The Workingman's Paradise: An Australian Labour Novel by 'John Miller' (William Lane) (1861-1917)
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IN TWO PARTS. PART I. THE WOMAN TEMPTED HIM. PART II. HE KNEW HIMSELF NAKED.
First published 1892
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The naming and writing of THE WORKINGMAN'S PARADISE were both done hurriedly, although delay has since arisen in its publishing. The scene is laid in Sydney because it was not thought desirable, for various reasons, to aggravate by a local plot, the soreness existing in Queensland.
While characters, incidents and speakings had necessarily to be adapted to the thread of plot upon which they are strung, and are not put forward as actual photographs or phonographs, yet many will recognise enough in this book to understand how, throughout, shreds and patches of reality have been pieced together. The first part is laid during the summer of 1888-89 and covers two days; the second at the commencement of the Queensland bush strike excitement in 1891, covering a somewhat shorter time. The intention of the plot, at first, was to adapt the old legend of Paradise and the fall of man from innocence to the much-prated-of "workingman's paradise"—Australia. Ned was to be Adam, Nellie to be Eve, Geisner to be the eternal Rebel inciting world-wide agitation, the Stratton home to be presented in contrast with the slum-life as a reason for challenging the tyranny which makes Australia what it really is; and so on. This plot got very considerably mixed and there was no opportunity to properly re-arrange it. After reading the MSS. one friend wrote advising an additional chapter making Ned, immediately upon his being sentenced for "conspiracy" under George IV., 6, hear that Nellie has died of a broken heart. My wife, on the contrary, wants Ned and Nellie to come to an understanding and live happily ever after in the good old-fashioned style. This being left in abeyance, readers can take their choice until the matter is finally settled in another book.
Whatever the failings of this book are it may nevertheless serve the double purpose for which t was written: (1) to assist the fund being raised for Ned's mates now in prison in Queensland and (2) to explain unionism a little to those outside it and Socialism a little to all who care to read or hear, whether unionists or not. These friends of ours in prison will need all we can do for them when they are released, be that soon or late; and there are too few, even in the ranks of unionism, who really understand Socialism.
To understand Socialism is to endeavour to lead a better life, to regret the vileness of our present ways, to seek ill for none, to desire truth and purity and honesty, to despise this selfish civilisation and to comprehend what living might be. Understanding Socialism will not make people at once what men and women should be but it will fill them with hatred for the unfitting surroundings that damn us all and with passionate love for the ideals that are lifting us upwards and with an earnest endeavour to be themselves somewhat as they feel Humanity is struggling to be.
All that any religion has been to the highest thoughts of any people Socialism is, and more, to those who conceive it aright. Without blinding us to our own weaknesses and wickednesses, without offering to us any sophistry or cajoling us with any fallacy, it enthrones love above the universe, gives us Hope for all who are downtrodden and restores to us Faith in the eternal fitness of things. Socialism is indeed a religion—demanding deeds as well as words. Not until professing socialists understand this will the world at large see Socialism as it really is.
If this book assists the Union Prisoners assistance Fund in any way or if it brings to a single man or woman a clearer conception of the Religion of Socialism it will have done its work. Should it fail to do either it will not be because the Cause is bad, for the cause is great enough to rise above the weakness of those who serve it.
PART I. THE WOMAN TEMPTED HIM.
CHAPTER I. Why Nellie Shows Ned Round. CHAPTER II. Sweating In The Sydney Slums. CHAPTER III. Shorn Like Sheep. CHAPTER IV. Saturday Night In Paddy's Market. CHAPTER V. Were They Conspirators? CHAPTER VI. "We Have Seen The Dry Bones Become Men." CHAPTER VII. A Medley of Conversation. CHAPTER VIII. The Poet And The Pressman. CHAPTER IX. "This Is Socialism!" CHAPTER X. Where The Evil Really Lies. CHAPTER XI. "It Only Needs Enough Faith." CHAPTER XII. Love And Lust.
PART II. HE KNEW HIMSELF NAKED.
CHAPTER I. The Slaughter Of An Innocent. CHAPTER II. On The Road To Queensland. CHAPTER III. A Woman's Whim. CHAPTER IV. The Why Of The Whim. CHAPTER V. As The Moon Waned. CHAPTER VI. Unemployed. CHAPTER VII. "The World Wants Masters." CHAPTER VIII. The Republican Kiss. CHAPTER IX. Ned Goes To His Fate.
"On the Flinders.
"In a western billabong, with a stretch of plain around, a dirty waterhole beside me, I sat and read the WORKER. Maxwellton Station was handy; and sick with a fever on me I crawled off my horse to the shed on a Sunday. They invited me to supper; I was too ill. One gave me medicine, another the WORKER, the cook gave me milk and soup. If this is Unionism, God bless it! This is the moleskin charity, not the squatter's dole. The manager gave me quinine, and this is a Union station. I read 'Nellie's Sister' (from THE WORKINGMAN'S PARADISE) in you last. A woman's tenderness pervades it. Its fiction is truth. Although my feelings are blunted by a bush life, I dropped a tear on that page of the WORKER."
—FROM A LETTER.
THE WOMAN TEMPTED HIM.
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Ah thy people, thy children, thy chosen, Marked cross from the womb and perverse! They have found out the secret to cozen The gods that constrain us and curse; They alone, they are wise, and none other; Give me place, even me, in their train, O my sister, my spouse, and my mother, Our Lady of Pain.—SWINBURNE.
THE WORKINGMAN'S PARADISE
WHY NELLIE SHOWS NED ROUND.
Nellie was waiting for Ned, not in the best of humours.
"I suppose he'll get drunk to celebrate it," she was saying, energetically drying the last cup with a corner of the damp cloth. "And I suppose she feels as though it's something to be very glad and proud about."
"Well, Nellie," answered the woman who had been rinsing the breakfast things, ignoring the first supposition. "One doesn't want them to come, but when they do come one can't help feeling glad."
"Glad!" said Nellie, scornfully.
"If Joe was in steady work, I wouldn't mind how often it was. It's when he loses his job and work so hard to get—" Here the speaker subsided in tears.
"It's no use worrying," comforted Nellie, kindly. "He'll get another job soon, I hope. He generally has pretty fair luck, you know."
"Yes, Joe has had pretty fair luck, so far. But nobody knows how long it'll last. There's my brother wasn't out of work for fifteen years, and now he hasn't done a stroke for twenty-three weeks come Tuesday. He's going out of his mind."
"He'll get used to it," answered Nellie, grimly.
"How you do talk, Nellie!" said the other. "To hear you sometimes one would think you hadn't any heart."
"I haven't any patience."
"That's true, my young gamecock!" exclaimed a somewhat discordant voice. Nellie looked round, brightening suddenly.
A large slatternly woman stood in the back doorway, a woman who might possibly have been a pretty girl once but whose passing charms had long been utterly sponged out. A perceptible growth of hair lent a somewhat repulsive appearance to a face which at best had a great deal of the virago in it. Yet there was, in spite of her furrowed skin and faded eyes and drab dress, an air of good-heartedness about her, made somewhat ferocious by the muscularity of the arms that fell akimbo upon her great hips, and by the strong teeth, white as those of a dog, that flashed suddenly from between her colourless lips when she laughed.
"That's true, my young gamecock!" she shouted, in a deep voice, strangely cracked. "And so you're at your old tricks again, are you? Talking sedition I'll be bound. I've half a mind to turn informer and have the law on you. The dear lamb!" she added, to the other woman.
"Good morning, Mrs. Macanany," said Nellie, laughing. "We haven't got yet so that we can't say what we like, here."
"I'm not so sure about that. Wait till you hear what I came to tell you, hearing from little Jimmy that you were at home and going to have a holiday with a young man from the country. We'll sherrivvery them if he takes her away from us, Mrs. Phillips, the only one that does sore eyes good to see in the whole blessed neighborhood! You needn't blush, my dear, for I had a young man myself once, though you wouldn't imagine it to look at me. And if I was a young man myself it's her"—pointing Nellie out to Mrs. Phillips—that I'd go sweethearting with and not with the empty headed chits that—"
"Look here, Mrs. Macanany!" interrupted Nellie. "You didn't come in to make fun of me."
"Making fun! There, have your joke with the old woman! You didn't hear that my Tom got the run yesterday, did you?"
"Did he? What a pity! I'm very sorry," said Nellie.
"Everybody'll be out of work and then what'll we all do?" said Mrs. Philips, evidently cheered, nevertheless, by companionship in misfortune.
"What'll we all do! There'd never be anybody at all out of work if everybody was like me and Nellie there," answered the amazon.
"What did he get the run for?" asked Nellie.
"What can we women do?" queried Mrs. Phillips, doleful still.
