ONE day in summer, when people whom I had been urging to behave in some degree like human beings persisted in acting rather more like the poor creatures who pass for men and women in most stage-plays, I shut my manuscript in a drawer, and the next morning took an early train into the city. I do not remember just what whim it was that led me to visit the police court: perhaps I went because it was in the dead fast and middle of the summer, and the town afforded little other amusement; perhaps it was because, in my revolt against unreality, I was in the humor to see life whose reality asserts itself every day in the newspapers with indisputable force. If the latter, I was fated to a measure of disappointment, for when the court opened this reality often appeared no more substantial than the fiction with which I had lost my patience at home. But I am bound to say that it was much more entertaining, and that it was, so to speak, much more artistically treated. It resolved itself into melodrama, or romantic tragedy, having a prevailing comic interest, with moments of intensity, and with effects so thrilling that I came away with a sense of the highest theatrical illusion.
The police court in Boston is an upper room of the temple of justice, and is a large, square, dismal-complexioned chamber, with the usual seams and cracks configuring its walls and ceilings; its high, curtainless windows were long glares of sunless light, crossed with the fine drizzle of an easterly rain on the morning of my visit. About one third of the floor is allotted to spectators, and supplied with benches of penitential severity; the remaining space is occupied by a series of curved tables set in a horse-shoe, and by a raised platform, railed off from the auditorium, as I may call it, and supporting in successive gradations the clerk's desk, on a very long, narrow table, and the judge's table and easy-chair. At either end of the table on which the clerk's desk was placed was a bar, representing in one case the witness stand, and in the other the prisoner's box; midway, the clerk stood within a screen of open iron-work, hemmed in with books of record and tin boxes full of docketed papers.
Outside of the railing were the desks of two officers of the court, whose proper titles my unfamiliarity with the place disables me from giving. They were both well in flesh, as I remember, and in spite of their blue flannel suits and the exercise of a wise discretion, by which one of them had discarded his waistcoat and neckcloth, they visibly suffered from the moist, close heat which the storm outside had driven into the courtroom. From time to time one of them cried out, "Silence!" to quell a restive movement in the audience; and once the cravatless officer left his place, and came down to mine near the door, and drove out the boys who were sitting round me. "Leave!" he shouted. "This is no place for boys!" They went out obediently, and some others just like them came in immediately and took their places. They might have been the same boys, so far as any difference for the better in their looks went. They were not pleasant to the eye, nor to any other sense; and neither were the young men nor old men who for the rest formed the audience of this free dramatic spectacle. Their coat-collars came up above their shirt-collars; but, greasy as they were, the observer could not regret this misfit when chance gave an occasional glimpse of their linen,—or their cotton, to be exact. For the most part, they wore their hair very short, and exposed necks which I should, I believe, have preferred to have covered. Under the influence of the humid heat, and with the wet they brought from the outside, they sent up a really deplorable smell. I do not know that I have a right to criticise the appearance of some of their eyes, they seemed perfectly good eyes to see with, in spite of their sinister or vacant expression and gloomy accessories; and certain scars and mutilations of the face and fingers were the affair of their owners rather than mine. Whenever they fell into talk, an officer of the court marched upon them and crushed them to silence. "This is no place for conversation," he said; and the greater part of them had evidently no disposition or capacity for that art. I believe they were men and boys whose utmost mental effort sufficed to let their mouths hang open in the absorption of the performance, and was by no means equal to comment upon it. I fancied that they came there, day after day, the year round, and enjoyed themselves in their poor way, realizing many of the situations presented by experience of like predicaments, more than by sympathy or an effort of the imagination.
