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Chapter IX

“This Is Socialism!”

THE working of George's oars and the rippling of water on the bow were all that broke the silence as the skiff moved across the harbour. Suddenly Ned lost sight of the swinging lantern that Josie had held at the little landing stairs and without it could not distinguish the house they had left. Here and there behind them were lights of various kinds and sizes, shining blurred through the faint drizzle. He saw similar lights in front and on either hand. Yet the darkness was so deep now that but for the lantern on the fore thwarts he could not have seen George at all.

There were no sounds but those of their rowing.

Nellie sat erect, half hidden in the umbrella Ned held over her. George pulled a long sweeping stroke, bringing it up with a jerk that made the rowlocks sound sharply. When he bent back they could feel the light boat lift under them. He looked round now and then, steering himself by some means inscrutable to the others, who without him would have been lost on this watery waste.

All at once George stopped rowing. “Listen!” he exclaimed.

There was a swishing sound as of some great body rushing swiftly through the water near them. It ceased suddenly; then as suddenly sounded again.

“Sharks about,” remarked George, in a matter-of-fact tone, rowing again with the same long sweeping stroke as before.

Nellie did not stir. She was used to such incidents, evidently. But Ned had never before been so close to the sea-tigers and felt a creepy sensation. He would much rather, he thought, be thirty-five miles from water with a lame horse than in the company of sharks on a dark wet night in the middle of Sydney harbour.

“Are they dangerous?” he asked, with an attempt at being indifferent.

“I suppose so,” answered George, in a casual way. “If one of them happened to strike the boat it might be unpleasant. But they're terrible cowards.”

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“Are there many?”

“In the harbour? Oh, yes, it swarms with them. You see that light,” and George pointed to the left, where one of the lights had detached itself from the rest and shone close at hand. “That's on a little island and in the convict days hard cases were put on it—I think it was on that island or one like it—and the sharks saw that none of them swam ashore.” note

“They seem to have used those convicts pretty rough,” remarked Ned.

“Rough's no name,” said George after a few minutes. “It was as vile and unholy a thing, that System, as anything they have in Russia. A friend of mine has been working the thing up for years, and is going to start writing it up soon. You must read it when it comes out. It'll make you hate everything that has a brass button on. I tell you, this precious Law of ours has something to answer for. It was awful, horrible, and it's not all gone yet, as I know.” note

He rowed on for a space in silence.

“There's one story I think of, sometimes, rowing across here, and hearing the sharks splash. At one place they used to feed the dead convicts to the sharks so as to keep them swarming about, and once they flung one in before he was dead.”

Nellie gave a stifled exclamation. Ned was too horror-struck to answer; above the clicking of the oars in the rowlocks he fancied he could hear the swish of the savage sharks rushing through the water at their living prey. He was not sorry when George again rested on his oars to say:

“Will you land at the point this time, Nellie?”

“Yes, I think so.”

“Well, here you are! We've had a pretty fastish pull over, considering.”

Two or three more strokes brought them to a flight of low stone steps. By the light of the lantern Ned and Nellie were disembarked.note

“I won't keep you talking in the rain, Nellie,” said George. “I'm sorry you are going away so soon, Hawkins. We could have given you some boating if you had time. You might come out to-morrow afternoon—that's this afternoon—if you haven't anything better to do.”

“I'm very much obliged, but I was going to meet Mr. Geisner.”

“That settles it then. Anybody would sooner have a yarn

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with Geisner. We'll fix some boating when you're down again. You'll come again. Won't he, Nellie? Good-bye and a pleasant trip! Good-bye, Nellie.” And having shaken hands by dint of much arm stretching, George pushed his boat away from the steps and pulled away.

Nellie stood for a minute watching the lantern till it turned the point, heading eastward. Then straightening the waterproof over her dress she took Ned's arm and they walked off.

“He's a nice sort of chap,” remarked Ned, referring to George.

“Yes, he's a great oarsman. He rows over to see Josie. Mrs. Stratton calls them Hero and Leander.”

“Why? Who were they?”

“Oh! Leander was Hero's sweetheart and used to swim across the water to her so that nobody should see him.”

