Harkive: ‘His First Day’s Wages’

This unsigned story was reprinted in the Sydney Mail after initially appearing in the Pall Mall Gazette, a periodical which regularly reported on Harkness’s writing and movements around 1890. It is currently the first known appearance of Harkness’s work in Australia. The story clearly draws on Harness’s own experience as a nurse before she began her writing career, and reprises the theme of children bearing the brunt of the violence engendered by capitalism and poverty, which she also addressed in A City Girl, ‘A Pantomime Child’, and A Manchester Shirtmaker, and later in her story ‘Little Tim’s Christmas’ (published in the Pall Mall Gazette, Christmas 1890). Olive Schreiner wrote to Harkness early in 1891, probably referring to ‘Little Tim’s Christmas’: ‘I would rather have read that lovely little story of yours about the poor children in the P.M.G. [Pall Mall Gazette] than have five thousand letters from you’ (Olive Schreiner Letters Online).

 

Source: The Sydney Mail, 13 December 1890, p. 1323. Reprinted from the Pall Mall Gazette, 13 September 1890. Available online via Google News.

 

His First Day’s Wages.

Tramp, tramp, tramp!

Two men came slowly and carefully along the passage of a London hospital, carrying a stretcher between them. An open window let in the cold evening air and the deafening noise of the street; but they heeded not those things, neither did the stilling atmosphere of the theatre seem to affect their senses. The theatre door stood ajar, and the men cast a glance at the operation table as they walked on with their burden. They came to the door of a ward, and halted for a minute. One of them bent down and lifted up a dark brown blanket that lay across the stretcher.

“I’ve got a little lad at home no bigger than this one,” he said, apologetically to his companion. “He can’t be more than twelve, I should say, to look at him, My little lad was eleven last Christmas.”

“What is it?” inquired the other, using hospital jargon.

“Can’t say,” was the answer. “He was run over by a cab while selling newspapers in the street.”

The last speaker then replaced the blanket, opened the ward door, and called out “Number six.”

There was a stir amongst the patients. Men turned their head towards the door, wondering who lay on the stretcher. Number seven fixed his languid eyes on the brown blanket. Number five stopped playing chess with Number 20, and leant on his elbow to watch what would happen. Then came a hush of expectation, broken by the groans of the newspaper boy and the voice of the hospital sister, who was giving orders to the nurses. A screen was placed around the bed, almost before the men could see the face of the new patient, but Number five caught a glimpse of the little lad, and he rubbed his forehead thoughtfully as he asked, “Whose move is it?”

The evening wore away, but the screen was not moved from the bed of Number six. Doctoers came into the ward, and disappeared behind the screen, the nurses looked grave, and the sister seemed anxious. So the patients guessed that Number six was a bad case; and a few words from the house surgeon confirmed their suspicions. “Have you found out anything about him, sister?” the young man asked.

“Nothing.”

“Sorry for that. He won’t live till morning.”

The doctor then walked towards the sister’s room, saying something about “a special” for Number six.

Before long the gas was turned low, and everything was put in order for the night. Afterwards the ward was very quiet. Nothing disturbed the patients but an occasional groan from a man who could not sleep, or the cry of some one who had started up from a nightmare, and had found his limbs tightly bandaged. The peculiar odour that tells of surgery operations grew stronger as the hours wore on, and the breath of 20 men made the air heavy, although the windows were partly open. Inside the ward the patients could distinguish the night nurse’s footsteps; outside they could only hear the dull roar of distant carts and voices. Now and then a railway whistle broke the stillness, rarer still was the nurse’s voice as she moved about among the patients.

A “special” sat beside the bed of No. 6; but she was hidden by the screen, and if the night nurse had not sometimes spoken to her, in a whisper, the patients would not have been aware of her presence.

The hospital clock struck 11.

The last stroke had scarcely fallen when a woman pushed open the door of the ward. She advanced slowly, with uncertain steps, and stood quite still when she saw the nurse.

“They told me I should find my boy here,” she said, in a low frightened voice. “He’s not bad, is he? He’s but little to go out selling papers, but I have four littler than he, and the baby’s ill, and we’ve nothing in the house.”

The nurse looked at the thin worn face of the mother, and then towards the screen that hid the bed of Number six.

“Your boy was run over in the street,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am,” said the woman; “they told me about it downstairs. I looked everywhere for him after dark, and the policeman sent me here. Where is he? Ever since his father died he’s been wanting to help me, and talking about what he’d do when he got his first day’s wages. Let me go to him, ma’am. If anything happens to him it will break my heart; where is he?”

Before the nurse could answer the screen was pushed aside, and the “special” came towards them saying—

“The boy is dead.”

“Dead!” echoed the mother, “dead!”

She stumbled to the screen, and fell on her knees beside the bed.

“So this is your first day’s wages, my darling,” she said. — Pall Mall Gazette.

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