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CHAPTER III

A Woman's Whim

note “NELLIE!

It was a husky whisper. His throat was parched, his lips dry, his mouth also. His heart thumped, thumped, thumped, so that it sickened him. He shook nervously. His face twitched. He felt burning hot; then deadly cold. He turned his hat slowly round and round in his trembling fingers.

It was as though he had turned woman. He did not even feel passion. He dared not look at her. He could feel her there. He did not desire as he had desired so often to snatch her to him, to crush her in his arms, to smother her with kisses, to master her. All his strength fled from him in an indescribable longing.

He had dreamed of this moment, often and often. He had rehearsed it in his mind a thousand times, when the reins dropped on his horse's neck, when he lay sleepless on the ground, even as he chatted to his mates. He had planned what to say, how to say it, purposing to break down her stubborn will with the passionate strength of his love for her, with mad strong words, with subtle arguments. He had seen her hesitating in his dreaming, had seen the flush come and go on her cheeks, her bosom heaving beneath the black dress he knew so well. He had made good his wooing with the tender violence that women forgive for love's sake, had caught her and kissed her till her kisses answered and till she yielded him her troth and pledged herself his wife. So he had dreamed in his folly. And now he stood there like a whipped child, pleading huskily:

“Nellie!”

He had not known himself. He had not known her. Even now he hardly understood that her glorious womanliness appealed to all that was highest in him, that in her presence he desired to be a Man and so seemed to himself weak and wicked. It was not her body only, it was her soul also that he craved, that pure, clear soul of hers which shone in every tone and every word and every look and every gesture. Beautiful she was, strong and lithe and bearing her head up always as if in stern defiance;


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beautiful in her cold virginity; beautiful in the latent passion that slumbered lightly underneath the pale, proud face. But most beautiful of all to him, most priceless, most longed for, was the personality in her, the individuality which would have brought him to her were she the opposite, physically, of all she was. He had wondered in reading sometimes of the Buddhist thoughts if it were indeed that she was his mate, that in re-incarnation after re-incarnation they had come together and found in each other the completed self. And then he had wondered if there were indeed in him such power and forcefulness as were in her and if he were to her anything more than a rough, simple, ignorant bush fellow, in whom she was interested a little for old acquaintance sake and because of the common Cause they served. For to himself, he had been still the same as before he ate from her hands the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. Absorbed in his work, a zealot, a fanatic, conscious of all she had and of all he lacked, he had not noticed how his own mind had expanded, how broader ideas had come to him, how the confidence born of persistent thought gave force to his words and how the sincerity and passion that rang in his voice reached if but for a moment the hearts of men. When he thought of her mentality he doubted that she would be his, she seemed so high above him. It was when he thought of her solely as a Woman, when he remembered the smile of her parting, the hand-clinging that was almost a caress, the tender “Come back to me again, Ned!” that he felt himself her equal in his Manhood and dreamed his dream of how he would woo and win her.

And now! Ah, now, he knew himself and knew her. He realised all that he was, all that he might have been. He would have wooed her and Nemesis struck him on the mouth, struck him dumb.

There come moments in our lives when we see ourselves. For years, for a generation, till dying often, we live our lives and do not know except by name the Ego that dwells within. We face death unflinchingly, as most men do, and it never speaks. We love and we hate, with a lightness that is held civilised, and it never stirs. We suffer and mourn and laugh and sneer and it lies hidden. Then something stirs us to the very base of our being and self-consciousness comes. And happy, thrice happy, in spite of all sorrow and pain, no matter what has been or what awaits him, is he to whom self-consciousness does not bring the self


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reproach that dieth not, the remorse that never is quite quenched. He would have wooed and he was dumb. For with a flash his life uprose before him. He saw himself naked and he was ashamed.

Tremblingly, shaken with anguish, he saw himself—unfit to look into the eyes of a woman such as this. Like loathsome images of a drunkard's nightmare scenes that were past came to him. Upon his lips were kisses that stung and festered, around his neck were the impress of arms that dragged him down, into his eyes stared other eyes taunting him with the evil glances that once seemed so dear. What had he of manhood to offer to this pure woman. It seemed to him a blasphemy even to stand there by her. His passion fled. He only felt a pitiful, gnawing, hopeless, indescribable longing.

