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Chapter V

As the Moon Waned

THE shadows were beginning to throw again as Nellie finished telling her story. The quarters had sounded as they walked backwards and forwards. It was past one when they stopped again under the lamp-post at the corner.note

“You see, Ned,” she went on. “Mary couldn't help it. It's easy enough to talk when one has everything one wants or pretty well everything but when one has nothing or pretty well nothing, it's different. I've been through it and know. The insults, the temptations, the constant steady pressure all the time. If you are poor you are thought by swagger people fair game. And even workingmen, the young ones, who don't think themselves able to marry generally, help hunt down their working sisters. Women can't always earn enough to live decently and men can't always earn enough to marry on; and when well-to-do men get married they seem to get worse instead of better, generally. So upon the hungry, the weary, the hopeless, girls who have to patch their own boots and go threadbare and shabby while others have pretty things, and who are despised for their shabbiness by the very hypocrites who cant about love of dress, and who have folks at home whom they love, and who are penniless as well and in that abject misery which comes when there isn't any money to buy the little things, upon these is forced the opportunity to change all this if only for a little while. Besides, you know, women have the same instincts as men—why do we disguise these things and pretend they haven't and shouldn't when we know that it is right and healthy that they should?—and though it is natural for a woman to hate what is called vice, because she is better than man—she is the mother-sex, you know—yet the very instincts which if things were right would be for good and happiness seem to make things worse when everything is wrong. Women who work, growing girls as many are, have little pleasure in their lives, less even than men. And wiseacres say we are light and frivolous and chattering, because most women can only

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find relief in that and know of nothing else, though all the time in the bottom of their hearts there are deep wells of human passion and human love. If you heard sewing-room talk you would call us parrots or worse. If you knew the sewing-room lives you would feel as I do.”

He did not know what to say.

“For myself,” straightening herself with unconscious pride, “it has not been so much. I have been hungry and almost ragged, here in Sydney, wearing another girl's dress when I went to get slop-work, so as to look decent, living on rye bread for days at a time, working for thirty-eight hours at a stretch once so as to get the work done in time to get the money. That's sweating, isn't it? Of course I'm all right now. I get thirty shillings a week for draping and the wife of the boss wants to keep on friendly terms with Mrs. Stratton and I'm a good hand, so I can organise without being victimised for it. But even when I was hardest up it wasn't the same to me as to most girls. As a last resort I used to think always of killing myself. That would have been ever so much easier to me than the other thing. But I am hard and strong. I've heard my mother say that her father was the first of his people to wear boots. They went barefooted before then and I'm barefooted in some things yet. Mary wasn't like me, but better, not so hard or so selfish. And so, she couldn't help it, any more than I can.”

“Nellie,” he said, speaking the thought he had been thinking for an hour. “What difference does all this make between you and me?”

“Don't you understand?” she cried. “When people marry they have children. And when my sister Mary ended so, who is safe? Nothing we can do, no care we can take, can secure a child against misery while the world is what it is. I try to alter things for that. I would do anything, everything, no matter what, to make things so that little children would have a chance to be good and happy. Because the unions go that way I am unionist and because Socialism means that I am Socialist and I love whatever strikes at things that are and I hate everything that helps maintain them. And that is how we all really feel who feel at all, it is the mother in us, the source of everything that is good, and mothers do not mind much how their children are bettered so long as they are bettered. No matter what the bushmen do up there in Queensland, my heart is with them, so long as they

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shake this hateful state of things. I can't remember when everybody round weren't slaving away and no good coming of it. My father has only a mortgaged farm to show for a life of toil. My sister, my own sister, who grew up like a flower in the Queensland bush and worked her fingers to the bone and should have been to-day a happy woman with happy children on her knee, they picked her up when she lay dying in the gutter like a dog and in their charity gave her a bed to die on when they wouldn't give her decent wages to live on. Everywhere I've been it's the same story, men out of work, women out of work, children who should be at school the only ones who can always get work. Everywhere men crawling for a job, sinking their manhood for the chance of work, cringing and sneaking and throat-cutting, even in their unionism. In every town an army of women like my Mary, women like ourselves, going down, down, down. Honesty and virtue and courage getting uncommon. We're all getting to steal and plunder when we get a chance, the work people do it, the employers do it, the politicians do it. I know. We all do it. Women actually don't understand that they're selling themselves often even when a priest does patter a few clap-trap phrases over them. Oppression on every hand and we dare not destroy it. We haven't courage enough. And things will never be any better while Society is as it is. So I hate what Society is. Oh! I hate it so. If word or will of mind could sweep it away to leave us free to do what our inner hearts, crushed by this industrialism that we have, tell us to do it should go. For we've good in our hearts, most of us. We like to do what's kind, when we've a chance. I've found it so, anyway. Only we're caught in this whirl that crushes us all, the poor in body and the rich in soul. But till it goes, if it ever goes, I'll not be guilty of bringing a child into such a hell as this is now. That to me would be a cruelty that no weakness of mine, no human longing, could excuse ever. For no fault of her own Mary's life was a curse to her in the end. And so it may be with any of us. I'll not have the sin of giving life on me.”

