfully to death, of prison cells and dungeons that never see the sun, of life-work unrewarded, of those who give their lives to Liberty and die before its shackled limbs are struck free. But it told, too, of an ideal held more sacred than life, rising ever from defeat, filling men's hearts and brains and driving them still to raise again the flag of Freedom against hopeless odds. It was a death march rolling out, the death march of sad-souled patriots going sorrowfully to seal their faith with all their earthly hopes and human loves and to meet, calm and pale, all that Fate has in store. They said to Liberty: “In death we salute thee.” Without seeing her or knowing her, while the world around still slept in ignorance of her, they gave all up for her and in darkness died. Only they knew that there was no other way, that unless each man of himself dared to raise the chant and march forward alone, if need be, Liberty could never be.note
“Well,” said Geisner, coming unconcernedly into the circle where they sat in dead silence. “Don't you think the last rendering is the best, and isn't it the best simply because it expresses the composer's idea in the particular phase that we feel most at this present time?”
“Gracious! Don't start the argument again!” entreated Connie, vivacious again, though her eyes were red. “You'll never convert Ford or George or Harry here. They'll always have some explanation. Puritanism crushed the artistic sense out of the English, and they are only getting it back slowly by a judicious crossing with other peoples who weren't Puritanised into Philistinism. England has no national music. She has no national painting. She has no national sculpture. She has to borrow and adapt everything from the Continent. I nearly said she has no art at all.”
“Here, I say,” protested Ford. “Aren't you coming it a little too strong? You've got the floor, Geisner. I've heard you stand up for English Art. Stand up now, won't you?” note
“Does it need standing up for?” asked Geisner. “Why, Connie doesn't forget that Puritanism with all its faults was in its day a religious movement, that is an emotional fervour, a veritable poem. That the Puritan cut love-locks off, wore drab, smashed painted windows and suppressed instrumental music in churches, is no proof of their being utterly inartistic. Their art-sense would simply find vent and expression in other
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directions if it existed strongly enough. And what do we find? This, that the Puritan period produced two of the masterpieces of English Art—Milton's ‘Paradise Lost’ and Bunyan's ‘Pilgrim's Progress.’ As an absolute master of English, of sentences rolling magnificently in great waves of melodious sound, trenchant in every syllable, not to be equalled even by Shakespeare himself, Milton stands out like a giant. As for Bunyan, the Englishman who has never read ‘Pilgrim's Progress’ does not know his mother tongue.”
“Oh! Of course, we all admit English letters,” interjected Connie.
“Do we?” answered Geisner, warming with his theme. “I'm not so sure of that; else, why should English people themselves put forward claims to excellencies which their nation has not got, and why should others dub them inartistic because of certain things lacking in the national arts? As far as music goes what has France got if you take away the Marseillaise? It is Germany, the kin of the English, which has the modern music. France has painting, England has literature and poetry—in that she leads the whole world.”
“Still, to-day! How about Russia? How about France even—Flaubert, Zola, Daudet, Ohnet, a dozen more?”
“Still! Ay, still and ever! Will these men live as the English writers live, think you? Look back a thousand years and see English growing, see how it comes to be the king of languages, destined, if civilisation lasts, to be the one language of the civilised world. There, in the Viking age, the English sweep the seas, great burly brutes, as Taine shows them to us, gorging on half-raw meat, swilling huge draughts of ale, lounging naked by the sedgy brooks under the mist-softened sun that cannot brown their fair pink bodies, until hunger drives them forth to foray; drinking and fighting and feasting and shouting and loving as Odin loved Frega. And the most honoured of all was the singer who sang in heroic verse of their battling and their love-making and their hunting. English was conceived then, and it was worthy conceiving.”
“Other nations have literature,” maintained Connie.
“What other living nations?” demanded Geisner. “Look at English! An endless list, such as surely before the world never saw. You cannot even name them all. Spencer and Chaucer living still. Shakespeare, whoever he was, immortal for all time,
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dimming like a noontide sun a galaxy of stars that to other nations would be suns indeed! Take Marlow, Beaumont and Fletcher, a dozen playwrights! The Bible, an imperishable monument of the people's English! Milton, Bunyan and Baxter, Wycherly and his fellows! Pope, Ben Johnson, Swift, Goldsmith, Junius, Burke, Sheridan! Scott and Byron, De Quincey, Shelley, Lamb, Chatterton! Moore and Burns wrote in English too! Look at Wordsworth, Dickens, George Eliott, Swinburne, Tennyson, the Brontés! There are gems upon gems in the second class writers, books that in other countries would make the writer immortal. Over the sea, in America, Poe, Whittier, Bret Harte, Longfellow, Emerson, Whitman. Here in Australia, the seed springing up! Even in South Africa, that Olive Schreiner writing like one inspired. By heavens! There are moments when I feel it must be a proud thing to be an Englishman.” note
“Bravo, Geisner! You actually make me for the minute,” cried Ford.
“You should be! Has any other people anything to compare? There is not one other whose great writers could not almost be counted on the fingers of one hand. Spain has Cervantes and he is always being thrown at us. Germany has Goethe, Heine, Schiller. France so seldom sees literary genius that a man like Victor Hugo sends her into hysterics of self-admiration. But I'm afraid I'm lecturing.”
“It's all right, Geisner,” remarked Connie. “It's not only what you say but how you say it. But what are you driving at?”
“Just this! Nations seldom do all things with equal vigour and fervour and opportunity, so one excels another and is itself excelled. England excels in the simplest and strongest form of expression, literature. She is defective in other forms and borrows from us. But so we others borrow from her. Puritanism did not crush English art. English art, in the national way of expressing the national feeling, kept steadily on.”
“Thanks! I think I'll sit down,” he added, as Stratton handed him a tumbler half-filled with wine and a water-bottle. He filled the tumbler from the bottle, put them on the table, took cigarettes in a case from his pocket and lighted one at a gas jet behind him.
“Do you take water with your wine?” asked Stratton of Ned.
“I don't take wine at all, thank you,” said Ned.
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“What!” exclaimed Connie, sitting up. “You don't smoke and you don't drink wine. Why, you are a regular Arab. But you must have something. Arty! Rouse up and light the little stove again! You'll have some tea, Ned. Oh! It's no trouble. Arty will make it for me and it will do him good. What do you think of this oration of Geisner's?”
“I suppose it's all right,” said Ned. “But I can't see what good it does myself.”
“Well, it's no use saying one thing and meaning another. This talk of ‘art’ seems to me selfish while the world to most people is a hell that it's pain to live in. I am sorry if I say what you don't like.”
“Never mind that,” said Connie, as cheerfully as ever. “You've been worrying, too. Have it out, so that we can all jump on you at once! I warn you, you won't have an ally.”
“I suppose not,” answered Ned, hotly. “You are all very kind and mean well, but do you know how people live, how they exist, what life outside is?”
Geisner had sat down in a low chair near by, his cigarette between his lips, his glass of wine and water on a shelf at his elbow. The others looked on in amazement at the sudden turn of the conversation. Connie smiled and nodded. Ned stared fiercely round at Geisner, who nodded also.
“Then listen to me,” said Ned, bitterly. “Is it by playing music in fine parlours that good is to be done? Is it by drinking wine, by smoking, by laughing, by talking of pictures and books and music, by going to theatres, by living in clover while the world starves? Why do you not play that music in the back streets or to our fellows?” he asked, turning to Geisner again. “Are you afraid? Ah, if I could only play it!”
“Ned!” cried Nellie, sharply. But he went on, talking at Geisner:
“What do you do for the people outside? For the miserable, the wretched, those weary of life? I suppose you are all ‘interested in the Labour movement.’ Well, what does all this do for it? What do you do for it? Would you give up anything, one puff of smoke, one drink of wine —— ”
“Stop, Ned! For shame's sake! How dare you speak to him like that?” Nellie interrupted, jumping up and coming between the two men. Ned leaned eagerly forward, his hands on his
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knees, his eyes flaming, his face quivering, his teeth showing. Geisner leaned back quietly, alternately sipping his wine and water and taking a whiff from his cigarette.
“Never mind,” said Geisner. “Sit down, Nellie. It doesn't matter.” Nellie sat down but she looked to Mrs. Stratton anxiously. The two women exchanged glances. Mrs. Stratton came quickly across to Geisner.
“It does matter,” she said to him, laying her hands on his head and shoulder and facing Ned thus. “Not to you, of course, but to Ned there. He does not understand, and I don't think you understand everything either. It takes a woman to understand it all, Ned,” and she laughed at the angry man. “Why do you say such things to Geisner? He does not deserve them.”
Ned did not answer.
“I'm not defending the rest of us, only Geisner. If you only knew all he has done you would think of him as we do.”
“Connie!” exclaimed Geisner, flushing. “Don't.”
“Oh! I shall. If men will keep their lights under bushel baskets they must expect to get the covers knocked off sometimes. Ned! This man is a martyr. He has suffered so for the people, and he has borne it so bravely.”
There was a hush in the room. Ned could see Connie's full underlip pouted tremulously and her eyes swimming; her hands moved caressingly to and fro. His face relaxed its passion. The tears came again into his eyes, also. Geisner smoked his cigarette, the most unmoved of any.
“If you had only known him years ago,” went on Connie, her voice trembling. “He used to take me on his knee when I was a little girl, and keep me there for hours while great men talked great things and he was greatest of them all. He was young then and rich and handsome and fiery, and with a brain—oh, such a brain!—that put within his reach what other men care for most. And he gave it all up, everything—even Love,” she added, softly. “When he played the Marseillaise just now, I thought of it. One day he came to our house and played it so, and outside the people in the streets were marching by singing it, and—and—” she set her teeth on a great sob. “My father never came back nor my brother, and Harry there came one night and took Josie and me away. We had no mother. And when we saw this man again he was what he is now. It was worse than death, ten thousand times worse. Oh! Geisner, Geisner!” The head her
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hand rested on had sunk down. What were the little man's thoughts? What were they?
“But his heart is still the same, Ned,” she cried, triumphantly, her sweet voice ringing clear again. “Ah, yes! His heart is still the same, as brave and true and pure and strong. Oh, purer, better! If it came again, Ned, he would do it. Sometimes, I think, he doubts himself but I know. He would do it all again and suffer it all—that worse than death he suffered. For, you see, he only lives to serve the Cause, in a different way to the old way but still to serve it. And I serve the Cause also as best I can, even if I wear—” she shrugged her shoulders. “And Harry serves it still as loyally as when, a beardless lad, he risked his life to care for a slaughtered comrade's orphan children. And Ford, too, and Nellie here, and Arty and Josie and George. But Geisner serves it best of all if it be best to give most. He has given most all his life and he gives most still. And we love him for it. And that love, perhaps, is sweeter to him than all he might have been.”
She knelt by his side as she ceased speaking, and put her arms round his neck as he crouched there. “Geisner!” Nellie who was nearest heard her whisper in her childhood's tongue. “Geisner! We have seen the dry bones become men. We have poured our blood and our brain into them and if only for a moment they have lived, they have lived. Ah, comrade, do you recollect how you breathed soul into them when they shrank back that day? They moved, Geisner. They moved. We felt them move. They will move again, some day, dear heart. They will move again.” Then, choking with sobs, she laid her head on his knees. He put his arms tenderly round her and they saw that this immovable little man was weeping like a child. One by one the others went softly out to the verandah. Only Ned remained. He had buried his face in his hands and sat, overwhelmed with shame, wishing that the floor would open and swallow him. From outside came the ceaseless lap-lap-lapping of water, imperceptibly eating away the granite rock, caring not for time, blindly working, destroying the old and building up the new.
The touch of a hand roused Ned. He looked up. Mrs. Stratton had gone through the door concealed by the hangings. Geisner stood before him, calmly lighting another cigarette with a match. There was no trace of emotion on his face. He turned to drop the
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match into an ash tray, then held out both hands, on his face the kindly smile that transfigured him. Ned grasped them eagerly, wringing them in a grip that would have made most men wince. They stood thus silently for a minute or two, looking at one another, the young, hot-tempered bushman, the grey-haired, cool-tempered leader of men; between them sprang up, as they stood, the bond of that friendship which death itself only strengthens. The magnetism of the elder, his marvellous personality, the strength and majesty of the mighty soul that dwelt in his insignificant body, stole into Ned's heart and conquered it. And the spirit of the younger, his fierce indignation, his angry sorrow, his disregard for self, his truth, his strong manhood, appealed to the weary man as an echoing of his own passionate youth. Then they loosened hands and without a word Geisner commenced to walk slowly backwards and forwards, his hands behind him, his head bent down.
noteNed watched him, studying him feature by feature. Yes, he had been handsome. He was ugly only because of great wrinkles that scored his cheeks and disfigured the fleshless face and discoloured skin. His eyebrows and eyelashes were very thin, too. His hair looked dried up and was strongly greyed; it had once been almost black. His lips were thin, his mouth shapeless, only because he had closed them in his fight against pain and anguish and despair and they had set thus by the habit of long years. His nose was still fine and straight, the nostrils swelling wide. His forehead was rugged and broad under its wrinkles. His chin was square. His frame still gave one the impression of tireless powers of endurance. His blue eyes still gleamed unsubdued in their dark, overhanging caverns. Yes! He had lived, this man. He had lived and suffered and kept his manhood still. To be like him! To follow him into the Valley of the Shadow! To live only for the Cause and by his side to save the world alive! Ned thought thus, as Connie came back, her face bathed and beaming again, her theatre dress replaced by a soft red dressing gown, belted loosely at the waist and trimmed with an abundance of coffee coloured lace. Her first words were a conundrum to Ned:
“Geisner! Haven't you dropped that unpleasant trick of yours after all these years? Two long steps and a short step! Turn! Two long steps and a short stop! Turn! Now, just to please me, do three long steps.”
