Johnson went out to Australia a good many years ago with his young wife and two children, as assisted emigrants. He should have left his wife and children with her mother, in a street off City Road, N., and gone out by himself and got settled down comfortably and strengthened in the glorious climate and democratic atmosphere of Australia, and in the knowledge that he could worry along a while without his wife, before sending for her. That bit of knowledge would have done her good also, and it would have been better for both of them. But no man knows the future, and few can prescribe for their own wives. If we saw our married lives as others see them, half of us would get divorced. But Johnson was sentimental, he could not bear to part from his wife for a little while. Moreover, man is instinctively against leaving his wife behind; it may be either a natural or a cowardly instinct—but we won’t argue that. I don’t believe that Johnson was a coward in that direction; I believe that he trusted his wife implicitly, or rather that he never dreamed of such a thing—as is the way with most married men. Sentiment is selfishness, perhaps, but we won’t argue that, such arguments come to nothing.
I heard from a fellow-passenger of Johnson’s that he had “a hell of a voyage” because of his young wife’s ignorant selfishness and his own sensitiveness; he bribed stewards for better food and accommodation for his wife and children, paid the stewardess to help with the children, got neither rest, nor peace, nor thanks for himself, and landed in Sydney a nervous wreck, with five pounds out of the ten he started with.
Johnson was a carpenter. He got work from a firm of contractors in Sydney, who, after giving him a fortnight’s trial, sent him up-country to work on the railway station buildings, at the little pastoral mining and farming town of Solong. The railway having come to Solong, things were busy in the building line, and Johnson settled there.
Johnson was thin when he came to Solong; he had landed a living skeleton, he said, but he filled out later on. The democratic atmosphere soothed his mind and he soon loved the place for its unconventional hospitality. He worked hard and seemed to have plenty of energy—he said he got it in Australia. He said that another year of the struggle in London would have driven him mad. He fished in the river on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, and, perhaps for the first month or so, he thought that he had found peace. Johnson’s wife was a rather stout, unsympathetic-looking young woman, with the knit of obstinacy in her forehead; she had that stamp of “hardness” on her face which is the rule amongst English and the exception amongst Australian women. We of Solong thought her hard, selfish and narrow-minded, and paltry; later on we thought she was a “bit touched;” but local people often think that of strangers.
By her voice and her habit of whining she should have been a thin, sharp-faced, untidy, draggled-tailed woman in a back street in London, or a worn-out selector’s wife in the bush. She whined about the climate. “It will kill the children! It will kill the children! We’ll never rear them here!” She whined about the “wretched hole in the bush” that her husband had brought her to; and to the women whom she condescended to visit—because a woman must have a woman to talk to—she exaggerated the miseries of the voyage until the thing became a sing-song from repetition. Later on she settled down to endless accounts of her home in London, of her mother and sisters, of the way they lived. “And I’ll never see it any more. I’ll never see them any more.”
The Solong climate was reckoned the best in Australia; the “wretched hole” was a pretty little town on the banks of a clear, willow-bordered river, with vineyards on the slopes, and surrounded by a circle of blue hills and peaks. We knew nothing of London, so she had her own way there.
“She’ll feel a bit lonely at first, but she’ll soon get used to Australia,” said Johnson. He seemed to me to go out of his way to excuse his wife.
Johnson had had a few contracts in England at one time; they had been in “better circumstances”—that was the time she looked back to in England; the last two years of bitter, black struggle at “home” seemed a blank in her mind—but that’s how women jump over facts when they have a selfish fad.
Johnson rented a cottage and garden on the bank of the sunny river. He said he took the place because there was ivy growing on the cottage, and it might cheer his wife; but he had lost sight of the fact that, while he had been born in an English village, his wife had been born and bred in London, and had probably never noticed ivy. She said it was worse than living in a slum.
Johnson was clever at his trade, and at many other things, but his wife didn’t seem aware of it. He was well liked, he grew to be popular, but she didn’t seem proud of the fact; she never seemed interested in him or his prospects. She only wanted him to take her home again. We mustn’t forget that while he had a rush of work to occupy his mind she had not.
But Johnson grew stouter and prospered in spite of his wife—for a year or so. New schools were being built in the district and the town was practically re-built. Johnson took contracts for brickwork, plumbing and house-painting, as well as carpentering, and had at one time as many as ten men in his employ. He was making money.