What he had been! How he had drunk and drunk and drunk again of the filthy pools wherewith we civilised peoples still our yearnings for the crystal spring of Love, that the dragon of Social Injustice guards from us so well! His sins rose in front of him. They were sins now as they had never been before. The monogamy of his race triumphed in him. For men and for women alike he knew there was the same right and the same wrong.

His soul abhorred itself because of his unfitness to match with this ideal woman of his people. He could feel her purity, as he stood there by her. He could feel that her lips still waited for the lover of her life, that round her waist the virgin zone still lay untied, that she could still give herself with all the strength of unsullied purity and unweakened passion. And he, who had thought in his miserable folly that at least he was as much Man as she was Woman? He could only give her the fragments of a life, the battered fragments of what once had been well worth the having.

He knew that now. He saw himself naked and he knew what he was and what he had been. He had feared comparison with her intellectually and he towered above her, even now; he knew it. He knew now that to him it had been given to sway the thoughts of men, to feel the pulse of the great world beat, to weld discontent into action, to have an idea and to dare and to give to others faith and hope. That came to him also, without conceit, without egotism—with a rush of still more bitter


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infinitely more unbearable, pain. For this, too, he had wasted, flung away, so it seemed to him in his agony of degradation: because he had not been true to his higher self, because he had not done as a true Man would. And so, he had been blind. He saw it plainly, now, the path he should have trod, trampling his weaknesses down, bending his whole life in one strong effort, living only for the work at hand. And to him it came that, perchance, on him was this great punishment that because of his unworthiness the Cause must wait longer and struggle more; that because he had not been strong little children would sob who might have laughed and men would long for death who might have joyed in living. And he knew, too, that had he but been what he might have been he would have stood fearlessly by her side at last and won her to cast in her lot with his. For there was a way out, indeed, a way out from the house of bondage, and none had been so near to it in all time as he had all his life, none had had their feet pointed so towards it, none had failed so strangely to pick up the track and follow it to the end. Years ago, as he thought, sleepless, under the stars, he had touched on it, Geisner had brought him near to it. And still he had not seen it, had not seen as he saw now that those who seek to change the world must first of all show the world that change is possible, must gather themselves together and go out into the desert to live their life in their own way as an example to all men. Who could do this as the bushmen could, as he and his houseless, homeless, wandering mates could? If he only could lead them to it, Geisner helping him! If another chance might be his as the chance had been! Now, life seemed over. He had a prescience of misfortune. A Queensland gaol would swallow him up. That would be the end of it all.

He did not think that he was much the same as others, more forceful perhaps for evil as for good but still much the same. He did not think that social conditions had been against him, that Society had refused him the natural life which gives morality and forced upon him the unnatural life which fosters sin. What did that matter? The Puritan blood that flowed in his veins made him stern jury and harsh judge. He tried himself by his own ideal and he condemned himself. He was unworthy. He had condemned those who drank; he had condemned those who cursed and swore meaninglessly; he had looked upon smoking as a weakness, almost a fault. Now, he condemned himself, without


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reservation. He had sinned and his punishment had begun. He had lived in vain and he had lost his love. It never occurred to him that he might play a part before her—he was too manly. Yet his great longing grew greater as he realised everything. All the loneliness of his longing spoke in that hoarse whisper:

“Nellie?”

And Nellie? Nellie loved him.

She had held him as a brother for so long that this love for him had crept upon her, little by little, inch by inch, insidiously, unperceived. She remembered always with pleasure their school days together and their meetings since, that meeting here in Sydney two years before most of all. She had felt proud of him, of his strength and his fiery temper, of his determined will, of the strong mind which she could feel growing and broadening in the letters he had sent her of late. She could not but know that to him she was very much, that to her he owed largely the bent of his thinking, that to her he still looked as a monitress. But she lulled herself with the delusion that all this was brotherliness and that all her feelings were sisterliness. His coming that night, his gift of the rose, had filled her with a happiness that mingled strangely with the pain of her fears.

