‘NOT guilty. But — I took the pearls.’
‘That plea cannot be admitted,’ His Honor admonished, conscious of a significant glance from the Mission doctor who was seated to the right and slightly back of the prisoner. ‘ Guilty or — not guilty?’
‘Not guilty — before God! — but— I took the pearls,’ reiterated the clear voice of the prisoner, which in its very quietness was charged with emotion.
The judge turned, with abrupt severity, to the youthful Mission doctor.
‘Dr. Travers, is it your opinion that the prisoner is of sound mind?’
The youthful Mission doctor, springing to his feet, replied in the tone that anticipates an argument, ‘He is perfectly sane, Your Honor, but—’
‘That is sufficient,’ interrupted His Honor.
From the left corner of his mouth he resignedly issued instructions to the Clerk of the Court, while the doctor, somewhat abashed, resumed his seat. ‘Enter a plea of “Not Guilty.” ’
He then addressed the prisoner at some length. ‘Now, Mr. — er — Mr. Wright; this is your first appearance under arrest. I hear only good reports of you from Dr. Travers, Medical Officer of the Water-Front Mission. It appears that you have done much charitable and religious work amongst the poor of the Water-Front, markedly to your financial impoverishment and at the expense of your health and strength; that — indeed — your physical condition is at this moment and presumably as the result of such exertions, seriously impaired. Now then, the Mission requests, through the agency of Dr. Travers, that all possible opportunity be given you to establish your innocence; in case of conviction, all possible judicial clemency be extended, in view of your years of eminent service in the cause of humanity. Nevertheless,’ — the judge’s exposition assumed a more ponderous gravity, — ‘a fifteen-hundred-dollar string of pearls was found in your overcoat pocket, five minutes after the discovery of its loss from apartment seven-hundred-ten, Hotel Reginald. You had been left alone in the room containing the safe said to contain the pearls, and had gone out of the apartment just before the discovery of their loss. The pearls found in your overcoat pocket have been identified as the missing gems. You admit that you took them, but claim that you are not guilty. Arrested at the instance of — er — Edward Malone —’
The judge paused with an air of suspension as he reëxamined certain notes he held.
The missioner turned a sorrowing glance across the small courtroom, full on Red Malone, where he sat with the owner of the pearls, and her maid, lawyer, detective, and husband. All their testimony had been taken; the missioner’s guilt would seem to have been proven irrefutably. Red Malone, informant, grinned impudently back at the missioner — not without a suggestion of malice.
‘Now,’ resumed His Honor with finality, ‘tell your story in your own way. It will receive all due attention. But bear in mind that anything you may say may be used against you. It will be taken down word for word. Proceed.’
The prisoner, William Wright, choirsinger and exhorter at the Water-Front Mission, sat erect but fragile in the chair of many inquisitions. Within their sunken orbits his over-large gray eyes shone with the clear flame of spiritual ardor.
‘Your Honor,’ he began quietly, but with the effective breath-control and measured enunciation of the accustomed speaker, ‘I’ll have to tell it all, from the first — so that you will understand —’
‘Tell only what has direct bearing on the matter,’ instructed the judge, consulting his watch. ‘Do not waste time unnecessarily. Remember that it is Christmas Eve.’
The missioner bent his head devoutly. ‘ I remember — that it is the Eve of the Birth of Our Blessed Lord. And,’ raising his head eagerly, ‘ that bears on the matter — and on the work I do — and the reason for it — and the way I’ve gone about it.’
’I’ve been doing God’s work for five years — just five years to-day. I’ve labored unceasingly against his coming; for no man knoweth the day nor the hour when the Son of Man cometh.’
The missioner noted an impatient movement on the part of the judge, and spoke with quickened urgency.
‘To make money for his service, I’ve taken a job as district messenger, off and on. But whenever God’s business called stronger than man’s, I’ve quit; to prepare for his coming.’
The judge, somewhat uncomfortable, spoke to Dr. Travers.
‘ Is this within your knowledge, doctor?’ Dr. Travers sprang again to his feet. He was young.
‘It is, Your Honor. He devotes his life to doing good.’
He sat down again, abashed and uncomfortable in his turn.
The missioner sent him a grateful glance. ‘This week I was especially glad to get a job,’ he informed the judge. ‘It did n’t pay very much, but — you’ll understand — when I get through. Dr. Travers will tell you that I give all I earn, aside from mere bed and board, to the poor — as Christ commanded. After the evening service I stand beside the chapel door and slip nickels and dimes or pennies to the destitute as they pass out.’
A glance of question and corroboration was exchanged between the judge and the youthful doctor.
‘But last summer was a bad one for getting jobs. Hundreds of thousands of wage-earners were idle. I slept in the Vag dormitory, and the Mission fed me, so I could give away what little I did earn. Your Honor! — I came to see that every job I got took that much money and that much work from some man who needed it worse. When I worked — I was really robbing the poor — the poor — whom I wanted to help!’ He searched the judge’s impassive countenance with anxiety. ‘Can’t you see that, Your Honor?’
