FERGUSON was an artist, and occupied an office in an old tumble-down rookery of a town hall, where some barristers, money-lenders, and a (female barber or two kept company with multitudes of moths and bats; and where an army of noisy aldermen met to discuss loans and plague and fought over the right and wrong way of keeping the rate-payers poor and the city dirty and behind the times, and always adopted the right way. Ferguson spent a lot of time drawing pictures of people, and cartoons of politicians, and scraps of landscape and pieces of the river, and packing them up to send away to the newspapers. He spent a good deal of time, too, unpacking them when they came back, and swearing over editors for not having brains enough to appreciate good work.
Merton was not so fortunate as Ferguson. Merton had no office. Merton was a writer. Writers rarely have offices. He used a corner of Ferguson’s. Merton had plenty to do, though; he was always writing. When he wasn’t writing paragraphs or articles against the Government, he was turning out short stories or long poems. And he regularly threw them all into the office of the “Miser,” “Daily Dividend,” “Morning Mopoke,” “Weekly Wage,” and other wealthy publications, and, like well-directed boomerangs, they came right back to him.
A team of visiting footballers were being welcomed to the capital by the mayor and leading citizens, and people were hurrying up the stairs of the town hall. A meek bailiff entered the building and went into Ferguson’s office and sat down. He was a shabby, homely sort of man, and told Ferguson that if he was his only brother he couldn’t feel sorrier for him.
“Oh, that’s all right,” Ferguson said, just as if it didn’t matter. Then he and Merton went out and eilently tramped about the streets. They trudged the town for hours, just as they had done for weeks and months past, in a hopeless search for work.
“There’s little chance of anything,” Merton said, as they emerged from one of the Government Departments.
“None,” Ferguson replied sadly, “none.”
And none was there. Brisbane was in a bad way. The country was in the throes of a long, ruinous drought. Capitalists had taken alarm; no public works were being carried on; no money was in circulation; no business of any kind was being done. All was stagnation, and, to make matters worse, there had been a change of Government.
Lunch hour. Ferguson and Merton wended their way up Edward-street to their boarding-house on the Terrace. Other people going to lunch, bank clerks, civil servants, and shop hands rushed along as though every moment meant a million of money to them. But Ferguson and Merton sauntered along with their heads down and their eyes on the ground. Time was nothing to them.
At the boarding-house they washed their hands and gave their hair a brush, and as they entered the dining-room to take their seats at the table, a nasty look was lurking in the eye of the landlady.
“Any luck?” an elderly boarder seated opposite asked kindly.
Ferguson and Merton shook their heads gravely.
“H’m,” the other said, and dipped into his soup.
There were eight or ten boarders gathered at the table, some of whom were new arrivals, and to these and the good payers the landlady was especially attentive and polite.
“What’l you take, Mr. Ward?. . . . Mr. Jones, will you try some steak hand honions? . . . Hand you, Mr. Brown? . . . shall Hi ’elp you to some tomatoes has well, Mr. Smith? . . . Mary, get Mr. ’Artley a spoon.” But she didn’t say anything to Ferguson and Merton. Somehow she seemed to forget they were present. She served everyone else, then joined in an argument with Brown and Smith about the wisdom of girls looking out for rich husbands.
Ferguson and Merton fumbled their knives and forks about with the tips of their fingers, and tried to look pleasant. Once or twice they glanced timidly at the landlady, but she didn’t catch their eye. The elderly boarder opposite seemed to take in the situation. He looked up at the landlady, but she didn’t catch his eye either.
Merton made some clumsy efforts to appear cheerful. In a low, uncertain voice he tried to start a conversation with his companion about the weather. But Ferguson wasn’t in a talkative mood. He gazed along the polished blade of a table knife, and muttered “H’m.” He muttered “H’m” several times, and Merton gave up the idea.
The elderly boarder opposite frowned, and looked up at the landlady again; but she was addressing some remarks to Ward about the new post office clock which had stopped.