Coming along, arm in arm with him, she had been thinking of him, even while she spoke earnestly of other things. Would she ever see him again, she wondered with a sinking of the heart, would she ever see him again. Never had he thought or care for himself, never would he shrink from fear of consequences if it seemed to him that a certain course was “straight.” She would not have him shrink, of course. He was dear to her because he was what he was, and yet, and yet, it pained her so to think that she nevermore might see him. Seldom she saw him it was true, only now and then, years between, but she always hoped to see him. What if the hope left her! What should she do if she should see him again nevermore?

The kaleidoscope of her memories showed to her one scene, one of the episodes that had gone to make up her character, to strengthen her devotion: the whirring of a sewing machine in a lamp-lit room and a life-romance told to the whirring, the fate of a woman as Geisner's was the fate of a man. A romance of magnificent fidelity, of heroic sacrifice illumined by a passionate love, of a husband followed to the land of his doom from that sad isle of the Atlantic seas, of prison bars worn away by the ceaseless


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labour of a devoted woman and of the cruel storm that beat the breath from her loved one as freed and unfettered he fled to liberty and her! She heard again the whirr of the machine, saw again the lamplight shine on the whitening head majestic still. For Ned, while he lived, no matter where, she would toil so. Though all the world should forget him she would not. But supposing, after all, she never saw him more. What should she do? What should she do? And yet, she did not know yet that she loved him.

noteThey walked along, side by side, close together, through the dull weary streets, by barrack-rows of houses wrapped in slumber or showing an occasional light; through thoroughfares which the windows of the shops that thrive, owl-like, at night still made brilliant; down the long avenue of trim-clipped trees whereunder time-defying lovers still sat whispering; past the long garden wall, startling as they crossed the road a troop of horses browsing for fallen figs; along the path that winds, water-lapped, under the hollowed rocks that shelter nightly forlorn outcasts of Sydney. She saw it all as they passed along and she did not see it. Afterwards she could recall every step they took, every figure they passed, every tree and seat and window and lamp-post on the way.

At one corner a group of men wrangled drunkenly outside a public-house. Down one deserted street another drunkard staggered, cursing with awful curses a slipshod woman who kept pace with him on the pavement and answered him with nerveless jeers. Just beyond a man overtook them, walking swiftly, his tread echoing as he went; he turned and looked at her as he passed; he had a short board and wore a “hard hitter.” Then there was a girl plying her sorry trade, talking in the shadow with a young man, spruce and white-shirted. They had to wait at one street for a tram to rush past screeching and rattling. At one crossing Ned had seized her arm because a cab was coming carelessly. One of the lovers in the avenue was tracing lines on the ground with a stick, while her sweetheart leaned over her. Down under the rocks she saw the forms of sleepers here and there; from one clump of bushes came a sound of heavy snoring. She saw all this, everything, a thousand incidents, but she did not heed them. She was as one in a daze; or as one who moves and thinks and sees, sleep-walking.

So they reached the point by Lady Macquarie's Chair, paused for a moment at the turn, hesitated, then together, as of one


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accord, went down the grassy slope by the landing stairs and out upon the rough wave-eaten fringe of rock to the water's edge. They were alone together, alone in Paradise. There were none others in the whole world.

Above them, almost overhead, in the starry sky, the full round moon was sailing, her white glare falling upon a matchless scene of mingling land and water, sea and shore and sky. Like a lake the glorious harbour stretched before them and on either hand. In its bosom the moon sailed as in a mirror; on it great ships floated at anchor and islets nestled down; all round the sheltering hills verily clapped their hands. In the great dome of the universe there was not a cloud. Through the starless windows of that glorious dome they could see into the fathomless depths of Eternity. Under the magic of the moon not even the sordid work of man struck a discordant note. At their feet the faint ripplings of this crystal lake whispered their ceaseless lullaby and close behind them the trees rustled softly in the languid breathings of the sleeping sea. Of a truth it was Paradise, fit above all fitness to gladden the hearts of men, worthy to fill the soul to overflowing with the ecstasy of living, deserving to be enshrined as a temple of the Beautiful wherein all might worship together, each his own God.

