previous
next



  ― 183 ―
view facsimile

Chapter VI

Unemployed

AFTER ten minutes' walking Ned reached a broad thoroughfare. Hesitating for a moment, to get his bearings, he saw across the way one of the cheap restaurants of which “all meals sixpence” is the symbol and which one sees open until all sorts of hours. The window was still lighted, so Ned, parched with thirst, entered to get a cup of coffee. It was a clean-looking place, enough. He saw on the wall the legend “Clean beds” as he gulped down his coffee thirstily from the saucer.

“Can you put me up to-night?” he asked, overpowered with a drowsiness that dulled even his thoughts about Nellie and unwilling to walk on to his hotel.

“Yes, sir,” answered the waiter, a young man who was making preparations to close for the night. “In half a minute.”

Soon a cabman had finished his late midnight meal and departed. But another passer-by dropped in, who was left over a plate of stew while the waiter led Ned to a narrow stair at the end of the room, passing round a screen behind which a stout, gray-haired man slumbered in an arm chair with all the appearance of being the proprietor. The waiter showed Ned the way with a lighted match, renewed when burnt out. Ned noticed that the papered walls and partitions of the stairway and upper floor were dirty, torn and giving way in patches. From the first landing a dark narrow passage led towards the front street while three or four ricketty, cracked doors were crowded at the stairhead. Snoring sounds came from all quarters. The waiter turned up a still narrower twisting stairway. As they neared the top Ned could see a dim light coming through an open doorway.

The room to which he was thus introduced was some fifteen feet long and as many broad, on the floor. Two gabled windows, back and front, made with the centre line of the low-sloping ceiling a Greek cross effect. A single candle, burning on a backless chair by one of the windows, threw its flickering light on the choked room-full of old-fashioned iron bedsteads, bedded in


  ― 184 ―
view facsimile

make-shift manner, six in all, four packed against the wall opposite the door at which the stairs ended and one on each side of the window whereby was the light. On one of these latter beds a bearded man lay stretched, only partly undressed; on its edge sat a youth in his shirt. Although it was so late they were talking.

“Not gone to bed yet?” asked the waiter.

“Hullo, Jack!” replied the youth. “Aren't you coming to bed yet?”

note “A gentleman of Jack's profession,” said the bearded man, whose liquorous voice proclaimed how he had put in his evening, “doesn't require to go to bed at all. 'Gad, that's very good. You understand me?” He referred his wit to the youth. He spoke with the drawling hesitation of the English “swell.”

“I understand you,” replied the youth, in a respectful voice that had acquired its tone in the English shires.

“I don't get much chance whether I require it or not,” remarked Jack, with an American accentuation, proceeding to make up the other bed by the light. There was nothing on the grimy mattress but a grimy blanket, so he brought a couple of fairly clean sheets from a bed in the opposite corner and spread them dexterously.

“Have we the pleasure of more company, Jack?” enquired the broken-down swell. “You understand me?”

“I understand you,” said the English lad.

“This gentleman's going to stay,” replied Jack, putting the sheet over the caseless pillow.

“Glad to make your acquaintance, sir,” said the swell to Ned, upon this introduction. “We can't offer you a chair but you're welcome to a seat on the bed. If you can't offer a man wine give him whisky, and if you haven't got whisky offer him the best you've got.” This last to the youth. “You understand me?”

“I understand you,” said the youth. “I understand you perfectly.”

“Thanks,” replied Ned. “But it won't hurt to stand for a minute. There ain't much room to stand though, is there?”

