previous
next



  ― 127 ―
view facsimile

Chapter I

The Slaughter of an Innocent

MRS. HOBBS' baby was dying.

“It had clung to its little life so long, in the close Sydney streets, in the stuffy, stifling rooms which were its home; it had battled so bravely; it was being vanquished at last.

“The flame of its life had flickered from its birth, had shrunk to a bluish wreathing many a time, had never once leapt upward in a strong red blaze. Again and again it had lain at its mother's breast, half-dead; again and again upon its baby face Death had laid the tips of its pinching fingers; again and again it had struggled moaning from the verge of the grave and beaten back the grim Destroyer by the patient filling of its tiny lungs. It wanted so to live, all unconsciously. The instinct to exist bore it up and with more than Spartan courage stood for it time and again in the well-nigh carried breach. Now, it was over, the battling, the struggling. Death loitered by the way but the fight was done.

“The poor little baby! Poor unknown soldier! Poor unaided heroic life that was spent at last! There were none to help it, not one. In all the world, in all the universe, there was none to give it the air it craved, the food it needed, the living that its baby-soul faded for not having. It had fought its fight alone. It lay dying now, unhelped and helpless, forsaken and betrayed.”




  ― 128 ―
view facsimile

So thought Nellie, sitting there beside it, her head thrown back, over her eyes her hands clasped, down her cheeks the tears of passionate pity streaming.

“What had its mother done for it? The best she could, indeed, but what was that? The worst she could when she gave it life, when she bore it to choke and struggle and drown in the fetid stream that sweeps the children of the poor from infancy to age; the life she gave it only a flickering, half-lighted life; the blood she gave it thin with her own weariness and vitiate from its drunken sire; the form she gave it soft-boned and angle-headed, more like overgrown embryo than child of the boasted Australian land. Even the milk it drew from her unwieldy breasts was tainted with city smoke and impure food and unhealthy housing. Its playground was the cramped kitchen floor and the kerb and the gutter. Its food for a year had been the food that feeds alike the old and the young who are poor. All around conspired against it, yet for two years and more it had clung to its life and lived, as if defying Fate, as if the impulse that throbbed in it from the Past laughed at conditions and would have it grow to manhood in spite of all. In the strength of that impulse, do not millions grow so? But millions, like this little one, are crushed and overborne.

“It had no chance but the chance that the feeble spark in it gave it. It had no chance, even with that, to do more than just struggle through. None came to scatter wide the prison walls of the slum it lived in and give it air. None came to lift the burden of woe that pressed on all around it and open to it laughter and joy. None came to stay the robbery of the poor and to give to this brave little baby fresh milk and strengthening food. In darkness and despair it was born; in darkness and despair it lived; in darkness and despair it died. To it Death was more merciful than Life. Yet it was a crime crying for vengeance that we should have let it waste away and die so.”

So thought Nellie, weeping there beside it, all the woman in her aching and yearning for this poor sickly little one.

“It was murdered, murdered as surely as if a rope had been put round its neck and the gallows-trap opened under it; murdered as certainly as though, dying of thirst, it had been denied


  ― 129 ―
view facsimile

a sup of water by one who had to spare; murdered, of sure truth, as though in the dark one who knew had not warned it of a precipice in the path. It had asked so little and had been denied all; only a little air, only a little milk and fruit, only a glimpse of the grass and the trees, even these would have saved it. And oh! If also in its languid veins the love-life had bubbled and boiled, if in its bone and flesh a healthy parentage had commingled, if the blood its mother gave it had been hot and red and the milk she suckled it to white and sweet and clean from the fount of vigorous womanhood! What then? Then, surely it had been sleeping now with chubby limbs flung wide, its breathing so soft that you had to bend your ear to its red lips to hear it, had been lying wearied with dancing and mischief-making and shouting and toddling and falling, resting the night from a happy to-day till the dawn woke it betime for a happy to-morrow. All this it should have had as a birthright, with the years stretching in front of it, on through fiery youth, past earnest manhood, to a loved and loving old age. This is the due, the rightful due, of every child to whom life goes from us. And that child who is born to sorrow and sordid care, pot-bound from its mother's womb by encircling conditions that none single-handed can break, is wronged and sinned against by us all most foully. If it dies we murder it. If it lives to suffer we crucify it. If it steals we instigate, despite our canting hypocrisy. And if it murders we who hang it have beforehand hypnotised its will and armed its hand to slay.”

