One Hundred and Three

With the frame of a man, and the face of a boy, and a manner strangely wild,
And the great, wide, wondering, innocent eyes of a silent-suffering child;
With his hideous dress and his heavy boots, he drags to Eternity—
And the Warder says, in a softened tone: ‘Keep step, One Hundred and Three.’
’Tis a ghastly travesty of drill—or a ghastly farce of work—
But One Hundred and Three, he catches step with a start, a shuffle and jerk.
’Tis slow starvation in separate cells, and a widow’s son is he,
And the widow, she drank before he was born—(Keep step, One Hundred and Three!)

They shut a man in the four-by-eight, with a six-inch slit for air,
Twenty-three hours of the twenty-four, to brood on his virtues there.
And the dead stone walls and the iron door close in as an iron band
On eyes that followed the distant haze far out on the level land.

Bread and water and hominy, and a scrag of meat and a spud,
A Bible and thin flat book of rules, to cool a strong man’s blood;
They take the spoon from the cell at night—and a stranger might think it odd;
But a man might sharpen it on the floor, and go to his own Great God.

One Hundred and Three, it is hard to believe that you saddled your horse at dawn;
There were girls that rode through the bush at eve, and girls who lolled on the lawn.
There were picnic parties in sunny bays, and ships on the shining sea;
There were foreign ports in the glorious days—(Hold up, One Hundred and Three!)

A man came out at exercise time from one of the cells to-day:
’Twas the ghastly spectre of one I knew, and I thought he was far away;
We dared not speak, but he signed ‘Farewell—fare—well,’ and I knew by this
And the number stamped on his clothes (not sewn) that a heavy sentence was his.

Where five men do the work of a boy, with warders not to see,
It is sad and bad and uselessly mad, it is ugly as it can be,
From the flower-beds laid to fit the gaol, in circle and line absurd,
To the gilded weathercock on the church, agape like a strangled bird.

Agape like a strangled bird in the sun, and I wonder what he could see?
The Fleet come in, and the Fleet go out? (Hold up, One Hundred and Three!)
The glorious sea, and the bays and Bush, and the distant mountains blue
(Keep step, keep step, One Hundred and Three, for my lines are halting too)

The great, round church with its volume of sound, where we dare not turn our eyes—
They take us there from our separate hells to sing of Paradise.
In all the creeds there is hope and doubt, but of this there is no doubt:
That starving prisoners faint in church, and the warders carry them out.

They double-lock at four o’clock and the warders leave their keys,
And the Governor strolls with a friend at eve through his stone conservatories;
Their window slits are like idiot mouths with square stone chins adrop,
And the weather-stains for the dribble, and the dead flat foreheads atop.

No light save the lights in the yard beneath the clustering lights of the Lord—
And the lights turned in to the window slits of the Observation Ward.
(They eat their meat with their fingers there in a madness starved and dull—
Oh! the padded cells and the “O—b—s” are nearly always full.)

Rules, regulations—red-tape and rules; all and alike they bind:
Under ‘separate treatmentplace the deaf; in the dark cell shut the blind!
And somewhere down in his sandstone tomb, with never a word to save,
One Hundred and Three is keeping step, as he’ll keep it to his grave.

The press is printing its smug, smug lies, and paying its shameful debt—
It speaks of the comforts that prisoners have, and ‘holidays’ prisoners get.
The visitors come with their smug, smug smiles through the gaol on a working day,
And the public hears with its large, large ears what authorities have to say.

They lay their fingers on well-hosed walls, and they tread on the polished floor;
They peep in the generous shining cans with their ration Number Four.
And the visitors go with their smug, smug smiles; the reporters’ work is done;
Stand up! my men, who have done your time on ration Number One!

Speak up, my men! I was never the man to keep my own bed warm,
I have jogged with you round in the Fools’ Parade, and I’ve worn your uniform;
I’ve seen you live, and I’ve seen you die, and I’ve seen your reason fail—
I’ve smuggled tobacco and loosened my tongue—and I’ve been punished in gaol.

Ay! clang the spoon on the iron floor, and shove in the bread with your toe,
And shut with a bang the iron door, and clank the bolt—just so,
With an ignorant oath for a last good-night—or the voice of a filthy thought.
By the Gipsy Blood y
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"One Hundred and Three" Poetry.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 2 Jun 2020. <https://www.poetry.net/poem/17877/one-hundred-and-three>.

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