His head nearly touched the ceiling in the highest part; on either side it sloped sharply, the slope only broken by the window gables, the stair casement being carried into the very centre of the room to get height for the door. The plaster on the ceiling had come off in patches, as if cannon-balled by unwary heads, showing the lath, and was also splashed by the smoke-wreaths of


  ― 185 ―
view facsimile

carelessly held candles; the papering was half torn from the shaky plastering of the wall; the flooring was time-eaten. A general impression of uncleanness was everywhere. On a ricketty little table behind the candle was a tin basin and a cracked earthenware pitcher. Excepting a limited supply of bedroom ware, which was very strongly in evidence, there was no other furniture. Looking round, Ned saw that on the bed opposite the door, hidden in the shadows, a man lay groaning and moaning. Through the windows could be seen the glorious moonlight.

“No. A man wants to be careful here,” said the waiter, throwing the blanket over the sheets and straightening it in a whisk. “There,” he went on, “will that suit you?”

“Anything'll suit me,” said Ned, pulling off his coat and hanging it over the head of the postless bed. “I'm much obliged.”

“That's all right,” replied Jack, cheerfully. “I'll be up to bed soon,” he informed the others and ran down stairs again.

“Will you have a cigarette?” asked the English lad, holding out a box.

“Thanks, but I don't smoke,” answered Ned, who had pulled off his boots and was wrestling with his shirt. Finally it came over his head. He lay down in his underclothing, having first gingerly turned back the blanket to the foot.

“I don't desire to be personal,” said the broken-down swell. “You'll excuse me, but I must say you're a finely built man. You understand me? No offence!”

“He is big,” chipped in the youth.

“You don't offend a man much by telling him he's well built,” retorted Ned, with an attempt at mirth.

“Certainly. You understand me. It's not the size, my boy”—to the youth. “Size is nothing. It's the proportion, the capacity for putting out strength. I've been an athlete myself and I'm no chicken yet. But our friend here ought to be a Hercules. Will you take a drink? You'll excuse the glass.” He offered Ned a flask half full of whisky.

“Thanks just the same but I never drink,” answered Ned, stretching himself carelessly. The lad refused also.

“You're wise, both of you,” commented the other, swallowing down a couple of mouthfuls of the undiluted liquor. “If I'd never touched it I should have been a wealthy man to-day. But I shall be a wealthy man yet. You understand me?”




  ― 186 ―
view facsimile

“Yes,” answered Ned, mechanically. He was looking at the frank, open, intelligent face and well-made limbs of the half-naked lad opposite and wondering what he was doing here with this grizzled drunkard. The said grizzled drunkard being the broken-down swell, whose highly-coloured face, swollen nose and slobbery eyes told a tale that his slop-made clothes would have concealed. “How old are you?” he asked the lad, the drunkard having fallen asleep in the middle of a discourse concerning a great invention which would bring him millions.

“I'm nineteen.”

“You look older,” remarked Ned.

“Most people think I'm older,” replied the lad proudly.

“You're not a native.”

“No. I'm from the west of England.”

“Which county?”

“Devon.”

“My father's Devon,” said Ned, at which the poor lad looked up eagerly, as though in Ned he recognised an old friend.

“That's strange, isn't it? How you meet people!” he remarked.

“I've never been there, you know,” explained Ned. “Fact is I don't think it would be well for me to go. If all my old dad used to say is true I'd soon get shipped out.”

“How's that?”

“Why, they transport a man for shooting a rabbit or a hare, don't they? My dad told me a friend of his was sent out for catching salmon and that his mother was frightened nearly to death when she knew he'd been off fishing one night. Of course, they don't transport to here any more. We wouldn't have it. But they do it to somewhere still, I suppose.”

“I don't know, I'm sure,” answered the lad. “I never heard much about that. I came out when I was fourteen.”

“How was that?”

“Well, there was nothing to do in England that had anything in it and everybody was saying what a grand country Australia was and how everybody could get on and so I came out.”

“Your folks come?”

“My father was dead. I only had a stepfather.”

“And he wanted to get rid of you, eh?” enquired Ned, getting interested.

“I suppose he did, a little,” said the lad, colouring.

“You came out to Sydney?”




  ― 187 ―
view facsimile

“No. To Brisbane. That didn't cost anything.”