So Nellie thought, the tears drying on her cheeks, leaning forward to watch the twitching, purpled face of the hard-breathing child.

“Is there not a curse upon us and our people, upon our children and our children's children, for every little one we murder by our social sins? Can it be that Nemesis sleeps for us, he who never slept yet for any, he who never yet saw wrong go unavenged or heard the innocent blood cry unanswered from the ground?

“Can it be that he has closed his ears to the dragging footfalls of the harlot host and to the sobs of strong men hopeless and anguished because work is wanting and to the sighing of wearied women


  ― 130 ―
view facsimile

and to the death-rattle of slaughtered babes? Surely though God is not and Humanity is weak yet Nemesis is strong and sleepless and lingers not! Surely he will tear down the slum and whelm the robbers in their iniquity and visit upon us all punishment for the crime which all alike have shared! Into the pit which we have left digged for the children of others shall not our own children fall? Is happiness safe for any while to any happiness is denied?

“It is a crime that a baby should live so and die so. It is a villainy and we all are villains who let it be. No matter how many are guilty, each one who lives with hands unbound is as guilty as any. It were better to die alone, fighting the whole world single-handed, refusing to share the sin or to tolerate it or to live while it was, than with halting speech to protest and with supple conscience to compromise. He is a coward who lets a baby die or a woman sink to shame or a fellow-man be humbled, alone and unassisted and unrighted. She is false to the divinity of womanhood who does not feel the tigress in her when a little one who might be her little one is tossed, stifled by unholy conditions, into its grave. But where are the men, now, who will strike a blow for the babies? Where are the women who will put their white teeth into the murderous hands of the Society that throttles the little ones and robs the weak and simple and cloaks itself with a ‘law and order’ which outrages the Supreme Law of that Humanity evolving in us?

“Surely we are all tainted and corrupted, even the best of us, by the scrofulous cowardice, the fearsome selfishness, of a decaying civilisation! Surely we are only fit to be less than human, to be slave to conditions that we ourselves might govern if we would, to be criminal accomplices in the sins of social castes, to be sad victims of inhuman laws or still sadder defenders of inhumanity! Oh, for the days when our race was young, when its women slew themselves rather than be shamed and when its men, trampling a rotten empire down, feared neither God nor man and held each other brothers and hated, each one, the tyrant as the common foe of all! Better the days when from the forests and the steppes our forefathers burst, half-naked and free, communists and conquerors, a fierce avalanche of daring men and lusty women who beat and battered Rome down like Odin's hammer that they were! Alas, for the


  ― 131 ―
view facsimile

heathen virtues and the wild pagan fury for freedom and for the passion and purity that Frega taught to the daughters of the barbarian! And alas, for the sword that swung then, unscabbarded, by each man's side and for the knee that never bent to any and for the fearless eyes that watched unblenched while the gods lamed each other with their lightnings in the thunder-shaken storm! Gone forever seemed the days when the land was for all, and the cattle and the fruits of the field, and when, unruled by kings, untrammelled by priests, untyrannised by pretence of ‘law,’ our fathers drank in from Nature's breast the strength and vigour that gave it even to this little babe to fight its hopeless fight for life so bravely and so long. Odin was dead whose sons dared go to hell with their own people and Frega was no more whose magic filled with molten fire the veins of all true lovers and nerved with desperate courage the hand of her who guarded the purity of her body and the happiness of her child. The White Christ had come when wealth and riches and conquests had upheaped wrongs upon the heads of the wrongers; the cross had triumphed over the hammer when the fierce freedom of the North had worn itself out in selfish foray; the shaven-pated priest had come to teach patience as God-given when a robber-caste grew up to whom it seemed wise to uproot the old ideas from the mind of the people whose spent courage it robbed. Alas, for the days when it was not righteous to submit to wrong nor wicked to strike tyranny to the ground, when one met it, no matter where! Alas, for the men of the Past and the women, their faith and their courage and their virtue and their gods, the hearts large to feel and the brains prompt to think and the arms strong to do, the bare feet that followed the plough and trod in the winepress of God and the brown hands that milked cows and tore kings from their thrones by their beard! They were gone and a feebler people spoke their tongue and bore their name, a people that bent its back to the rod and bared its head to the cunning and did not rise as one man when in its midst a baby was murdered while all around a helpless kinsfolk were being robbed and wronged.