He smiled. “Connie, you are becoming quite a termagant.”
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She looked at Ned questioningly: “Well?”
“Oh, Ned and I are beginning to understand one another,” said Geisner.
“Of course,” she replied. “All good men and women are friends if they get to the bottom of each other. Let us go on the verandah with the rest. Do you know I feel quite warm now. I do believe it was only that ridiculous dress which made me feel so cold. Give me your arm, Ned. Bring me along a chair, Geisner.”
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A Medley of Conversation
NED dreaded that rejoining the others on the verandah, but he need not have. They had forced the conversation at first, but gradually it became natural. It had turned on the proper sphere of woman, and went on without being interrupted by the new-comers. Nobody took any notice of them. The girls were seated. Stratton lay smoking in the hammock. The other men perched smoking on the railing. The gaslight had been turned down and in the gloom the cigar ends gleamed with each respiration. In spite of the damp it was very cosy. From the open door behind a ray of light fell upon the darkness-covered water below. Beyond were circling the lights of Sydney. Dotting the black night here and there were the signal lamps of anchored ships.
“We want perfect equality for woman with man,” asserted Ford, in a conclusive tone of voice.
“We want woman in her proper sphere,” maintained Stratton, from the hammock.
“What do you call ‘her proper sphere?’” asked Nellie.
“This: That she should fulfil the functions assigned to her by Nature. That she should rule the home and rear children. That she should be a wife and a mother. That she should be gentle as men are rough, and, to pirate the Americanism, as she rocked the cradle should rock the world.”
“How about equality?” demanded Ford.
“Equality! What do you mean by equality? Is it equality to scramble with men in the search for knowledge, narrow hipped and flat-chested? Is it equality to grow coarse and rough and unsexed in the struggle for existence? Ah! Let our women once become brutalised, masculinised, and there will be no hope for anything but a Chinese existence.”
“Who wants to brutalise them?” asked Ford.
“What would your women be like?” asked Nellie.
“Look out for Madame there, Stratton! ” said George.
“What would my women be like? Full-lipped and broad-hearted, fit to love and be loved! Full-breasted and broad-hipped
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fit to have children! Full-brained and broad-browed, fit to teach them! My women should be the embodiment of the nation, and none of them should work except for those they loved and of their own free will.”
“Sort of queen bees!” remarked Nellie. “Why have them work at all?”
“Why? Is it ‘work’ for a mother to nurse her little one, to wash it, to dress it, to feed it, to watch it at night, to nurse it when it sickens, to teach it as it grows? And if she does that does she not do all that we have a right to ask of her? Need we ask her to earn her own living and bear children as well? Shall we make her a toy and a slave, or harden her to battle with men? I wouldn't. My women should be such that their children would hold them sacred and esteem all women for their sakes. I don't want the shrieking sisterhood, hard-voiced and ugly and unlovable, perpetuated. And they will not be perpetuated. They can't make us marry them. Their breed must die out.”
“In other words,” observed Nellie; “you would leave the present relationship of woman to Society unchanged, except that you would serve her out free rations.”
“No! She should be absolutely mistress of her own body, and sole legal guardian of her own children.”
“Which means that you would institute free divorce, and make the family matriarchal instead of patriarchal; replace one lop-sided system by another.”
“Give it him, Nellie,” put in Connie. “I haven't heard those notions of his for years. I thought he had recanted long ago.”
“Well, yes! But you needn't be so previous in calling it lop-sided,” said Stratton.
“It is lop-sided, to my mind!” replied Nellie. “What women really want is to be left to find their own sphere, for whenever a man starts to find it for them he always manages to find something else. No man understands woman thoroughly. How can he when she doesn't even understand herself? Yet you propose to crush us all down to a certain pattern, without consulting us. That's not democratic. Why not consult us first I should like to know?”
“Probably because they wouldn't agree to it if you led the opposition, Nellie. We are all only democratic when we think Demos is going our way.” This from Ford.
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Arty slipped quietly off the railing and went into the sitting-room. Connie leaned back and watched him through the open door. “He's started to write,” she announced. “He's been terribly down lately so it'll be pretty strong, poor fellow.” She laughed good-naturedly; the others laughed with her. “Go on, Nellie dear. It's very interesting, and I didn't mean to interrupt.” note
“Oh! He won't answer me,” declared Nellie, in a disgusted tone.
“I should think not,” retorted Stratton. “I know your womanly habit of tying the best case into a tangled knot with a few Socratic questions. I leave the truth to prove itself.”
“Just so! But you won't leave the truth about woman to prove itself. You want us to be good mothers, first and last. Why not let us be women, true women, first, and whatever it is fitting for us to be afterwards?”
“I want you to be true women.”
“What is a true woman? A true woman to me is just what a true man is—one who is free to obey the instincts of her nature. Only give us freedom, opportunity, and we shall be at last all that we should be.”
“Is it not freedom to be secure against want, to be free to —— ”
“To be mothers.”
“Yes; to be mothers—the great function of women. To cradle the future. To mould the nation that is to be.”
“That is so like a man. To be machines, you mean—well cared for, certainly, but machines just the same. Don't you know that we have been machines too long? Can't you see that it is because we have been degraded into machines that Society is what it is?”
“How?” questioned Stratton.
“He knows it well, Nellie,” cried Connie, clapping her hands.
“Because you can't raise free men from slave women. We want to be free, only to be free, to be let alone a little, to be treated as human beings with souls, just as men do. We have hands to work with, and brains to think with, and hearts to feel with. Why not join hands with us in theory as you do in fact? Do you tell us now that you won't have our help in the movement? Will you refuse us the fruit of victory when the fight is won? If I thought you would, I for one would cease to care whether the Cause won or not.”
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“I, too, Nellie. We'd all go on strike,” cried Connie.
“What is it to you whether women are good mothers or not? What objections can you have to our rivalling men in the friendly rivalry that would be under fair conditions? Are our virtues, our woman instincts, so weak and frail that you can't trust us to go straight if the whole of life is freely open to us? Why, when I think of what woman's life is now, what it has been for so long, I wonder how it is that we have any virtues left.” She spoke with intense feeling.
“What are we now,” she went on, “in most cases? Slaves, bought and sold for a home, for a position, for a ribbon, for a piece of bread. With all their degradation men are not degraded as we are. To be womanly is to be shamed and insulted every day. To love is to suffer. To be a mother is to drink the dregs of human misery. To be heartless, to be cold, to be vicious and a hypocrite, to smother all one's higher self, to be sold, to sell one's self, to pander to evil passions, to be the slave of the slave, that is the way to survive most easily for a woman. And see what we are in spite of everything! Geisner said he would sometimes be proud if he were an Englishman. Sometimes I'm foolish enough to be proud I'm a woman.
“Why should we be mothers, unless it pleases us to be mothers? Why should we not feel that life is ours as men may feel it, that we help hold up the world and owe nothing to others except that common debt of fraternity which they owe also to us? Don't you think that Love would come then as it could in no other way? Don't you think that women, who even now are good mothers generally, would be good mothers to children whose coming was unstained with tears? And would they be worse mothers if their brains were keen and their bodies strong and their hearts brave with the healthy work and intelligent life that everybody should have, men and women alike?” note
“You seem to have an objection to mothers somehow, Nellie,” observed Geisner.
“Oh, I have! It seems to me such a sin, such a shameful sin, to give life for the world that we have. I can understand it being a woman's highest joy to be a mother. I have seen poor miserable women looking down at their puny nursing babies with such unutterable bliss on their faces that I've nearly cried for pure joy and sympathy. But in my heart all the time I felt that this was weakness and folly; that what was bliss to the mother, stupefying
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her for a while to the hollowness and emptiness of her existence, was the beginning of a probable life of misery to the child that could end only with death. And I have vowed to myself that never should child of mine have cause to reproach me for selfishness that takes a guise which might well deceive those who have nothing but the animal instincts to give them joy in living.”
“You will never have children?” asked Geisner.
“I will never marry,” she answered. “There is little you can teach a girl who has worked in Sydney, and I know there are ideas growing all about which to me seem shameful and unwomanly, excepting that they spare the little ones. For me, I shall never marry. I will give my life to the movement, but I will give no other lives the pain of living.”
“You will meet him some day, Nellie,” said Connie.
“Then I will be strong if it breaks my heart.” Ned often thought of this in after days. Just then he hardly realised how the girl's words affected him. He was so breathlessly interested. Never had he heard people talk like this before. He began to dimly understand how it touched the Labour movement.
“You will miss the best part of life, my dear,” said Connie. “I say it even after what you have seen of that husband of mine.”
“You are wrong, Nellie,” said Geisner, slowly. “Above us all is a higher Law, forcing us on. To give up what is most precious for the sake of the world is good. To give up that which our instincts lead us to for fear of the world cannot but be bad. For my part, I hold that no door should be closed to woman, either by force of law or by force of conventionalism. But if she claims entrance to the Future, it seems to me that she should not close Life's gate against herself.” note
“I would close Life's gate altogether if I could,” cried Nellie, passionately. “I would blot Life out. I would—oh, what would I not do? The things I see around me day after day almost drive me mad.”
There was silence for a moment, broken then by Connie's soft laugh. “Nellie, my dear child,” she observed, “you seem quite in earnest. I hope you won't start with us.”
“Don't mind her, Nellie,” said Josie, softly, speaking for the first time. “Connie laughs because if she didn't she would cry.”
“I know that,” said Nellie. “I don't mind her. Is there one of us who does not feel what a curse living is?”
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Geisner's firm voice answered: “And is there one of us who does not know what a blessing living might be? Nellie, my girl, you are sad and sorrowful, as we all are at times, and do not feel yet God in all working itself out in unseen ways.”
“God!” she answered, scornfully. “There is no God. How can there be?”
note “I do not know. It is as one feels. I do not mean that petty god of creeds and religions, the feeble image that coarse hands have made from vague glimpses caught by those who were indeed inspired. I mean the total force, the imperishable breath, of the universe. And of that breath, my child, you and I and all things are part.”
Stratton took his cigar from his mouth and quoted:“‘I am the breath of the lute, I am the mind of man,
Gold's glitter, the light of the diamond and the sea-pearl's lustre wan.
I am both good and evil, the deed and the deed's intent—
Temptation, victim, sinner, crime, pardon and punishment.’”
“Yes,” said Geisner; “that and more. Brahma and more than Brahma. What Prince Buddha thought out too. What Jesus the Carpenter dimly recognised. Not only Force, but Purpose, or what for lack of better terms we call Purpose, in it all.”
“And that Purpose; what is it?” Ned was surprised to hear his own voice uttering his thought.
“Who shall say? There are moments, a few moments, when one seems to feel what it is, moments when one stands face to face with the universal Life and realises wordlessly what it means.” Geisner spoke with grave solemnity. The others, hardly breathing, understood how this man had thought these things out.
“When one is in anguish and sorrow unendurable. When one has seen one's soul stripped naked and laid bare, with all its black abysses and unnatural sins; the brutishness that is in each man's heart known and understood—the cowardice, the treachery, the villainy, the lust. When one knows oneself in others, and sinks into a mist of despair, hopeless and heart-wrung, then come the temptations, as the prophets call them, the miserable ambitions dressed as angels of light, the religions which have become mere drugged pain-lullers, the desire to suppress thought altogether,
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to end life, to stupefy one's soul with bodily pain, with mental activity. And if,” he added slowly, “if one's pain is for others more than for oneself, if in one's heart Humanity has lodged itself, then it may be that one shall feel and know. And from that time you never doubt God. You may doubt yourself but never that all things work together for good.”
“I do not see it,” cried Nellie.
“Hush!” said Connie. “Go on, Geisner.”
“To me,” the little man went on, as if talking rather to himself than to the others. “To me the Purpose of Life is self-consciousness, the total Purpose I mean. God seeking to know God. Eternal Force one immeasurable Thought. Humanity the developing consciousness of the little fragment of the universe within our ken. Art, the expression of that consciousness, the outward manifestation of the effort to solve the problem of Life. Genius, the power of expressing in some way or other what many thought but could not articulate. I do not mean to be dogmatic. Words fail us to define our meaning when we speak of these things. Any quibbler can twist the meaning of words, while only those who think the thought can understand. That is why one does not speak much of them. Perhaps we should speak of them more.”
“It is a barren faith to me,” said Nellie.
“Then I do not express it well,” said Geisner. “But is it more barren-sounding than utter Negation? Besides, where do we differ really? All of us who think at all agree more or less. We use different terms, pursue different lines of thought, that is all. It is only the dullard, who mistakes the symbol for the idea, the letter for the spirit, the metaphor for the thought within, who is a bigot. The true thinker is an artist, the true artist is a thinker, for Art is the expression of thought in thing. The highest thought, as Connie rightly told us before you came, is Emotion.”
“I recollect the Venus in the Louvre,” interjected Harry. “When I saw it first it seemed to me most beautiful, perfect, the loveliest thing that ever sculptor put chisel to. But as I saw it more I forgot that it was beautiful or perfect. It grew on me till it lived. I went day after day to see it, and when I was glad it laughed at me, and when I was downhearted it was sad with me, and when I was angry it scowled, and when I dreamed of Love it had a kiss on its lips. Every mood of mine it changed
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with; every thought of mine it knew. Was not that Art, Nellie?”