The keen sense of its loveliness, its perfect beauty, its sublime simplicity, stole over Nellie as she stood silently by Ned's side in the full moonlight and gazed. Over her angry soul, tortured by the love she hardly knew, its pure languor crept, soothing, softening. She looked up at the silvery disc and involuntarily held out her hands to it, its radiance overpowering her. She wrenched her eyes away from it suddenly, a strange fearfulness leaping in her who knew no fear; the light at the South Heads flashed before her, the convent stood out in the far distance, a ferry-house shone white, the towers and roofs of Sydney showed against the sky, the lights on the shipping and on the further shore were as reflections of the stars above. And there in the water, as in a mirror, was that glowing moon. Startled, she found herself thinking that it would be heavenly to take Ned's hand and plunge underneath this crystal sheet that alone separated them from peace and happiness. She looked up again. There was the moon itself, swimming amid the twinkling stars, full and round and white and radiant. As its rays enwrapped her eyes, she heard the leaves rustling in melody and the wavelets rippling in tune.




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All Nature lived to her then. There was life in the very rocks under her feet, language in the very shimmer of the waters, a music, as the ancients dreamed in the glittering spheres that circled there in space. The moon had something to say to her, something to tell her, something she longed to hear and shrank from hearing. She knew she was not herself somehow, not her old self, that it was as though she were being bewitched, mesmerised, drawn out of herself by some strange influence, sweet though fearful. Suddenly a distant clock struck and recalled her wandering thoughts.

“Half-past! Half-past eleven I suppose! I thought it was later, ever so much later. It has seemed like hours, it is so beautiful here, but we haven't been here many minutes,” she said. Adding incongruously: “Let's go. It's getting very late.” She spoke decidedly. She felt that she dare not stay; why, she had not the least idea.

Then she heard Ned, who was standing there, rigid, except that he was twirling his soft straw hat round and round in his fingers, say in a low tremulous husky whisper:

“Nellie!”

Then she knew.

She was loved and she loved. That was what the stars sang and the little ripples and the leaves. That was what the hard rock knew and what the shimmer of the water laughed to think of and what the glowing moon had to tell her as it swam high in heaven, looking down into her heart and swelling its tumultuous tide. The moon knew, the full moon that ever made her pulse beat strong and her young life throb till its throbbing was a pain, the full white moon that, dethroned on earth, still governs from the skies the lives of women. She was loved. She was loved. And she, who had vowed herself to die unmarried, she loved, loved, loved.

She knew that those only laugh at Love to whom the fullness of living has been denied, in whose cold veins, adulterate with inherited disease, a stagnant liquid mocks the purpose of the rich red blood of a healthy race; that in that laugh of theirs is the, knell of them and of their people; that the nation which has ceased to love has almost ceased to live.

She knew that every breath she had ever drawn had been drawn that she might live for this moment; that every inch of her stature and every ounce of her muscle and every thought of


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her brain had built up slowly, surely, ultimately, this all-absorbing passion; that upon her was the hand of the Infinite driving her of her own nature to form a link in the great Life-chain that stretches from the Whence into the Whither, to lose herself in the appointed lot as the coral insect does whose tiny body makes a continent possible.

She knew that Love is from the beginning and to all time, knew that it comes to each as each is, to the strong in strength and to the weak in weakness. She knew that to her it had come with all the force of her grand physique and vigorous brain and dominant emotionality, that in her heart one man, one hero, one lover, was enshrined and that to him she would be loyal and true for ever and ever, choosing death rather than to fail him.

She knew that they do rightly and for themselves well who in Love's strength brush aside all worldly barriers and insensate prejudice. She knew that it is the one great Democrat strong as Death—when it comes, though sad to say in decaying states it comes too seldom; that its imperious mandate makes the king no higher than the beggar-girl and binds in sweet equality the child of fortune and the man of toil. She knew that the mysterious Power which orders all things has not trusted to a frail support in resting the conservation of the race upon the strength of loving.

All this she knew and more, knew as by instinct as her love flamed conscious in her.

She knew that there was one thing to which love like hers could not link itself and that was to dishonour, not the false dishonour of conventionalism but the real dishonour of proving untrue to herself. She knew that when she ceased to respect herself, when she shrank from herself, then she would shrink before him whom she loved and who loved her. She knew that she could better bear to lose him, to go lonely and solitary along the future years, than shame that self-consciousness which ever she had held sacred but which was doubly sacred now he loved her.