“You hadn't any friends?”

“No. I got into a billet near Stanthorpe, but when I wanted a raise they sacked me and got another boy. Then I came across to New South Wales. It wasn't any use staying in Queensland. I wish I'd stayed in England,” he added.

“How's that?”

“I can't get work. I wouldn't mind if I could get a job but it's pretty hard when you can't.”

“Can't you get work?”

“I haven't done a stroke for ten weeks.”

“Well, are you hard up?” enquired Ned, to whose bush experience ten weeks out-of-work meant nothing.

“Look here,” returned the lad, touching the front of his white shirt and the cuffs. Ned saw that what he had taken for white flannel in the dim candle-light was white linen, guileless of starch, evidently washed in a hand-basin at night and left to dry over a chair till morning. “A man's pretty hard up—ain't he?—when he can't get his shirt laundried.”

“That's bad,” said Ned, sympathetically, determining to sympathise a pound-note. Starched shirts did not count to him personally but he understood that the town and the bush were very different.

“I've offered three times to-day to work for my board,” said the lad, not tremulously but in the matter-of-fact voice of one who had looked after himself for years.

“Where was that?” asked Ned, wide-awake at last, alarmed for the bushmen, rapidly turning over in his mind the effect of strong young men being ready to work for their board.

“One place was down near the foot of Market Street, a produce merchant. He told me he couldn't, that it was as much as he could do to provide for his own family. Another place was at a wood and coal yard and the boss said I'd leave in a week at that price so it wasn't any good talking. The other was a drayman who has a couple of drays and he said he'd never pay under the going wage to anybody and gave me sixpence. He said it was all he could afford because times were so bad.”

“Are you stumped then?” asked Ned.

“I haven't a copper.”

Just then the broken-down swell woke up from his doze and demanded his flask. After some search it was found underneath


  ― 188 ―
view facsimile

him. Then, heedless of his interruptions, Ned continued the conversation.note

“Do they take you here on tick?” he enquired.

“Tick! There's no tick here. That old man downstairs is as hard as nails. Why, if it hadn't been for this gentleman I'd have had to walk about all night or sleep in the Domain.”

“Fair dues, my boy, fair dues?” put in the broken-down swell—“Never refer to private matters like that. You make me feel ashamed, my boy. I should never have mentioned that little accommodation. You understand me?”

“I understand you,” replied the lad. “I understand you perfectly.”

“That's all right,” said Ned, suddenly feeling a respect for this grizzled drunkard. “We must all help one another. How was it?”

“Well,” said the lad. “I met a friend of mine and he gave me sixpence and this box of cigarettes. It was all he had. I've often slept here and so I came and asked the old man to trust me the other half. He wouldn't listen to it. I was going away when this gentleman came along. He only had threepence more than his own bed-money but he persuaded the old man to knock off threepence and he'd pay threepence. I thought I'd have had to go to the Domain.” note

“But thats nothing,” said Ned. “I'd just as soon sleep out as sleep in.”

“I've never come down to sleeping out yet,” returned the lad, simply. “Perhaps your being a native makes a difference.” Ned was confronted again with the fact that the bushman and the townsman view the same thing from opposite sides. To this lad, struggling to keep his head up, to lie down nightly in the Domain meant the surrender of all self-respecting decency.

“I shouldn't have brought up the subject. You understand me?” said the drunkard. “But now it's mentioned I'll ask if you noticed how I talked over that old scoundrel downstairs. You understand me? Where's that flask? My God! I am feeling bad,” he continued, sitting up on the bed.

“You're drinking too much,” remarked Ned.

The man did not reply, but, with a groan, pushed the lad aside, sprang from the bed, and began to retch prodigiously into the wash basin, after which he announced himself better, lay down and took another drink. Meanwhile the man in the far corner tossed and groaned as if he were dying.




  ― 189 ―
view facsimile

“You're friend's still worse,” said the lad.