I was working at my trade then, house-painting, and worked for Johnson. I lodged at his cottage for a while, but soon got tired of hearing about London, and Mrs Johnson’s mother and sisters, and the house they lived in, and the street it was in, and the parks where they used to take their babies, and the shopping on Saturday afternoon. That woman was terrible. She was at Johnson all the time about taking her home. “We’ll surely be able to go home this year, Will.” “You promised to take me home by the end of the year.” “Mother says in her last letter that Jack says there’s more building going on about London than ever.” “You’ll do just as well in London as you’ll do here.” “What chance have the children got in a hole like this?” And the rest of it—every night. When he took a new contract, it would be, “What did you want to take that new contract for, Will, when we’re going home? You know you promised me you wouldn’t take any more contracts.” First he’d try to cheer her, then he’d argue; but she’d only sit with the knit in her forehead deep, looking as obstinate as a mule. Then she’d sit down to a little harmonium he’d bought her and play and sing “Barney, take me Home again,” and “The Old Folks at Home,” and “Swannie Ribber,” till I felt like hanging myself—and I wasn’t an exile. Sometimes Johnson would flare up and there’d be a row and he’d go to the pub. Gentle persuasion, argument, or swearing, it was all the same with her.
Bosses and men were different towards each other in Solong to what they are in London; besides, when I wasn’t Johnson’s sub-contractor I was his foreman—so we often had a few drinks together; and one night over a beer (and after a breeze at home, I think) he said to me:
“I can’t make it out, Harry; there was nothing but struggle and worry and misery for us in England, and London was smothering me, my chest was bad and the wife was always in ill-health; but I suppose I’ll have to take her home in the end or else she’ll go melancholy mad!” And he drew a breath that was more like a gasp than a sigh.
“Why not send her home for a trip, or a year or so, boss?” I asked. “As likely as not she’ll be just as eager to get back; and that will be the end of it.”
“I couldn’t do that, Harry,” said Johnson. “I couldn’t stay here and work alone. It would be like beginning life again; I’ve started twice and couldn’t start the third time. You’ll understand when you’re married, Harry.”
Well, in the end, she wore Johnson out—or wore into him rather. He drank more, and once or twice I saw him drinking alone. Sometimes he’d “round on us” at work for nothing at all, and at other times he’d take no interest in the jobs—he’d let the work go on anyhow. Some thought that Johnson was getting too big for his boots, that’s how men are misjudged. He grew moody and melancholy and thin again. Johnson was homesick himself. No doubt it was the misery of his domestic life in Australia that made him so.
Towards the end of the third or fourth year Johnson threw up a couple of contracts he had on hand, sacrificed a piece of land which he had bought and on which he had built a cottage in the short time he had been in Solong, and, one lovely day in June, when the skies were their fairest, the hills their bluest, the river its widest and clearest, and the grass was waving waist high after rain—one blue and green and golden day the Johnsons left Solong, with the trunks they had brought out with them, for Sydney, en route for smoky London.
Mrs Johnson was a woman transformed—she was happy and looked it. The last few weeks she had seemed in every way the opposite of the woman we had known: cheerful, kind to neighbours in sickness and trouble, even generous; she made many small presents in the way of mantelshelf ornaments, pictures, and house-linen. But then it was Johnson who had to pay for that in the end.
He looked worn and worried at the railway station—more like himself as he was when he first came to Solong—and as the train moved off I thought he looked—well, frightened.
That must have been nearly twenty years ago.
London last winter. It was one of those days when London’s lurid sun shows up for a little while like a smoky danger signal. The snow had melted from the house-tops and the streets were as London streets are after the first fall of snow of the season. But I could stand the flat no longer, I had to go out and walk. I was sun-sick—I was heart-sick for the sun, for the sunny South—for grassy plains, blue mountains, sweeps of mountain bush and sunny ocean beaches. I walked hard; I walked till I was mud-splashed to the shoulders; I walked through the squalid, maddening sameness of miles of dingy, grimy-walled blocks and rows of four-storied houses till I felt smothered—jailed, hopelessly. “Best get home and in, and draw the blinds on it,” I said, “or my brain will turn.”
I was about to ask a policeman where I was when I saw, by the name on a corner of the buildings, that I was in City Road, North.
All the willow-fringed rivers and the sunny hills of Solong flashed before me at the sight of the name of that street. I had not been able to recall the name of the street off City Road in which the Johnsons lived, though I had heard it often enough in the old days from the tongue of Mrs Johnson.
I felt it would be a relief to see anyone who had been in Australia. “Now,” I thought, “if I walk along City Road and see the name of that street I’ll remember it”—and I did. It was a blind street, like the long, narrow yard of a jail, walled by dark houses, all alike. The next door but one to that at which I knocked to inquire was where the Johnsons lived; they lived in a four-storied house, or rather a narrow section of a four-storied terrace. I found later n that they paid the landlord, or nearly paid him, by letting lodgings. They lived in one room with the use of the parlour and the kitchen when the lodgers weren’t using them, and the son shared a room with a lodger. The back windows looked out on the dead wall of a poorhouse of some kind, the front on rows of similar windows opposite—rows of the same sort of windows that run for miles and miles in London. In one a man sat smoking in his shirtsleeves, from another a slavey leaned out watching a fourwheeler that had stopped next door, in a third a woman sat sewing, and in a fourth a woman was ironing, with a glimpse of a bedstead behind her. And all outside was gloom and soot and slush.