“The artist in you,” she answered.
“No. More than that. The artist in the sculptor, breathing into the stone a perfect sympathy with the heart of men. His genius grasped this, that beauty, perfect beauty, is the typifying not of one passion, one phase of human nature, but of the aggregation of all the moods which sway the human mind. There is a great thought in that. It is ‘the healthy mind in the healthy body,’ as the sculptor feels it. And ‘the healthy mind in the healthy body’ is one of the great thoughts of the past. It is a thought which is the priceless gift of Greek philosophy to the world. I hold it higher than that of the Sphinx, which Ford admires so.”
“What does the Sphinx mean?” asked Ned.
“Much the same, differently expressed,” answered Ford. “That Life with us is an intellectual head based on a brutish body, fecund and powerful; that Human Nature crouches on the ground and reads the stars; that man has a body and a mind, and that both must be cared for.”
“They had a strange way of caring for both, your Egyptians,” remarked Nellie. “The people were all slaves and the rulers were all priests.”
At this criticism, so naïve and pithy and so like Nellie, there was a general laugh.
“At least the priests were wise and the slaves were cared for,” retorted Ford, nothing abashed. “I recollect when I was a little fellow in England. My people were farm labourers, west of England labourers. We lived in a little stone cottage that had little diamond-paned windows. The kitchen floor was below the ground, and on wet days my mother used to make a little dam of rags at the door to keep the trickling water back. We lived on bread and potatoes and broad beans, and not too much of that. We got a little pig for half-a-crown, and killed it when it was grown to pay the rent. Don't think such things are only done in Ireland! We herded together like pigs ourselves. The women of the place often worked in the fields. The girls, too, sometimes. You know what that means where the people are like beasts, the spirit worn out of them. The cottages were built two together, and our neighbour's daughter, a girl of 18 or so, had two children. It was not thought anything. The little things played at home
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with our neighbour's own small children, and their grandmother called them hard names when they bothered her.
“My father was a bent-shouldered hopeless man, when I recollect him. He got six shillings a week then, with a jug of cider every day. When he stopped from the wet, and there was no work in the barns, his wages were stopped. So he worked in the wet very often, for it generally rains in England, you know. The wet came through our roof. Gives the natives such pretty pink skins, eh, Geisner?” and he laughed shortly. “My father got rheumatism, and used to keep us awake groaning at nights. He had been a good-looking young fellow, my old granny used to say. I never saw him good-looking. In the winter we always had poor relief. We should have starved if we hadn't. My father got up at four and came home after dark. My mother used to go weeding and gleaning. I went to scare crows when I was five years old. All the same, we were a family of paupers. Proud to be an Englishman, Geisner! Be an English pauper, and then try!” note
“You'll never get to the priests, Ford, if you start an argument,” interposed Mrs. Stratton.
“I'll get to them all right. Our cottage was down a narrow, muddy lane. On one side of the lane was a row of miserable stone hovels, just like ours. On the other was a great stone wall that seemed to me, then, to be about a hundred feet high. I suppose it was about twenty feet. You could just see the tops of trees the other side. Some had branches lopped short to prevent them coming over the wall. At the corner of the highway our lane ran to was a great iron gate, all about it towering trees, directly inside a mound of shrub-covered rockery that prevented anybody getting a peep further. The carriage drive took a turn round this rockery and disappeared. Once, when the gate was open and nobody about, I got a peep by sneaking round this rockery like a little thief. There was a beautiful lawn and clumps of flowers, and a summer house and a conservatory, and a big grey-fronted mansion. I thought heaven must be something like that. It made me radical.”
“How do you mean?” asked Mrs. Stratton.
“Well, it knocked respect for constituted authority out of me. I didn't know enough to understand the wrong of one lazy idler having this splendid place while the people he lived on kennelled in hovels. But it struck me as so villainously selfish to build that wall, to prevent us outside from even looking at the beautiful
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lawn and flowers. I was only a little chap but I recollect wondering if it would hurt the place to let me look, and when I couldn't see that it would I began to hate the wall like poison. There we were, poor, ragged, hungry wretches, without anything beautiful in our lives, so miserable and hopeless that I didn't even know it wasn't the right thing to be a pauper, and that animal ran up a great wall in our faces so that we couldn't see the grass—curse him!” Ford had gradually worked himself into a white rage.
“He didn't know any better,” said Geisner. “Was he the priest?”
“Yes, the rector, getting £900 a-year and this great house, and paying a skinny curate £60 for doing the work. A fat impostor, who drove about in a carriage, and came to tell the girl next door as she lay a-bed that she would go to hell for her sin and burn there for ever. I hated his wall and him too. Out in the fields I used to draw him on bits of slate. In the winter when there weren't any crows or any weeding I went to school. You see, unless you sent your children to the church school a little, and went to church regularly, you didn't get any beef or blanket at Christmas. I tell you English charity is a sweet thing. Well, I used to draw the parson at school, a fat, pompous, double chinned, pot-bellied animal, with thin side-whiskers, and a tall silk hat, and a big handful of a nose. I drew nothing else. I studied the question as it were and I got so that I could draw the brute in a hundred different ways. You can imagine they weren't complimentary, and one day the parson came to the school, and we stood up in class with slates to do sums, and on the back of my slate was one of the very strongest of my first attempts at cartooning. It was a hot one.” And at the remembrance Ford laughed so contagiously that they all joined. “The parson happened to see it. By gum! It was worth everything to see him.”
“What did he do?”
“What didn't he do? He delivered a lecture, how I was a worthy relative of an uncle of mine who'd been shipped out this way years before for snaring a rabbit, and so on. I got nearly skinned alive, and the Christmas beef and blanket were stopped from our folks. And there another joke comes in. An older brother of mine, 14 years old, I was about 12, took to going to the Ranters' meetings instead of to church. My mother and
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father used to tie him up on Saturday nights and march him to church on Sunday like a young criminal going to gaol. They were afraid of losing the beef and blanket, you see. He sometimes ran out of church when they nodded or weren't looking, and the curate was always worrying them about him. It was the deadliest of all sins, you know, to go to the Ranters. Well, when the beef and blanket were stopped, without any chance of forgiveness, we all went to the Ranters.” note
“I've often wondered where you got your power from, Ford,” remarked Connie. “I see now.”
“Yes, that great wall made me hate the great wall that bars the people from all beautiful things; that fat hypocrite made me hate all frauds. I can never forget the way we all swallowed those things as sacred. When I get going with a pencil I feel towards whatever it is just as I felt to the parson, and I try to make everybody feel the same. Yet would you believe it, I don't care much for cartooning. I want to paint.”
“Why don't you?” asked Nellie.
“Well, there's money you know. Then it was sheer luck that made me a cartoonist and I can't expect the same run of luck always.”
“Don't believe him, Nellie,” said Connie. “He feels that he has a chance now to give all frauds such a hammering that he hesitates to give it up. You've paid the parson, Ford, full measure, pressed down and running over!”
“Not enough!” answered Ford. “Not enough! Not till the wall is down flat all the world over! Do you think Egypt would have lasted 20,000 years if her priests had been like my parson, and her slaves like my people?”
“I'd forgotten all about Egypt,” said Nellie. “But I suppose her rulers had sense enough to give men enough to eat and enough to drink, high wages and constant employment, as M‘Ilwraith used to say. Yes; it was wiser than the rulers of to-day are. You can rob for a long while if you only rob moderately. But the end comes some time to all wrong. It's coming faster with us, but it came in Egypt, too.”
“Here is Arty, finished!” interrupted Connie, who every little while had looked through the door at the young man. She jumped up. “Come along in and see what it is this time.”
They all went in, jostling and joking one another. Arty was standing up in the middle of the room looking at some much
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blotted slips of paper. He appeared to be very well satisfied, and broke into a broad smile as he looked up at them all. Geisner and Ned found themselves side by side near the piano, over the keys of which Geisner softly ran his fingers with loving touch. “You are in luck to-night,” he remarked to Ned. “You know Arty's signature, of course. He writes as ——,” mentioning a well-known name.
“Of course I know. Is that him?” answered Ned, astonished. Verses which bore that signature were as familiar to thousands of western bushmen as their own names. “Who is Ford?” he added.
“Ford! Oh, Ford signs himself ——.” Geisner mentioned another signature.
“Is he the one who draws in the Scrutineer?”note demanded Ned, more astonished than ever.
“Yes; you know his work?”
Know his work! Had not every man in Australia laughed with his pitiless cartoons at the dignified magnates of Society and the utter rottenness of the powers that be?
“And what is Mr. Stratton?”
“A designer for a livelihood. An artist for love of Art. His wife is connected with the press. You wouldn't know her signature, but some of her work is very fine. George there is a journalist.”
“But I thought the newspapers were against unions.”
“Naturally they are. They are simply business enterprises, conducted in the ordinary commercial way for a profit, and therefore opposed to everything which threatens to interfere with profit-making. But the men and women who work on the press are very different. They are really wage-workers to begin with. Besides, they are often intelligent enough to sympathise thoroughly with the Labour movement in spite of the surroundings which tend to separate them from it. Certainly, the most popular exponents of Socialism are nearly all press writers.”
“We are only just beginning to hear about these things in the bush,” said Ned. “What is Socialism?”
“That's a big question,” answered Geisner. “Socialism is —— ”
He was interrupted. “Silence, everybody!” cried Mrs. Stratton. “Listen to Arty's latest!”
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The Poet and the Pressman
“SILENCE, everybody!” commanded Mrs. Stratton. “Listen to Arty's latest!”
She had gone up to him as they all came in. “Is it good?” she asked, looking over his arm. For answer he held the slips down to her and changed them as she read rapidly, only pausing occasionally to ask him what a more than usually obscured word was. There was hardly a line as originally written. Some words had been altered three and four times. Whole lines had been struck out and fresh lines inserted. In some verses nothing was left of the original but the measure and the rhymes.
“No wonder you were worrying if you had all this on your mind,” she remarked, as he finished, smiling at him. “Let me read it to them.”
He nodded. So when the buzz of conversation had stopped she read his verses to the others, holding his arm in the middle of the room, her sweet voice conveying their spirit as well as their words. And Arty stood by her, jubilant, listening proudly and happily to the rhythm of his new-born lines, for all the world like a young mother showing her new-born babe.
THE VISION OF LABOURnoteThere's a sound of lamentation 'mid the murmuring nocturne noises,
And an undertone of sadness, as from myriad human voices,
And the harmony of heaven and the music of the spheres,
And the ceaseless throb of Nature, and the flux and flow of years,
Are rudely punctuated with the drip of human tears—
As Time rolls on!
Yet high above the beat of surf, and Ocean's deep resounding,
And high above the tempest roar of wind on wave rebounding,
There's a burst of choral chanting, as of victors in a fight,
And a battle hymn of triumph wakes the echoes of the night,
And the shouts of heroes mingle with the shriekings of affright—
As Time rolls on!
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There's a gleam amid the darkness, and there's sight amid the blindness,
And the glow of hope is kindled by the breath of human kindness,
And a phosphorescent glimmer gilds the spaces of the gloom,
Like the sea-lights in the midnight, or the ghost-lights of the tomb,
Or the livid lamps of madness in the charnel-house of doom—
As Time rolls on!
And amidst the weary wand'rers on the mountain crags belated
There's a hush of expectation, and the sobbings are abated,
For a word of hope is spoken by a prophet versed in pain,
Who tells of rugged pathways down to fields of golden grain,
Where the sun is ever shining, and the skies their blessings rain—
As Time rolls on!
Where the leafy chimes of gladness in the tree-tops aye are ringing,
Answering to the joyous chorus which the birds are ever singing;
Where the seas of yellow plenty toss with music in the wind;
Where the purple vines are laden, and the groves with fruit are lined;
Where all grief is but a mem'ry, and all pain is left behind—
As Time rolls on!
But it lies beyond a desert 'cross which hosts of Death are marching,
And a hot sirocco wanders under skies all red and parching,
Lined with skeletons of armies through the centuries fierce and sere
Bones of heroes and of sages marking Time's lapse year by year,
Unmoistened by the night-dews 'mid the solitudes of fear—
As Time rolls on!
“Well done, Arty!” cried Ford. “I'd like to do a few ‘thumbnails’ for that.”
“Let me see it, please! Why don't you say ‘rushes’ for ‘wanders’ in the last verse, Arty?” asked George, reaching out his hand for the slips.
“Go away!” exclaimed Mrs. Stratton, holding them out of reach. “Can't you wait two minutes before you begin your sub-editing tricks? Josie, keep him in order!”
“He's a disgrace,” replied Josie. “Don't pay any heed to him, Arty! They'll cut up your verses soon enough, and they're just lovely.”
The others laughed, all talking at once, commending, criticising, comparing. Arty laughed and joked and quizzed, the liveliest of them all. Ned stared at him in astonishment. He seemed like somebody else. He discussed his own verses with a strange absence of egotism. Evidently he was used to standing fire.
“The metaphor in that third verse seems to me rather forced,” said Stratton finally. “And I think George is right. ‘Rushes’ does sound better than ‘wanders.’ I like that ‘rudely punctuated’
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line, but I think I'd go right through it again if it was mine.”
“I think I will, too,” answered Arty. “There are half-a-dozen alterations I want to make now. I'll touch it up to-morrow. It'll keep till then.”
“That sort of stuff would keep for years if it wasn't for the Scrutineer,” said Stratton. “Very few papers care to publish it nowadays.”
