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Classic and Contemporary Poetry

THE STRIKE OF THE SMITHS, by                    
First Line: Messieurs les juges! My story shall be brief
Last Line: And if you send me to the scaffold—thanks!
Subject(s): Labor & Laborers; Labor Unions; Strikes; Work; Workers; Labor Disputes; Lockouts

Messieurs les juges! my story shall be brief.
'Tis this: the foundrymen were out on strike—
It was their right. The winter had been hard,
And men were tired of keeping endless Lent.
One Saturday—the evening of our pay—
Some comrades led me gently by the arm
Into a wineshop. There, my oldest mates—
I still refuse to give the Court their names—
Spoke thus: "Père Jean, it seems we have no pluck:
We want more wages, or we work no more.
They grind us down; it is our last resource.
We choose you, therefore, as the oldest hand,
To warn the Master—but with no big words—
That, if our pay henceforward be not raised,
Each day will be Saint Monday at the works.
Père Jean! are you our man?" I answered, "Yes!
If I can serve you in your need, I will."

I am no communist, mon président,
But an old, peaceful man, with no great faith
In the spruce black-coats that control a strike:
Still, it may be I could not well refuse.
So, pledged to act, I sought the Master's house,
And found him dining. Having made my bow,
I told him squarely how we all were pinched
By cost of food and lodging, and I showed
Things could not last so. Then I figured out
His gains and ours, and proved with due respect
It could not ruin him to raise our pay.
He listened calmly, while he cracked some nuts,
And said at last: "Père Jean, I see you are
An honest man, and they who chose you knew
What they were doing when they sent you here.
For you there always shall be work and pay,
But their demands would cripple me at once:
I close the works to-morrow. All who join
In lawless strikes are good-for-nothing drones.
'Tis my last word, and you can tell them so."
I answered: "It is well, sir," and withdrew
With heavy heart and carried to my mates
The Master's answer, as I promised him.
Wild tumult followed—anarchy—revolt—
Then, with one voice, they pledged themselves to strike,
And I too, like my fellows, took the oath.

Oh! more than one, that evening, as he flung
On a bare table all his scanty hire,
Felt, I will warrant, anything but gay,
And failed to close his eyelids, when he thought
That, since his wages ended with his work,
He soon must learn the lesson how to fast!
For me the blow was crushing: I am old,
And not alone. That night, on reaching homes
I took my little grandsons on my knees—
My daughter died in child-birth, and her man
Went to the dogs—I looked upon the two
Small mouths that soon must hunger, and I blushed
For having rashly sworn to join the strike.
Still, I was not worse stranded than the rest,
And, as we workmen scorn to break an oath,
I vowed to do my duty by the craft.
My poor old wife now entered. She was bowed
Beneath a bale of linen, newly washed,
And, when with faltering tongue I broke the news,
Poor thing! she had not heart enough to scold,
But stood long time in silence, with her eyes
Fixed on the floor. At length she said: "My man,
Thou know'st that I am thrifty, and will do
All that a woman can. But times are hard,
And we have bread for barely two weeks more."
I answered: "Things will soon come right again:"
Though well I knew, that, short of playing false,
I could do nothing, and that those on strike,
Sworn to maintain it to the bitter end,
Would make short work of men who sold the cause.

Soon came our troubles. O mes juges, mes juges!
You may believe that when our cup of woes
Was full, I never could become a thief,
But must have died of horror at the thought:
Nor do I claim one jot of praise is due
E'en to the hopeless wretch, who, morn and eve,
Is forced to stare disaster in the face,
For never harbouring a guilty thought.
Still, when the winter pierced us to the bone
With icy fangs, and when my honest gaze
Dwelt on those living challenges to sin—
My hungry grandsons, and heroic wife—
And watched them shivering by a fireless grate;
Despite those wailing babes and careworn wife,
Despite that terrible and freezing group,
Never—I swear by Christ the Crucified—
E'en for a moment did my clouded brain
Conceive the thought of theft—that shameless act,
When the eye watches, and the fingers clutch!

Alas! if now my pride is broken down,
If now I bend before you—if I weep—
'Tis that I see again the three of whom
I spake, for whom I did what I have done.

At first we lived as we were forced to live.
We ate dry bread, and pawned our little all.
I suffered much. To men like us a room
Seems a barred cage, from which we long to flee.
Look you—since then I've had a taste of gaol,
And, truth to tell, I've found them much alike.

But to do nothing is a hell on earth;
Let those that doubt it have their arms tied down
By strong necessity—they soon will learn
Why men must work, and why the atmosphere
Of file and fire is what mechanics love.