"Wait a minute till I can tell you! You don't give a body time to begin before you worry them with questions about things you'd hear all about it if you'd just hold your tongues a minute. You're like two blessed babies! It was this way, Mrs. Phillips, as sure as I'm standing here. Tom got trying to persuade the other men in the yard—poor sticks of men they are!—to have a union. I've been goading him to it, may the Lord forgive me, ever since Miss Nellie there came round one night and persuaded my Tessie to join. 'Tom,' says I to him that very night, 'I'll have to be lending you one of my old petticoats, the way the poor weak girls are beginning to stand up for their rights, and you not even daring to be a union man. I never thought I'd live to be ashamed of the father of my children!' says I. And yesterday noon Tom came home with a face on him as long as my arm, and told me that he'd been sacked for talking union to the men.
"'It's a man you are again, Tom,' says I. 'We've lived short before and we can live it again, please God, and it's myself would starve with you a hundred times over rather than be ashamed of you,' says I. 'Who was it that sacked you?' I asked him.
"'The foreman,' says Tom. 'He told me they didn't want any agitators about.'
"'May he live to suffer for it,' says I. 'I'll go down and see the boss himself.'
"So down I went, and as luck would have it the boy in the front office wasn't educated enough to say I was an old image, I suppose, for would you believe it I actually heard him say that there was a lady, if you please, wanting to see Mister Paritt very particularly on personal business, as I'd told him. So of course I was shown in directly, the very minute, and the door was closed on me before the old villain, who's a great man at church on Sundays, saw that he'd made a little mistake.
"'What do you want, my good woman?' says he, snappish like. 'Very sorry,' says he, when I'd told him that I'd eleven children and that Tom had worked for him for four years and worked well, too. 'Very sorry,' says he, my good woman, 'but your husband should have thought of that before. It's against my principles,' says he, 'to have any unionists about the place. I'm told he's been making the other men discontented. I can't take him back. You must blame him, not me,' says he.
"I could feel the temper in me, just as though he'd given me a couple of stiff nobblers of real old whisky. 'So you won't take Tom back,' says I, 'not for the sake of his eleven children when it's their poor heart-broken mother that asks you?'
"'No,' says he, short, getting up from his chair. 'I can't. You've bothered me long enough,' says he.
"I So then I decided it was time to tell the old villain just what I thought of his grinding men down to the last penny and insulting every decent girl that ever worked for him. He got as black in the face as if he was smoking already on the fiery furnace that's waiting for him below, please God, and called the shrimp of an office boy to throw me out. 'Leave the place, you disgraceful creature, or I'll send for the police,' says he. But I left when I got ready to leave and just what I said to him, the dirty wretch, I'll tell to you, Mrs. Phillips, some time when she"—nodding at Nellie—"isn't about. She's getting so like a blessed saint that one feels as if one's in church when she's about, bless her heart!"
"You're getting very particular all at once, Mrs. Macanany," observed Nellie.
"It's a wonder he didn't send for a policeman," commented Mrs. Phillips.
"Send for a policeman! And pretty he'd look with the holy bible in his hand repeating what I said to him, wouldn't he now?" enquired Mrs. Macanany, once more placing her great arms on her hips and glaring with her watery eyes at her audience.
"Did you hear that Mrs. Hobbs had a son this morning?" questioned Mrs. Phillips, suddenly recollecting that she also might have an item of news.
"What! Mrs. Hobbs, so soon! How would I be hearing when I just came through the back, and Tom only just gone out to wear his feet off, looking for work? A boy again! The Lord preserve us all! It's the devil's own luck the dear creature has, isn't it now? Why didn't you tell me before, and me here gossiping when the dear woman will be expecting me round to see her and the dear baby and wondering what I've got against her for not coming? I must be off, now, and tidy myself a bit and go and cheer the poor creature up for I know very well how one wants cheering at such times. Was it a hard time she had with it? And who is it like the little angel that came straight from heaven this blessed day? The dear woman! I must be off, so I'll say good-day to you, Mrs. Phillips, and may the sun shine on you and your sweetheart, Nellie, even if he does take you away from us all, and may you have a houseful of babies with faces as sweet as your own and never miss a neighbour to cheer you a bit when the trouble's on you. The Lord be with us all!"
Nellie laughed as the rough-voiced, kind-hearted woman took herself off, to cross the broken dividing wall to the row of houses that backed closely on the open kitchen door. Then she shrugged her shoulders.
"It's always the way," she remarked, as she turned away to the other door that led along a little, narrow passage to the street. "What's going to become of the innocent little baby? Nobody thinks of that."
Mrs. Phillips did not answer. She was tidying up in a wearied way. Besides, she was used to Nellie, and had a dim perception that what that young woman said was right, only one had to work, especially on Saturdays when the smallest children could be safely turned into the street to play with the elder ones, the baby nursed by pressed nurses, who by dint of scolding and coaxing and smacking and promising were persuaded to keep it out of the house, even though they did not keep it altogether quiet. Mrs. Phillips "tidied up" in a wearied way, without energy, working stolidly all the time as if she were on a tread-mill. She had a weary look, the expression of one who is tired always, who gets up tired and goes to bed tired, and who never by any accident gets a good rest, who even when dead is not permitted to lie quietly like other people but gets buried the same day in a cheap coffin that hardly keeps the earth up and is doomed to he soon dug up to make room for some other tired body in that economical way instituted by the noble philanthropists who unite a keen appreciation of the sacredness of burial with a still keener appreciation of the value of grave-lots. She might have been a pretty girl once or she might not. Nobody would ever have thought of physical attractiveness as having anything to do with her. Mrs. Macanany was distinctly ugly. Mrs. Phillips was neither ugly nor pretty nor anything else. She was a poor thin draggled woman, who tried to be clean but who had long ago given up in despair any attempt at looking natty and had now no ambition for herself but to have something "decent" to go out in. Once it was her ambition also to have a "I room." She had scraped and saved and pared in dull times for this "room" and when once Joe had a long run of steady work she had launched out into what those who know how workingmen's wives should live would have denounced as the wildest extravagance. A gilt framed mirror and a sofa, four spidery chairs and a round table, a wonderful display of wax apples under a glass shade, a sideboard and a pair of white lace curtains hanging from a pole, with various ornaments and pictures of noticeable appearance, also linoleum for the floor, had finally been gathered together and were treasured for a time as household gods indeed. In those days there was hardly a commandment in the decalogue that Mephistopheles might not have induced Mrs. Phillips to commit by judicious praise of her "room." Her occasional "visitors" were ushered into it with an air of pride that was alone enough to illuminate the dingy, musty little place. Between herself and those of her neighbours who had "rooms" there was a fierce rivalry, while those of inferior grade—and they were in the majority—regarded her with an envy not unmixed with dislike.
But those times were gone for poor Mrs. Phillips. We all know how they go, excepting those who do not want to know. Work gradually became more uncertain, wages fell and rents kept up. They had one room of the small five-roomed house let already. They let another—"they" being her and Joe. Finally, they had to let the room. The chairs, the round table and the sofa wore bartered at a second-hand store for bedroom furniture. The mirror and the sideboard were brought out into the kitchen, and on the sideboard the wax fruit still stood like the lingering shrine of a departed faith.
The "room" was now the lodging of two single men, as the good old ship-phrase goes. Upstairs, in the room over the kitchen, the Phillips family slept, six in all. There would have been seven, only the eldest girl, a child of ten, slept with Nellie in the little front room over the door, an arrangement which was not in the bond but was volunteered by the single woman in one of her fits of indignation against pigging together. The other front room was also rented by a single man when they could get him. Just now it was tenantless, an additional cause of sorrow to Mrs. Phillips, whose stock card, "Furnished Lodgings for a Single Man," was now displayed at the front window, making the house in that respect very similar to half the houses in the street, or in this part of the town for that matter. Yet with all this crowding and renting of rooms Mrs. Phillips did not grow rich. She was always getting into debt or getting out of it, this depending in inverse ratio upon Joe being in work or out.
When the rooms were all let they barely paid the rent and were always getting empty. The five children—they had one dead and another coming—ate so much and made so much work. There were boots and clothes and groceries to pay for, not to mention bread. And though Joe was not like many a woman's husband yet he did get on the spree occasionally, a little fact which in the opinion of the pious will account for all Mrs. Phillips' weariness and all the poverty of this crowded house. But however that may be she was a weary hopeless faded woman, who would not cause passers-by to turn, pity-stricken, and watch her when she hurried along on her semi-occasional escapes from her prison-house only because such women are so common that it is those who do not look hopeless and weary whom we turn to watch if by some strange chance one passes. The Phillips' kitchen was a cheerless place, in spite of the mirror that was installed in state over the side-board and the wax flowers. Its one window looked upon a diminutive back yard, a low broken wall and another row of similar two-storied houses. On the plastered walls were some shelves bearing a limited supply of crockery. Over the grated fireplace was a long high shelf whereon stood various pots and bottles. There were some chairs and a table and a Chinese-made safe. On the boarded floor was a remnant of linoleum. Against one wall was a narrow staircase.
It was the breakfast things that Nellie had been helping to wash up. The little American clock on the sideboard indicated quarter past nine.