“For the past, who would not choose it? Who would not, if they could, drop civilisation from them as one shakes off a horrid nightmare at the dawning of the day? Who would not be again a drover of cattle, a follower of the plough, a milker


  ― 132 ―
view facsimile

of cows, a spinner of wool-yarn by the fireside, to be, as well, strong and fierce and daring, slave to none and fearing none, ignorant alike of all the wisdom and all the woes of this hateful life that is?

“For only one moment of the past if the whole past could not be! Only to be free for a moment if the rest were impossible! Only to lose one's hair and bare one's feet and girdle again the single garment round one's waist and to be filled with the frenzy that may madden still as it maddened our mothers when the Roman legions conquered! Only to stand for a moment, free, on the barricade, outlawed and joyous, with Death, Freedom's impregnable citadel, opening its gates behind—and to pass through, the red flag uplifted in the sight of all men, with flaming slums and smoking wrongs for one's funereal pyre!”

So Nellie thought in her indignation and sorrow, changing the wet cloth on the baby's head, powerless to help it, uncomforted by creeds that moulder in the crimson-cushioned pews. She knew that she was unjust, carried away by her tumultuous emotions, knew also, in her heart, that there was something more to be desired than mere wild outbreaks of the despairing. Only she thought, as we all think, in phases, and as she would certainly have talked had opportunity offered while she was in the mood, and as she would most undoubtedly have written had she just then been writing. The more so as there was a wave of indignation and anger sweeping over Australia, sympathetic with the indignation and anger of the voteless workers in the Queensland bush. The companions of her childhood were to be Gatling-gunned because of the squatters, whose selfish greed and heartless indifference to all others had made them hateful to this selector's daughter. Because the bushmen would not take the squatters' wage and yield his liberty as a workman to the squatter's bidding and agree to this and to that without consultation or discussion, the scum of southern towns and the sifted blacklegs of southern “estates” were to be drafted in hordes to Queensland to break down the unionism that alone protected the bushman and made him more of a man than he had been when the squatter could do as he would and did. From the first days she could remember she had heard how the squatters filched from the bushmen in their stores and herded the bushmen in vile huts and preferred every colour to white when there were workers


  ― 133 ―
view facsimile

wanted; and how the magistrates were all squatters or squatters' friends and how Government was for the squatters and for nobody else on the great Western plains; and she knew from Ned of the homeless, wandering life the bushmen led and how new thoughts were stirring among them and rousing them from their aimless, hopeless living. She knew more, too, knew what the bushman was: frank as a child, keeping no passing thought unspoken, as tender as a woman to those he cared for, responsive always to kindly, earnest words, boiling over with anger one moment and shouting with good humour the next, open-handed with sovereigns after months and years of lonely toiling or sharing his last plug of tobacco with a stranger met on the road. His faults she knew as well: his drunkenness often, his looseness of living, his excitability, all born of unnatural surroundings; but his virtues she knew as well, none better, and all her craving for the scent of the gums and to feel again the swaying saddle and to hear again the fathomless noon-day silence and to see again the stock rushing in jumbling haste for the water-hole, went out in a tempestuous sympathy for those who struggled for the union in the bush. And Ned! She hardly knew what she thought about Ned.