I would never have recognized the Johnsons. I have visited them several times since and their faces are familiar to me now, but I don’t know whether any traces of the old likenesses worked up in my memory. I found Johnson an old man—old and grey before his time. He had a grizzly stubble round his chin and cheeks towards the end of the week, because he could only afford a shave on Saturday afternoon. He was working at some branch of his trade “in the shop” I understood, but he said he felt the work come heavier on him every winter. “I’ve felt very poorly this last winter or two,” he said, “very poorly indeed.” He was very sad and gentle.
Mrs Johnson was old and thin-looking, but seemed cheerful and energetic. Some chest trouble kept her within doors most of the winter.
“I don’t mind so long as I can manage,” she said, “but Johnson gets so depressed.”
They seemed very kind towards each other; they spoke little of Australia, and then only as an incident in their lives which was not of any importance—had long been past and done with. It was all “before we went to Australia” or “after we came back from Australia,” with Mrs Johnson.
The son, whom I remembered as a bright, robust little fellow, was now a tall, white-faced, clean-shaven young man, a clerk on thirty shillings a week. He wore, on Saturday afternoons and Sundays, a tall hat and a frock coat and overcoat made cheaply in the latest fashion, so he couldn’t afford to help the old folk much.
“David is very extravagant,” said the old man, gently. “He won’t wear anything when once the gloss is off it. But,” with a sad smile, “I get the left-off overcoats.”
He took me across to see his daughter. She had married a tradesman and they were having a hard struggle in three rooms in a workman’s dwelling. She was twenty-five, thin, yellow, and looking ten years older.
There were other children who had died. “I think we might have done better for the children in Australia,” said the old man to me, sadly, when we got outside, “but we did our best.”
We went into a hotel and had a drink. Johnson had treated last time—twenty years before. We call treating “shouting” in Australia. Presently Johnson let fall a word or two of Australian slang, and brightened up wonderfully; we got back out into Australia at once and stayed there an hour or so. Being an old man, Johnson’s memory for the long ago was better than mine, and I picked up links; and, in return, I told him what Solong was like now, and how some men he knew, who were going up, had gone down, and others, who were going to the dogs in his time, had gone up—and we philosophized. About one he’d say, “Ah, well! who’d have thought it! I never thought that boy would come to any good;” about another, “Ah, well! and he might have been an independent man.” How familiar that expression sounded!—I think it is used more often in Australia than in any other country: “He might have been an independent man.”
When I left Johnson I felt less lonely in London, and rather humbled in spirit. He seemed so resigned—I had never seen such gentle sadness in a man’s eyes, nor heard it in a man’s voice. I could get back to Australia somehow and start life again, but Johnson’s day had been dead for many years. “Besides, assisted emigration’s done away with now,” he said, with his sad, sad smile.
I saw the Johnsons again later on. “Things have been going very sadly with us, very sadly indeed,” said the old man, when we’d settled down. He had broken down at the beginning of the winter, he had dragged himself out of bed and to work and back again until he could do so no longer; he had been laid up most of the winter. Mrs Johnson had not been outside the door for months.
“It comes very hard on us,” she said, “and I’m so poorly, and David out of work, too. I wouldn’t mind if I could get about. But,” she went on in her energetic manner, “we’ve had the house full all the winter; we’ve had very good luck with the lodgers, all respectable people, and one of them answers the door and that keeps me away from the draught—so it might be worse, mightn’t it! But Johnson doesn’t seem to mend at all, and he gets so terribly depressed. But the warm weather coming on, etc.”
They and the Lord only knew how they managed to live, for they are honest people and the lodgers scarcely pay the rent of the house. There was only David between them and the poorhouse, as far as I could see.
Johnson came out with me a piece and we had a drink or two together—his was gin hot. He talked a good deal about Australia, but sadly and regretfully on this occasion.
“We could have done well in Australia,” he said, “very well indeed. I might have been independent and the children well started in life. But we did things for the best. Mrs Johnson didn’t like Australia, you know. It was a pity we didn’t stay there, a great pity. We would have done far better than in England. I’d go out again now if I had the money, but I’m getting too old.”
“Would Mrs Johnson go out?” I asked.
“Oh, yes. But I’m afraid she wouldn’t stand the voyage. . . . Things have been very sad with us ever since we came back to England, very sad indeed.” And after a while he suddenly caught his breath.
“It takes me that way sometimes,” he said. “I catch my breath just as if I was going to lose it.”