Nellie went to the front door, opened it, and stood looking out. The view was a limited one, a short narrow side street, blinded at one end by a high bare stone wall, bounded at the other by the almost as narrow by-thoroughfare this side street branched from. The houses in the thoroughfare were three-storied, and a number wore used as shops of the huckstering variety, mainly by Chinese. The houses in the side street were two-storied, dingy, jammed tightly together, each one exactly like the next. The pavement was of stone, the roadway of some composite, hard as iron; roadway and pavement were overrun with children. At the corner by a dead wall was a lamp-post. Nearly opposite Nellie a group of excited women were standing in an open doorway. They talked loudly, two or three at a time, addressing each other indiscriminately. The children screamed and swore, quarrelled and played and fought, while a shrill-voiced mother occasionally took a hand in the diversion of the moment, usually to scold or cull some luckless offender. The sunshine radiated that sickly heat which precedes rain.
Nellie stood there and waited for Ned. She was 20 or so, tall and slender but well-formed, every curve of her figure giving promise of more luxurious development. She was dressed in a severely plain dress of black stuff, above which a faint line of white collar could be seen clasping the round throat. Her ears had been bored, but she wore no earrings. Her brown hair was drawn away from her forehead and bound in a heavy braid on the back of her neck. But it was her face that attracted one, a pale sad face that was stamped on every feature with the impress of a determined will and of an intense womanliness. From the pronounced jaw that melted its squareness of profile in the oval of the full face to the dark brown eyes that rarely veiled themselves beneath their long-lashed lids, everything told that the girl possessed the indefinable something we call character. And if there was in the drooping corners of her red lips a sternness generally unassociated with conceptions of feminine loveliness one forgot it usually in contemplating the soft attractiveness of the shapely forehead, dashed beneath by straight eyebrows, and of the pronounced cheekbones that crossed the symmetry of a Saxon face. Mrs. Phillips was a drooping wearied woman but there was nothing drooping about Nellie and never could be. She might be torn down like one of the blue gums under which she had drawn in the fresh air of her girlhood, but she could no more bend than can the tree which must stand erect in the fiercest storm or must go down altogether. Pale she was, from the close air of the close street and close rooms, but proud she was as woman can be, standing erect in the door-way amid all this pandemonium of cries, waiting for Ned. Ned was her old playmate, a Darling Downs boy, five years older to be sure, but her playmate in the old days, nevertheless, as lads who have no sisters are apt to be with admiring little girls who have no brothers. Selectors' children, both of them, from neighbouring farms, born above the frost line under the smelting Queensland sun, drifted hither and thither by the fitful gusts of Fate as are the paper-sailed ships that boys launch on flood water pools, meeting here in Sydney after long years of separation. Now, Nellie was a dressmaker in a big city shop, and Ned a sun-burnt shearer to whom the great trackless West was home. She thought of the old home sadly as she stood there waiting for him.
It had not been a happy home altogether and yet, and yet—it was better than this. There was pure air there, at least, and grass up to the door, and trees rustling over-head; and the little children were brown and sturdy and played with merry shouts, not with these vile words she heard jabbered in the wretched street. Her heart grew sick within her—a habit it had, that heart of Nellie's—and a passion of wild revolt against her surroundings made her bite her lips and press her nails against her palms. She looked across at the group opposite. More children being born! Week in and week out they seemed to come in spite of all the talk of not having any more. She could have cried over this holocaust of the innocents, and yet she shrank with an unreasoning shrinking from the barrenness that was coming to be regarded as the most comfortable state and being sought after, as she knew well, by the younger married women. What were they all coming to? Were they all to go on like this without a struggle until they vanished altogether as a people, perhaps to make room for the round-cheeked, bland-faced Chinaman who stood in the doorway of his shop in the crossing thorough-fare, gazing expressionlessly at her? She loathed that Chinaman. He always seemed to be watching her, to be waiting for something. She would dream of him sometimes as creeping upon her from behind, always with that bland round face. Yet he never spoke to her, never insulted her, only he seemed to be always watching her, always waiting. And it would come to her sometimes like a cold chill, that this yellow man and such men as he were watching them all slowly going down lower and lower, were waiting to leap upon them in their last helplessness and enslave them all as white girls were sometimes enslaved, even already, in those filthy opium joints whose stench nauseated the hurrying passers-by. Perhaps under all their meekness these Chinese were braver, more stubborn, more vigorous, and it was doomed that they should conquer at last and rule in the land where they had been treated as outcasts and intruders. She thought of this—and, just then, Ned turned the corner by the lamp.
Ned was a Down's native, every inch of him. He stood five feet eleven in his bare feet yet was so broad and strong that he hardly looked over the medium height. He had blue eyes and a heavy moustache just tinged with red. His hair was close-cut and dark; his forehead, nose and chin wore large and strong; his lips were strangely like a woman's. He walked with short jerky steps, swinging himself awkwardly as men do who have been much in the saddle. He wore a white shirt, as being holiday-making, but had not managed a collar; his pants were dark-blue, slightly belled; his coat, dark-brown; his boots wore highly polished; round his neck was a silk handkerchief; round his vestless waist, a discoloured leather belt; above all, a wide-brimmed cabbage tree hat, encircled by a narrow leather strap. He swung himself along rapidly, unabashed by the stares of the women or the impudent comment of the children. Nellie, suddenly, felt all her ill-humour turn against him. He was so satisfied with himself. He had talked unionism to her when she met him two weeks before, on his way to visit a brother who had taken up a selection in the Hawkesbury district. He had laughed when she hinted at the possibilities of the unionism he championed so fanatically. "We only want what's fair," he said. "We're not going to do anything wild. As long as we get L1 a hundred and rations at a fair figure we're satisfied." And then he had inconsistently proceeded to describe how the squatters treated the men out West, and how the union would make them civil, and how the said squatters were mostly selfish brutes who preferred Chinese to their own colour and would stop at no trick to beat the men out of a few shillings. She had said nothing at the time, being so pleased to see him, though she determined to have it out with him sometime during this holiday they had planned. But somehow, as he stepped carelessly along, a dashing manliness in every motion, a breath of the great plains coming with his sunburnt face and belted waist, he and his self-conceit jarred to her against this sordid court and these children's desolate lives. How dared he talk as he did about only wanting what was fair, she thought! How had he the heart to care only for himself and his mates while in these city slums such misery brooded! And then it shot through her that he did not know. With a rapidity, characteristic of herself, she made up her mind to teach him.
"Well, Nellie," he cried, cheerily, coming up to her. "And how are you again?"
"Hello, Ned," she answered, cordially, shaking hands. "You look as though you were rounding-up."
"Do I?" he questioned, seriously, looking down at himself. "Shirt and all? Well, if I am it's only you I came to round up. Are you ready? Did you think I wasn't coming?"
"It won't take me a minute," she replied. "I was pretty sure you'd come. I took a holiday on the strength of it, anyway, and made an engagement for you to-night. Come in a minute, Ned. You must see Mrs. Phillips while I get my hat. You'll have to sleep here to night. It'll be so late when we get back. Unless you'd sooner go to a hotel."
"I'm not particular," said Ned, looking round curiously, as he followed her in. "I'd never have found the place, Nellie, if it hadn't been for that pub, near the corner, where we saw that row on the other night."
The women opposite had suspended their debate upon Mrs. Hobbs' latest, a debate fortified by manifold reminiscences of the past and possibilities of the future. It was known in the little street that Nellie Lawton intended taking a holiday with an individual who was universally accepted as her "young man," and Ned's appearance upon the stage naturally made him a subject for discussion which temporarily over-shadowed even Mrs. Hobbs' baby.
"I'm told he's a sort of a farmer," said one.
"He's a shearer; I had it from Mrs. Phillips herself," said another.
"He's a strapping man, whatever he is," commented a third.
"Well, she's a big lump of a girl, too," contributed a fourth.
"Yes, and a vixen with her tongue when she gets started, for all her prim looks," added a fifth.
"She has tricky ways that get over the men-folks. Mine won't hear a word against her." This from the third speaker, eager to be with the tide, evidently setting towards unfavorable criticism.
"I don't know," objected the second, timidly. "She sat up all night with my Maggie once, when she had the fever, and Nellie had to work next day, too."
"Oh, she's got her good side," retorted the fifth, opening her dress to feed her nursing baby with absolute indifference for all onlookers. "But she knows a great deal too much for a girl of her age. When she gets married will be time enough to talk as she does sometimes." The chorus of approving murmurs showed that Nellie had spoken plainly enough on some subjects to displease some of these slatternly matrons.
"She stays out till all hours, I'm told," one slanderer said.
"She's a union girl, at any rate," hazarded Nellie's timid defender. There was an awkward pause at this. It was an apple of discord with the women, evidently. A tall form turning the corner afforded further reason for changing the subject.
"Here's Mrs. Macanany," announced one. "You'd better not say anything against Nellie Lawton when she's about." So they talked again of Mrs. Hobbs' baby, making it the excuse to leave undone for a few minutes the endless work of the poor man's wife.
