― 59 ―
view facsimile

Chapter VI

“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.”

  ― 60 ―
view facsimile

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

  ― 61 ―
view facsimile

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

  ― 62 ―
view facsimile

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,

  ― 63 ―
view facsimile

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

  ― 64 ―
view facsimile

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,

  ― 65 ―
view facsimile

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.

  ― 66 ―
view facsimile

“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.”

“How's that?”

“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

  ― 67 ―
view facsimile

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

  ― 68 ―
view facsimile

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

  ― 69 ―
view facsimile

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.”

  ― 70 ―
view facsimile

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.”