Two weeks had pass'd and not a sou was left.
Meanwhile I walked, like one whose brain is crazed,
Alone 'mid crowds straight onwards—for the roar
Of a big city seems to silence thought,
And deadens hunger better far than wine,
But once, on reaching home—'twas at the close
Of a dull, raw December afternoon—
I found my helpmate, crouching on the floor,
With the two babies strained against her breast,
And while I thought, 'Tis I am murdering them
She meekly spake, like one confused with shame:
"My poor, dear man! the pawn-shop has refused
This worn-out mattress—all we have on earth—
And now I know not where to look for bread!"
"Wait!" I replied; and brought, at last, to bay,
Vowed at all hazards to go back to work.
Then, though mistrustful of my welcome there,
I sought the wineshop, a repulsive haunt
That harboured all the leaders of the strike.
I raised the latch—methought it was a dream—
While others starved, those men were drinking hard!
Yes, drinking! May the Board that paid the wine,
And thus prolonged our hideous martyrdom,
Hear the loud curses of an old man's tongue.
I faced the topers, and when once they marked
My frowning forehead and tear-reddened eyes,
They guessed, no doubt, the reason why I came.
Their looks were sullen, and their greeting cold,
Nathless I spake: "I come to tell you this:
I am sixty, past—my wife is also old—
Two helpless babes are left upon my hands,
And from the garret where we starve, each stick
Of furniture is sold—we have no bread.
A bed within a hospital (my corpse
Would be a prize for students to dissect)
Is for a beggar like myself enough.
But for my wife and darlings it is not!
So, for their sakes, I must return to work.
But first I crave your license for the act,
Lest slander's tongue should slaver o'er my name.
Behold! my hair is white, my hands are black:
I have toiled hard for more than forty years:
Let me go back to earn our daily bread!
I tried to beg—I could not—my old age
Is my excuse. The man upon whose brow
The constant wielding of a hammer's weight
Has graved deep furrows, hard to be effaced,
Cuts a poor figure, when to passers-by.
He holds for alms a hand that still is strong.
With my two hands I pray you! 'Tis but fit
That I the oldest should be first to yield.
Let me go back again, alone, to work;
You hear—now tell me if you grant me leave."

Then, from that crowd of drinkers one advanced
Three steps, and called me "Coward!" to my face.
My heart grew cold—blood mounted to my eyes—
I looked at him who spake the taunting word,
A tall, slim stripling, pale beneath the gas,
A shameless dancer at the Faubourg balls.
With love-locks on his temples like a girl.
He grinned, and mocked me with malicious eyes:
The rest kept silence—silence so profound
That I could hear the throbbing of my heart.
I clasped my forehead in my hands, and cried:
"My wife and darlings, then, it seems must die.
So be it, and I will not go to work.
But thou, I swear, shalt answer for thy taunt,
And we, like grander folks, will fight it out.
"My time?" At once! "My arms?" I have the choice!
The heaviest hammers best will serve our turn,
Light in our hands as any sword or pen,
And you, my mates, must second each of us.
Quick! form a ring, and search yon corners well
For two good iron sledges, red with rust.
And thou, vile scorner of an old man! doff
Thy blouse and shirt, and spit upon thy hand!"

Foaming with rage, I elbowed through the crowd
A path, and in a corner of the walls
Picked out two hammers from a clustered heap.
Then, having weighed them at a glance, I flung
The heaviest tool at my insulter's feet.
He still kept grinning, but he seized the shaft
Armed at all hazards, standing on defence,
And cried: "Old fellow! don't be spiteful now!"
I deigned no answer, but drew near the wretch,
And, while I teased him with my honest eyes,
In rapid circles round my head I whirled
The trusty sledge—a deadly weapon now.

Ne'er had a cur, that cowers beneath the lash,
Within his haggard and imploring eyes
So base a look of supplicating fear,
As that which I detected in the glance
Of the foul craven, who recoiled, aghast,
And propped his back against the filthy wall.
Too late, alas! too late—a mist of blood,
A crimson veil seemed drawn between my eyes
And that pale caitiff, palsied with affright—
And with a single blow I crushed his skull!
I know 'twas murder, and I own my guilt;
I want no advocate to fence with words,
And foist the name of duel on a crime.
Dead, at my feet, with oozing brains he lay;
And, as a man who on a sudden feels
All the immensity of Cain's remorse,
I stood there, shrouding both my eyes from view.
At length, some shuddering comrades sidled up,
And would have seized me, but I shook them off,
And cried: "Let go! I doom myself to death!"
They understood. Then, taking off my cap,
I passed it to them, like the bag in church:
" 'Tis for the wife and little ones, my friends!"
That brought ten francs, of which a chum took care,
And then I went, and gave myself in charge.
Thus you have heard the plain, unvarnished tale
Of my great crime, and need not pay much heed
To what the glib-tongued advocates may say.
If I have dwelt on pitiful details,
'Twas but to prove what horrors may result
From a foredoomed concurrence of events.
My helpless babes are in the hospital.
Where sorrow killed my brave, long-suffering wife.
Whatever my fate—the galleys or the gaol,
Or even pardon—matters little now:
And if you send me to the scaffold—thanks!

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