They stood face to face looking into each other's eyes. Unflinchingly she offered up her own heart and his on the altar of her ideal.

He read on her set lips the unalterability of her determination. It was on his tongue to suggest that it was easy to compromise, but there was that about her which checked him. Above all

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things there was a naturalness about her, an absence of artificiality, the emanation of a strong and vigorous womanliness. The very freedom of her speech was purity itself. The dark places of life had been bared to her and she did not conceal the fact or minimise it but she spoke of it as something outside of herself, as not affecting her excepting that it roused in her an intense sympathy. She was indeed the barefooted woman in her conception of morality, in her frankness and in her strong emotions untainted by the gangrene of a rotting civilisation. To suggest to her that fruitless love, that barren marriage, which destroys the soul of France and is spreading through Australia, would be to speak a strange language to her. He could say nothing. He was seized with a desire to get away from her.

“Good-bye!” he said, holding out his hand. She took it in both her own.

“Ned!” she cried. “We part friends, don't we? If there is a man in the world who could make me change my mind, it's you. Wherever you go I shall be thinking of you and all life through I shall be the same. You have only to let me know and there's nothing possible I wouldn't do for you gladly. We are friends, are we not? Mates? Brother and sister?”

Brother and sister! The spirit moved in Ned's hot heart at the words. Geisner's words came to him, nerving him.

“No!” he answered. “Friends? Yes. Mates? Yes. Brother and sister? No, never. I don't feel able to talk now. You're like a thorn bush in front of me that it's no use rushing at. But I'm not satisfied. You're wrong somewhere and I'm right and the right thing is to love when Love comes even if we're to die next minute. I'm going away and I may come back and I mayn't but if I do you'll see my way. I shall think it out and show you. Why, Nellie, I'm a different man already since you kissed me. You and I together, why, we'd straighten things out if they were a thousand times as crooked. What couldn't we do, you and me? And we'll do it yet, Nellie. When I come back you'll have me and we two will give things such a shaking that they'll never be the same again after we've got through with them. Now, goodbye! I'll come back if it's years and years, and you'll wait for me, I know. Good-bye, till then.”

She felt her feet leave the ground as he lifted her to him in a hug that made her ribs ache for a week, felt his willing lips on her passive ones, felt his long moustache, his warm breath, his

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reviving passion. Then she found herself standing alone, quivering and pulsating, watching him as he walked away with the waddling walk of the horseman.

In her heart, madly beating, two intense feelings fought and struggled. The dominant thought of years, to end with herself the life that seems a curse and not a blessing, to be always maid, to die in the forlorn hope and to leave none to sorrow through having lived by her, was shaken to its base by a new-born furious desire to yield herself utterly. It came to her to run after Ned, to go with him, to Queensland, to the bush, to prison, to the gallows if need be. An insane craving for him raged within her as her memory renewed his kisses on her lips, his crushing arm-clasp, the strength that wooed with delicious bruisings, the strong personality that smote against her own until she longed to stay the smiting. It flashed through her mind that crowning joy of all joys would be to have his child in her arms, to rear a little agitator to carry on his father's fight when Ned himself was gone for ever.

Then—she stamped her foot in self-contempt and walked resolutely to her door. When she got up to her room she went to the open window and, kneeling down there, watched with tearless eyes the full white moon that began to descend towards the roofs amid the gleaming stars of the cloudless sky.

The hours passed and she still knelt watching, tearless and sleepless, mind and body numbed and enwrapped by dull gnawing pain.

Pain is to fight one's self and to subdue one's self. Nellie fought with herself and conquered.

A paradox this seems but is not, for in truth each individual is more than one, far more. Every living human is a bundle of faggot faculties, in which bundle every faculty is not an inert faggot but a living, breathing, conscious serpent. The weakling is he in whose forceless nature one serpent after another writhes its head up, dominant for a moment only, doomed to be thrust down by another fancy as fickle. The strong man is he whose forceful nature casts itself to subdue its own shifting desires by raising one supreme above the others and holding it there by identifying the dearest aspirations with its supremacy. And we call that man god-like whose heart yearns towards one little ideal, struggling for existence amid the tumultuous passions that clash

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in him around it, threatening to stifle it, and whose personality drives him to pick this ideal out and to lift it up and to hold it supreme lifelong. He himself is its bitterest enemy, its most hateful foe, its would-be murderer. He himself shrinks from and cowers at and abhors the choking for its sake of faculties that draw titanic strength from the innermost fibres of his own being. Yet he himself shelters and defends and battles for this intruder on his peace, this source of endless pain and brain-rending sorrow. A strength arises within him that tramples the other strength underfoot; he celebrates his victory with sighs and tears. So the New rises and rules until the Old is shattered and broken and fights the New no more; so Brutality goes and so Humanity comes.