I had taken my place among them next the door, so that if my courage failed me at any time I could go out without disturbing the others. One need not be a very proud man to object to classing himself with them, and there were moments when I doubted if I could stand my fellow-spectators much longer; but these accesses of arrogance passed, as I watched the preparations for the play with the interest of a novice. There were already half a dozen policemen seated at the tables in semicircle, and chatting pleasantly together; and their number was constantly increased by new arrivals, who, as they came in, put their round-topped straw hats on one end of the semicircle, and sat down to fill out certain printed forms, which I suppose related to the arrests they had made, for they were presently handed to the clerk, who used them in calling up the cases. A little apart from the policemen was a group of young men, whom I took to be the gentlemen of the bar; among them, rather more dapper than the rest, was a colored lawyer, who afterwards, by an irony of Nemesis, appeared for some desperate and luckless defendants of the white race and of Irish accent. By and by two or three desks, placed conveniently for seeing and hearing everything against the railing on the clerk's right, were occupied by reporters, unmistakable with their pencils and paper. Looking from them I saw that the judge's chair was now filled by a quiet-looking gentleman, who seemed, behind his spectacles, to be communing with himself in sad and bored anticipation. At times he leaned forward and spoke with the clerk or one of the gentlemen of the bar, and then fell back in sober meditation.
Like all other public exhibitions, the police court failed a little in point of punctuality. It was advertised to open at nine o'clock, but it was nearer ten when, after several false alarms, the clerk in a rapid, inarticulate formula declared it now opened, and invoked the blessing of God on the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Even then there was a long wait before we of the audience heard the scuffling of the feet of the prisoners on what seemed a broad stairway behind the barrier at the judge's right, and before any of them came in sight they were commanded by the attendant policeman to sit down, and apparently did so, on the top of the stairs. The clerk now turned towards them with a sheaf of the forms which the policemen had filled out in his hand, and successively addressed them by name—
"Complained of for being drunk. Guilty or not guilty?"
"Pay a fine of one dollar and costs, and stand committed to the House of Industry."
He jotted something down on the back of each indictment, and half turned to toss it on to his desk, and then resumed the catalogue of these offenders, accusing and dooming them all in the same weary and passionless monotone.
I confess that I had at the time the strongest curiosity to see them, but it has since struck me that it was a finer effect merely to hear their voices in response, and to leave their figures and faces to the fancy. Sometimes the voice that answered "Guilty" was youthful, and sometimes, I grieve to say, it was feminine, though under the circumstances it had naturally that subdued tone which is thought such an excellent thing in woman. Usually, however, the voices were old and raucous, as if they had many times made the same plea in the same place, and they pronounced sir sor. The clerk's sheaf of accusations being exhausted, they all apparently scuffled downstairs again. But a number must have remained, for now, after this sort of overture, the entertainment began in earnest, the actors on the scene appearing as they were summoned from the same invisible space behind the railing, which I think was probably sunk a little lower than the level of the auditorium, and which might, to humor the theatrical illusion, be regarded as the green room.
The first piece was what I may call a little Police Pastoral, in recognition of the pretty touch of poetry which graced it. A half-grown, baddish-looking boy was arraigned for assault and battery, and took his place at one end of that long table on which rested the clerk's desk, while a young girl of thirteen or fourteen advanced from the audience, and placed herself at the other end. She was dressed in a well-fitting ready-made suit, which somehow suggested itself as having been "marked down" to come within her means; and she wore a cheap yet tasteful hat, under which her face, as honest as it was comely, looked modestly up at the judge when he questioned her. It appeared that she was passing the apple-stand which the defendant was keeping for his mother, when he had suddenly abandoned his charge, followed her into a gate where she had taken refuge, and struck her; her cries attracted the police, and he was arrested. The officer corroborated her story, and then the judge made a signal to the prisoner, by which it seemed that he was privileged to cross-question his accuser. The injured youth seized the occasion, and in a loud, bullying, yet plaintive tone proceeded as best he could to damage the case against him.
He: "Didn't you pass my mother's stand with them girls the day before?"
She, frankly: "Yes, I did."
He: "And didn't you laugh at me, and call me an apple-woman?"
She, as before: "Yes, I did."
He: "And hain't you hit me, sometimes before this?"
She, evasively: "I've never hit you to hurt you."
He: "Now, that hain't the question! The question is whether you've ever hit me."
She: "Yes, I have,—when you were trying to hold me. It was the other girls called you names. I only called you names once."
He: "I want to know whether I hurt you any when you hollered out that way!"