Mary, the servant girl, entered, and ran her eye over the table. Mary was an intelligent girl. In that respect she was different to other girls. She took in the situation, and moved slowly up to her mistress and spoke quietly to her.
“Hoh!” the landlady said, looking at Ferguson and Merton, “what will yous have?”
Merton said he would try a little steak and onions, and Ferguson, with whom steak and onions didn’t agree, was helped from the same dish, but Ferguson didn’t protest. He gratefully murmured, “Thank you.”
Then they both brightened up, and Merton rattled the cruet about, and passed the mustard and pepper to Ferguson, and helped him to some sugar for his tea; then entered into an argument with the elderly one opposite on the subject of deporting Kanakas from the State. A good meal made a difference to Merton.
“No,” the elderly boarder said, rising from the table, “there’s nothing of the Christian in sending the poor devils back to the Islands.”
“Well,” Merton called out after him, “we can’t have Queensland overrun with walk-about Kanakas.”
“Huh!” the landlady sneered, proceeding to gather some of the dishes together. “Hit might has well have Kanakas walkin ’habout it has hother people, hif you hask me.”
Merton went crimson; so did Ferguson.
“Another cup of tea, Mr. Ferguson?” Mary asked.
Ferguson wouldn’t; Ferguson couldn’t. But Merton, after hesitating and glancing out of the comer of his eyes at the landlady, risked another one. Merton was always taking chances.
With the exception of Brown, who had no teeth and found it hard to chew his meat, the rest of the boarders finished and hurried away. Ferguson and Merton kept their eyes on Brown. They took their time from Brown. When he rose they finished abruptly and rose, too. Ferguson and Merton didn’t regard it prudent to be left alone with the landlady.
They climbed the staircase and went into their room again, where they sat on the beds and grinned grimly at each other.
“Strong, isn’t she?” Merton said, thinking of the landlady.
Ferguson paced the room in silence.
“Ah, well!” he sighed, putting on his hat, “we can only go out and try again.”
And they crept down the stairs without making any noise.
“Hoh, Mr. Ferguson hand Mr. Merton!” the landlady, hurrying from the kitchen, called to them, as they were half-way out the door. They paused and turned round with a heavy sinking feeling at their hearts.
“What habout the money you wuz to let me ’ave larst night?” she asked, with an ugly screw in her mouth, looking from one to the other.
Ferguson lowered his head.
“Well, we’re very sorry, Mrs. Braddon,” Merton began, acting as spokesman; “we’ve not been able to get anything yet, though we’re trying all we can; but as soon ——”
“Hoh!” the landlady said, “that wuz halways your yarn. Hi’m sick hon it.”
“Well, we feel it very much, Mrs.——”
“Hi don’t care; Hi want to be paid. Hit’s ten weeks since Hi seen a sign o’ hanything from heither o’ you, hand both hon you hever since you bin with me ’as been going to get a job.”
“Well, you know, Mrs. Braddon,” Merton pleaded, “what terrible bad times these ——”
“Hi don’t care!” the landlady screeched; “hit’s nothing to do with me. Hare you going to pay what you howe, or hare you not?”
“How can we?” Ferguson put in pleadingly. “You can’t draw blood out of a stone, Mrs. Braddon.”
“Hoh, that’s hit! Then y’ don’t come hin ’ere hany more. Keepin’ hout gentlemen who’s willin’ ter pay f er th’ room hin advance!”
And, slamming the door leading to the foot of the staircase, she turned the key and looked defiantly into their dejected faces.
“It isn’t that we wouldn’t pay if we could, Mrs. Braddon,” Ferguson said with emotion, “but you will be paid, every penny. And I’m grateful to you for all you’ve done, and——”
“Hoh, hit’s very easy ter be perlite to a poor woman when you’re runnin’ hoff without payin’ for hall you’ve heat hon ’er. But yer can go; yer hain’t men, neither hon yer.”
That’s how Ferguson and Merton came to be cutting prickly pear on the banks of the Condamine for the Queensland Government.