And sad to tell when, a few minutes afterwards, Ned and Nellie came out again and walked off together, the group of gossipers unanimously endorsed Mrs. Macanany's extravagant praises, and agreed entirely with her declaration that if all the women in Sydney would only stand by Nellie, as Mrs. Macanany herself would, there would be such a doing and such an upsetting and such a righting of things that ever after every man would be his own master and every woman would only work eight hours and get well paid for it. Yet it was something that of six women there were two who wouldn't slander a girl like Nellie behind her back.
SWEATING IN THE SYDNEY SLUMS.
"Well! Where shall we go, Nellie?" began Ned jauntily, as they walked away together. To tell the truth he was eager to get away from this poor neighborhood. It had saddened him, made him feel unhappy, caused in him a longing to be back again in the bush, on his horse, a hundred miles from everybody. "Shall we go to Manly or Bondi or Watson's Bay, or do you know of a better place?" He had been reading the newspaper advertisements and had made enquiries of the waitress, as he ate his breakfast, concerning the spot which the waitress would prefer were a young man going to take her out for the day. He felt pleased with himself now, for not only did he like Nellie very much but she was attractive to behold, and he felt very certain that every man they passed envied him. She had put on a little round straw hat, black, trimmed with dark purple velvet; in her hands, enclosed in black gloves, she carried a parasol of the same colour.
"Where would you like to go, Ned?" she answered, colouring a little as she heard her name in Mrs. Macanany's hoarse voice, being told thereby that she and Ned were the topic of conversation among the jury of matrons assembled opposite.
"Anywhere you like, Nellie."
"Don't you think, Ned, that you might see a little bit of real Sydney? Strangers come here for a few days and go on the steamers and through the gardens and along George-street and then go away with a notion of the place that isn't the true one. If I were you, Ned, right from the bush and knowing nothing of towns, I'd like to see a bit of the real side and not only the show side that everybody sees. We don't all go picnicking all the time and we don't all live by the harbour or alongside the Domain."
"Do just whatever you like, Nellie," cried Ned, hardly understanding but perfectly satisfied, "you know best where to take a fellow."
"But they're not pleasant places, Ned."
"I don't mind," answered Ned, lightly, though he had been looking forward, rather, to the quiet enjoyment of a trip on a harbour steamer, or at least to the delight of a long ramble along some beach where he thought he and Nellie might pick up shells. "Besides, I fancy it's going to rain before night," he added, looking up at the sky, of which a long narrow slice showed between the tall rows of houses.
There were no clouds visible. Only there was a deepening grey in the hard blueness above them, and the breathless heat, even at this time of day, was stifling.
"I don't know that you'd call this a pleasant place," he commented, adding with the frankness of an old friend: "Why do you live here, Nellie?"
She shrugged her shoulders. The gesture meant anything and everything.
"You needn't have bothered sending me that money back," said Ned, in reply to the shrug.
"It isn't that," explained Nellie. "I've got a pretty good billet. A pound a week and not much lost time! But I went to room there when I was pretty hard up. It's a small room and was cheap. Then, after, I took to boarding there as well. That was pretty cheap and suited me and helped them. I suppose I might get a better place but they're very kind, and I come and go as I like, and—" she hesitated. "After all," she went on, "there's not much left out of a pound."
"I shouldn't think so," remarked Ned, looking at her and thinking that she was very nicely dressed.
"Oh! You needn't look," laughed Nellie. "I make my own dresses and trim my own hats. A woman wouldn't think much of the stuff either."
"I want to tell you how obliged I was for that money, Ned," continued Nellie, an expression of pain on her face. "There was no one else I could ask, and I needed it so. It was very kind—"
"Ugh! That's nothing," interrupted Ned, hiding his bashfulness under a burst of boisterousness. "Why, Nellie, I'd like you to be sending to me regular. It might just as well come to you as go any other way. If you ever do want a few pounds again, Nellie,"—he added, seriously, "I can generally manage it. I've got plenty just now—far more than I'll ever need." This with wild exaggeration. "You might as well have it as not. I've got nobody."
"Thanks, just the same, Ned! When I do want it I'll ask you. I'm afraid I'll never have any money to lend you if you need it, but if I ever do you know where to come."
"It's a bargain, Nellie," said Ned. Then, eager to change the subject, feeling awkward at discussing money matters because he would have been so willing to have given his last penny to anybody he felt friends with, much less to the girl by his side:
"But where are we going?"
"To see Sydney!" said Nellie.
They had turned several times since they started but the neighborhood remained much the same. The streets, some wider, some narrower, all told of sordid struggling. The shops were greasy, fusty, grimy. The groceries exposed in their windows damaged specimens of bankrupt stocks, discolored tinned goods, grey sugars, mouldy dried fruits; at their doors, flitches of fat bacon, cut and dusty. The meat with which the butchers' shops overflowed was not from show-beasts, as Ned could see, but the cheaper flesh of over-travelled cattle, ancient oxen, ewes too aged for bearing; all these lean scraggy flabby-fleshed carcasses surrounded and blackened by buzzing swarms of flies that invaded the foot-path outside in clouds. The draperies had tickets, proclaiming unparalleled bargains, on every piece; the whole stock seemed displayed outside and in the doorway. The fruiterers seemed not to be succeeding in their rivalry with each other and with the Chinese hawkers. The Chinese shops were dotted everywhere, dingier than any other, surviving and succeeding, evidently, by sheer force of cheapness. The roadways everywhere were hard and bare, reflecting the rays of the ascending sun until the streets seemed to be Turkish baths, conducted on a new and gigantic method. There was no green anywhere, only unlovely rows of houses, now gasping with open doors and windows for air.
Air! That was what everything clamoured for, the very stones, the dogs, the shops, the dwellings, the people. If it was like this soon after ten, what would it be at noon?
Already the smaller children were beginning to weary of play. In narrow courts they lolled along on the flags, exhausted. In wider streets, they sat quietly on door-steps or the kerb, or announced their discomfort in peevish wailings. The elder children quarrelled still and swore from their playground, the gutter, but they avoided now the sun and instinctively sought the shade and it is pretty hot when a child minds the sun. At shop doors, shopmen, sometimes shopwomen, came to wipe their warm faces and examine the sky with anxious eyes. The day grow hotter and hotter. Ned could feel the rising heat, as though he were in an oven with a fire on underneath. Only the Chinese looked cool.
Nellie led the way, sauntering along, without hurrying. Several times she turned down passages that Ned would hardly have noticed, and brought him out in courts closed in on all sides, from which every breath of air seemed purposely excluded. Through open doors and windows he could see the inside of wretched homes, could catch glimpses of stifling bedrooms and close, crowded little kitchens. Often one of the denizens came to door or window to stare at Nellie and him; sometimes they were accosted with impudent chaff, once or twice with pitiful obscenity.
The first thing that impressed him was the abandonment that thrust itself upon him in the more crowded of these courts and alley-ways and back-streets, the despairing abandonment there of the decencies of living. The thin dwarfed children kicked and tumbled with naked limbs on the ground; many women leaned half-dressed and much unbuttoned from ground floor windows, or came out into the passage-ways slatternly. In one court two unkempt vile-tongued women of the town wrangled and abused each other to the amusement of the neighborhood, where the working poor were huddled together with those who live by shame. The children played close by as heedlessly as if such quarrels were common events, cursing themselves at each other with nimble filthy tongues.
"There's a friend of mine lives here," said Nellie, turning into one of these narrow alleys that led, as they could see, into a busier and bustling street. "If you don't mind we'll go up and I can help her a bit, and you can see how one sort of sweating is done. I worked at it for a spell once, when dressmaking was slack. In the same house, too."
She stopped at the doorway of one of a row of three-storied houses. On the doorstep were a group of little children, all barefooted and more or less ragged in spite of evident attempts to keep some of them patched into neatness. They looked familiarly at Nellie and curiously at Ned.
"How's mother, Johnny?" asked Nellie of one of them, a small pinched little fellow of six or seven, who nursed a baby of a year or so old, an ill-nourished baby that seemed wilting in the heat.
"She's working," answered the little fellow, looking anxiously at Nellie as she felt in her pocket.
"There's a penny for you," said Nellie, "and here's a penny for Dicky," patting a little five-year-old on the head, "and here's one to buy some milk for the baby."
Johnny rose with glad eagerness, the baby in his arms and the pennies in his hand.
"I shall buy 'specks' with mine," he cried joyfully.
"What's 'specks?'" asked Ned, puzzled, as the children went off, the elder staggering under his burden.
"'Specks!' Damaged fruit, half rotten. The garbage of the rich sold as a feast to these poor little ones?" cried Nellie, a hot anger in her face and voice that made Ned dumb.