She: "Yes, you did. And if I hadn't screamed you would have done it. I don't suppose you'd have hurt me a great deal, but you have hurt some of the girls."
The Judge: "Did he bruise you severely, when he struck you?"
She, with a relenting glance, full of soft compassion, at her enemy: "Well, he didn't bruise me very much."
The Judge: "Has he been in the habit of assaulting the other young girls?"
She: "He never did me before." Then, with a sudden burst, "And I think I was every bit as much to blame as he was! I had no business to tease him."
Here the judge, instead of joining the hands of these children, and sending them forward with his blessing, to dance and sing a little duet together, as would have happened on any other stage, said that he would fine the defendant seven dollars. The defendant gave way to a burst of grief, and the plaintiff, astonished at this untoward conclusion, threw the judge a pathetic and reproachful look, and left the stand in painful bewilderment. I felt sorry for her, but I could not share her pity for the defendant, and my light mind was quickly distracted by the next piece.
I may say here that the features of the performance followed one another rapidly, as at a variety theatre, without any disagreeable waits or the drop of a curtain. If I had anything to complain of it was the swiftness of their succession. I was not yet habituated to this, when I found the scene occupied by the two principal actors in a laughable little interlude of Habitual Drunkenness. A powerfully built, middle-aged Irishman, with evidences of coal-heaving thick upon his hands and ground into his face to the roots of his hair, was standing at one end of that long table, and listening to the tale of the policeman who, finding him quarrelsomely and noisily drunk, and not being able to prevail with him to go home, had arrested him. When he finished, the judge said to the defendant, who had stood rolling his eyes—conspicuous from the black around them—upon the spectators, as if at a loss to make out what all this might be about, that he could ask any questions he liked of the plaintiff.
"I don't want to ask him anything, sor," replied the defendant, like one surprised at being expected to take an interest in some alien affair.
"Have you ever seen the defendant drunk before?" asked the judge.
"Yes, your honor; I've seen him drunk half a dozen times, and I've taken him home to keep him out of harm's way. He's an industrious man when he isn't in drink."
"Is he usually disorderly, when drunk?"
"Well, he and his wife generally fight when he gets home," the policeman suggested.
The judge desisted, and the defendant's counsel rose, and signified his intention to cross-question the plaintiff: the counsel was that attorney of African race whom I have mentioned.
"Now, we don't deny that the defendant was drunk at the time of his arrest; but the question is whether he is an habitual drunkard. How many times have you seen him drunk in the past month?"
"About half a dozen times."
"I can't say."
"More than three times."
"More than twice you will swear to?"
"Now, I wish you to be very careful, please: can you state, under oath, that you have seen him drunk four times?"
"Yes," said the policeman, "I can swear to that."
"Very good," said the counsel, with the air of having caught the witness tripping. "That is all."
Aside from the satisfaction that one naturally feels in seeing any policeman bullied, I think it did me good to have my learned colored brother badger a white man. The thing was so long the other way, in every walk of life, that for the sake of the bad old times, when the sight would have been something to destroy the constitution and subvert social order, I could have wished that he might have succeeded better in browbeating his witness. But it was really a failure, as far as concerned his object.
"The question, your honor," the lawyer added, turning to the judge, "is, what is habitual drunkenness? I should like to ask the defendant a query or two. Now, Mr. O'Ryan, how often do you indulge yourself in a social glass?"
"How often do you drink?"
"Whenever I can get it, sor."
The audience appreciated this frankness, and were silenced by a threatening foray of the cravatless officer.
"You mean," suggested the attorney smoothly, "that you take a drink of beer, now and then, when you are at work."
"I mane that, sor. A horse couldn't stand it widout."
"Very good. But you deny that you are habitually intoxicated?"
"You are not in the habit of getting drunk?"
" No, sor!"
"Very good. You are not in the habit of getting drunk."
"I never get dhrunk whin I'm at work, sor. I get dhrunk Saturday nights."
"Yes; when you have had a hard week's work. I understand that "
"I have a hard wake's worruk every wake!" interrupted the defendant.
