The New Arcadia/Chapter 1

THE NEW ARCADIA.




CHAPTER I.

STILLING THE TEMPEST.

"We sit on a cloud and sing ...
And say the world runs smooth—while right below,
Welters the black fermenting heap of life,
On which our State is built."—The Saint's Tragedy.

"Some Lancashire lads I know would have made short and cursory work of waiting for Government. 'Hang the Government! Why wait for them? Let us co-op. and do the work ourselves!'"—Craig.

"Pull him down!" "Knock him off the seat!" "An aristocrat riding us down like dogs!" A smart fusillade of such epithets, portending hand-to-hand conflict, broke from the foremost of a straggling band of workmen; some reckless and uncanny in appearance, others listless and half-interested, but animated, for the moment, as dullest street crowds are, by occurrence of "an accident."

The dog-cart, apparently of a professional man, had run over a city waif hanging on the outskirts of a detachment of "the unemployed" on their course to the noontide rendezvous.

The leaders, welcoming a victim, were venting curses on the head of the luckless Jehu.

"A bright specimen of his class!" cried one.

"Blowed if it ain't Dr. Courtney of St. Clair. He'd ought to know better," chimed in another.

Curbing with difficulty his plunging steed, the individual referred to flung reins to his groom and leaped into the surging sea of scowling countenances about him. He made for the curb-stone, where, supported by a policeman and closed around by a gaping crowd— effectually excluding the air—the little sufferer lay.

As usual, it occurred to no one to render assistance, only to ask questions and pass comments. With a strong arm thrusting the loiterers aside to right and left, the unwitting cause of the disturbance bent anxiously over the little unfortunate. Passing a skilful hand about body and limbs, he said to himself, "A broken leg," and to the lad, "All right, my boy, we'll soon set you right again."

Not far off, of course, was a cabby, eager to bear away the child, glad to secure a "fare," though suffering or death placed it in his hands.

"They're all the same," remarked one in the crowd. "'It's an ill wind blows no one any good.' Doctor, parson, cabby, undertaker. Death of one's godsend t'others. All living one on another."

"What's the sense of standing and prating there, you big fool!" exclaimed the doctor.

Raising the child in his arms, he hustled the men with his elbow and made with his charge towards the cab. Laying the manly urchin, who had uttered no cry, and was contracting his face to restrain the tears, on the floor of the vehicle, "To the hospital," he cried, "as gently as you like," and was stepping in himself.

"You'll just stay here and answer to us," hissed a coarse voice in his ear as the cab moved forward. The doctor was dragged backward and fell on his knees. The crowd closed round. Cabby, ignorant that he was minus his full load, drove on.

In a second the doctor was on his feet again—the blood mantling his cheeks. "Who dare lay hand on me?" he demanded, defiantly, glaring round on the excited throng.

"Make way, or I'll find it. I'm in no mood to be trifled with." This to a well-bred, shabby-genteel leader who confronted him.

"Curses on you!" the man exclaimed, thrusting himself forward. "What do you mean by running over the little chap? You did it on purpose. You know you did." The speaker delivered no further harangue that day. Incensed at the indignity to which he was subjected, the doctor struck his man a blow that lifted him from his feet and hurled him into the arms of his comrades.

"None of that," a dozen voices cried. "Two can play at that game, you know."

"Move on," suggested a valiant constable in the background.

The men were hustled and urged towards a vacant piece of ground beside a half-finished edifice. Their stricken leader had disappeared.

They were impressed by the bearing of the doctor. His was a powerful face, a high intellectual brow, an eye that flashed as his fist clenched. Sorrow and anger contended in his breast; resentment on account of the treatment to which he was being subjected, coupled with evident sympathy for the men against whom he found himself by accident arrayed. If not actually in want, they were, he knew, anxious concerning a livelihood. Misguided on one hand, maligned on the other.

Finding a footing on some piles of lumber, he shook off the hand that was laid on his shoulder—swept his eye round the grizzled, not unkindly, faces about him, and said—

"Look here, my men, I am going to see that lad whom; unfortunately, I ran over. It was no fault of mine, as you know. The horse shied at that banner of yours the fellow was carrying, who is not here to speak for himself."

A smile rippled across the sea of good-natured faces.

"He's got a headache," suggested one.

"The little fellow," continued the doctor, "ran in front of the trap. I will see to him. Now as to you. That, I am more anxious about. Do not be fools. Do not be led astray by men who put a false construction on everything some of us may do, and who try to make you believe that every fellow who wears a black coat has a black heart. I'll take my jacket off to-morrow to work beside any honest man, as I have done before, if I can serve society better so, or to try to thrash the man who persists that I deliberately ran that youngster down, or want to over-ride any. Is that clear? Now, before I go, let me ask, why are you all hanging about the city, imploring Government and every one else to help you? Why not, for instance, seek the country, where a fair field and means of livelihood awaits you?"

"How can a man go and squat, what's got no tin?" growls one. "My children's had nothing to eat this blessed day." The speaker, who did not himself appear starved, was, like many of his companions, puffing clouds of smoke from an oft-replenished pipe.

"For my part," was the reply, "if my children were hungering I should deny myself a pipe. I'd like to see less incense and more sacrifice.'

"All very well for you to say, governor. Why should a poor beggar lose the one comfort he's got?"

"Right, my man," was the reply, "in this country, you should command luxuries as well as necessaries. But you will not find them in town. Here you have swarmed to manufacture for a population that does not exist. Go on to the lands and become producers, masters of your own destiny. With a prosperous people settled on the deserted plains and half-ringed forests, your workshops might furnish occupation; your warehouses cease to be clogged with unsalable goods, while folk are shivering. Your railways, extended by compliant politicians into every hungry corner of the land, might groan with freight, and the cry be for more labourers to harvest the golden store."

"All very well, old man, but how are we to get on the land?" asked one. "We haven't the price of an axe atween us."

"You want money, you rightly think. What, however, is capital, but pound placed beside pound, one day's labour upon another? Can't you put that together? Instead of this senseless parading about overgrown cities, might you not ascertain by practical experiment, whether a mode of settlement that has in other countries successfully identified millions with the soil might not be adopted? The occupation of our lands has been so far of a temporary nature. The squatter is the sojourner merely, that his name implies. God intended other use to be made of our richest lands than to be pastures for countless sheep. The selector, after destroying valuable timber, building a hut in an inaccessible corner of a ring-barked allotment, scratching a hundred acres of wheat into the sour soil and sitting down the rest of the year to see it grow,—the selector, I say, is not a permanent settler. From the Murray to the sea you may purchase the lands the Government virtually gave away. Is it not possible, in a social, national sort of way, to establish thousands of you on our virtually vacant lands? I think it is, and I know how. You'll have to learn another trade—most of you. Exchange plane for plough, house-decorating for vine-dressing. You'll have to work hard—not praying heaven in the morning not to send the job you seek all day; not flinging down your tools at five o'clock. You must be associated together too. Small holdings—all you can get as yet—are unprofitable without co-operation. That is the direction in which relief is coming to these countries, I believe. Now put that into your pipe and smoke it." So saying the speaker disappeared midst ringing cheers from the motley assemblage.