“They're to be married, I suppose?”

“Yes, next month.”

“Those Strattons are immense—what's that noise, Nellie?” he interrupted himself. A strange groaning from close at hand had startled him.

“Somebody asleep, I suppose,” she answered, more accustomed to the Sydney parks. But she stopped while, under the umbrella, he struck a match with a bushman's craft.

By the light of the match they saw a great hollow in the rocks that bordered on one side the gravelled footway. The rocks leaned out and took in part of the path, which widened underneath. Sheltered thus from the rain and wind a number of men were sleeping, outcast, some in blankets, some lying on the bare ground. The sound they had heard was a medley of deep breathing and snoring. It was but a glimpse they caught as the match flared up for a minute. It went out and they could see nothing, only the faint outline of path and rock. They could hear still the moaning sound that had attracted them.note

They walked on without speaking for a time.

“How did you know the Strattons?” resumed Ned.

“At the picture gallery one Sunday. She was writing some article defending their being opened on the ‘Sawbath’ and I had gone in. I like pictures—some pictures, you know. We got talking and she showed me things in the pictures I'd never dreamed of before. We stayed there till closing time and she asked me to come to see her.”

“She's immense!”

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“I'm so glad you like her. Everybody does.” note

“Has she any children?”

“Four. Such pretty children. She and her husband are so fond of each other. I can't imagine people being happier.”

“I suppose they're pretty well off, Nellie?”

“No, I don't think they're what you'd call well off. They're comfortable, you know. She has to put on a sort of style, she's told me, to take the edge off her ideas. If you wear low-necked dress you can talk the wildest things, she says, and I think it's so. That's business with her. She has to mix with low-necked people a little. It's her work.”

“Does she have to work?”

“No. I suppose not. But I think she prefers to. She never writes what she doesn't think, which is pleasanter than most writers find it. Then I should think she'd feel more independent, however much she cares for her husband. And then she has a little girl who's wonderfully clever at colours, so she's saving up to send her to Paris when she's old enough. They think she'll become a great painter—the little girl, I mean.”

“What does that Josie do?”

“She's a music-teacher.”

“They're all clever, aren't they?”

“Yes. But, of course, they've all had a chance. Ford is the most remarkable. He never got any education to speak of until he was over 20. The Strattons have been born as they live now. They've had some hard times, I think, from what they say now and then, but they've always been what's called ‘cultured.’ Everybody ought to be as they are.”

“I think so, too, Nellie, but can everybody be as well off as they are?”

“They're not well off, I told you, Ned. If they spend £5 a week it's as much as they do. Of course that sounds a lot, but since if things were divided fairly everybody who works ought to get far more, it's not extravagant riches. Wine and water doesn't cost more than beer, and the things they've got were picked up bit by bit. It's what they've got and the way it's put that looks so nice. There's nothing but what's pretty, and she is always adding something or other. She idolises Art and worships everything that's beautiful.”

“Do you think it's really that sort of thing that makes people better?” said Ned.

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“How can it help making them better if their hearts are good? When what is ugly and miserable in life jars on one at every turn because one loves so what is harmonious and beautiful, there seems to me to be only one of two things to be done, either to shut your eyes to others and become a selfish egotist or to try with all your strength to bring a beautiful life to others. I'm speaking, of course, particularly of people like the Strattons. But I think that hatred of what is repulsive is a big influence with all of us.”

“You mean of dirty streets, stuffy houses and sloppy clothes?”

“Oh! More than that. Of ugly lives, of ugly thoughts, of others, and ourselves perhaps, just existing like working bullocks when we might be so happy, of living being generally such a hateful thing when it might be so sweet!”

“I suppose the Strattons are happy?”