"But this is a thing that has grown upon you of late, as I understand. You were formerly a sober, temperate man, as your habits of industry would imply."
"You have lately given way to a fondness for liquor, but up to within six months or a year ago you never drank to excess."
"No, sor! I 've dhruuk ever since I was born, and I 'II dhrink till I die."
The officer could not keep us quiet, now. The counsel looked down at his table in a futile way, and then took his seat after some rambling observations, amid smiles of ironical congratulation from the other gentlemen of the bar.
The defendant confronted the judge with the calm face of a man who has established his innocence beyond cavil.
"What is the reputation of this man in his neighborhood?" inquired the judge of the policeman.
"He's an ugly fellow. And his wife is full as bad. They generally get drunk together."
" No, sir."
The defendant regarded the judge with heightened satisfaction in this confirmation of his own declaration. The judge leaned over, and said in a confidential way to the clerk, "Give him six months in the House of Correction."
A wild lament broke from the audience, and a woman with a face bruised to a symphony in green, yellow, and black thus identified herself as the wife of the defendant, who stood vacantly turning his cap round in his hand, while sympathizing friends hurried her from the room. The poor creature probably knew that if in their late differences she had got more than she deserved, she had not got more than she had been willing to give, and was moved by this reflection. Other moralists, who do not like to treat woman as a reasonable being, may attribute her sorrow to mere blind tenderness, or hysterical excitement. I could not see that it touched the spectators in any way; and I suspect that, whatever was thought of her escape from a like fate, there was a general acquiescence in the justice of his.
He was either stunned by it, or failed to take it in, for he remained standing at the end of the table and facing the judge, till the policeman in charge took him by the arm and stood him aside. He sat down, and I saw him no more; but I had no time to regret him, for his place was instantly occupied by a person who stepped within the bar from the audience. I had already noticed him coming in and going out of the courtroom, apparently under strong excitement, and hovering about, now among the gentlemen of the bar, and now among friends in the audience. He had an excited and eccentric look, and yet he looked like a gentleman,—a gentleman in distress of mind; I had supposed that he could not be one of the criminal classes, or he would scarcely have been allowed so much at large. At the same time that he took his place he was confronted from the other end of the long table by a person whom I will call a lady, because I observed that every one else did so. This lady's person tended to fat; she had a large, red face, and I learned without surprise that she was a cook. She wore a crimson shawl, and a bonnet abounding in blossoms and vegetables of striking colors, and she had one arm, between the wrist and elbow, impressively swathed in linen; she caressed, as it were, a small water-pitcher, which I felt, in spite of its ordinary appearance, was somehow historical. In fact, it came out that this pitcher played an important part in the assault which the lady accused the gentleman at the other end of the table of committing upon her.
It seemed from her story that the gentleman was a boarder in the house where she was cook, and that he was in the habit of intruding upon her in the kitchen against her will and express command. A week before (I understood that she had spent the intervening time in suffering and disability) she had ordered him out, and he had turned furiously upon her with an uplifted chair and struck her on the arm with it, and then had thrown at her head the pitcher which she now held in her hands. There were other circumstances of outrage, which I cannot now recall, but they are not important in view of the leading facts.
Further testimony in behalf of the plaintiff was offered by another lady, whose countenance expressed second-girl as unmistakably as that of the plaintiff expressed cook. She was of the dish-faced Irish type, and whereas the cook was of an Old World robustness, her witness had the pallor and flat-chestedness of the women of her race who are born in America; she preferred several shades of blue in her costume, which was of ready-made and marked-down effect. This lady with difficulty comprehended the questions intended to elicit her name and the fact of her acquaintance with the plaintiff, and I noticed a like density of understanding in most of the other persons testifying or arraigned in this court. In fact, I came to wonder if the thick-headedness of average uneducated people was not much greater than I had hitherto suspected, in my easy optimism. It was certainly inconceivable why, with intelligence enough to come in when it rained, the cook should have summoned this witness. She testified at once that she had not seen the assault, and did not know that the cook had been hurt; and no prompting of the plaintiff's counsel could inspire her with a better recollection. In the hands of the defendant's lawyer she developed the fact that his client was reputed a quiet, inoffensive boarder, and that she never knew of any displeasures between him and the cook.