“The Scrutineer is getting just like all the rest of them,” commented George. “It's being run for money, only they make their pile as yet by playing to the gallery while the other papers play to the stalls and dress circle.”
“It has done splendid work for the movement, just the same,” said Ford. “Admit it's a business concern and that everybody growls at it, it's the only paper that dares knock things.”
“It's a pity there isn't a good straight daily here,” said Geisner. “That's the want all over the world. It seems impossible to get them, though.”
“Why is it?” demanded Nellie. “It's the working people who buy the evening papers at least. Why shouldn't they buy straight papers sooner than these sheets of lies that are published?”
“I've seen it tried,” answered Geisner, “but I never saw it done. The London Star is going as crooked as the others I'm told.”
“I don't see why the unions shouldn't start dailies,” insisted Nellie. “I suppose it costs a great deal but they could find the money if they tried hard.”
“They haven't been able to run weeklies yet,” said George, authoritatively. “And they never will until they get a system, much less run dailies.”
“Why?” asked Ned. “You see,” he continued, “our fellows are always talking of getting a paper. They get so wild sometimes when they read what the papers say about the unions and know what lies most of it is that I've seen them tear the papers up and dance a war-dance on the pieces.”
“It's a long story to explain properly,” said George. “Roughly it amounts to this that papers live on advertisements as well as on circulation and that advertisers are sharp business men who generally put the boycott on papers that talk straight. Then the cable matter, the telegraph matter, the news matter, is all procured by syndicates and companies and mutual arrangement
― 86 ―
between papers which cover the big cities between them and run on much the same lines, the solid capitalistic lines, you know. Then newspaper stock, when it pays, is valuable enough to make the holder a capitalist; when it doesn't pay he's still more under the thumb of the advertisers. The whole complex organisation of the press is against the movement and only those who're in it know how complex it is.”
“Then there'll never be a Labour press, you think?”
“There will be a Labour press, I think,” said George, turning Josie's hair round his fingers. “When the unions get a sound system it'll come.”
“What do you mean by your sound system, George?” asked Geisner.
“Just this! That the unions themselves will publish their own papers, own their own plant, elect their own editors, paying for it all by levies or subscriptions. Then they can snap their fingers at advertisers and as every union man will get the union paper there'll be a circulation established at once. They can begin with monthlies and come down to weeklies. When they have learnt thoroughly the system, and when every colony has its weekly or weeklies, then they'll have a chance for dailies, not before.”
“How would you get your daily?” enquired Geisner.
“Expand the weeklies into dailies simultaneously in every Australian capital,” said George, waxing enthusiastic. “That would be a syndicate at once to co-operate on cablegrams and exchange intercolonial telegrams. Start with good machinery, get a subsidy of 6d. a month for a year and 3d. a month afterwards, if necessary, from the unions for every member, and then bring out a small-sized, neat, first-rate daily for a ha'penny, three-pence a week, and knock the penny evenings off their feet.”
“A grand idea!” said Geisner, his eyes sparkling. “It sounds practical. It would revolutionise politics.”
“Who'd own the papers, though, after the unions had subsidised them?” asked Ned, a little suspiciously.
“Why, the unions, of course,” said George. “Who else? The unions would find the machinery and subsidise the papers on to their feet, for you couldn't very well get every man to take a daily. And the unions would elect trustees to hold them and manage them and an editor to edit each one and would be able to dismiss editors or trustees either if it wasn't being run straight. There'd be no profits because every penny made would go to make the
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papers better, there being no advertising income or very little. And every day, all over the continent, there would be printing hundreds of thousands of copies, each one advancing and defending the Labour movement.”
“It's a grand idea,” said Geisner again, “but who'd man the papers, George. Could Labour papers afford to pay managers and editors what the big dailies do?”
“I don't know much about managers, but an editor who wouldn't give up a lot to push the Cause can't think much of it. Why, we're nothing but literary prostitutes,” said George, energetically. “We just write now what we're told, selling our brains as women on the streets do their bodies, and some of us don't like it, some of the best too, as you know well, Geisner. My idea would be to pay a living salary, the same all round, to every man on the literary staff. That would be fair enough as an all round wage if it was low pay for editing and leader writing and fancy work. Many a good man would jump at it, to be free to write as he felt, and as for the rest of the staff by paying such a wage we'd get the tip-top pick of the ordinary men who do the pick-up work that generally isn't considered important but in my opinion is one of the main points of a newspaper.”
“Would you take what you call a ‘living salary’ on such a paper?” asked Connie.
“I'd take half if Josie—” He looked at her with tender confidence. The love-light was in her answering eyes. She nodded, proud of him.
“And they'd all publish my poetry?” asked Arty.
“Would they? They'd jump at it.”
“Then when they come along, I'll write for a year for nothing.”
“How about me?” asked Ford, “Where do I come in?”
“And me?” asked Connie.
“You can all come in,” laughed George. “Geisner shall do the political and get his editor ten years for sedition. Stratton will supply the mild fatherly sociological leaders. Mrs. Stratton shall prove that there can't be any true Art so long as we don't put the police on to everything that is ugly and repulsive. Nellie, here, shall blossom out as the Joan of Arc of women's rights, with a pen for a sword. And Arty we'll keep chained upon the premises and feed him with peppercorns when we want something particularly hot. Ford can retire to painting and pour his whole supply of bile out in one cartoon a week that we'll publish as a Saturday's
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supplement. Hawkins shall be our own correspondent who'll give the gentle squatter completely away in weekly instalments. And Josie and I'll slash the stuffing out of your ‘copy’ if you go writing three columns when there's only room for one. We'll boil down on our papers. Every line will be essence of extract. Don't you see how it's done already?”
“We see it,” said Nellie, stifling a yawn. “The next thing is to get the unions to see it.”
“That's so,” retorted George, “so I'll give you my idea to do what you can with.”
“We must go,” said Nellie, getting up from her chair. “It must be after one and I'm tired.”
“It's ten minutes to two,” said Ford, having pulled out his watch.
“Why don't you stay all night, Nellie,” asked Connie. “We can put Ned up, if he doesn't mind a shake-down. Then we can make a night of it. Geisner is off again on Monday or Tuesday.”
“Tuesday,” said Geisner, who had gone to the book-shelf again.
“Then I'll come Monday evening,” said Nellie, for his tone was an invitation. “I feel like a walk, and I don't feel like talking much.”
“All right,” said Connie, not pressing, with true tact. “Will you come on Monday too, Ned?” she asked, moving to the door under the hangings with Nellie. Josie slipped quickly out on to the verandah with George.
“I must be off on Monday,” replied Ned, regretfully. “There's a shed starts the next week, and I said I'd be up there to see that it shore union. I'm very sorry, but I really can't wait.”
“I'm so sorry, too. But it can't be helped. Some other time, Ned.” And nodding to him Connie went out with Nellie.
“So we shan't see you again,” said Stratton, lighting a cigar at the gas. Ford had resumed his puffing at his black pipe and his seat on the table.
“Not soon at any rate,” answered Ned. “I shall be in Western Queensland this time next week.”
“The men are organising fast up that way, aren't they?” asked Stratton.
“They had to,” said Ned. “What with the Chinese and the squatters doing as they liked and hating the sight of a white man, we'd all have been cleared out if we hadn't organised.”
― 89 ―
“Coloured labour has been the curse of Queensland all through,” remarked Ford.
“I think it has made Queensland as progressive as it is, too,” remarked Geisner. “It was a common danger for all the working classes, and from what I hear has given them unity of feeling earlier than that has been acquired in the south.”
“Some of the old-fashioned union ideas that they have in Sydney want knocking badly,” remarked Arty, smoking cheerfully.
“They'll be knocked safely enough if they want knocking,” said Geisner. “There are failings in all organisation methods everywhere as well as in Sydney. New Unionism is only the Old Unionism reformed up to date. It'll need reforming itself as soon as it has done its work.”
“Is the New Unionism really making its way in England, Geisner?” asked Stratton.
“I think so. A very intelligent man is working with two or three others to organise the London dock laborers on the new lines. He told me he was confident of success but didn't seem to realise all it meant. If those men can be organised and held together for a rise in wages it'll be the greatest strike that the world has seen yet. It will make New Unionism.”
“Do you think it possible?” asked Ford. “I know a little about the London dockers. They are the drift of the English labour world. When a man is hopeless he goes to look for work at the docks.”
“There is a chance if the move is made big enough to attract attention and if everything is prepared beforehand. If money can be found to keep a hundred thousand penniless men out while public opinion is forming they can win, I think. Even British public opinion can't yet defend fourpence an hour for casual work.”
“Men will never think much until they are organised in some form or other,” said Stratton. “Such a big move in London would boom the organisation of unskilled men everywhere.”
“More plots!” cried Connie, coming back, followed by Nellie, waterproofed and hatted.
“It's raining,” she went on, to Ned, “so I'll give you Harry's umbrella and let Ford take his waterproof. You'll have a damp row, Nellie. I suppose you know you've got to go across in George's boat, Ned.”
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Ned didn't know, but just then George's “Ahoy!” sounded from outside.
“We mustn't keep him waiting in the wet,” exclaimed Nellie. She shook hands with them all, kissing Mrs. Stratton affectionately. Ned felt as he shook hands all round that he was leaving old friends.
“Come again,” said Stratton, warmly. “We shall always be glad to see you.”
“Indeed we shall,” urged Connie. “Don't wait to come with Nellie. Come and see us any time you're in Sydney. Day or night, come and see if we're in and wait here if we're not.”
Geisner and Stratton put on their hats and went with them down the verandah steps to the little stone quay below. Josie was standing there, in the drizzle, wrapped in a cloak and holding a lantern. In a rowing skiff, alongside, was George; another lantern was set on one of the seats.note
“Are you busy to-morrow afternoon?” asked Geisner of Ned, as Nellie was being handed in, after having kissed Josie.
“Not particularly,” answered Ned.
“Then you might meet me in front of the picture gallery between one and two, and we can have a quiet chat.”
“All aboard!” shouted George.
“I'll be there,” answered Ned, shaking hands again with Geisner and Stratton and with Josie, noticing that that young lady had a very warm clinging hand.
“Good-bye! Good-bye! Good-bye!” From the three on shore.
“Good-bye! Good-bye! Good-bye!” From the three in the boat as George shoved off.
“Good-bye!” cried Connie's clear voice from the verandah. “Put up the umbrella, Ned!”
Ned obediently put up the umbrella she had lent him, overcoming his objections by pointing out that it would keep NeIlie's hat from being spoiled. Then George's oars began to dip into the water, and they turned their backs to the pleasant home and faced out into the wind and wet.
The last sound that came to them was a long melodious cry that Josie sent across the water to George, a loving “Good-bye!” that plainly meant “Come back!”
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“This Is Socialism!”
THE working of George's oars and the rippling of water on the bow were all that broke the silence as the skiff moved across the harbour. Suddenly Ned lost sight of the swinging lantern that Josie had held at the little landing stairs and without it could not distinguish the house they had left. Here and there behind them were lights of various kinds and sizes, shining blurred through the faint drizzle. He saw similar lights in front and on either hand. Yet the darkness was so deep now that but for the lantern on the fore thwarts he could not have seen George at all.
There were no sounds but those of their rowing.
Nellie sat erect, half hidden in the umbrella Ned held over her. George pulled a long sweeping stroke, bringing it up with a jerk that made the rowlocks sound sharply. When he bent back they could feel the light boat lift under them. He looked round now and then, steering himself by some means inscrutable to the others, who without him would have been lost on this watery waste.
All at once George stopped rowing. “Listen!” he exclaimed.
There was a swishing sound as of some great body rushing swiftly through the water near them. It ceased suddenly; then as suddenly sounded again.
“Sharks about,” remarked George, in a matter-of-fact tone, rowing again with the same long sweeping stroke as before.
Nellie did not stir. She was used to such incidents, evidently. But Ned had never before been so close to the sea-tigers and felt a creepy sensation. He would much rather, he thought, be thirty-five miles from water with a lame horse than in the company of sharks on a dark wet night in the middle of Sydney harbour.
“Are they dangerous?” he asked, with an attempt at being indifferent.
“I suppose so,” answered George, in a casual way. “If one of them happened to strike the boat it might be unpleasant. But they're terrible cowards.”
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“Are there many?”
“In the harbour? Oh, yes, it swarms with them. You see that light,” and George pointed to the left, where one of the lights had detached itself from the rest and shone close at hand. “That's on a little island and in the convict days hard cases were put on it—I think it was on that island or one like it—and the sharks saw that none of them swam ashore.” note
“They seem to have used those convicts pretty rough,” remarked Ned.
“Rough's no name,” said George after a few minutes. “It was as vile and unholy a thing, that System, as anything they have in Russia. A friend of mine has been working the thing up for years, and is going to start writing it up soon. You must read it when it comes out. It'll make you hate everything that has a brass button on. I tell you, this precious Law of ours has something to answer for. It was awful, horrible, and it's not all gone yet, as I know.” note
He rowed on for a space in silence.
“There's one story I think of, sometimes, rowing across here, and hearing the sharks splash. At one place they used to feed the dead convicts to the sharks so as to keep them swarming about, and once they flung one in before he was dead.”
Nellie gave a stifled exclamation. Ned was too horror-struck to answer; above the clicking of the oars in the rowlocks he fancied he could hear the swish of the savage sharks rushing through the water at their living prey. He was not sorry when George again rested on his oars to say:
“Will you land at the point this time, Nellie?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Well, here you are! We've had a pretty fastish pull over, considering.”