“Not as happy as everybody might be if the world was right. They understand music and pictures and colouring and books. He reads science a lot and paints—funny mixture, isn't it?—and she teaches the children a great deal. They go boating together. They both work at what they like and are clever enough to be fairly sure of plenty to do. They have friends who take an interest in the things that interest them and their children are little angels. They aren't short of money for anything they need because they really live simply and so have plenty to spend. And, then, they are such kind people. She has a way with her that makes you feel better no matter how miserable you've been. That's happiness, I think, as far as it goes. But she feels much as I do about children. She is so afraid that they will not be happy and blames herself for being selfish because other people's children never have any happiness and would do anything to alter things so that it would be different. Still, of course, they have a happy life as far as the life itself goes. I think, the way they live, they must both feel as if they were each better and knew more and cared for each other more the older they get.”

“It must be very pleasant,” said Ned, after a pause. They had reached the higher ground and were passing under branches from which the rain-drops, collected, fell in great splashes on the umbrella.

“Yes,” said Nellie, after another pause.

“Do they go to church?” Ned began again.

“I never heard them say they did.”

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“They're not religious then?”

“What do you call religious?”

“They don't believe anything, do they?”

“I think they believe a very great deal. Far more than most people who pretend to believe and don't,” answered Nellie. There was a longer pause. Then:

“What do they believe?”

“In Socialism.”

“Socialism! Look here, Nellie! What is Socialism?”

noteThey had passed the fig-tree avenue, turning off it by a cross path, where a stone fountain loomed up gigantic in the gloom and where they could hear a rushing torrent splashing. They were in the region of gas-lamps again. Nellie walked along with a swiftness that taxed Ned to keep abreast of her. She seemed to him to take pleasure in the wet night. In spite of their long walking of the day before and the lateness of the hour she had still the same springy step and upright carriage. As they passed under the lamps he saw her face, damp with the rain, but flushed with exercise, her eyes gleaming, her mouth open a little. He would have liked to have taken her hand as she steadied the umbrella, walking arm in arm with him, but he did not dare. She was not that sort of girl.

He had felt a proud sense of proprietorship in her at the Strattons'. It had pleased him to see how they all liked her, but pleased him most of all that she could talk as an equal with these people, to him so brilliant and clever. The faint thought of her which had been unconsciously with him for years began to take shape. How pleasant it would be to be like the Strattons, to live with Nellie always, and have friends to come and see them on a Saturday night! How a man would work for a home like that, so full of music, so full of song, so full of beauty, so full of the thoughts which make men like unto gods and of the love which makes gods like unto men! Why should not this be for him as well as for others when, as Nellie said, it really cost only what rich people thought poverty, and far less than the workingman's share if things were fairly divided? And why should it not be for his mates as well as for himself? And why, most of all, why not for the wretched dwellers in the slums of Sydney, the weary women, the puny children, the imbruted men? For the first time in his life, he coveted such things with a righteous covetousness, without hating those who had them, recognising without words

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that to have and to appreciate such a life was to desire ceaselessly to bring it within the reach of every human being. He could not see how this was all to come about. He would have followed blindly anybody who played the Marseillaise as Geisner did. He was ready to echo any ringing thought that appealed to him as good and noble. But he did not know. He could see that in the idea called by Mrs. Stratton “the Cause” there was an understood meaning which fitted his aspirations and his desires. He had gathered, his narrow bigotry washed from him, that between each and all of those whom he had just left there was a bond of union, a common thought, an accepted way. He had met them strangers, and had left them warm friends. The cartoonist, white with rage at the memory of the high rectory wall that shut the beautiful from the English poor; the gloomy poet whose verses rang still in his ears and would live in his heart for ever; the gray-eyed woman who idolised Art, as Nellie said, and fanned still the fire in which her nearest kin had perished; the pressman, with his dream of a free press that would not serve the money power; the painter to whom the chiselled stone spoke; the pretty girl who had been cradled amid barricades; the quiet musician for whom the bitterness of death was past, born leader of men, commissioned by that which stamped him what he was; the dressmaking girl, passionately pleading the cause of Woman; even himself, drinking in this new life as the ground sucks up the rain after a drought; between them all there was a bond—“the Cause.” What was this Cause? To break down all walls, to overthrow all wrong, to destroy the ugliness of human life, to free thought, to elevate Art, to purify Love, to lift mankind higher, to give equality to women, to—to—he did not see exactly where he himself came in—all this was the Cause. Yet he did not quite understand it, just the same. Nor did he know how it was all to come about. But he intended to find out. So he asked Nellie what the Strattons believed, feeling instinctively that there must be belief in something.