She entered the doorway. Ned followed her through a room where a man and a couple of boys were hammering away at some boots, reaching thereby a narrow, creaking stairway, hot as a chimney, almost pitch dark, being lighted only by an occasional half-opened door, up which he stumbled clumsily. Through one of these open doors he caught a glimpse of a couple of girls sewing; through another of a woman with a baby in arms tidying-up a bare floored room, which seemed to be bedroom, kitchen and dining room in one; from behind a closed door came the sound of voices, one shrilly laughing. Unused to stairways his knees ached before they reached the top. He was glad enough when Nellie knocked loudly at a door through which came the whirring of a sewing machine. The noise stopped for a moment while a sharp voice called them to "come in," then started again. Nellie opened the door.
At the open window of a small room, barely furnished with a broken iron bedstead, some case boards knocked together for a table and fixed against the wall, a couple of shaky chairs and a box, a sharp featured woman sat working a machine, as if for dear life. The heat of the room was made hotter by the little grate in which a fire had recently been burning and on which still stood the teapot. Some cups and a plate or two, with a cut loaf of bread and a jam tin of sugar, littered the table. The scanty bed was unmade. The woman wore a limp cotton dress of uncertain colour, rolled up at the sleeves and opened at the neck for greater coolness. She was thin and sharp; she was so busy you understood that she had no time to be clean and tidy. She seemed pleased to see Nellie and totally indifferent at seeing Ned, but kept on working after nodding to them.
Nellie motioned Ned to sit down, which he did on the edge of the bed, not caring to trust the shaky chairs. She went to the side of the sharp-featured woman, and sitting down on the foot of the bed by the machine watched her working without a word. Ned could see on the ground, in a paper parcel, a heap of cloth of various colours, and on the bed some new coats folded and piled up. On the machine was another coat, being sewn.
It was ten minutes before the machine stopped, ten minutes for Ned to look about and think in. He knew without being told that this miserable room was the home of the three children to whom Nellie had given the pennies, and that here their mother worked to feed them. Their feeding he could see on the table. Their home he could see. The work that gave it to them he could see. For the first time in his life he felt ashamed of being an Australian.
Finally the machine stopped. The sharp-faced woman took the coat up, bit a thread with her teeth, and laying it on her knee began to unpick the tackings.
"Let me!" said Nellie, pulling off her gloves and taking off her hat. "We came to see you, Ned and I," she went on with honest truthfulness, "because he's just down from the bush, and I wanted him to see what Sydney was like. Ned, this is Mrs. Somerville."
Mrs. Somerville nodded at Ned. "You're right to come here," she remarked, grimly, getting up while Nellie took her place as if she often did it. "You know just what it is, Nellie, and I do, too, worse luck. Perhaps it's good for us. When we're better off we don't care for those who're down. We've got to get down ourselves to get properly disgusted with it."
She spoke with the accent of an educated woman, moving to the make-shift table and beginning to "tidy-up." As she passed between him and the light Ned could see that the cotton dress was her only covering.
"How are the children?" asked Nellie.
"How can you expect them to be?" retorted the other.
"You ought to wean the baby," insisted Nellie, as though it was one of their habitual topics.
"Wean the baby! That's all very well for those who can buy plenty of milk. It's a pity it's ever got to be weaned."
"Plenty of work this week?" asked Nellie, changing the subject.
"Yes; plenty of work this week. You know what that means. No work at all when they get a stock ahead, so as to prevent us feeling too independent I suppose." She paused, then added: "That girl downstairs says she isn't going to work any more. I talked to her a little but she says one might just as well die one way as another, and that she'll have some pleasure first. I couldn't blame her much. She's got a good heart. She's been very kind to the children."
Nellie did not answer; she did not even look up.
"They're going to reduce prices at the shop," went on Mrs. Somerville. "They told me last time I went that after this lot they shouldn't pay as much because they could easily get the things done for less. I asked what they'd pay, and they said they didn't know but they'd give me as good a show for work as ever if I cared to take the new prices, because they felt sorry for the children. I suppose I ought to feel thankful to them."
Nellie looked up now—her face flushed. "Reduce, prices again!" she cried. "How can they?"
"I don't know how they can, but they can," answered Mrs. Somerville. "I suppose we can be thankful so long as they don't want to be paid for letting us work for them. Old Church's daughter got married to some officer of the fleet last week, I'm told, and I suppose we've got to help give her a send-off."
"It's shameful," exclaimed Nellie. "What they paid two years ago hardly kept one alive, and they've reduced twice since then. Oh! They'll all pay for it some day."
"Let's hope so," said Mrs. Somerville. "Only we'll have to pay them for it pretty soon, Nellie, or there won't be enough strength left in us to pay them with. I've got beyond minding anything much, but I would like to get even with old Church."
They had talked away, the two women, ignoring Ned. He listened. He understood that from the misery of this woman was drawn the pomp and pride, the silks and gold and glitter of the society belle, and he thought with a cruel satisfaction of what might happen to that society belle if this half-starved woman got hold of her. Measure for measure, pang for pang, what torture, what insults, what degradation, could atone for the life that was suffered in this miserable room? And for the life of "that girl downstairs" who had given up in despair?
"How about a union now?" asked Nellie, turning with the first pieces of another coat to the machine.
"Work's too dull," was the answer. "Wait for a few months till the busy season comes and then I wouldn't wonder if you could get one. The women were all feeling hurt about the reduction, and one girl did start talking strike, but what's the use now? I couldn't say anything, you know, but I'll find out where the others live and you can go round and talk to them after a while. If there was a paper that would show old Church up it might do good, but there isn't."
Then the rattle of the machine began again, Nellie working with an adeptness that showed her to be an old hand. Ned could see now that the coats were of cheap coarse stuff and that the sewing in them was not fine tailoring. The cut material in Nellie's hands fairly flew into shape as she rapidly moved it to and fro under the hurrying needle with her slim fingers. Her foot moved unceasingly on the treadle. Ned watching her, saw the great beads of perspiration slowly gather on her forehead and then trickle down her nose and cheeks to fall upon the work before her.
"My word! But it's hot!" exclaimed Nellie at last, as the noise stopped for a moment while she changed the position of her work. "Why don't you open the door?"
"I don't care to before the place is tidy," answered Mrs. Somerville, who had washed her cups and plates in a pan and had just put Ned on one of the shaky chairs while she shook and arranged the meagre coverings of the bed.
"Is he still carrying on?" enquired Nellie, nodding her head at the partition and evidently alluding to someone on the other side.
"Of course, drink, drink, drink, whenever he gets a chance, and that seems pretty well always. She helps him sometimes, and sometimes she keeps sober and abuses him. He kicked her down stairs the other night, and the children all screaming, and her shrieking, and him swearing. It was a nice time."
Once more the machining interrupted the conversation, which thus was renewed from time to time in the pauses of the noise. The room being "tidied," Mrs. Somerville sat down on the bed and taking up some pieces of cloth began to tack them together with needle and thread, ready for the machine. It never seemed to occur to her to rest even for a moment.
"Nellie's a quick one," she remarked to Ned. "At the shop they always tell those who grumble what she earned one week. Twenty-four and six, wasn't it, Nellie? But they don't say she worked eighteen hours a day for it."
Nellie flushed uneasily and Ned felt uncomfortable. Both thought of the repayment of the latter's friendly loan. The girl made her machine rattle still more hurriedly to prevent any further remarks trending in that direction. At last Mrs. Somerville, her tacking finished, got up and took the work from Nellie's hands.
"I'm not going to take your whole morning," she said. "You don't get many friends from the bush to see you, so just go away and I'll get on. I'm much obliged to you as it is, Nellie."
Nellie did not object. After wiping her hands, face and neck with her handkerchief she put on her gloves and hat. The sharp-faced woman was already at the machine and amid the din, which drowned their good-byes, they departed as they came. Ned felt more at ease when his feet felt the first step of the narrow creaking stairway. It is hardly a pleasant sensation for a man to be in the room of a stranger who, without any unfriendliness, does not seem particularly aware that he is there. They left the door open. Far down the stifling stairs Ned could hear the ceaseless whirring of the machine driven by the woman who slaved ceaselessly for her children's bread in this Sydney sink. He looked around for the children when they got to the alley again but could not see them among the urchins who lolled about half-suffocated now. The sun was almost overhead for they had been upstairs for an hour. The heat in this mere canyon path between cliffs of houses was terrible. Ned himself began to feel queerly.
"Let's get out of this, Nellie," he said.
"How would you like never to be able to get out of it?" she answered, as they turned towards the bustling street, opposite to the way they had previously come.
"Who's that Mrs. Somerville?" he asked, not answering.
"I got to know her when I lived there," replied Nellie. "Her husband used to be well off, I fancy, but had bad luck and got down pretty low. There was a strike on at some building and he went on as a laborer, blacklegging. The pickets followed him to the house, abusing him, and made him stubborn, but I got her alone that night and talked to her and explained things a bit and she talked to him and next day he joined the union. Then he got working about as a labourer, and one day some rotten scaffolding broke, and he came down with it. The union got a few pounds for her, but the boss was a regular swindler who was always beating men out of their wages and doing anything to get contracts and running everything cheap, so there was nothing to be got out of him."