How she loved him! For his soul, for his body, for his brain, for his rough tenderness, for his fiery tongue! She loved his broad shoulders and his broad mind. She loved his hearty laugh and his hearty hand-grip and his homely speech and his red-hot enthusiasm. She loved him because she felt that he dared and because she felt that he loved her. She loved him because she


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had learned to see in him her ideal. She loved him because he was in danger for the Cause and because he was going from her and because she had loved him for years had she but known. She loved him for a thousand things. And yet! Something held her back. It only needed a word but the word did not come. It was on her lips a dozen times, that one word “Ned!” which meant all words, and she did not say it.

They stood there side by side, motionless, silent, waiting, Ned suffering anguish unspeakable, Nellie plunged in that great joy which comes so seldom that some say it only comes to herald deeper sadness. To him the glorious scene around spoke nothing, he hardly saw it; to her it was enchanted with a strange enchantment, never had it seemed so, all the times she had seen it. How beautiful life was! How sweet to exist! How glad the world!

“Nellie!” said Ned, at last, humbly, penitently, hopelessly. “I'm not a good man. I haven't been just what you think I've been.” He stopped, then added, slowly and desperately as if on an afterthought: “If—your own heart—won't plead—for—me—it's not a bit of use my saying anything.”

When one speaks as one feels one generally speaks to the point and this sudden despairing cry of Ned's was a better plea than any he could by long thinking have constructed. Wonderful are the intricacies of a man's mind, but still more intricate the mind of woman. Nellie at the moment did not care whether he had been saint or sinner. She felt that her love was vast enough to wash him clean of all offending and make amend in him for all shortcoming. She could not bear to see him in pain thus when she was so happy; in uncertainty, in despair, when the measure of her love was not to be taken, so huge was it and all for him. If he had sinned, and how men sin there is little hid from the working girl, it was not from evil heart. lf he had not been good he would be good. He would promise her.

“But you will be good now, will you not, Ned?” she asked, softly, not looking at him, dropping her hand against his, stealing her slender fingers into the fingers that nervously twirled the hat.

From bitter despondency Ned's thoughts changed to ecstatic hope. He swung round, his hand in Nellie's, his brain in a whirl. Was it a dream or was she really standing there in the strong moonshine, her lovelit eyes looking into his for a moment before the down-cast lids veiled them, her face flushed, her bosom heaving, her hand tenderly pressing his? He dropped his hat, careless


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of the watery risk, and seizing her by both arms above the elbows, held her for a moment in front of him, striving to collect himself, vainly trying to subdue the excitement that made him think he was going to faint.

“Nellie!” he whispered, passionately, his craving finding utterance. “Kiss me!” She lifted up the flushed face, with the veiled downcast eyes and soft quivering lips. He passed his hands under her arms and bent down. Then a white mist came over his eyes as he crushed her to him and felt on his parched lips the burning kiss of the woman he loved. For a moment she rested there, in his arms, her mouth pressed to his. The rose, shattered, threw its petals as an offering upon the altar of their joy.

The Future, what did it matter to him? The scaffold or the gaol might come or go, what did it matter to him? It flashed through his mind that Nellie could be his wife before he went and then all the governments in the world and all the military and all the gatling guns might do their worst. They could not take from him a happiness he had not deserved, but which had come to him as a free gift in despite of his unworthiness. And as he thought this, Nellie shook herself out of his arms, pushing him so violently that he staggered and almost fell on the uneven rocks.

“I cannot,” she cried, holding up her arms as if to ward him off. “I cannot, Ned. You mustn't touch me. I cannot.”

“Nellie!” he replied, bewildered. “What on earth is the matter?”

“I cannot,” she cried again. “Ned, you know I can't.”

“Can't what?” he asked, gradually understanding.

“I can't marry. I shall never marry. It's cruel to you, contemptible of me, to be here. I forgot myself, Ned. Come along! It's madness to stay here.”

She turned on her heel and walked off sharply, taking the upper path. He picked up his hat and hastily followed. There was nothing else to be done. Overtaking her, he strode along by her side in a fury of mingled rage, sorrow, anger and disappointment.

She paused at the corner of her street. As she did so bells far and near began to strike midnight, the clock at the City Hall leading off with its quarters. They had been gone an hour and a quarter. To both of them it seemed like a year.

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