She was unjust in her thoughts, she knew, not altogether unjust but somewhat. There had been heroism in the passive struggle of six months before, when the seamen left the boats at the wharves for the sake of others and when the “lumpers” threw their coats over their shoulders and stood by the seamen and when the miners came up from the mines so that no coal should go to help fight comrades they had never seen. Her heart had thrilled with joy to see so many grip hands and stand together, officers and stewards and gasmen and lightermen and engine-drivers and cooks and draymen, from Adelaide to far-off Cooktown, in every port, great and small, all round the eastern coast. As the strike dragged on she lived herself as she had lived in the starving hand-to-mouth days of her bitter poverty, to help find bread for the hungry families she knew. For Phillips and Macanany were on strike, while Hobbs, who had moved round the corner, had been sacked for refusing to work on the wharves; and many another in the narrow street and the other narrow streets about it were idling and hungering and waiting doggedly to see what might happen, with strike pay falling steadily till there was hardly any strike pay at all. And Nellie's heart, that


  ― 134 ―
view facsimile

had thrilled with joy when New Unionism uprose in its strength and drew the line hard and fast between the Labour that toiled and the Capitalism that reaped Labour's gains, ached with mingled pride and pain to see how hunger itself could not shake the stolid unionism about her. She saw, too, the seed that for years had been sown by unseen, unknown sowers springing up on every hand and heard at every street corner and from every unionist mouth that everything belonged of right to those who worked and that the idle rich were thieves and robbers. She smiled grimly to watch Mrs. Macanany and viragoes like her pouring oil on the flames and drumming the weak-kneed up and screaming against “blacklegging” as a thing accurst. And when she understood that the fight was over, while apparently it was waxing thicker, she had waited to see what the end would be, longing for something she knew not what. She used to go down town, sometimes of an evening, to watch the military patrols, riding up and down with jingling bits and clanking carbines and sabres as if in a conquered city. She heard, in her workroom, the dull roar of the angry thousands through whose midst the insolent squatters drove in triumphal procession, as if inciting to lawlessness, with dragoon-guarded, police-protected drays of blackleg wool. Then the end came and the strike was over, leaving the misery it had caused and the bitter hatreds it had fostered and the stern lesson which all did not read as the daily papers would have had them. And now the same Organised Capitalism which had fought and beaten the maritime men and the miners, refusing to discuss or to confer or to arbitrate or to conciliate, but using its unjust possession of the means of living to starve into utter submission those whose labour made it rich, was at the same work in the Queensland bush, backing the squatters, dominating government, served by obsequious magistrates and a slavish military and aided by all who thought they had to gain by the degradation of their fellows or who had been ground so low that they would cut each other's throats for a crust or who, in their blind ignorance, misunderstood what it all meant. And there were wild reports afloat of resistance brooding in Queensland and of excited meetings in the bush and of troops being sent to disperse the bushmen's camps. Why did they endure these things, Nellie thought, watching and waiting, as impotent to aid them as she was to save the baby dying now beside her. Day by day she expected Ned.




  ― 135 ―
view facsimile

She knew Ned was in the South, somewhere, though she had not seen him. He had come down on some business, in blissful ignorance of the nearness of the coming storm, but would be called back, she knew, now this new trouble had begun. And then he would be arrested, she was sure, because he was outspoken and fearless and would urge the men to stand out till the last, and would be sent to prison by legal trickery under this new law the papers said had been discovered; all so that the unions might break down and the squatters do as they liked. Which, perhaps, was why her thoughts for the time being were particularly tinged with pessimism. If the vague something called “law and order” was determined to be broken so that the bush could be dragooned for the squatter it seemed to her as well to make a substantial breakage while men were about it—and she did not believe they would.

She placed a cool damp cloth on the baby's head, wishing that its mother would come up, Mrs. Hobbs having been persuaded to go downstairs for some tea and a rest while Nellie watched by the sick child and having been entangled in household affairs the moment she appeared in the dingy kitchen where Mrs. Macanany, to the neglect of her own home, was “seeing to things.” The hard breathing was becoming easier. Nellie brought the candle burning in a broken cup. The flushed face was growing paler and more natural. The twitching muscles were stilling. There was a change.

One unused to seeing Death approach would have thought the baby settling down at last to a refreshing, health-reviving sleep. Nellie had lived for years where the children die like rabbits, and knew.

“Mrs. Hobbs!” she called, softly but urgently, running to the stairs.

The poor woman came hastily to the foot. “Quick, Mrs. Hobbs!” said Nellie, beckoning.