"Did her husband die?"
"Yes, next day. She had three children and another came seven months after. One died last summer just before the baby was born. She's had a pretty hard time of it, but she works all the time and she generally has work."
"It seems quite a favour to get work here," observed Ned.
"If you were a girl you'd soon find out what a favour it is sometimes," answered Nellie quietly, as they came out into the street.
SHORN LIKE SHEEP.
"How many hours do you work?" asked Nellie of the waitress.
"About thirteen," answered the girl, glancing round to see if the manager was watching her talking. "But it's not the hours so much. It's the standing."
"You're not doing any good standing now," put in Ned. "Why don't you sit down and have a rest?"
"They don't let us," answered the waitress, cautiously.
"What do they pay?" asked Nellie, sipping her tea and joining in the waitress' look-out for the manager.
"Fifteen! But they're taking girls on at twelve. Of course there's meals. But you've got to room yourself, and then there's washing, clean aprons and caps and cuffs and collars. You've got to dress, too. There's nothing left. We ought to get a pound."
"S-s-s!" warned the waitress, straightening herself up as the manager appeared.
* * * * *
They were in a fashionable Sydney restaurant, on George-street, a large, painted, gilded, veneered, electro-plated place, full of mirrors and gas-fittings and white-clothed tables. It was not busy, the hour being somewhat late and the day Saturday, and so against the walls, on either side the long halls, were ranged sentinel rows of white-aproned, white-capped, black-dressed waitresses.
They were dawdling over their tea—Ned and Nellie were, not the waitresses—having dined exceedingly well on soup and fish and flesh and pudding. For Ned, crushed by more sight-seeing and revived by a stroll to the Domain and a rest by a fountain under shady trees, further revived by a thunderstorm that suddenly rolled up and burst upon them almost before they could reach the shelter of an awning, had insisted on treating Nellie to "a good dinner," telling her that afterwards she could take him anywhere she liked but that meanwhile they would have something to cheer them up. And Nellie agreed, nothing loth, for she too longed for the momentary jollity of a mild dissipation, not to mention that this would be a favorable opportunity to see if the restaurant girls could not be organised. So they had "a good dinner."
"This reminds me," said Nellie, as she ate her fish, "of a friend of mine, a young fellow who is always getting hard up and always raising a cheque, as he calls it. He was very hard up a while ago, and met a friend whom he told about it. Then he invited his friend to go and have some lunch. They came here and he ordered chicken and that, and a bottle of good wine. It took his last half-sovereign. When he got the ticket the other man looked at him. 'Well,' he said, 'if you live like this when you're hard up, how on earth do you live when you've got money?'"
"What did he say?" asked Ned, laughing, wondering at the same time how Nellie came to know people who drank wine and spent half-sovereigns on chicken lunches.
"Oh! He didn't say anything much, he told me. He couldn't manage to explain, he thought, that when he was at work and easy in his mind he didn't care what he had to eat but that when he didn't know what he'd do by the end of the week he felt like having a good meal if he never had another. He thought that made the half-sovereign go furthest. He's funny in some things."
"I should think he was, a little. How did you know him?"
"I met him where we're going tonight. He's working on some newspaper in Melbourne now. I haven't seen him or heard of for months."
She chatted on, rather feverishly.
"Did you ever read 'David Copperfield?'"
Ned nodded, his mouth being full.
"Do you recollect how he used to stand outside the cookshops? It's quite natural. I used to. It's pretty bad to be hungry and it's just about as bad not to have enough. I know a woman who has a couple of children, a boy and a girl. They were starving once. She said she'd sooner starve than beg or ask anybody to help them, and the little girl said she would too. But the boy said he wasn't going to starve for anybody, and he wasn't going to beg either; he'd steal. And sure enough he slipped out and came back with two loaves that he'd taken from a shop. They lived on that for nearly a week." Nellie laughed forcedly.
"What did they do then?" asked Ned seriously.
"Oh! She had been doing work but couldn't get paid. She got paid."
"Where was her husband?"
"Don't husbands die like other people?" she answered, pointedly. "Not that all husbands are much good when they can't get work or will always work when they can get it," she added.
"Are many people as hard up as that in Sydney, Nellie?" enquired Ned, putting down his knife and fork.
"Some," she answered. "You don't suppose a lot of the people we saw this morning get over well fed, do you? Oh, you can go on eating, Ned! it's not being sentimental that will help them. They want fair play and a chance to work, and your going hungry won't get that for them. There's lots for them and for us if they only knew enough to stop people like that getting too much."
By lifting her eyebrows she drew his attention to a stout coarse loudly jewelled man, wearing a tall silk hat and white waistcoat, who had stopped near them on his way to the door. He was speaking in a loud dictatorial wheezy voice. His hands were thrust into his trouser pockets, wherein he jingled coins by taking them up and letting them fall again. The chink of sovereigns seemed sweet music to him. He stared contemptuously at Ned's clothes as that young man looked round; then stared with insolent admiration at Nellie. Ned became crimson with suppressed rage, but said nothing until the man had passed them.
"Who is that brute?" he asked then.
"That brute! Why, he's a famous man. He owns hundreds of houses, and has been mayor and goodness knows what. He'll be knighted and made a duke or something. He owns the block where Mrs. Somerville lives. You ought to speak respectfully of your betters, Ned. He's been my landlord, though he doesn't know it, I suppose. He gets four shillings a week from Mrs. Somerville. The place isn't worth a shilling, only it's handy for her taking her work in, and she's got to pay him for it being handy. That's her money he's got in his pocket, only if you knocked him down and took it out for her you'd be a thief. At least, they'd say you were and send you to prison."
"Who's the other, I wonder?" said Ned. "He looks more like a man."
The other was a shrewd-looking, keen-faced, sparely-built man, with somewhat aquiline nose and straight narrow forehead, not at all bad-looking or evil-looking and with an air of strong determination; in short, what one calls a masterful man. He was dressed well but quietly. A gold-bound hair watch guard that crossed his high-buttoned waistcoat was his only adornment; his slender hands, unlike the fat man's podgy fingers, were bare of rings. He was sitting alone, and after the fat man left him returned again to the reading of an afternoon paper while he lunched.
"His name's Strong," said. Nellie, turning to Ned with a peculiar smile. "That fat man has robbed me and this lean man has robbed you, I suppose. As he looks more like a man it won't be as bad though, will it?"
"What are you getting at, Nellie?" asked Ned, not understanding but looking at the shrewd man intently, nevertheless.
"Don't you know the name? Of course you don't though. Well, he's managing director of the Great Southern Mortgage Agency, a big concern that owns hundreds and hundreds of stations. At least, the squatters own the stations and the Agency owns the squatters, and he as good as owns the Agency. You're pretty sure to have worked for him many a time without knowing it, Ned."
Ned's eyes flashed. Nellie had to kick his foot under the table for fear he would say or do something that would attract the attention of the unsuspecting lean man.
"Don't be foolish, Ned," urged Nellie, in a whisper. "What's the good of spluttering?"
"Why, it was one of their stations on the Wilkes Downs that started cutting wages two years ago. Whenever a manager is particularly mean he always puts it down to the Agency. The Victorian fellows say it was this same concern that first cut wages down their way. And the New Zealanders too. I'd just like to perform on him for about five minutes."
Ned uttered his wish so seriously that Nellie laughed out loud, at which Ned laughed too.
"So he's the man who does all the mischief, is he?" remarked Ned, again glaring at his industrial enemy. "Who'd think it to look at him? He doesn't look a bad sort, does he?"
"He looks a determined man, I think," said Nellie. "Mr. Stratton says he's the shrewdest capitalist in Australia and that he'll give the unions a big fight for it one of these days. He says he has a terrible hatred of unionism and thinks that there's no half-way between smashing them up and letting them smash the employers up. His company pays 25 per cent. regularly every year on its shares and will pay 50 before he gets through with it."
"How! Out of fellows like you, Ned, who think themselves so mighty independent and can't see that they're being shorn like sheep, in the same way, though not as much yet, as Mrs. Somerville is by old Church and the fat brute, as you call him. But then you rather like it I should think. Anyway, you told me you didn't want to do anything 'wild,' only to keep up wages. You'll have to do something 'wild' to keep up wages before he finishes."
"That's all right to talk, Nellie, but what can we do?" asked Ned, pulling his moustache. .
"Hire him instead of letting him hire you," answered Nellie, oracularly. "Those fat men are only good to put in museums, but these lean men are all right so long as you keep them in their place. They are our worst enemies when they're against us but our best friends when they're for us. They say Mr. Strong isn't like most of the swell set. He is straight to his wife and good to his children and generous to his friends and when he says a thing he sticks to it. Only he sees everything from the other side and doesn't understand that all men have got the same coloured blood."
"How can we hire him?" said Ned, after a pause. "They own everything."
Nellie shrugged her shoulders.