"Did you ever see this lady intoxicated?" inquired the lawyer.
The witness reflected. "I don't understand you," she answered finally.
"Have you ever known her to be overcome by drink?"
The witness considered this point also, and in due time gave it up, and turned a face of blank appeal upon the judge, who came to her rescue.
"Does she drink,—drink liquor? Does she get drunk?"
"Oh! Oh, yes; she's tipsy, sometimes."
"Was she tipsy," asked the lawyer, "on the day of the alleged assault?"
The witness again turned to the magistrate for help.
"Was she tipsy on the day when she says this gentleman struck her with a chair, and threw the pitcher at her head?"
"Yes, sir," replied the witness, "she was."
"Was she very tipsy?" the lawyer pursued.
The witness was equal to this question. "Well, yes, sir, she was. Any way, she hadn't left anything in the bottle on her bureau."
"When did you see the bottle full?"
"The night before. Or in the evening. She commenced drinking in the night."
"What was in the bottle?"
"A pint of whisky."
"That will do," said the lawyer.
The witness stepped down, and genteelly resumed her place near the plaintiff. Neither of the ladies changed countenance, or seemed in any wise aware that the testimony just given had been detrimental to the plaintiff's cause. They talked pleasantly together, and were presently alike interested in the testimony of a witness to the defendant's good character. He testified that the defendant was a notoriously peaceable person, who was in some sort of scientific employment, but where or what I could not make out; he was a college graduate, and it was unimaginable to the witness that he should be the object of this sort of charge.
When the witness stood aside, the defendant was allowed to testify in his own behalf, which he did with great energy. He provided himself with a chair, and when he came to the question of the assault he dramatized the scene with appropriate action. He described with vividness the relative positions of himself and the cook when, on the day given, he went into the kitchen to see if the landlord were there, and was ordered out by her. "She didn't give me time to, but caught up a chair, and came at me, thus! " Here he represented with the chair in his hand an assault that made the reporters, who sat near him, quail before the violence of the mere dumb-show. "I caught the rung of the chair in my hand, thus, and instinctively pushed it, thus. I suppose," he added, in diction of memorable elegance, "that the impact of the chair in falling back against her wrist may have produced the contusions of which she complains."
The judge and the bar smiled; the audience, not understanding, looked serious.
"And what," said the judge, "about throwing the pitcher at her?"
"I never saw the pitcher, your honor, till I saw it in court. I threw no pitcher at her, but retreated from the kitchen as quickly as possible."
"That will do," said the judge. The plaintiff's counsel did the best that could be done for no case at all in a brief argument. The judge heard him patiently, and then quietly remarked, "The charge is dismissed. The defendant is discharged. Call the next case."
The plaintiff had probably imagined that the affair was going in her favor. She evidently required the explanation of her counsel that it had gone against her, and all was over; for she looked up at the judge in some surprise, before she turned and walked out of the courtroom with quiet dignity, still caressing her pitcher, and amicably accompanied by the other lady, her damaging witness.
Before she was well out of the door, a lady-like young woman in black was on the stand, testifying against a prisoner, who did not confront her from the other end of the long table, but stood where he seemed to have been seated on the top of those stairs I have imagined behind the railing. He looked twenty-one or two years of age, and he had not at all a bad face, but rather refined; he was well dressed, and was gentleman-like in the same degree that she was lady-like. From her testimony it appeared to me that his offense was one that might fitly be condoned, and in my ignorance I was surprised to find that it was taken seriously by the court. She had seen him, from the top of some steps in the shop where she was employed, open a drawer in the book-keeper's desk, and take out of it a revolver and some postage-stamps; but on his discovering her he had instantly replaced them and tried to escape. She gave her evidence in a low voice, and, as I thought reluctantly; and one could very well imagine that she might have regretted causing his arrest; but it was to be considered that her own reputation was probably at stake, and if his theft had succeeded she might have been accused of it. When she stood aside, the judge turned to the defendant, who had kept quite still, nervously twisting something between his fingers, and questioned him. He did not attempt to deny the facts; he admitted them, but urged that he had immediately put the stamps and pistol hack into the drawer, from which, indeed, he had hardly lifted them. The judge heard him patiently, and the young man went on, with something of encouragement, to explain that he only meant to take the things to spite the owner of the shop, on account of some grudge between them, and that he had not realized that it was stealing. He besought the judge, in terms that were moving, and yet not abject, to deal mercifully with him; and he stood twisting that invisible something between his fingers, and keeping his eyes fixed on those of the magistrate with a miserable smile, while he promised that he would not offend again.
