Upton Sinclair, ed. (18781968). The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest. 1915.
Le Père Perdrix
By Charles-Louis Philippe
(A poor and obscure clerk of the municipality of Paris, 18751909, who wrote seven volumes of fiction which have placed his name among the masters of French literature. He wrote of the poor whose lives he knew, and his work is characterized by fidelity to truth, beauty of sentiment, and rare charm of style. The following scene is in the home of a workingman, who by heavy sacrifice has succeeded in educating his only son. One day unexpectedly the son returns home)
PIERRE BOUSSET said, How does it happen that you come to-day?
How! You have left your place! They sat up all threePierre Bousset with his apron and his back of labor; and Jean saw that he had gray hair. The mother held a saucepan in her hand, careful like a kitchen-servant, but with feelings as if the saucepan were about to fall. Marguerite, the sister, was already weeping: Ah, my God! I who was so proud!
It was then that Jean felt his soul wither, and there rose up from the depths of his heart all the needs, all the mists of love. It was necessary that they should live side by side and understand one another, and it was necessary that someone should begin to weaken. He said, Does one ever know what one does?
The mother watched the chocolate, from which the steam rose with a warmth of strong nutriment. They loved that in the family, like a Sunday morning indulgence, like a bourgeois chocolate for holiday folk. She said, Anyhow, let it be as it will, hes got to eat.
Jean went on to speak. His blue eyes had undergone the first transformation which comes in a mans life, when he is no longer Jean, son of Pierre, pupil at the Central school, but Jean Bousset, engineer of applied chemistry. There remained in them, however, the shining of a young girl, that emotion which wakens two rays of sunlight in a spring. And now they kept a sort of supplication, like the sweetness of a naked infant.
Oh, I know everything that you are going to say. You cannot excuse me, because you are not in my place, and I cannot condemn a movement of my heart. You knowI wrote it to youthe workers were about to go on strike. At once I said to myself that these were matters which did not concern me; because, when you are taking care of yourself, it is not necessary to look any farther. But Cousin François explained it all to me.
Ah, I told you so! cried Pierre Bousset. When you wanted to take Cousin François into your factory, I said to you: Relatives, it is necessary always to keep them at a distance. They push themselves forward, and sometimes, to excuse them one is led to commit whole heaps of lowness.
Ah, I have understood many things, father. How can I explain everything that I have understood! There are moments still when, to see and to realizethat makes in my head a noise as if the world would not stay in place. I tell you again it was François who made me understand. I saw, in the evenings. I would say to him: I am bored, I havent even a comrade, and I eat at hotel-tables a dinner too well served. He said: Come to my house. You dont know what it is to eat good things, because you dont work, and because hunger makes a part of work. You will have some soup with us, and we will tell you at least that you are happy to be where you are, and to look upon the workingman while playing the amateur. I said to him: But I work, also. To see, to understand, to analyze, to be an engineer! You, its your arms; me, its my head and my heart that ache. He laughed: Ha! ha! ha! ha! ha! When I come home in the evening with my throat dry and I eat my soup, I also have a headache, and I laugh at you with your heart-ache. I am as tired as a wolf. Whats that you call your heart?
Yes, he was right there, said Pierre Bousset. For my part, I dont understand at all how you are going to pull through. You have understood a lot of things! As for me, I understand but one thing, which is you are unhappy over being too happy.
Jean went on speaking, with his blue eyes, like a madness, like a ribbon, like a rosette without any reason which a young girl puts on her forehead. A sweetness came out of his heart to spread itself in the room, where the furniture gave off angular and waxy reflections. Marguerite listened, with restlessness, listened to her father, like a child whose habit it is to be guided by her parents. The mother saw to the chocolate, in a state of confusion, shaking her head.
Yesterday I was in the office of the superintendent. It was then that the delegation arrived. It seems to me that I see them again. There were three workingmen. They had taken to white shirts, and they had just washed their hands. You know how the poor come into the homes of the rich. There was a great racket, and their steps were put down with so much embarrassment that one felt in the hearts of the three men the shame of crushed things. I had already thought about that poverty which, knowing that it soils, hides itself, and dares not even touch an object. They said: Well, Mr. Superintendent, we have been sent to talk to you. For more than ten years now we have worked in the factory. We get seventy cents a day. Thats not much to tell about. We have wives and children, and our seventy cents hardly carries us farther than a glass of brandy and a little plate of soup. We understand that you also have expenses. But we should like to get eighty cents a day, and for us to explain every thing to you, it is necessary that you should consent, because money gives courage to the workingman. The other received them with that assurance of the rich, sitting straight up in his chair and holding his head as if it dominated your own. He would not have had much trouble, with his education, his habits of a master, his stability as a man of affairs, to put them all three ill at ease. Gentlemen, from the first word I say to you: No. The company cannot take account of your wishes. We pay you seventy cents a day, and we judge that it is up to you to lower your life to your wages. As for your insinuations, I shall employ such means as please me to fortify your courage. For the rest, our profits are not what you imagine, you who know neither our efforts nor our disappointments. It was then, father, that I felt myself your son, and that I recalled your hands, your back which toils, and the carriage wheels that you make. The three workingmen seemed three children in their fathers home, with hearts that swell and can feel no more. Ah, it was in vain I thought myself an engineer! On the benches of the school I imagined that my head was full of science, and that that sufficed. But all the blood of my father, the days that I passed in your shop, the storms which go to ones head and seem to come from far off, all that cried out like a grimace, like a lock, like a key.@2 I took up the argument. Mr. Superintendent, I know these men. There is my cousin who works in the factory. Do you understand what it is, the life of acids, and that of charcoal? If you could have seen him! He looked at me with eyes, as if their pupils had turned to ice. Mr. Engineer, I dont permit either you, who are a child, or these, who are workingmen, a single word to discuss my sayings and my actions! Gentlemen, you may retire. I went straight off the handle. A door opened at a single burst. We have at least insolence, we poor, and blows of the mouth, since their weapons stop our blows of the teeth. I went away like them. They lowered their heads and thought. For my part I cried out, I turned about and cried, You be hanged!
Ah, now, indeed! I didnt expect anything like that, said Pierre Bousset. One raises children to make gentle-folk of them, so that they will work a little less than you. Now then, in Gods name! go and demand a place of those for whom you have lost your own!