Two or three more strokes brought them to a flight of low stone steps. By the light of the lantern Ned and Nellie were disembarked.note
“I won't keep you talking in the rain, Nellie,” said George. “I'm sorry you are going away so soon, Hawkins. We could have given you some boating if you had time. You might come out to-morrow afternoon—that's this afternoon—if you haven't anything better to do.”
“I'm very much obliged, but I was going to meet Mr. Geisner.”
“That settles it then. Anybody would sooner have a yarn
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with Geisner. We'll fix some boating when you're down again. You'll come again. Won't he, Nellie? Good-bye and a pleasant trip! Good-bye, Nellie.” And having shaken hands by dint of much arm stretching, George pushed his boat away from the steps and pulled away.
Nellie stood for a minute watching the lantern till it turned the point, heading eastward. Then straightening the waterproof over her dress she took Ned's arm and they walked off.
“He's a nice sort of chap,” remarked Ned, referring to George.
“Yes, he's a great oarsman. He rows over to see Josie. Mrs. Stratton calls them Hero and Leander.”
“Why? Who were they?”
“Oh! Leander was Hero's sweetheart and used to swim across the water to her so that nobody should see him.”
“They're to be married, I suppose?”
“Yes, next month.”
“Those Strattons are immense—what's that noise, Nellie?” he interrupted himself. A strange groaning from close at hand had startled him.
“Somebody asleep, I suppose,” she answered, more accustomed to the Sydney parks. But she stopped while, under the umbrella, he struck a match with a bushman's craft.
By the light of the match they saw a great hollow in the rocks that bordered on one side the gravelled footway. The rocks leaned out and took in part of the path, which widened underneath. Sheltered thus from the rain and wind a number of men were sleeping, outcast, some in blankets, some lying on the bare ground. The sound they had heard was a medley of deep breathing and snoring. It was but a glimpse they caught as the match flared up for a minute. It went out and they could see nothing, only the faint outline of path and rock. They could hear still the moaning sound that had attracted them.note
They walked on without speaking for a time.
“How did you know the Strattons?” resumed Ned.
“At the picture gallery one Sunday. She was writing some article defending their being opened on the ‘Sawbath’ and I had gone in. I like pictures—some pictures, you know. We got talking and she showed me things in the pictures I'd never dreamed of before. We stayed there till closing time and she asked me to come to see her.”
“Has she any children?”
“Four. Such pretty children. She and her husband are so fond of each other. I can't imagine people being happier.”
“I suppose they're pretty well off, Nellie?”
“No, I don't think they're what you'd call well off. They're comfortable, you know. She has to put on a sort of style, she's told me, to take the edge off her ideas. If you wear low-necked dress you can talk the wildest things, she says, and I think it's so. That's business with her. She has to mix with low-necked people a little. It's her work.”
“Does she have to work?”
“No. I suppose not. But I think she prefers to. She never writes what she doesn't think, which is pleasanter than most writers find it. Then I should think she'd feel more independent, however much she cares for her husband. And then she has a little girl who's wonderfully clever at colours, so she's saving up to send her to Paris when she's old enough. They think she'll become a great painter—the little girl, I mean.”
“What does that Josie do?”
“She's a music-teacher.”
“They're all clever, aren't they?”
“Yes. But, of course, they've all had a chance. Ford is the most remarkable. He never got any education to speak of until he was over 20. The Strattons have been born as they live now. They've had some hard times, I think, from what they say now and then, but they've always been what's called ‘cultured.’ Everybody ought to be as they are.”
“I think so, too, Nellie, but can everybody be as well off as they are?”
“They're not well off, I told you, Ned. If they spend £5 a week it's as much as they do. Of course that sounds a lot, but since if things were divided fairly everybody who works ought to get far more, it's not extravagant riches. Wine and water doesn't cost more than beer, and the things they've got were picked up bit by bit. It's what they've got and the way it's put that looks so nice. There's nothing but what's pretty, and she is always adding something or other. She idolises Art and worships everything that's beautiful.”
“Do you think it's really that sort of thing that makes people better?” said Ned.
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“How can it help making them better if their hearts are good? When what is ugly and miserable in life jars on one at every turn because one loves so what is harmonious and beautiful, there seems to me to be only one of two things to be done, either to shut your eyes to others and become a selfish egotist or to try with all your strength to bring a beautiful life to others. I'm speaking, of course, particularly of people like the Strattons. But I think that hatred of what is repulsive is a big influence with all of us.”
“You mean of dirty streets, stuffy houses and sloppy clothes?”
“Oh! More than that. Of ugly lives, of ugly thoughts, of others, and ourselves perhaps, just existing like working bullocks when we might be so happy, of living being generally such a hateful thing when it might be so sweet!”
“I suppose the Strattons are happy?”
“Not as happy as everybody might be if the world was right. They understand music and pictures and colouring and books. He reads science a lot and paints—funny mixture, isn't it?—and she teaches the children a great deal. They go boating together. They both work at what they like and are clever enough to be fairly sure of plenty to do. They have friends who take an interest in the things that interest them and their children are little angels. They aren't short of money for anything they need because they really live simply and so have plenty to spend. And, then, they are such kind people. She has a way with her that makes you feel better no matter how miserable you've been. That's happiness, I think, as far as it goes. But she feels much as I do about children. She is so afraid that they will not be happy and blames herself for being selfish because other people's children never have any happiness and would do anything to alter things so that it would be different. Still, of course, they have a happy life as far as the life itself goes. I think, the way they live, they must both feel as if they were each better and knew more and cared for each other more the older they get.”
“It must be very pleasant,” said Ned, after a pause. They had reached the higher ground and were passing under branches from which the rain-drops, collected, fell in great splashes on the umbrella.
“Yes,” said Nellie, after another pause.
“Do they go to church?” Ned began again.
“I never heard them say they did.”
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“They're not religious then?”
“What do you call religious?”
“They don't believe anything, do they?”
“I think they believe a very great deal. Far more than most people who pretend to believe and don't,” answered Nellie. There was a longer pause. Then:
“What do they believe?”
“Socialism! Look here, Nellie! What is Socialism?”
noteThey had passed the fig-tree avenue, turning off it by a cross path, where a stone fountain loomed up gigantic in the gloom and where they could hear a rushing torrent splashing. They were in the region of gas-lamps again. Nellie walked along with a swiftness that taxed Ned to keep abreast of her. She seemed to him to take pleasure in the wet night. In spite of their long walking of the day before and the lateness of the hour she had still the same springy step and upright carriage. As they passed under the lamps he saw her face, damp with the rain, but flushed with exercise, her eyes gleaming, her mouth open a little. He would have liked to have taken her hand as she steadied the umbrella, walking arm in arm with him, but he did not dare. She was not that sort of girl.
He had felt a proud sense of proprietorship in her at the Strattons'. It had pleased him to see how they all liked her, but pleased him most of all that she could talk as an equal with these people, to him so brilliant and clever. The faint thought of her which had been unconsciously with him for years began to take shape. How pleasant it would be to be like the Strattons, to live with Nellie always, and have friends to come and see them on a Saturday night! How a man would work for a home like that, so full of music, so full of song, so full of beauty, so full of the thoughts which make men like unto gods and of the love which makes gods like unto men! Why should not this be for him as well as for others when, as Nellie said, it really cost only what rich people thought poverty, and far less than the workingman's share if things were fairly divided? And why should it not be for his mates as well as for himself? And why, most of all, why not for the wretched dwellers in the slums of Sydney, the weary women, the puny children, the imbruted men? For the first time in his life, he coveted such things with a righteous covetousness, without hating those who had them, recognising without words
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that to have and to appreciate such a life was to desire ceaselessly to bring it within the reach of every human being. He could not see how this was all to come about. He would have followed blindly anybody who played the Marseillaise as Geisner did. He was ready to echo any ringing thought that appealed to him as good and noble. But he did not know. He could see that in the idea called by Mrs. Stratton “the Cause” there was an understood meaning which fitted his aspirations and his desires. He had gathered, his narrow bigotry washed from him, that between each and all of those whom he had just left there was a bond of union, a common thought, an accepted way. He had met them strangers, and had left them warm friends. The cartoonist, white with rage at the memory of the high rectory wall that shut the beautiful from the English poor; the gloomy poet whose verses rang still in his ears and would live in his heart for ever; the gray-eyed woman who idolised Art, as Nellie said, and fanned still the fire in which her nearest kin had perished; the pressman, with his dream of a free press that would not serve the money power; the painter to whom the chiselled stone spoke; the pretty girl who had been cradled amid barricades; the quiet musician for whom the bitterness of death was past, born leader of men, commissioned by that which stamped him what he was; the dressmaking girl, passionately pleading the cause of Woman; even himself, drinking in this new life as the ground sucks up the rain after a drought; between them all there was a bond—“the Cause.” What was this Cause? To break down all walls, to overthrow all wrong, to destroy the ugliness of human life, to free thought, to elevate Art, to purify Love, to lift mankind higher, to give equality to women, to—to—he did not see exactly where he himself came in—all this was the Cause. Yet he did not quite understand it, just the same. Nor did he know how it was all to come about. But he intended to find out. So he asked Nellie what the Strattons believed, feeling instinctively that there must be belief in something.
“What do they believe?” he had asked.
“In Socialism,” Nellie had answered.
“Socialism! Look here, Nellie! What is Socialism?” he had exclaimed.
They neared a lamp, shining mistily in the drizzle. Close at hand was a seat, facing the grass. In the dim light was what
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looked like a bundle of rags thrown over the seat and trailing to the ground. Nellie stopped. It was a woman, sleeping.
There, under a leafy tree, whose flat branches shielded her somewhat from the rain, slept the outcast. She had dozed off into slumber, sitting there alone. She was not lying, only sitting there, her arm flung over the back of the seat, her head fallen on her shoulder, her face upturned to the pitying night. It was the face of a street-walker, bloated and purplish, the poor pretence of colour gone, the haggard lines showing, all the awful life of her stamped upon it; yet in the lamplight, upturned in its helplessness, sealed with the sleep that had come at last to her, sore-footed, as softly as it might have come to a little baby falling asleep amid its play, there enhaloed it the incarnation of triumphant suffering. On the swollen cheeks of the homeless woman the night had shed its tears of rain. There amid the wind and wet, in the darkness, alone and weary, shame-worn and sin-sodden, scorned by the Pharisee, despised by the vicious, the harlot slept and forgot. Calm as death itself was the face of her. Softly and gently she breathed, as does the heavy-eyed bride whose head the groom's arm pillows. Nature, our Mother Nature, had taken her child for a moment to her breast and the outcast rested there awhile, all sorrows forgotten, all desires stilled, all wrongs and sins and shame obscured and blotted out. She envied none. Equal was she with all. Great indeed is Sleep, which teaches us day by day that none is greater in God's sight than another, that as we all came equal and naked from the unknown so naked and equal we shall all pass on to the Unknown again, that this life is but as a phantasy in which it is well to so play one's part that nightly one falls asleep without fear and meets at last the great sleep without regret!
But, oh, the suffering that had earned for this forsaken sister the sweet sleep she slept! Oh, the ceaseless offering of this sin-stained body, the contumelious jeers she met, the vain search through streets and avenues this wild night, for the blind lust that would give her shelter and food! Oh, the efforts to beg, the saints who would not wait to listen to such a one, the sinners who were as penniless! Oh, the shivering fits that walk, walk, walk, when the midnight hours brought silence and solitude, the stamps that racked her poor limbs when she laid down, exhausted, in dripping garments, on the hard park seats, the aching feet that refused at last the ceaseless tramping in
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their soaked and broken shoes! Oh, the thoughts of her, the memories, the dreams of what had been and what might be, as she heard the long hours toll themselves away! Oh, the bitter tears she may have shed, and the bitter words she may have uttered, and the bitter hate that may have overflowed in her against that vague something we call Society! And, oh, the sweet sleep that fell upon her at last, unexpected—as the end of our waiting shall come, when we weary most—falling upon her as the dew falls, closing her weary eye-lids, giving her peace and rest and strength to meet another to-day!
Ned stopped when Nellie did, of course. Neither spoke. A sense of great shame crept upon him, he hardly knew why. He could not look at Nellie. He wished she would move on and leave him there. The silent pathos of that sleeping face cried to him. Lowest of the low, filthy, diseased probably, her face as though the womanliness had been stamped from her by a brutal heel of iron, she yet was a woman. This outcast and Nellie were of one sex; they all three were of one Humanity.
A few hours before and he would have passed her by with a glance of contemptuous pity. But now, he seemed to have another sense awakened in him, the sense that feels, that sympathises in the heart with the hearts of others. It was as though he himself slept there. It was as though he understood this poor sister, whom the merciful called erring, and the merciless wicked, but of whom the just could only say: she is what we in her place must have become. She was an atom of the world of suffering by which his heart was being wrung. She was one upon whom the Wrong fell crushingly, and she was helpless to resist it. He was strong, and he had given no thought to those who suffered as this poor outcast suffered. He had lived his own narrow life, and shared the sin, and assisted Wrong by withholding his full strength from the side of Right. And upon him was the responsibility for this woman. He, individually, had kicked her into the streets, and dragged her footsore through the parks, and cast her there to bear testimony against him to every passer-by; he, because he had not fought, whole-souled, with those who seek to shatter the something which, without quite understanding, he knew had kicked and dragged and outcasted this woman sleeping here. Ned always took his lessons personally. It was perhaps, a touch in him of the morbidity that seizes so often the wandering Arabs of the western plains.
