― 13 ―
view facsimile

Chapter II

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.”

  ― 14 ―
view facsimile

“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.”

  ― 15 ―
view facsimile

“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 ―
view facsimile

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 ―
view facsimile

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 ―
view facsimile

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.

  ― 19 ―
view facsimile

“Wean the baby! That's all very well for those who can buy plenty of milk. It's a pity it's ever got to be weaned.” note

“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 ―
view facsimile

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 ―
view facsimile

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 ―
view facsimile

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.