“What do they believe?” he had asked.

“In Socialism,” Nellie had answered.

“Socialism! Look here, Nellie! What is Socialism?” he had exclaimed.

They neared a lamp, shining mistily in the drizzle. Close at hand was a seat, facing the grass. In the dim light was what

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looked like a bundle of rags thrown over the seat and trailing to the ground. Nellie stopped. It was a woman, sleeping.

There, under a leafy tree, whose flat branches shielded her somewhat from the rain, slept the outcast. She had dozed off into slumber, sitting there alone. She was not lying, only sitting there, her arm flung over the back of the seat, her head fallen on her shoulder, her face upturned to the pitying night. It was the face of a street-walker, bloated and purplish, the poor pretence of colour gone, the haggard lines showing, all the awful life of her stamped upon it; yet in the lamplight, upturned in its helplessness, sealed with the sleep that had come at last to her, sore-footed, as softly as it might have come to a little baby falling asleep amid its play, there enhaloed it the incarnation of triumphant suffering. On the swollen cheeks of the homeless woman the night had shed its tears of rain. There amid the wind and wet, in the darkness, alone and weary, shame-worn and sin-sodden, scorned by the Pharisee, despised by the vicious, the harlot slept and forgot. Calm as death itself was the face of her. Softly and gently she breathed, as does the heavy-eyed bride whose head the groom's arm pillows. Nature, our Mother Nature, had taken her child for a moment to her breast and the outcast rested there awhile, all sorrows forgotten, all desires stilled, all wrongs and sins and shame obscured and blotted out. She envied none. Equal was she with all. Great indeed is Sleep, which teaches us day by day that none is greater in God's sight than another, that as we all came equal and naked from the unknown so naked and equal we shall all pass on to the Unknown again, that this life is but as a phantasy in which it is well to so play one's part that nightly one falls asleep without fear and meets at last the great sleep without regret!

But, oh, the suffering that had earned for this forsaken sister the sweet sleep she slept! Oh, the ceaseless offering of this sin-stained body, the contumelious jeers she met, the vain search through streets and avenues this wild night, for the blind lust that would give her shelter and food! Oh, the efforts to beg, the saints who would not wait to listen to such a one, the sinners who were as penniless! Oh, the shivering fits that walk, walk, walk, when the midnight hours brought silence and solitude, the stamps that racked her poor limbs when she laid down, exhausted, in dripping garments, on the hard park seats, the aching feet that refused at last the ceaseless tramping in

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their soaked and broken shoes! Oh, the thoughts of her, the memories, the dreams of what had been and what might be, as she heard the long hours toll themselves away! Oh, the bitter tears she may have shed, and the bitter words she may have uttered, and the bitter hate that may have overflowed in her against that vague something we call Society! And, oh, the sweet sleep that fell upon her at last, unexpected—as the end of our waiting shall come, when we weary most—falling upon her as the dew falls, closing her weary eye-lids, giving her peace and rest and strength to meet another to-day!

Ned stopped when Nellie did, of course. Neither spoke. A sense of great shame crept upon him, he hardly knew why. He could not look at Nellie. He wished she would move on and leave him there. The silent pathos of that sleeping face cried to him. Lowest of the low, filthy, diseased probably, her face as though the womanliness had been stamped from her by a brutal heel of iron, she yet was a woman. This outcast and Nellie were of one sex; they all three were of one Humanity.