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noteSuddenly Nellie let go the umbrella, leaving it in his hand. She bent forward, stooped down. The strong young face, proud and sad, so pure in its maiden strength, glowing with passionate emotion, was laid softly against that bruised and battered figurehead of shipwrecked womanhood; Nellie had kissed the sleeping harlot on the cheek.
Then, standing erect, she turned to Ned, her lips parted, her face quivering, her eyes flashing, her hand resting gently on the unconscious woman.
“You want to know what Socialism is,” she said, in a low, trembling voice. “This is Socialism.” And bending down again she kissed the poor outcast harlot a second time. The woman never stirred. Seizing Ned's arm Nellie drew him away, breaking into a pace that made him respect her prowess as a walker ever after.
Until they reached home neither spoke. Nellie looked sterner than ever. Ned was in a whirl of mental excitement. Perhaps if he had been less natural himself the girl's passionate declaration of fellowship with all who are wronged and oppressed—for so he interpreted it by the light of his own thoughts—might have struck him as a little bit stagey. Being natural, he took it for what it was, an outburst of genuine feeling. But if Nellie had really designed it she could not have influenced him more deeply. Their instincts, much akin, had reached the same idea by different ways. Her spontaneous expression of feeling had fitted in her mind to the Cause which possessed her as a religious idea, and had capped in him the human yearnings which were leading him to the same goal. And so, what with his overflowing sympathy for the sleeping outcast, and his swelling love for Nellie, and the chaotic excitement roused in him by all he had seen and heard during the preceding hours, that kiss burnt itself into his imagination and became to him all his life through as a sacred symbol. From that moment his life was forecast—a woman tempted him and he ate.
noteFor that kiss Ned gave himself into the hands of a fanaticism, eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, striving to become as a god knowing good from evil. For that kiss he became one of those who have the Desire which they know can never be satiated in them. For that kiss he surrendered himself wholly to the faith of her whose face was sad and stern-mouthed, content ever after if with his whole life he could fill one of the ruts that
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delay the coming of Liberty's triumphal car. To that turning-point in his life, other events led up, certainly, events which of themselves would likely have forced him to stretch out his hand and pluck and eat. It is always that way with life changes. Nothing depends altogether upon one isolated act. But looking back in after years, when the lesser influences had cleared away in the magic glass of Time, Ned could ever see, clear and distinct as though it were but a minute since, the stern red lips of that pale, proud, passionate face pressed in trembling sisterliness to the harlot's purple cheek.
As she put the key in the door Nellie turned to Ned, speaking for the first time:
“You'd better ask Geisner about Socialism when you see him to-morrow—I mean this afternoon.”
Ned nodded without speaking. Silently he let her get his candle, and followed her up the stairs to the room concerning which the card was displayed in the window below. She turned down the bedclothes, then held out her hand.
“Good-night or good-morning, whichever it is!” she said, smiling at him. “You can sleep as long as you like Sunday morning, you know. If you want anything knock the wall there.”
“Good-night, Nellie!” he answered, slowly, holding her fingers in his. Then, before she could stop him, he lifted her hand to his lips. She did not snatch it away but looked him straight in the eyes, without speaking; then went out, shutting the door softly behind her. She understood him partly; not altogether, then.
Left alone in the scantily-furnished room, Ned undressed, blew out the candle and went to bed. But until he fell asleep, and in his dreams afterwards, he still saw Nellie bending down over a purpled, sin-stained face, and heard her sweet voice whisper tremblingly:
“This is Socialism!” note
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Where the Evil Really Lies
GEISNER was betimes at his appointment in the Domain. It was still the dinner hour, and though it was Sunday there were few to be seen on the grass or along the paths. So Ned saw him afar off, pacing up and down before the Art Gallery like a sentinel, an ordinary looking man to a casual passer-by, one whom you might pass a hundred times on the street and not notice particularly, even though he was ugly. Perhaps because of it.
Neither of them cared to stroll about, they found. Accordingly they settled down at a shady patch on a grassy slope, the ground already dried from the night's rain by the fierce summer sunshine of the morning. Stretched out there, Geisner proceeded to roll a cigarette and Ned to chew a blade of grass.
Below them a family were picnicking quietly. Dinner was over; pieces of paper littered the ground by an open basket. The father lay on his side smoking, the mother was giving a nursing baby its dinner, one little child lay asleep under a tree and two or three more were playing near at hand.
“That reminds me of Paris,” remarked Geisner, watching them.
“I suppose you are French?”
“No. I've been in France considerably.”
“It's a beautiful country, isn't it?”
“All countries are beautiful in their way. Sydney Harbour is the most beautiful spot I know. I hardly know where I was born. In Germany I think.”
“Things are pretty bad in those old countries, aren't they?”
“Things are pretty bad everywhere, aren't they?”
“Yes,” answered Ned, meditatively. “They seem to be. They're bad enough here and this is called the workingman's paradise. But a good many seem glad enough to get here from other countries. It must be pretty bad where they come from.”
“So it is. It is what it is here, only more so. It is what things will be in a very few years here if you let them go on. As a matter of fact the old countries ought to be more prosperous than the new ones, but our social system has become so ill-balanced that in the countries where there are most people at
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work those people are more wretched than where there are comparatively few working.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, this way. The wealth production of thickly settled countries is proportionately greater than that of thinly settled countries. Of course, there would be a limit somewhere, but so far no country we know of has reached it.”
“You don't mean that a man working in England or France earns more than a man working in Australia?” demanded Ned, sitting up. “I thought it was the other way.”
“I don't mean he gets more but I certainly mean that he produces more. The appliances are so much better, and the sub-division of labour, that is each man doing one thing until he becomes an expert at it, is carried so much further by very virtue of the thicker population.”
“That's to say they have things fixed so that they crush more to the ton of work.”
“About that. Taking the people all round, and throwing in kings and queens and aristocrats and the parsons that Ford loves so, every average Englishman produced yesterday more wealth—more boots, more tools, more cloth, more anything of value—than every average Australian. And every average Belgian produced yesterday, or any day, more wealth than every average Englishman. These are facts you can see in any collection of statistics. The conservative political economists don't deny them; they only try to explain them away.”
“But how does it come? Men produce more there than we do here and earn less. How's that?”
“Simply because they're robbed more.”
“Look here, Mr. Geisner!” said Ned, gathering his knees into his arms. “That's what I want to know. I know we're robbed. Any fool can see that those who work the least or don't work at all get pretty much everything, but I don't quite see how they get it. We're only just beginning to think of these things in the bush, and we don't know much yet. We only know there's something wrong, but we don't know what to do except to get a union and keep up wages.”
“That's the first step, to get a union,” said Geisner. “But unless unionists understand what it's all about they'll only be able to keep up wages for a little while. You see, Ned, this is the difficulty: a man can't work when he likes.”
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“A man can't work when he likes!”
“No; not the average man and it's the average man who has to be considered always. Let's take a case—yourself. You want to live. Accordingly, you must work, that is you must produce what you need to live upon from the earth by your labour or you must produce something which other working men need and these other men will give you in exchange for it something they have produced which you need. Now, let's imagine you wanting to live and desiring to start to-morrow morning to work for your living. What would you do?”
“I suppose I'd ask somebody.”
“Well, I'd have to ask somebody or other if there was any work.”
“Well, if they had a job they wanted me to do, that I could do, you know.”
“I don't ‘You know’ anything. I want you to explain. Now what would you say?”
“Oh! I'd kind of go down to the hut likely and see the boys if 'twas any use staying about and then, perhaps, or it might be before I went to the hut, that would be all according, I'd see the boss and sound him.”
“How sound him?”
“Well, that would be all according, too. If I was pretty flush and didn't care a stiver whether I got a job or not I'd waltz right up to him just as I might to you to ask the time, and if he came any of his law-de-dah squatter funny business on me I'd give him the straight wire, I promise you. But it stands to reason—don't it?—that if I've been out of graft for months and haven't got any money and my horses are played out and there's no chance of another job, well, I'm going to humour him a bit more than I'd like to, ain't I?”
Geisner laughed “You see it all right, Ned. Suppose the first man you sounded said no?”
“I'd try another.”
“And if the other said no?”
“Well, I'd have to keep on trying.”
“And you'd get more inclined to humour the boss every time you had to try again.”
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“Naturally. That's how they get at us. No man's a crawler who's sure of a job.”
“Then you might take lower wages, and work longer hours, after you'd been out of work till you'd got thoroughly disheartened than you would now.”
“I wouldn't. Not while there was—I might have to, though I say I'd starve or steal first. There are lots who do, I suppose.”
“Lots who wouldn't dream of doing it if there was plenty of work to be had?”
“Of course. Who'd work for less than another man if he needn't, easily? There isn't one man in a thousand who'd do another fellow out of a job for pure meanness. The chaps who do the mischief are those who're so afraid the boss'll sack them, and that another boss won't take them on, that they'd almost lick his boots if they thought it would please him.”
“Now we're coming to it. It is work being hard to get that lowers wages and increases hours, and makes a workman, or workwoman either, put up with what nobody would dream of putting up with if they could help it?”
“Of course that's it.”
“Now! Is the day's work done by a poorly-paid man less than that done by a highly-paid one?”
“No,” answered Ned. “I've seen it more,” he added.
“Well, when a man's anxious to keep a job and afraid he won't get another he'll often nearly break his back bullocking at it. When he feels independent he'll do the fair thing, and sling the job up if the boss tries to bullock him. It's the same thing all along the line, it seems to me. When you can get work easily you get higher wages, shorter hours, some civility, and only do the fair thing. When you can't, wages come down, hours spin out, the boss puts on side, and you've got to work like a nigger.”
“Then, roughly speaking, the amount of work you do hasn't got very much to do with the pay you get for it?”
“I suppose not. It's not likely a man ever gets more than his work is worth. The boss would soon knock him off and let the work slide. I suppose a man is only put on to a job when it's worth more than the boss has to pay for getting it done. And I reckon the less a man can be got to do it for the better it is for the fellow who gets the job done.”
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“That's it. Suppose you can't get work no matter how often you ask, what do you do?”
“Keep on looking. Live on rations that the squatters serve out to keep men travelling the country so they can get them if they want them or on mutton you manage to pick up or else your mates give you a bit of a lift. You must live. It's beg or steal or else starve.”
“I think men and women are beginning to starve in Australia. Many are quite starving in the old countries and have been starving longer. That's why the workers are somewhat worse off there than here. The gold rushes gave things a lift here and raised the condition of the workers wonderfully. But the same causes that have been working in the old countries have been working here and are fast beating things down again.”
“A gold rush!” exclaimed Ned. “That's the thing to make wages rise, particularly if it's a poor man's digging.”
“Don't you know? An alluvial field is where you can dig out gold with a pick and shovel and wash it out with a pannikin. You don't want any machines, and everybody digs for himself, or mates with other fellows, and if you want a man to do a job you've got to pay him as much as he could dig for himself in the time.”
“I see. ‘Poor man's digging,’ you call it, eh? You don't think much of a reefing field?”
“Of course not,” answered Ned, smiling at this apparent ignorance. “Reefing fields employ men, and give a market, and a few strike it, but the average man, as you call him, hasn't got a chance. It takes so much capital for sinking and pumping and crushing, and things of that sort, that companies have to be formed outside, and the miners mostly work just for wages. And when a reefing field gets old it's as bad as a coal-field or a factory town. You're just working for other people, and the bigger the dividends the more anxious they seem to be to knock wages.”
“Then this is what it all amounts to. If you aren't working for yourself you're working for somebody else who pays as little as he can for as much as he can get, and rubs the dirt in, often, into the bargain.”
“A man may not earn wages working for himself,” answered Ned.
“You mean he may not produce for himself as much value as men around him receive in wages for working for somebody else.
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Of course! You might starve working on Mount Morgan or Broken Hill with a pick and pannikin, though on an alluvial your pick and pannikin would be all you needed. That's the kernel of the industrial question. Industry has passed out of the alluvial stage into the reefing. We must have machinery to work with or we may all starve in the midst of mountains of gold.”
“I don't quite see how you mean.”
“Just this. If every man could take his pick on his shoulders and work for himself with reasonable prospect of what he regarded as a sufficient return he wouldn't ask anybody else for work.”
“Not often, anyway.”
“But if he cannot so work for himself he must go round looking for the man who has a shaft or a pump or a stamping mill and must bargain for the owner of machinery to take the product of his labour for a certain price which of course isn't it's full value at all but the price at which, owing to his necessities, he is compelled to sell his labour.
“Things are getting so in all branches of industry, in squatting, in manufacturing, in trading, in ship-owning, in everything, that it takes more and more capital for a man to start for himself. This is a necessary result of increasing mechanical powers and of the economy of big businesses as compared to small ones. For example, if there is a great advantage in machine clipping, as a friend of mine who understands such things tells me there is, all wool will some day be clipped that way. Then, the market being full of superior machine-clipped wool, hand-clipped would have little sale and only at lower price. The result would be that all wool-growers must have machines as part of their capital, an additional expense, making it still harder for a man with a small capital to start wool-growing.
“All this means,” continued Geisner, “that more and more go round asking for work as what we call civilisation progresses, that is as population increases and the industrial life becomes more complicated. I don't mean in Australia only. I'm speaking generally. They can only work when another man thinks he can make a profit out of them, and there are so many eager to be made a profit on that the owner of the machine has it pretty well his own way. This system operates for the extension of its own worst feature, the degradation of the working masses. You see, such a vast amount of industrial work can be held over that employers, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes deliberately, hold
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work over until times are what they call ‘more suitable,’ that is when they can make bigger profits by paying less in wages. This has a tendency to constantly keep wages down, besides affording a stock argument against unionist agitations for high wages. But, in any case, the fits of industrial briskness and idleness which occur in all countries are enough to account for the continual tendency of wages to a bare living amount for those working, as many of those not working stand hungrily by to jump into their places if they get rebellious or attempt to prevent wages going down.”