"You think we might take it," said Ned.
Nellie shrugged her shoulders again.
"I don't see how it can be done," he concluded.
"That's just it. You can't see how it can be done, and so nothing's done. Some men get drunk, and some men get religious, and others get enthusiastic for a pound a hundred. You haven't got votes up in Queensland, and if you had you'd probably give them to a lot of ignorant politicians. Men don't know, and they don't seem to want to know much, and they've got to be squeezed by men like him"—she nodded at Strong—"before they take any interest in themselves or in those who belong to them. For those who have an ounce of heart, though, I should think there'd been squeezing enough already."
She looked at Ned angrily. The scenes of the morning rose before him and tied his tongue.
"How do you know all these jokers, Nellie?" he asked. He had been going to put the question a dozen times before but it had slipped him in the interest of conversation.
"I only know them by sight. Mrs. Stratton takes me to the theatre with her sometimes and tells me who people are and all about them."
"Who's Mrs. Stratton? You were talking of Mr. Stratton, too, just now, weren't you?"
"Yes. The Strattons are very nice people, They're interested in the Labour movement, and I said I'd bring you round when I go to-night. I generally go on Saturday nights. They're not early birds, and we don't want to get there till half-past ten or so."
"Half-past ten! That's queer time."
"Yes, isn't it? Only——"
At that moment a waitress who had been arranging the next table came and took her place against the wall close behind Nellie. Such an opportunity to talk unionism was not to be lost, so Nellie unceremoniously dropped her conversation with Ned and enquired, as before stated, into the becapped girl's hours. The waitress was tall and well-featured, but sallow of skin and growing haggard, though barely 20, if that. Below her eyes were bluish hollows. She suffered plainly from the disorders caused by constant standing and carrying, and at this end of her long week was in evident pain.
* * * * *
"You're not allowed to talk either?" she asked the waitress, when the manager had disappeared.
"No. They're very strict. You get fined if you're seen chatting to customers and if you're caught resting. And you get fined if you break anything, too. One girl was fined six shillings last week."
"Why do you stand it? If you were up in our part of the world we'd soon bring 'em down a notch or two." This from Ned.
"Out in the bush it may be different," said the girl, identifying his part of the world by his dress and sunburnt face. "But in towns you've got to stand it."
"Couldn't you girls form a union?" asked Nellie.
"What's the use, there's plenty to take our places."
"But if you were all in a union there wouldn't be enough."
"Oh, we can't trust a lot of girls. Those who live at home and just work to dress themselves are the worst of the lot. They'd work for ten shillings or five."
"But they'd be ashamed to blackleg if once they were got into the union," persisted Nellie. "It's worth trying, to get a rise in wages and to stop fining and have shorter hours and seats while you're waiting."
"Yes, it's worth trying if there was any chance. But there are so many girls. You're lucky if you get work at all now and just have to put up with anything. If we all struck they could get others to-morrow."
"But not waitresses. How'd they look here, trying to serve dinner with a lot of green hands?" argued Nellie. "Besides, if you had a union, you could get a lot without striking at all. They know now you can't strike, so they do just exactly as they like."
"They'd do what they——" began the waitress. Then she broke off with another "s-s-s" as the manager crossed the room again.
"They'd do what they like, anyway," she began once more. "One of our girls was in the union the Melbourne waitresses started. They had a strike at one of the big restaurants over the manager insulting one of the girls. They complained to the boss and wanted the manager to apologise, but the boss wouldn't listen and said they were getting very nice. So at dinner time, when the bell rang, they all marched off and put on their hats. The customers were all waiting for dinner and the girls were all on strike and the boss nearly went mad. He was going to have them all arrested, but when the gentlemen heard what it was about they said the girls were right and if the manager didn't apologise they'd go to some other restaurant always. So the manager went to the girl and apologised."
"By gum!" interjected Ned. "Those girls were hummers."
"I suppose the boss victimised afterwards?" asked Nellie, wiser in such matters.
"That's just it," said the girl, in a disheartened tone. "In two or three weeks every girl who'd had anything to do with stirring the others up was bounced for something or other. The manager did what he liked afterwards."
"Just talk to the other girls about a union, will you?" asked Nellie. "It's no use giving right in, you know."
"I'll see what some of them say, but there's a lot I wouldn't open my mouth to," answered the waitress.
"What time do you get away on Thursdays?"
"Next Thursday I'm on till half-past ten."
"Well, I'll meet you then, outside, to see what they say," said Nellie. "My name's Nellie Lawton and some of us are trying to start a women's union. You'll be sure to be there?"
"All right," answered the waitress, a little dubiously. Then she added more cordially, as she wrote out the pay ticket:
"My name's Susan Finch. I'll see what I can do."
So Ned and Nellie got up and, the former having paid at the counter, walked out into the street together. It was nearly three. The rain had stopped, though the sky was still cloudy and threatening. The damp afternoon was chilly after the sultry broiling morning. Neither of them felt in the mood for walking so at Nellie's suggestion they put in the afternoon in riding, on trams and 'busses, hither and thither through the mazy wilderness of the streets that make up Sydney.
Intuitively, both avoided talking of the topics that before had engaged them and that still engrossed their thoughts. For a while they chatted on indifferent matters, but gradually relapsed into silence, rarely broken. The impression of the morning walk, of Mrs. Somerville's poor room, of Nellie's stuffy street, came with full force to Ned's mind. What he saw only stamped it deeper and deeper.
When, in a bus, they rode through the suburbs of the wealthy, past shrubberied mansions and showy villas, along roads where liveried carriages, drawn by high-stepping horses, dashed by them, he felt himself in the presence of the fat man who jingled sovereigns, of the lean man whose slender fingers reached north to the Peak Downs and south to the Murray, filching everywhere from the worker's hard-earned wage. When in the tram they were carried with clanging and jangling through endless rows of houses great and small, along main thoroughfares on either side of which crowded side-streets extended like fish-bones, over less crowded districts where the cottages were generally detached or semi-detached and where pleasant homely houses were thickly sprinkled, oven here he wondered how near those who lived in happier state were to the life of the slum, wondered what struggling and pinching and scraping was going on behind the half-drawn blinds that made homes look so cosy.
What started him on this idea particularly was that, in one train, a grey-bearded propertied-looking man who sat beside him was grumbling to a spruce little man opposite about the increasing number of empty houses.
"You can't wonder at it," answered the spruce little man. "When the working classes aren't prospering everybody feels it but the exporters. Wages are going down and people are living two families in a house where they used to live one in a house, or living in smaller houses."
"Oh! Wages are just as high. There's been too much building. You building society men have overdone the thing."
"My dear sir!" declared the spruce little man. "I'm talking from facts. My society and every other building society is finding it out. When men can't get as regular work it's the same thing to them as if wages were coming down. The number of surrenders we have now is something appalling. Working men have built expecting to be able to pay from 6s. to 10s. and 12s. a week to the building societies, and every year more and more are finding out they can't do it. As many as can are renting rooms, letting part of their house and so struggling along. As many more are giving up and renting these rooms or smaller houses. And apparently well-to-do people are often in as bad a fix. It's against my interest to have things this way, but it's so, and there's no getting over it. If it keeps on, pretty well every workingman's house about Sydney will be a rented house soon. The building societies can't stop that unless men have regular work and fair wages."
"It's the unions that upset trade," asserted the propertied-looking man.
"It's the land law that's wrong," contended the spruce man. "If all taxes were put on unimproved land values it would be cheaper to live and there would be more work because it wouldn't pay to keep land out of use. With cheap living and plenty of work the workingman would have money and business would be brisk all round."
"Nonsense!" exclaimed the propertied man, brusquely.
"It's so," answered the spruce little man, getting down as the tram stopped, "There's no getting away from facts and that's fact."
So even out here, Ned thought, looking at the rows of cottages with little gardens in front which they were passing, the squeeze was coming. Then, watching the passengers, he thought how worried they all seemed, how rarely a pleasant face was to be met with in the dress of the people. And then, suddenly a shining, swaying, coachman-driven brougham whirled by. Ned, with his keen bushman's eyes, saw in it a stout heavy-jawed dame, large of arm and huge of bust, decked out in all the fashion, and insolent of face as one replete with that which others craved. And by her side, reclining at ease, was a later edition of the same volume, a girl of 17 or so, already fleshed and heavy-jawed, in her mimic pride looking for all the world like a well-fed human animal, careless and soulless.
Opposite Nellie a thin-faced woman, of whose front teeth had gone, patiently dandled a peevish baby, while by her side another child clutched her dingy dust-cloak. This woman's nose was peaked and her chin receded. In her bonnet some gaudy imitation flowers nodded a vigorous accompaniment. She did not seem ever to have had pleasure or to have been young, and yet in the child by her side her patient joyless sordid life had produced its kind.
They had some tea and buttered scones in a cheaper cafe, where Nellie tried to "organise" another waitress. They lingered over the meal, both moody. They hardly spoke till Ned asked Nellie:
"I don't see what men can get to do but can't single women always get servants' places?"