The judge passed his hand to and fro over his chin, and now dropped his eyes, and now glanced at the culprit, who seemed scarcely more unhappy.
"Haven't I seen you here before?" he asked at last.
"Yes," I could hardly hear the prisoner assent.
"Theft," gasped the wretched creature.
The judge moved in his chair with a discomfort that he had not shown throughout the morning's business. "If this were the first time, or the second, I should have been glad to let you off with a slight fine. But I can't do that now. I must send you to the House of Correction." He nodded to the clerk: "Two months."
The prisoner remained, with that nervous twisting of his fingers, eying the judge with his vague smile, as if he could not realize what had befallen him. He did not sit down till the next culprit rose and stood near him. Then a sort of fatal change passed over his face. It looked like despair. I confess that I had not much heart for his successor. I was sick, thinking how, so far as this world was concerned, this wretch had been sent to hell; for the House of Correction is not a purgatory even, out of which one can hopefully undertake to pray periculant spirits. To be sure, the police court is not a cure of souls; and doubtless his doom was as light as the law allowed. But I could have wished that the judge had distrusted his memory, or taken on his conscience the merciful sin of ignoring it. He seemed very patient, and I do not question but he acted according to light and knowledge. This may have been a hopeless thief. But it was nevertheless a terrible fate. The chances were a thousand against one that he should hereafter be anything but a thief, if he were not worse. After all, when one thinks of what the consequences of justice are, one doubts if there is any justice in it. Perhaps the thing we call mercy is really the divine conception of justice.
It was a thief again who was on the stage; but not a thief like that other, who, for all the reality there was in the spectacle, might have gone behind the scenes, and washed the chalk off his white face. This thief was of the kind whose fortunes the old naturalistic novelists were fond of following in fictions of autobiographic form, and who sometimes actually wrote their own histories; a conventional thief, of those dear to De Foe and the Spanish picaresque romancers, with a flavor of good literature about him. Nothing could have been more classic in incident than the story of the plaintiff, an honest-looking young fellow, who testified that he had met the prisoner on the street, and, learning that he was out of work and out of money, had taken him home to his room and shared his bed with him. I do not know in just what calling this primitive and trustful hospitality is practiced; the plaintiff looked and was dressed like a workingman. His strange bedfellow proved an early riser; he stole away without disturbing his host, and carried with him all the money that was in his host's pockets. By an odd turn of luck the two encountered shortly after breakfast, and the prisoner ran. The plaintiff followed, but the other eluded him, and was again sauntering about in safety, when the eye of a third actor in the drama fell upon him. This was a young man who kept some sort of small shop, and who was called to the witness-stand in behalf of the prosecution. He was as stupid as he could well be in some respects, and very simple questions had to be repeated several times to him. Yet he had the ferret- like instinct of the thief-catcher, and he instantly saw that his look fluttered the guilty rogue, who straightway turned and fled. But this time he had a sharper pursuer than his host, and he was coursed through all his turns and windings, up stairs and down, in houses and out, and gripped at last.
"As soon as I saw him start to run," said the witness, who told his story with a graphic jauntiness, "I knowed he'd got something."
"You didn't know I'd got anything!" exclaimed the thief.
"I knowed you'd get ninety days if I caught up with you," retorted the witness, wagging his head triumphantly.
As the officer entered the station-house with his prisoner, the host, by another odd chance, was coming out, after stating his loss to the police, and identified his truant guest.