“He's just out of the hospital. I told him he shouldn't mix his drinks so soon but he would have his own way. He'll be all right when he's slept it off. A man's a fool who gets drunk. You understand me?”

“I understand you,” said the lad. “I never want to get drunk. All I want is work.”

“Why don't you go up to Queensland?” asked the man, to Ned's hardly suppressed indignation. “The pastoralists would be glad to get a smart-looking lad like you. Good pay, all expenses paid, and a six months' agreement! I believe that's the terms. You understand me?” note

“I understand you,” said the English lad. “I understand you perfectly. But that's blacklegging and I'd sooner starve than blackleg. I ain't so hard up yet that I'll do either.”

“Put it there, mate,” cried Ned, stretching his hand out. “You're a square little chap.” His heart rose again at this proof that the union spirit was spreading.

“You're a good boy,” said the drunkard, slapping his shoulder. “I'm not a unionist and I'm against the unions. You understand me? I am a gentleman—poor drunken broken-down swell- and a gentleman must stick to his own Order just as you stick to your Order. I'd like to see the working classes kept in their places, but I despise a traitor, my boy. You understand me?”

“I understand you perfectly,” said the lad.

“Yet you'd work for your board?” said Ned, enquiringly.

“I suppose I shouldn't,” said the lad. “But one must live. I wouldn't cut a man out of a job by going under him when he was sticking up for what's right but where nobody's sticking up what's the use of one kicking. That's how I look at it. Of course, a lot don't.”

“They'll get a lot to go then?”

“I think they'll get a lot. Some fellows are so low down they'll do anything and a lot more don't understand. I didn't use to understand.”

“Would you go up with them for the union?” asked Ned, after a pause.

“You mean to come out again?”

“Yes, and to get as many to come out as you can by explaining things. It may mean three months' gaol so you want to make up your mind well.”




  ― 190 ―
view facsimile

“I wouldn't mind going to gaol for a thing like that. It's not being in gaol but what you're in for that counts, isn't it?”

So they talked while the two drunkards groaned and tossed, the stench of this travellers' bedroom growing every moment more unbearable. Finally the waiter returned.

“Not gone to bed yet,” he exclaimed. “Phew! This is a beauty to-night, a pair of beauties. Ain't it a wonder their insides don't poison 'em?”

“I thought I'd never get to bed,” he went on, coming to light his pipe at the candle and then returning to the bed he had taken Ned's sheets from. “First one joker in, then another, and the old man 'ud stay open all night for a tanner. Past two! Jolly nice hour for a chap that's to be up at six, ain't it?” note

He pulled off his boots and vest and threw himself down on the bare mattress in his trousers. “Ain't you fellows going to bed to-night?” he enquired.

“It's about a fair thing,” said Ned, feeling nervous and exhausted with lack of sleep. So the young fellow blew the candle out and went over to the bed adjoining Jack's. As he lay down Jack picked up a boot and tapped the wall alongside him gently. “I think I hear her,” he remarked. In a few moments there was an answering tap.

“Who's that?” asked Ned.

“The slavey next door,” answered Jack, upon which an interchange of experience took place between Jack and the young fellow in which gable windows and park seats and various other stage-settings had prominent parts.

At last they all slept but Ned. Drowsy as he was he could not sleep. It was not that he thought much of Nellie, at least he did not feel that he was thinking of her. He only wanted to sleep and forget and he could not sleep. The moonshine came through the curtainless window and lit up the room with a strange mysterious light. The snoring breathing that filled the room mingled with other snoring sounds that seemed to come up the stairway and through the walls. The stench of the room stifled him. The drunkards who tossed there, groaning; this unemployed lad who lay with his white limbs kicked free and bathed in the moonlight; the tired waiter who lay motionless, still dressed; were there with him. The clock-bells struck the quarters, then the hour.

Three o'clock.