"Some might who don't, though all women who want work couldn't be domestic servants, that's plain," answered Nellie. "But by the number of girls that are always looking for places and the way the registry offices are able to bleed them, I should imagine there were any amount of servant girls already. The thing is there are so many girls that mistresses can afford to be particular. They want a girl with all the virtues to be a sort of house-slave, and they're always grumbling because they can't get it. So they're always changing, and the girls are always changing, and that makes the girls appear independent."
"But they have good board and lodging, as well as wages, don't they?"
"In swell houses, where they keep two or three or wore girls, they usually have good board and decent rooms, I think, but they don't in most places. Any hole or corner is considered good, enough for a servant girl to sleep in, and any scraps are often considered good enough for a servant girl to eat. You look as though you don't believe it, Ned. I'm talking about what I know. The average domestic servant is treated like a trained dog."
"Did you ever try it?"
"I went to work in a hotel as chamber maid, once. I worked from about six in the morning till after ten at night. Then four of us girls slept in two beds in a kind of box under the verandah stairs in the back yard. We had to leave the window open to get air, and in the middle of the first night a light woke me up and a man was staring through the window at us with a match in his hand. I wanted the twelve shillings so I stood it for a week and, then got another place."
"What sort was that?"
"Oh! A respectable place, you know. Kept up appearances and locked up the butter. The woman said to me, when I'd brought my box, 'I'm going to call you Mary, I always call my girls Mary.' I slept in a dark close den off the kitchen, full of cockroaches that frightened the wits out of me. I was afraid to eat as much as I wanted because she looked at me so. I couldn't rest a minute but she was hunting me up to see what I was doing. I hadn't anybody to talk with or eat with and my one night out I had to be in by ten. I was so miserable that I went back to slop-work. That's what Mrs. Somerville is doing."
"It isn't all honey, then. I thought town servant girls had a fair time of it."
"An occasional one does, though they all earn their money, but most have a hard time of it. I don't mean all places are like mine were, but there's no liberty. A working girl's liberty is scanty enough, goodness knows"—she spoke scornfully—"but at least she mixes with her own kind and is on an equality with most she meets. When her work is over, however long it is, she can do just exactly as she likes until it starts again. A servant girl hasn't society or that liberty. For my part I'd rather live on bread again than be at the orders of any woman who despised me and not be able to call a single minute of time my own. They're so ignorant, most of these women who have servants, they don't know how to treat a girl any more than most of their husbands know how to treat a horse."
The naive bush simile pleased Ned a little and he laughed, but soon relapsed again into silence. Then Nellie spoke of "Paddy's Market," one of the sights of Sydney, which she would like him to see. Accordingly they strolled to his hotel, where he put on a clean shirt and a collar and a waistcoat, while she waited, looking into the shops near by; then they strolled slowly Haymarketwards, amid the thronging Saturday night crowds that overflowed the George-street pavement into the roadway.
SATURDAY NIGHT IN PADDY'S MARKET.
Paddy's Market was in its glory, the weekly glory of a Sydney Saturday night, of the one day in the week when the poor man's wife has a few shillings and when the poor caterer for the poor man's wants gleans in the profit field after the stray ears of corn that escape the machine-reaping of retail capitalism. It was filled by a crushing, hustling, pushing mass of humans, some buying, more bartering, most swept aimlessly along in the living currents that moved ceaselessly to and fro. In one of these currents Ned found himself caught, with Nellie. He struggled for a short time, with elbows and shoulders, to make for himself and her a path through the press; experience soon taught him to forego attempting the impossible and simply to drift, as everybody else did, on the stream setting the way they would go.
He found himself, looking around as he drifted, in a long low arcade, brilliant with great flaring lights. Above was the sparkle of glass roofing, on either hand a walling of rough stalls, back and forward a vista of roofing and stalls stretching through distant arches, which were gateways, into outer darkness, which was the streets. On the stalls, as he could see, were thousands of things, all cheap and most nasty.
What were there? What were not there? Boots and bootlaces, fish and china ornaments, fruit, old clothes and new clothes, flowers and plants and lollies, meat and tripe and cheese and butter and bacon! Cheap music-sheets and cheap jewellery! Stockings and pie-dishes and bottles of ink! Everything that the common people buy! Anything by which a penny could be turned by those of small capital and little credit in barter with those who had less.
One old man's face transfixed him for a moment, clung to his memory afterwards, the face of an old man, wan and white, greybearded and hollow-eyed, that was thrust through some hosiery hanging on a rod at the back of a stall. Nobody was buying there, nobody even looked to buy as Ned watched for a minute; the stream swept past and the grizzled face stared on. It had no body, no hands even, it was as if hung there, a trunkless head. It was the face of a generation grown old, useless and unloved, which lived by the crumbs that fall from Demos' table and waited wearily to be gone. It expressed nothing, that was the pain in it. It was haggard and grizzled and worn out, that was all. It know itself no good to anybody, know that labouring was a pain and thinking a weariness, and hope the delusion of fools, and life a vain mockery. It asked none to buy. It did not move. It only hung there amid the dark draping of its poor stock and waited.
Would he himself ever be like that, Ned wondered. And yet! And yet!
All around were like this. All! All! All! Everyone in this swarming multitude of working Sydney. On the faces of all was misery written. Buyers and sellers and passers-by alike were hateful of life. And if by chance he saw now and then a fat dame at a stall or a lusty huckster pushing his wares or a young couple, curious and loving, laughing and joking as they hustled along arm in arm, he seemed to see on their faces the dawning lines that in the future would stamp them also with the brand of despair.
The women, the poor women, they were most wretched of all; the poor housewives in their pathetic shabbiness, their faces drawn with child-bearing, their features shrunken with the struggling toil that never ceases nor stays; the young girls in their sallow youth that was not youth, with their hollow mirth and their empty faces, and their sharp angles or their unnatural busts; the wizened children that served at the stalls, precocious in infancy, with the wisdom of the Jew and the impudence of the witless babe; the old crones that crawled along—the mothers of a nation haggling for pennies as if they had haggled all their lives long. They bore baskets, most of the girls and housewives and crones; with some were husbands, who sometimes carried the basket but not always; some even carried children in their arms, unable even for an hour to escape the poor housewife's old-man-of-the-seas.
The men were absorbed, hidden away, in the flood of wearied women. There were men, of course, in the crowd, among the stallkeepers—hundreds. And when one noticed them they were wearied also, or sharp like ferrets; oppressed, overborne, or cunning, with the cunning of those who must be cunning to live; imbruted often with the brutishness of apathy, consciousless of the dignity of manhood, only dully patient or viciously keen as the ox is or the hawk. Many sottish-looking, or if not sottish with the beery texture of those whose only recreation is to be bestially merry at the drink-shop. This was the impression in which the few who strode with the free air of the ideal Australian workman were lost, as the few comfortable—seeming women were lost in the general weariness of their weary sex.
Jollity there was none to speak of. There was an eager huckling for bargains, or a stolid calculation of values, or a loud commendation of wares, or an oppressive indifference. Where was the "fair" to which of old the people swarmed, glad-hearted? Where was even the relaxed caution of the shopping-day? Where was the gay chaffering, the boisterous bandying of wit? Gone, all gone, and nothing left but care and sadness and a careful counting of hard-grudged silver and pence.
Ned turned his head once or twice to steal a glance at Nellie. He could not tell what she thought. Her face gave no sign of her feeling. Only it came home to him that there were none like her there, at least none like her to him. She was sad with a stern sadness, as she had been all day, and in that stern sadness of hers was a dignity, a majesty, that he had not appreciated until now, when she jostled without rudeness in this jostling crowd. This dark background of submissive yielding, of hopeless patience, threw into full light the unbending resolution carved in every line of her passionate face and lithesome figure. Yet he noticed now on her forehead two faint wrinkles showing, and in the corners of her mouth an overhanging fold; and this he saw as if reflected in a thousand ill-made mirrors around, distorted and exaggerated and grotesqued indeed but nevertheless the self-same marks of constant pain and struggle.
They reached the end of the first alley and passed out to the pavement, slippery with trodden mud. There was a little knot gathered there, a human eddy in the centre of the pressing throng. Looking over the heads of the loiterers, he could see in the centre of the eddy, on the kerb, by the light that came from the gateway, a girl whose eyes were closed. She was of an uncertain age—she might be twelve or seventeen. Beside her was a younger child. Just then she began to sing. He and Nellie waited. He knew without being told that the singer was blind.
It was a hymn she sang, an old-fashioned hymn that has in its music the glad rhythm of the "revival," the melodious echoing of the Methodist day. He recollected hearing it long years before, when he went to the occasional services held in the old bush schoolhouse by some itinerant preacher. He recalled at once the gathering of the saints at the river; mechanically he softly hummed the tune. It was hardly the tune the blind girl sang though. She had little knowledge of tune, apparently. Her cracked discordant voice was unspeakably saddening.