“Oh, Mrs. Macanany! The baby's dying!” cried poor Mrs. Hobbs, tripping on her dragging skirts in her frantic haste to get upstairs. Mrs. Macanany followed. The children set up a boohoo that brought Mr. Hobbs from the front doorstep where he had been sitting smoking. He rushed up the stairs also. When he reached the top he saw, by the light of the candle in Nellie's hand, a little form lying still and white; its mother crouched on the floor, wailing over it.




  ― 136 ―
view facsimile

It was a small room, almost bare, the bedstead of blistered iron, the mattress thin, the bedding tattered and worn. A soapbox was the chair on which Nellie had been sitting; there was no other. Against the wall, above a rough shelf, was a piece of mirror-glass without a frame. The window in the sloping roof was uncurtained. On the poor bed, under the tattered sheet, was the dead baby. And on the floor, writhing, was its mother, Mrs. Macanany trying to comfort her between the pauses of her own vehement neighbourly grief.

Nellie closed the dead baby's eyes, set the candle on the shelf and moved to the door where Mr. Hobbs stood bewildered and dumbfoundered, his pipe still in his hand. “Speak to her!” she whispered to him. “It's very hard for her.”

Mr. Hobbs looked hopelessly at his pipe. He did not recollect where to put it. Nellie, understanding, took it from his fingers and pushed him gently by the arm towards his wife. He knelt down by the weeping woman's side and put his hands on the head that was bent to the ground. “Sue,” he said, huskily, not knowing what to say. “Don't take on so! It's better for 'im.”

“It's not better,” she cried in answer, kneeling up and frantically throwing her arms across the bed. “How can it be better? Oh, God! I wish I was dead. Oh, my God! Oh, my God!”

“Don't, Sue!” begged Mr. Hobbs, weeping in a clumsy way, as men usually do.

“It's not right,” cried the mother, rolling her head, half-crazed. “It's not right, Jack. It's not right. It didn't ought to have died. It didn't ought to have died, Jack. It wouldn't if it had a chance, but it hadn't a chance. It didn't have a chance, Jack. It didn't have a chance.”

“Don't, Sue!” begged Mr. Hobbs again. “You did what you could.”

“I didn't,” she moaned. “I didn't. I didn't do what I could. There were lots of things I might have done that I didn't. I wasn't as kind as I might have been. I was cross to it and hasty. Oh, my God, my God! Why couldn't I have died instead? Why couldn't I? Why don't we all die? It's not right. It's not right. Oh, my God, my God!”

And she thought God, whatever that is, did not hear and would not answer, she not knowing that in her own pain and anguish were the seeds of progression and in her cries the whetting of the sickle wherewith all wrongs are cut down when they are ripe for


  ― 137 ―
view facsimile

the reaper. So she wept and lamented, bewailing her dead, rebellious and self-reproachful.

“Take the baby, dear?” quoth Mrs. Macanany, reappearing from a descent to the kitchen with a six months' infant squalling in her arms. “Give it a drink now! It'll make you feel better.”

Poor Mrs. Hobbs clutched the baby-in-arms convulsively and sobbed over it, finding some comfort in the exertion. To Mrs. Macanany's muttered wrath Nellie intervened, however, with warnings of “fits” as likely to follow the nursing of the child while its mother was so excited and feverish. Mr. Hobbs loyally seconded Nellie's amendment and with unexpected shrewdness urged the mother to control her grief for the dead for the sake of the living. Which succeeding, to some extent, they got the poor woman downstairs and comforted her with a cup of tea, Nellie undressing and soothing the crying children, who sobbed because of this vague happening which the eldest child of 11 explained as meaning that “Teddy's going to be put in the deep hole.”

It was after 10 when Nellie went. Mrs. Hobbs cried again as Nellie kissed her “good-night.” Mr. Hobbs shook hands with genuine friendship. “I don't know whatever we'd have done without you, Miss Lawton,” he said, bashfully, following her to the door.

“I don't know what they'll do without you, Mr. Hobbs,” retorted Nellie, whose quick tongue was noted in the neighbourhood.

He did not answer, only fumbled with the door-knob as she stood on the step in the brilliant moonlight.

