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Chapter I

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.”

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“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.

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“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.

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“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?

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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

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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.