“That's just how it is,” said Ned. “But we're going to get all men into unions, and then we'll keep wages up.”
“Yes; there is no doubt that unions help to keep wages up. But, you see, so long as industrial operations can be contracted, and men thrown out of work, practically at the pleasure of those who employ, complete unionism is almost impracticable if employers once begin to act in concert. Besides, the unemployed are a menace to unionism always. Workmen can never realise that too strongly.”
“What are we to do then if we can't get what we want by unionism?”
“How can you get what you want by unionism? The evil is in having to ask another man for work at all—in not being able to work for yourself. Unionism, so far, only says that if this other man does employ you he shall not take advantage of your necessity by paying you less than the wage which you and your fellow workmen have agreed to hold out for. You must destroy the system which makes it necessary for you to work for the profit of another man, and keeps you idle when he can't get a profit out of you. The whole wage system must be utterly done away with.” And Geisner rolled another cigarette as though it was the simplest idea in the world.
“How? What will you do instead?”
“How! By having men understand what it is, and how there can be no true happiness and no true manliness until they overthrow it! By preaching socialistic ideas wherever men will listen, and forcing them upon them where they do not want to listen! By appealing to all that is highest in men and to all that is lowest—to their humanity and to their selfishness! By the help of the education which is becoming general, by the help of art and of science, and even of this vile press that is the incarnation
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of all the villainies of the present system! By living for the Cause, and by being ready to die for it! By having only one idea: to destroy the Old Order and to bring in the New!” Geisner spoke quietly, but in his voice was a ring that made Ned's blood tingle in his veins.
“What do you call the Old Order?” asked Ned, lying back and looking up at the sky through the leaves.
“Everything that is inhuman, everything that is brutal, everything which relies upon the taking advantage of a fellow-man, which leads to the degradation of a woman or to the unhappiness of a child. Everything which is opposed to the idea of human brotherhood. That which produces scrofulous kings, and lying priests, and greasy millionaires, and powdered prostitutes, and ferret-faced thieves. That which makes the honest man a pauper and a beggar, and sets the clever swindler in parliament. That which makes you what you are at 24, a man without a home, with hardly a future. That which tries to condemn those who protest to starvation, and will yet condemn them to prison here in Australia as readily as ever it did in Europe or Russia.
“You want to know what makes this,” he went on. “Well, it is what we have been talking of, that you should have to ask another man for work so that you may live. It doesn't matter what part of the world you are in or under what form of government, it is the same everywhere. So long as you can't work without asking another man for permission you are exposed to all the ills that attend poverty and all the tyranny that attends inordinate power and luxury. When you grip that, you understand half the industrial problem.”
“And the other half, what's that?” asked Ned.
“This, that we've got over the alluvial days, if they ever did exist industrially, and are in the thick of reefing fields and syndicates. So much machinery is necessary now that no ordinary single man can own the machinery he needs to work with as he could in the old pick and pannikin days. This makes him the slave of those who do own it for he has to work to live. Men must all join together to own the machinery they must have to work with, so that they may use it to produce what they need as they need it and will not have to starve unless some private owner of machinery can make a profit out of their labour. They must pull together as mates and work for what is best for all,
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not each man be trying only for himself and caring little whether others live or die. We must own all machinery co-operatively and work it co-operatively.”
“How about the land? Oughtn't that to be owned by the people too?”
“Why, of course. The land is a part of the machinery of production. Henry George separates it but in reality it is simply one of the means by which we live, nowadays, for no man but an absolute savage can support himself on the bare land. In the free land days which Henry George quotes, the free old German days when we were all barbarians and didn't know what a thief was, not only was the land held in common but the cattle also. Without its cattle a German tribe would have starved on the richest pastureland in Europe, and without our machinery we would starve were the land nationalised to-morrow. At least I think so. George's is a scheme by which it is proposed to make employers compete so fiercely among one another that the workman will have it all his own way. It works this way. You tax the landowner until it doesn't pay him to have unused land. He must either throw it up or get it used somehow and the demand for labour thus created is to lift wages and put the actual workers in what George evidently considers a satisfactory position. That's George's Single Tax scheme.”
“You don't agree with it?” asked Ned.
“I am a Socialist. Between all Socialists and all who favour competition in industry, as the Single Tax scheme does, there is a great gulf fixed. Economically, I consider it fallacious, for the very simple reason that capitalism continues competition, not to selling at cost price but to monopoly, and I have never met an intelligent Single Taxer, and I have met many, who could logically deny the possibility of the Single Tax breaking down in an extension of this very monopoly power. Roughly, machinery is necessary to work land most profitably, profitably enough even to get a living off it. Suppose machine holders, that is capitalists, extend their organisation a little and ‘pool’ their interests as land users, that is refuse to compete against one another for the use of land! Nellie was telling me that at one land sale on the Darling Downs in Queensland the selectors about arranged matters among themselves beforehand. The land sold, owing to its situation, was only valuable to those having other land near and so was all knocked down at the upset price though worth
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four times as much. It seems to me that in just the same way the capitalists, who alone can really use land remember, for the farmer, the squatter, the shopkeeper, the manufacturer, the merchant, are nowadays really only managers for banks and mortgage companies, will soon arrange a way of fixing the values of land to suit themselves. But apart from that, I object to the Single Tax idea from the social point of view. It is competitive. It means that we are still to go on buying in the cheapest market and selling in the dearest. It is tinged with that hideous Free Trade spirit of England, by which cotton kings became millionaires while cotton spinners were treated far worse than any chattel slaves. There are other things to be considered besides cheapness, though unfortunately, with things as they are we seem compelled to consider cheapness first.”
They lay for some time without speaking.
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“It Only Needs Enough Faith”
“YOU think land and stock and machinery should be nationalised, then?” asked Ned, turning things over in his mind.
“I think land and machinery, the entire means and processes of the production and exchange of wealth, including stock, should be held in common by those who need them and worked cooperatively for the benefit of all. That is the socialistic idea of industry. The State Socialists seek to make the State the co-operative medium, the State to be the company and all citizens to be equal shareholders as it were. State Socialism is necessarily compulsory on all. The other great socialistic idea, that of Anarchical Communism, bases itself upon voluntaryism and opposes all organised Force, whether of governments or otherwise.”
“Then Anarchists aren't wicked men?”
“The Anarchist ideal is the highest and noblest of all human ideals. I cannot conceive of a good man who does not recognise that when he once understands it. The Anarchical Communists simply seek that men should live in peace and concord, of their own better nature, without being forced, doing harm to none, and being harmed by none. Of course the blind revolt against oppressive and unjust laws and tyrannical governments has become associated with Anarchy, but those who abuse it simply don't know what they do. Anarchical Communism, that is men working as mates and sharing with one another of their own free will, is the highest conceivable form of Socialism in industry.”
“Are you an Anarchist?”
“No. I recognise their ideal, understand that it is the only natural condition for a community of general intelligence and fair moral health, and look to the time when it will be instituted. I freely admit it is the only form of Socialism possible among true Socialists. But the world is full of mentally and morally and socially diseased people who, I believe, must go through the school of State Socialism before, as a great mass, they are true Socialists and fit for voluntary Socialism. Unionism is the drill
― 113 ―
for Socialism and Socialism is the drill for Anarchy and Anarchy is that free ground whereon true Socialists and true Individualists meet as friends and mates, all enmity between them absorbed by the development of an all-dominant Humanity.”
“Mates! Do you know that's a word I like?” said Ned. “It makes you feel good, just the sound of it. I know a fellow, a shearer, who was witness for a man in a law case once, and the lawyer asked him if he wasn't mates with the chap he was giving evidence for.
“‘No,’ says Bill, ‘we ain't mates.’
“‘But you've worked together?’ says the lawyer. ‘Oh, yes!’ says Bill.
“‘And travelled together?’
“‘And camped together?’
“‘Then if you're not mates what is mates?’ says the lawyer in a bit of a tear.
note “‘Well, mister,’ says Bill, ‘mates is them wot's got one pus. If I go to a shed with Jack an' we're mates an' I earn forty quid and Jack gets sick an' only earns ten or five or mebbe nothin' at all we puts the whole lot in one pus, or if it's t'other way about an' Jack earns the forty it don't matter. There's one pus no matter how much each of us earns an' it b'longs just the same to both of us alike. If Jack's got the pus and I want half-a-crown, I says to Jack, says I, “Jack, gimme the pus.” An' if Jack wants ten quid or twenty or the whole lot he just says to me, “Bill,” says he “gimme the pus.” I don't ask wot he's goin' to take and I don't care. He can take it all if he wants it, 'cos it stands to reason, don't it, mister?’ says Bill to the lawyer, ‘that a man wouldn't be so dirt mean as to play a low-down trick on his own mate. So you see, mister, him an' me warn't mates 'cos we had two pusses an' mates is them wot's got one pus.’”
Geisner laughed with Ned over the bush definition of “mates.”
“Bill was about right,” he said, “and Socialism would make men mates to the extent of all sharing up with one another. Each man might have a purse but he'd put no more into it than his mate who was sick and weak.”
“We'd all work together and share together, I take it,” said Ned. “But suppose a man wouldn't work fairly and didn't want to share?”
― 114 ―
“I'd let him and all like him go out into the bush to see how they could get on alone. They'd soon get tired. Men must co-operate to live civilised.”
“Then Socialism is co-operation?” remarked Ned.
“Co-operation as against competition is the main industrial idea of Socialism. But there are two Socialisms. There is a socialism with a little ‘s’ which is simply an attempt to stave off the true Socialism. This small, narrow socialism means only the state regulation of the distribution of wealth. It has as its advocates politicians who seek to modify the robbery of the workers, to ameliorate the horrors of the competitive system, only in order to prevent the upheaval which such men recognise to be inevitable if things keep on unchanged.”
“But true Socialism? I asked Nellie last night what Socialism was, but she didn't say just what.”
“What did she say?”
“Well! We were coming through the Domain last night, this morning I mean. It was this morning, too. And on a seat in the rain, near a lamp, was a poor devil of a woman, a regular hard-timer, you know, sleeping with her head hung over the back of the seat like a fowl's. I'd just been asking Nellie what Socialism was when we came to the poor wretch and she stopped there. I felt a bit mean, you know, somehow, but all at once Nellie bent her head and kissed this street-walking woman on the cheek, softly, so she didn't wake her. ‘That's Socialism,’ says Nellie, and we didn't speak any more till we got to her place, and then she told me to ask you what Socialism was.” Ned had shifted his position again and was sitting now on his heels. He had pulled out his knife and was digging a little hole among the grass roots.note
Geisner, who hardly moved except to roll cigarettes and light them, lay watching him. “I think she's made you a Socialist,” he answered, smiling.
“I suppose so,” answered Ned, gravely. “If Socialism means that no matter what you are or what you've been we're all mates, and that Nellie's going to join hands with the street-walker, and that you're going to join hands with me, and that all of us are going to be kind to one another and have a good time like we did at Mrs. Stratton's last night, well, I'm a Socialist and there's heaps up in the bush will be Socialists too.”
“You know what being a Socialist means, Ned?” asked Geisner, looking into the young man's eyes.
― 115 ―
“I've got a notion,” said Ned, looking straight back.
“There are socialists and Socialists, just as there is socialism and Socialism. The ones babble of what they do not feel because it's becoming the thing to babble. The others have a religion and that religion is Socialism.”
“How does one know a religion?”
“When one is ready to sacrifice everything for it. When one only desires that the Cause may triumph. When one has no care for self and does not fear anything that man can do and has a faith which nothing can shake, not even one's own weakness!”
There was a pause. “I'll try to be a Socialist of the right sort,” said Ned.
“You are young and hopeful and will think again and again that the day of redemption is dawning, and will see the night roll up again. You will see great movements set in and struggle to the front and go down when most was expected of them. You will see in the morning the crowd repent of its enthusiasm of the night before. You will find cowards where you expected heroes and see the best condemned to the suffering and penury that weaken the bravest. Your heart will ache and your stomach will hunger and your body will be bent and your head gray and then you may think that the world is not moving and that you have wasted your life and that none are grateful for it.”
“I will try not,” said Ned.
“You will see unionism grow, the New Unionism, which is simply the socialistic form of unionism. You will see, as I said before, penal laws invoked against unionism here in Australia, under the old pretence of ‘law and order.’ You will see the labour movement diverted into political action and strikes fought and lost and won at the polling booths.”
“Will it not come then?”
“How can it come then? Socialism is not a thing which can be glued like a piece of veneering over this rotten social system of ours. It can only come by the utter sweeping away of competition, and that can only come by the development of the socialistic idea in men's hearts.”
“Do you mean that unions and political action and agitations don't do any good?”
“Of course they do good. A union may make an employer rob his men of a few shillings weekly less. An act of Parliament may prevent wage-slaves from being worked sixteen hours a
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day. An act of Parliament, granted that Parliament represented the dominant thought of the people, could even enforce a change of the entire social system. But before action must come the dominant thought. Unions and Parliaments are really valuable as spreading the socialistic idea. Every unionist is somewhat socialist so far as he has agreed not to compete any longer against his fellows. Every act of Parliament is additional proof that the system is wrong and must go before permanent good can come. And year after year the number of men and women who hold Socialism as a religion is growing. And when they are enough you will see this Old Order melt away like a dream and the New Order replace it. That which appears so impregnable will pass away in a moment. So!” He blew a cloud of smoke and watched it disappear circling upwards.