“Give it up!” urged Nellie. “It makes things worse and they're bad enough at the best. It's not right to your wife and the children.”

“I don't go on the spree often,” pleaded Mr. Hobbs.

“Not as often as some,” admitted Nellie, “but if it's only once in a life-time it's too often. A man who has drink in him isn't a man. He makes himself lower than the beasts and we're low enough as it is without going lower ourselves. He hurts himself and he hurts his family and he hurts his mates. He's worse than a blackleg.”

“I don't see as it's so bad as that,” protested Mr. Hobbs.

“Yes, it is,” insisted Nellie, quickly. “Every bit as bad. It's drink that makes most of the blacklegs, anyway. Most of them are men whose manhood has been drowned out of them with


  ― 138 ―
view facsimile

liquor and the weak men in the unions are the drunkards who have no heart when the whisky's out of them. Everybody knows that. And when men who aren't as bad feel down-hearted and despairing instead of bracing up and finding out what makes it they cheer up at a pub and imagine they're jolly good fellows when they're just cowards dodging their duty. They get so they can't take any pleasure except in going on the spree and if they only go on once in a month or two”—this was a hit at Hobbs—“they're the worse for it. Why, look here, Mr. Hobbs, if I hadn't been here you'd have gone to-night and brought home beer and comforted yourselves getting fuddled. That's so, you know, and it wouldn't be right. It's just that sort of thing”—she added softly—“that stops us seeing how it is the little ones die when they shouldn't. If everybody would knock off drinking for ten years, everybody, we'd have everything straightened out by then and nobody would ever want to go on the spree again.”

She stood with her back to the moonlight, fingering the post of the door. Mr. Hobbs fumbled still with the door-knob and looked every way but at her. She waited for an answer, but he did not speak.

“Come,” she continued, after a pause. “Can't you give it up? I know it's a lot to do when one's used to it. But you'll feel better in the end and your wife will be better right away and the children, and it won't be blacklegging on those who're trying to make things better. No matter how poor he is if a man's sober he's a man, while if he drinks, no matter if he's got millions, he's a brute.”

“You never drink anything, Miss Lawton, do you?” asked Mr. Hobbs, swinging the door.

“I never touched it in my life,” said Nellie.

“Do you really think you're better for it?”

“I think it has kept me straight,” said Nellie, earnestly. “I wouldn't touch a drop to save my life. Some people call us who don't drink fools just because a few humbugs make temperance a piece of cant. I think those who get drunk are fools or who drink when there's a prospect of themselves or those they drink with getting drunk. Drink makes a man an empty braggart or a contented fool. It makes him heartless not only to others but to himself.”

There was another pause.




  ― 139 ―
view facsimile

“If you won't for the sake of your wife and your children and yourself and everybody, will you do it to please me?” asked Nellie, who knew that Mr. Hobbs regarded her as the one perfect woman in Australia and, woman-like, was prepared to take advantage thereof.

“You know, Miss Lawton, I'm not one of the fellows who swear off Monday mornings and get on the spree the next Saturday night. If I say I'll turn temperance I'll turn.” So quoth the sturdy Hobbs.

“I know that. If you were the other sort do you think I'd be bothering you?” retorted Nellie.

“Well, I'll do it,” said Mr. Hobbs. “So help me —— ”

“Never mind that,” interrupted the girl. “If a man's a man his word's his word, and if he's not all the swearing in the world won't make any difference. Let's shake on it!” She held out her hand.

Mr. Hobbs dropped the door-knob and covered her long, slender hand with his great, broad, horny-palmed one.

“Good night, Mr. Hobbs!” she said, the “shake” being over. “Get her to sleep and don't let her fret!”

“Good night, Miss Nellie!” he answered, using her name for the first time. He wanted to say something more but his voice got choked up and he shut the door in her face, so confused was he.

“Hello, Nellie!” said a voice that made her heart stand still, as she crossed the road, walking sadly homewards. At the same time two hands stretched out of the dense shadow into the lane of moonlight that shone down an alley way she was passing and that cut a dazzling swath in the blackness made still blacker by the surrounding brilliancy. “I've been wondering if you ever would finish that pitch of yours.”

It was Ned.

previous
next