  ― 191 ―
view facsimile

He had never felt so uncomfortable, he thought, so uneasy. He twisted and squirmed and rubbed himself. Suddenly a thought struck him. He leaned up on his elbow for a moment, peering with his eyes in the scanty light, feeling about with his hand, then leaped clean out of the bed. It swarmed with vermin.

Like most bushmen, Ned, who was sublimely tolerant of ants, lizards and the pests of the wilds generally, shivered at the very thought of the parasites of the towns. To strip himself was the work of an instant, to carefully re-dress by the candle-end he lighted took longer; then he stepped to the English lad's side and woke him.note

“Hello?” said the lad, rubbing his eyes in sleepy astonishment.

“What's the matter?”

“I can't sleep with bugs crawling over me,” said Ned. “I'm going to camp out in the park. Here's a ‘note’ to help you along and here's the address to go to if you conclude to go up to Queensland for the union. I'll see about it first thing in the morning so he'll expect you. The ‘note's’ yours whether you go or not.”

“I'm ever so much obliged,” said the lad, taking the money and the slip of paper. “I'll go and I'll be square. You needn't be afraid of me and I'll pay it back, too, some day. Do you know the way out?”

“I'll find it all right,” replied Ned.

“Oh! I'll go down with you or you'd never find it. It's through the back at night.” So the good-hearted young fellow pulled on his trousers and conducted Ned down the creaking, stairway, through the kitchen and the narrow back yard to the bolted door that led to the alley behind.

“Shall I see you again?” asked the lad. Somehow everybody who met Ned wanted to see more of him.

“My name's Hawkins,” replied Ned. “Ned Hawkins. Ask anybody in the Queensland bush about me, if you get there.”

“I suppose you're one of the bushmen,” remarked the lad, pausing. “If they're all as big as you it ought to be bad for the blacklegs.” note

“Why, I'm a small man up on the Diamantina,” said Ned laughing. “Which is the way to the park?”

“Turn to your right at the end of the alley, then turn to the left. It's only five minutes' walk.”

“Thanks. Good-bye!” said Ned.

“It's thank you. Good-bye!” said the lad.




  ― 192 ―
view facsimile

noteThey shook hands and parted. In a few minutes Ned was in the park. He stepped over a low railing, found a branching tree and decided to camp under it. He pulled his boots off and his coat, loosened his belt, put boots and coat under big head for a pillow, stretched out full length on the earth and in ten seconds was in a deep slumber.

He was roused a moment after, it seemed to him; in reality it was nearly six hours after—by kicks on the ribs. He turned over and opened his eyes. As he did so another kick made him stagger to his feet gasping with pain. A gorilla-faced constable greeted him with a savage grin.

“Phwat d'ye mane, ye blayguard, indaycently exposing yersilf in this parrt av th' doomane? Oi've as good a moind as iver a man had in the wurrld to run yez in. Can't ye find anither place to unthdress yersilf in, ye low vaygrant?”

Ned did not answer. He buttoned up the neck of his shirt, which had opened in the night, tightened his belt again, drew on his boots and thrust his arms into his coat. While he did so the constable continued his abuse, proud to show his authority in the presence of the crowd that passed in a continuous stream along the pathway that cut through the carefully tended flower-bedded lawn-like park. It was one of Ned's strong points that he could control his passionate temper. Much as he longed to thrash this insolent brute he restrained himself. He desired most of all to get back to Queensland and knew that as no magistrate would take his word against a “constable's” as to provocation received, to retaliate now would keep him in Sydney for a month at least, perhaps six. But his patience almost gave way when the constable followed as he walked away, still abusing him.

“You'd better not go too far,” warned Ned, turning round.

It suddenly dawned upon the constable that this was not the ordinary “drunk” and that it was as well to be satisfied with the exhibition of authority already made. Ned walked off unmolested, chewing the cud of his thoughts.

This sentence of Geisner's rang in his cars:

“The slaves who ‘move on’ at the bidding of a policeman.”

previous
next