A few hours before and he would have passed her by with a glance of contemptuous pity. But now, he seemed to have another sense awakened in him, the sense that feels, that sympathises in the heart with the hearts of others. It was as though he himself slept there. It was as though he understood this poor sister, whom the merciful called erring, and the merciless wicked, but of whom the just could only say: she is what we in her place must have become. She was an atom of the world of suffering by which his heart was being wrung. She was one upon whom the Wrong fell crushingly, and she was helpless to resist it. He was strong, and he had given no thought to those who suffered as this poor outcast suffered. He had lived his own narrow life, and shared the sin, and assisted Wrong by withholding his full strength from the side of Right. And upon him was the responsibility for this woman. He, individually, had kicked her into the streets, and dragged her footsore through the parks, and cast her there to bear testimony against him to every passer-by; he, because he had not fought, whole-souled, with those who seek to shatter the something which, without quite understanding, he knew had kicked and dragged and outcasted this woman sleeping here. Ned always took his lessons personally. It was perhaps, a touch in him of the morbidity that seizes so often the wandering Arabs of the western plains.

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noteSuddenly Nellie let go the umbrella, leaving it in his hand. She bent forward, stooped down. The strong young face, proud and sad, so pure in its maiden strength, glowing with passionate emotion, was laid softly against that bruised and battered figurehead of shipwrecked womanhood; Nellie had kissed the sleeping harlot on the cheek.

Then, standing erect, she turned to Ned, her lips parted, her face quivering, her eyes flashing, her hand resting gently on the unconscious woman.

“You want to know what Socialism is,” she said, in a low, trembling voice. “This is Socialism.” And bending down again she kissed the poor outcast harlot a second time. The woman never stirred. Seizing Ned's arm Nellie drew him away, breaking into a pace that made him respect her prowess as a walker ever after.

Until they reached home neither spoke. Nellie looked sterner than ever. Ned was in a whirl of mental excitement. Perhaps if he had been less natural himself the girl's passionate declaration of fellowship with all who are wronged and oppressed—for so he interpreted it by the light of his own thoughts—might have struck him as a little bit stagey. Being natural, he took it for what it was, an outburst of genuine feeling. But if Nellie had really designed it she could not have influenced him more deeply. Their instincts, much akin, had reached the same idea by different ways. Her spontaneous expression of feeling had fitted in her mind to the Cause which possessed her as a religious idea, and had capped in him the human yearnings which were leading him to the same goal. And so, what with his overflowing sympathy for the sleeping outcast, and his swelling love for Nellie, and the chaotic excitement roused in him by all he had seen and heard during the preceding hours, that kiss burnt itself into his imagination and became to him all his life through as a sacred symbol. From that moment his life was forecast—a woman tempted him and he ate.

noteFor that kiss Ned gave himself into the hands of a fanaticism, eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, striving to become as a god knowing good from evil. For that kiss he became one of those who have the Desire which they know can never be satiated in them. For that kiss he surrendered himself wholly to the faith of her whose face was sad and stern-mouthed, content ever after if with his whole life he could fill one of the ruts that

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delay the coming of Liberty's triumphal car. To that turning-point in his life, other events led up, certainly, events which of themselves would likely have forced him to stretch out his hand and pluck and eat. It is always that way with life changes. Nothing depends altogether upon one isolated act. But looking back in after years, when the lesser influences had cleared away in the magic glass of Time, Ned could ever see, clear and distinct as though it were but a minute since, the stern red lips of that pale, proud, passionate face pressed in trembling sisterliness to the harlot's purple cheek.

As she put the key in the door Nellie turned to Ned, speaking for the first time:

“You'd better ask Geisner about Socialism when you see him to-morrow—I mean this afternoon.”

Ned nodded without speaking. Silently he let her get his candle, and followed her up the stairs to the room concerning which the card was displayed in the window below. She turned down the bedclothes, then held out her hand.

“Good-night or good-morning, whichever it is!” she said, smiling at him. “You can sleep as long as you like Sunday morning, you know. If you want anything knock the wall there.”

“Good-night, Nellie!” he answered, slowly, holding her fingers in his. Then, before she could stop him, he lifted her hand to his lips. She did not snatch it away but looked him straight in the eyes, without speaking; then went out, shutting the door softly behind her. She understood him partly; not altogether, then.

Left alone in the scantily-furnished room, Ned undressed, blew out the candle and went to bed. But until he fell asleep, and in his dreams afterwards, he still saw Nellie bending down over a purpled, sin-stained face, and heard her sweet voice whisper tremblingly:

“This is Socialism!” note