“Listen!” he went on. “It only needs enough Faith. This accursed Competitivism of ours has no friends but those who fear personal loss by a change of system. Not one. It has hirelings, Pretorian guards, Varangians, but not a devoted people. Its crimes are so great that he is a self-condemned villain who knowing them dreams of justifying them. There is not one man who would mourn it for itself if it fell to-morrow. A dozen times this century it has been on the verge of destruction, and what has saved it every time is simply that those who assailed it had not a supreme ideal common among them as to how they should re-build. It is exactly the same with political action as with revolutionary movements. It will fail till men have faith.”
“How can they get it?” asked Ned, for Geisner had ceased speaking and mused with a far-off expression on his face.
“If we ourselves have it, sooner or later we shall give it to others. Hearts that this world has wounded are longing for the ideal we bring; artist-souls that suffering has purified and edged are working for the Cause in every land; weak though we are we have a love for the Beautiful in us, a sense that revolts against the unloveliness of life as we have it, a conception of what might be if things were only right. In every class the ground is being turned by the ploughshare of Discontent; everywhere we can sow the seed broadcast with both hands. And if only one seed in a thousand springs up and bears, it is worth it.”
“But how can one do it best?”
― 117 ―
“By doing always the work that comes to one's hand. Just now, you can go back to your union and knowing what the real end is, can work for organisation as you never did before. You can help throw men together, tie the bushmen to the coastmen, break down narrow distinctions of calling and make them all understand that all who work are brothers whether they work by hand or brain. That is the New Unionism and it is a step forward. It is drill, organisation, drill, and we need it. Men must learn to move together, to discuss and to decide together. You can teach them what political action will do when they know enough. And all the time you can drive and hammer into them the socialistic ideas. Tell them always, without mincing matters, that they are robbed as they would probably rob others if they had a chance, and that there never can be happiness until men live like mates and pay nothing to any man for leave to work. Tell them what life might be if men would only love one another and teach them to hate the system and not individual men in it. Some day you will find other work opening out. Always do that which comes to your hand.”
“You think things will last a long time?” asked Ned, reverting to one of Geisner's previous remarks.
“Who can tell? While Belshazzar feasted the Medes were inside the gate. Civilisation is destroying itself. The socialistic idea is the only thing that can save it. I look upon the future as a mere race between the spread of Socialism as a religion and the spread of that unconditional Discontent which will take revenge for all its wrongs by destroying civilisation utterly, and with it much, probably most, that we have won so slowly and painfully, of Art and Science.”
“That would be a pity,” said Ned. He would have spoken differently had he not gone with Nellie last night, he thought while saying it.
“I think so. It means the whole work to be done over again. If Art and Science were based on the degradation of men I would say ‘away with them.’ But they are not. They elevate and ennoble men by bringing to them the fruition of elevated and noble minds. They are expressions of high thought and deep feeling; thought and feeling which can only do good, if it is good to become more human. The artist is simply one who has a little finer soul than others. Mrs. Stratton was saying last night before
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you came that Nellie is an artist because she has a soul. But it's only comparative. We've all got souls.”
“Mrs. Stratton is a splendid woman,” began Ned, after another pause.
“Very. Her father was a splendid man, too. He was a doctor, quite famed in his profession. The misery and degradation he saw among the poor made him a passionate Communist. Stratton's father was a Chartist, one of those who maintained that it was a bread-and-butter movement.”
For some few minutes neither spoke.
“One of the most splendid men I ever knew,” remarked Geisner, suddenly, “was a workman who organised a sort of co-operative housekeeping club among a number of single fellows. They took a good-sized ‘flat’ and gradually extended it till they had the whole of the large house. Then this good fellow organised others until there were, I think, some thirty of them scattered about the city. They had cards which admitted any member of one house into any other of an evening, so that wherever a man was at night he could find friends and conversation and various games. I used to talk to him a great deal, helping him keep the books of an evening when he came home from his work. He had some great plans. Those places were hotbeds of Socialism,” he added.
“What became of him?”
Geisner shrugged his shoulders without answering.
“Isn't it a pity that we can't co-operate right through in the same way?” said Ned.
“It's the easiest way to bring Socialism about,” answered Geisner. “Many have thought of it. Some have tried. But the great difficulty seems to be to get the right conditions. Absolute isolation while the new conditions are being established; colonists who are rough and ready and accustomed to such work and at the same time are thoroughly saturated with Socialism; men accustomed to discuss and argue and at the same time drilled to abide, when necessary, by a majority decision; these are very hard to get. Besides, the attempts have been on small scales, and though some have been fairly successful as far as they went, have not pointed the great lesson. One great success would give men more Faith than a whole century of talking and preaching. And it will come when men are ready for it, when the times are ripe.”
They were silent again.
― 119 ―
“We would be free under Socialism?” asked Ned.
“What could stop us, even under State Socialism. The basis of all slavery and all slavish thought is necessarily the monopoly of the means of working, that is of living. If the State monopolises them, not the State ruled by the propertied classes but the State ruled by the whole people, to work would become every man's right. Nineteen laws out of twenty could then be dropped, for they would become useless. We should be free as men have never been before, because the ideal of the State would be toleration and kindness.”
“Let's go and hear the speaking,” he added, jumping up. “I've talked quite enough for once.”
“You couldn't talk too much for me,” answered Ned. “You ought to come up to a shed and have a pitch with the chaps. They'd sit up all night listening. I've to meet Nellie between five and six at the top of the steps in the garden,” he added, a little bashfully. “Have we time?”
“Plenty of time,” said Geisner, smiling. “You won't miss her.”
― 120 ―
Love and Lust
THE picnic party had moved on while they talked, but a multitude of sitters and walkers were now everywhere, particularly as they climbed the slope to the level. There the Sunday afternoon meetings were in full swing.
On platforms of varying construction, mostly humble, the champions of multitudinous creeds and opinions were holding forth to audiences which did not always greet their utterances approvingly. They stood for a while near a vigorous iconoclast, who from the top of a kitchen chair laid down the Law of the Universe as revealed by one Clifford, overwhelming with contumely a Solitary opponent in the crowd who was foolish enough to attempt to raise an argument on the subject of “atoms.” Near at hand, a wild-eyed religionary was trying to persuade a limited and drifting audience that a special dispensation had enabled him to foretell exactly the date of the Second Coming of Christ. Then came the Single Tax platform, a camp-stool with a board on it, wherefrom a slender lad, dark-eyed and good-looking, held forth, with a flow of language and a power of expression that was remarkable, upon the effectiveness of a land tax as a remedy for all social ills.
Ned had never seen such a mass of men with such variegated shades of thought assembled together before. There was a well-dressed bald-headed individual laying down the axioms of that very Socialism of which Geisner and he had been talking. There was an ascetic looking man just delivering a popular hymn, which he sang with the assistance of a few gathered round, as the conclusion of open-air church. There was the Anarchist he had seen at Paddy's Market, fervidly declaring that all government is wrong and that men are slaves and curs for enduring it and tyrants for taking part in it. There was the inevitable temperance orator, the rival touters for free trade and protection, and half-a-dozen others with an opinion to air. They harangued and shouted there amid the trees, on the grass, in the brilliant
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afternoon sunshine that already threw long shadows over the swaying, moving thousands.
It was a great crowd, a good many thousands altogether, men and women and children and lads. It was dressed in its Sunday best, in attire which fluctuated from bright tints of glaring newness to the dullness of well-brushed and obtrusive shabbiness. There were every-looking men you could think of and women and girls, young and old, pretty and plain and repulsive. But it was a working-people crowd. There was no room among it for the idlers. Probably it was not fashionable for them to be there.
And there was this about the crowd, which impressed Ned, everybody seemed dissatisfied, everybody was seeking for a new idea, for something fresh. There was no confidence in the Old, no content with what existed, no common faith in what was to come. There was on many a face the same misery that he had seen in Paddy's Market. There was no happiness, no face free from care, excepting where lovers passed arm-in-arm. There was the clash of ideas, the struggling of opinions, the blind leading the blind. He saw the socialistic orator contending with a dozen others. Who were the nostrum vendors? Which was the truth?
He turned round, agitated in thought, and his glance fell on Geisner, who was standing with bent head, his hands behind him, ugly, impassive. Geisner looked up quickly: “So you are doubting already,” he remarked.
“I am not doubting,” answered Ned. “I'm only thinking.”
“It is a good thought, that Socialism,” answered Ned slowly, as they walked on. “There's nothing in it that doesn't seem fit for men to do. It's a part with Nellie kissing that woman in the wet. What tries to make us care for each other and prevent harm being done to one another can't be very far wrong and what tries to break down the state of affairs that is must be a little right. I don't care, either, whether it's right or wrong. It feels right in my heart somehow and I'll stand by it if I'm the only man left in the world to talk up for it.”
Geisner linked his arm in Ned's.
“Remember this when you are sorrowful,” he said. “It is only through Pain that Good comes. It is only because the world suffers that Socialism is possible. It is only as we conquer our own weaknesses that we can serve the Cause.”
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They strolled on till they came to the terraced steps of the Gardens. Before them stretched in all its wondrous glory the matchless panorama of grove and garden, hill-closed sea and villa'd shore, the blue sky and the declining sun tipping with. gold and silver the dark masses of an inland cloud.
“What is Life that we should covet it?” said Geisner, halting there. “What is Death that we should fear it so? What has the world to offer that we should swerve to the right hand or the left from the path our innermost soul approves? In the whole world, there is no lovelier spot than this, no purer joy than to stand here and look. Yet, it seems to me, Paradise like this would be bought dearly by one single thought unworthy of oneself.”
“We are here to-day,” he went on, musingly. “To-morrow we are called dead. The next day men are here who never heard our names. The most famous will be forgotten even while Sydney Harbour seems unchanged. And Sydney Harbour is changing and passing, and the continent is changing and passing, and the world is changing and passing, and the whole universe is changing and passing.
“It is all change, universal change. Our religions, our civilisations, our ideas, our laws, change as do the nebulæ and the shifting continents we build on. Yet through all changes a thread of continuity runs. It is all changing and no ending. Always Law and always, so far as we can see, what we call progression. A man is a fool who cares for his life. He is the true madman who wastes his years in vain and selfish ambition.
“Listen, Ned,” he pursued, turning round. “There, ages ago, millions and millions of years ago, in the warm waters yonder, what we call Life on this earth began. Minute specks of Life appeared, born of the sunshine and the waters some say, coming in the fitness of Time from the All-Life others. And those specks of Life have changed and passed, and come and gone, unending, reproducing after their kind in modes and ways that changed and passed and still are as all things change and pass and are. And from them you and I and all the forms of Life that breathe to-day have ascended. We struggled up, obedient to the Law around us and we still struggle. That is the Past, or part of it. What is the Future, as yet no man knows. We do more than know—we feel and dream, and struggle on to our dreaming. And Life itself to the dreamer is as nothing only the struggling on.
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“And this has raised us, Ned, this has made us men and opened to us the Future, that we learned slowly and sadly to care for each other. From the mother instinct in us all good comes. This is the highest good as yet, that all men should live their life and lay down their life when need is for their fellows. With all our blindness we can see that. With all our weakness we can strive to reach nearer that ideal. It is but Just that we should live so for others since happiness is only possible where others live so for us.”
He turned again and gazed intently across the sail-dotted harbour.
“There is one thing I would like to say.” He spoke without turning. “Man without Woman is not complete. They two are but one being, complete and life-giving. Love when it comes is the keystone of this brief span of Life of ours. They who have loved have tasted truly of the best that Life can give to them. And this is the great wrong of civilisation to-day, that it takes Love from most and leaves in us only a feverish, degrading Lust. It is when we lust that Woman drags us down to the level of that Lust and blackens our souls with the blackness of hell. When we love Woman raises us to the level of Love and girds on us the armour that wards our own weakness from us.
“Love comes to few, I think. Society is all askew and, then, we have degraded women. So they are often well-nigh unfit for loving as men are often as unfit themselves. Physically unfit for motherhood, mentally unfit to cherish the monogamic idea that once was sacred with our people, sexually unfit to rouse true sex-passion—such women are being bred by the million in crowded cities and by degenerate country life. They match well with the slaves who ‘move on’ at the bidding of a policeman, or with the knaves who only see in Woman the toy of a feeble lust.
“There are two great reforms needed, Ned, two great reforms which must come if Humanity is to progress, and which must come, sooner or later, either to our race or to some other, because Humanity must progress. One reform is the Reorganisation of Industry. The other is the Recognition of Woman's Equality. These two are the practical steps by which we move up to the socialistic idea.
“If it ever comes to you to love and be loved by a true woman, Ned, let nothing stand between you and her. If you are weak and lose her you will have lost more than Life itself. If you are
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strong and win her you can never lose her again though the universe divided you and though Death itself came between you, and you will have lived indeed and found joy in living.”
“Should one give up the Cause for a woman?” asked Ned.
Geisner turned round at last and looked him full in the face.
“Lust only,” he answered, “and there is no shame to which Woman cannot drag Man. Love and there is nothing possible but what is manly and true.”
As he spoke, along the terraced path below them came Nellie, advancing towards them with her free swinging walk and tall lissom figure, noticeable even at a distance among the Sunday promenaders.
“See?” said Geisner, smiling, laying his hand on Ned's arm. “This is Paradise and there comes Eve.” note