Nellie fought with herself kneeling there at her window, watching the declining moon, staring at it with set eyes, grimly willing herself not to think because to think was to surrender. Into heart and ear and brain the serpents hissed words of love and thoughts of unspeakable joy. Upon her lips they pressed again Ned's hot kisses. Around her waist they threw again the clasping of his straining arms. “Why not? Why not?” they asked her. “Why not? Why not?” they cried and shouted. “Why not? Oh, why not?” they moaned to her. And she stared at the radiant moon and clenched her fingers on the window sill and would not answer. Only to her lips rose a prayer for death that she disowned unuttered. Had she fallen so low as to seek refuge in superstition, she thought, and from that moment she bore her agony in her own way.

It did pass through her mind that the ideal she had installed in her passionate heart did not aid her, that it had shrunk back out of sight and left her alone to fight for it against herself, left her alone to keep her life for it free from the dominance of these mad passions that had lifted their heads within her and that every nerve in her fought and bled for. She crushed this back also. She would not think. Only she would be loyal to her conception of Right even though the agony of her loyalty drove her mad.

She knew what Pain meant, now. She drank to the very dregs the cup of human misery. To have one's desires within one's reach, to have one's whole being driving one to stretch out one's hand and satisfy the eternal instincts within, and to force one's self to an abnegation that one's heart revolts from, that indeed was Pain

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to her. She learnt the weakness of all the philosophies as in a flash of lightning one sees clearly. She could have laughed at the sophism that one chooses always that which pleases one most. She knew that there are unfathomed depths in being which open beneath us in great crises and swallow up the foundations on which we builded and thought sure. She paralysed her passion intuitively, waiting, as one holds breath in the water when a broken wave surges over.

Gradually she forgot, an aching pain in her body lulling the aching pain of her mind. Gradually the white disc of the moon expanded before her and blotted out all active consciousness. Slowly the fierce serpents withdrew their hissing heads again. Slowly the ideal she had fought for lifted itself again within her. She began to feel more like her old self, only strangely exhausted and sorrowful. She was old, so old; weary, so weary. Hours went by. She passed into abstraction.

The falling of the moon behind the roofs roused her. She gazed at its disappearing rim in bewilderment, for the moment not realising. Then the sense of bodily pain dawned on her and assured her of the Reality.

She stood up, feeling stiff and bruised, her back aching, her head swimming, all her desiring ebbing as the moon waned. Already the glimmer of dawn paled the moonshine. She could hear the crowing of the cocks, the occasional rumble of a cart, the indescribable murmur that betokens an awakening city. The night had gone at last and the daylight had come and she had worn herself out and conquered. She thought this without joy; it was her fate not her heart. Nature itself had come to her rescue, the very Nature she had resisted and denied.

She struck a light and looked into the glass, curious to know if she were the same still. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, her nose was pinched, her cheeks wan, on her forehead between the brows were distinct wrinkles, from the corners of the mouth were chiselled deeply the lines of pain. She was years older. Could it be possible that only five hours ago she had flung herself into a lover's arm by the moonlit water, a passionate girl, in womanhood's first bloom? She had cast those days behind her for ever, she thought; she would serve the Cause alone, henceforth, while she lived. Rest, eternal rest, must come at last; she could only hope that it would come soon. At least, if she lived without joy, she would die without self-reproach.

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Exhausted, she sank to sleep almost as her head touched the pillow. And in her sleep she lived again that night at the Strattons with Ned and heard Geisner profess God and condemn her hatred of maternity. “You close the gates of Life,” he said. Taking her hand he led her to where a great gate stood, of iron, brass bound, and there behind it a great flood of little children pressed and struggled, dashing and crashing till the great gates shook and tottered.

“They will break the gates open,” she cried to him in anguish.

“Did you deem to alter the unalterable?” he asked. And his voice was Ned's voice and turning round she saw it was Ned who held her hand. They stood by the harbour side again and she loved him. Again her whole being melted into his as he kissed her. Again they were alone in the Universe, conscious only of an ineffable joy.

“Time to get up, Nellie!” called Mrs. Phillips, who was knocking at the door. Nellie's working day began again.