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Chapter VII

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.

note “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.

note “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.

note “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?”

note “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!”