The early twilight in the dingy courtroom took on an added quietude, as of suspense. The missioner’s keen yet wistful tones suggested, in that deepening and desolate dusk, the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
‘ It is the way of the world,’ His Honor commented.
An attendant switched on the lights. A little sigh of readjustment to ordinary standards ran through the small group of witnesses and officials of the preliminary hearing.
‘Of this world,’ amended the pleading voice of the missioner. ‘ My work is for the world to come. I could not be reconciled. Night after night, Your Honor, I wrestled with God — begging to be shown how to give to the poor without first taking away from them. One night, the way He spoke that time to Jacob, God spoke to me: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.” Then the great light shone about me, and I saw what I could do; how God had, for a long time, been preparing my hands.' He paused; for the first time he seemed at a loss for convincing words.
‘What sort of work was it?’ the judge prompted him.
‘Your Honor — many a penitent thief has explained to me the mechanical tricks of his trade. At last my hand had found what to do against his coming
‘Be plain!’ the judge insisted, ‘what was this work?’
‘To take from the rich and give to the poor.’
This came within the judge’s own spiritual purview. ' But,’ he pronounced sternly, ‘that is larceny — plain stealing.’
‘Your Honor — it is — restitution.’
‘ Get on with your story! ’ There was testiness in the judge’s manner of consulting his watch.
‘ God prospered his servant with the one talent!’ Exultation sharpened the missioner’s rapt tones. ‘Two thousand dollars, Your Honor, in the last four months, I’ve taken from the rich and given to the poor —’
They all pooh-poohed that — those dingy courtroom people, beneath the glaring electric lights.
‘He’s off his head!’
‘Could n’t be done!’
‘You could not have given that sum away without arousing suspicion,’ the judge said, with indulgence. He now knew how to classify the prisoner, and was inclined to clemency; for political as well as humanitarian reasons.
Red Malone saw the matter from a different angle.
‘Betcha ’e did!’ he confided to the detective who had him in charge, ‘That’s ’ow I got onto ’is game. But I could n’t seem to git onto ’is lay. That’s wot got my goat! ’
‘I could have used twenty thousand the same way,’ the missioner eagerly assured them. ‘ A ton of coal here — a barrel of flour there —a sack of potatoes — a ham — clothes — shoes — bread — meat — surgeons — hospitals — a year’s rent in advance — dollars — twenties! — instead of dimes at the chapel door. Who was going to tell on me? Those poor fellows would never tell anything that might get me into trouble —’
‘Or stop the supplies—' Red sniggered audibly.
‘Order in the court!’ commanded His Honor. ‘Officer, if that man interrupts again, detain him elsewhere.’
With an air of superhuman meekness that was meant to be comic, but missed fire, Red subsided, mumbling under his breath.
‘So,’ the missioner went on, circumstantially, ‘ this messenger job gave me extra good opportunities. Now you see,’ in fraternal appeal to the judge, ‘ why I was so glad to get it. It gave me my chance alone with the jewel-safe. The coat-suit I’d delivered, C.O.D., had to be tried on. I saw the lady close the safe-door, and my ear told me the tumblers had n’t fallen into place. God’s opportunity! As soon as she and her maid went out to try on the suit, it was simple enough, for me, to open the safe, get out the pearls, then close and lock the safe door properly.’
Once more he hesitated, glancing askance at Red, who watched him with curious intensity.
‘Continue!’ instructed the judge.
The missioner glanced away from Red, drew a deep breath, and resumed. ‘The maid came back, gave me the check, signed the book, took the receipt, and I left. Five minutes afterward, when I was sure I’d made my getaway, I was arrested — before I ’d been able to dispose of the pearls.’
The judge cleared his throat, waited a moment, then spoke in undertones to the clerk.
‘Have you taken this — er—confession, verbatim?’
‘I have, Your Honor,’ replied the clerk.
The judge spoke, guardedly, to the missioner.
‘Have you anything further to add to your— er — statement?’
‘Only,’ with emotion so sincere that it grew painful to his smug and technically virtuous listeners, ‘that God has finished with me on that lay. He now has use for me in jail. I go gladly — thanking Him that I have been permitted to do even this little for his poor — against the hour of his coming — at so small a price as imprisonment — to which he sent his Only Beloved Son.’
For a moment of utter quiet he stood, eyes lowered, hands pointed in prayer. ‘ When I go before that higher Judgment Seat, it will be with hands that have done whatsoever they have found to do — against the day and the hour wherein the Son of Man cometh.’
The awed stillness suffered violent rupture. Red-eyed Edward Malone — informer, veteran safe-cracker, convict many times over —rushed forward to the judge’s desk.
‘I stole them pearls!’ he cried violently. ‘Missioner’s looney! — can’t yer see? ’R else he’s swearin’ false — to save me! Say! w’y did n’t he tell about me ? — hey ? ’
The missioner caught Red’s arm in passionate protest. Words struggled on his lips. Dr. Travers drew him back just as the officer gained Red’s side and was about to lead the ex-convict away.
‘Stand back, officer,’ directed the judge. ‘We will hear what more Malone has to testify.’ He turned to the clerk. ‘Swear this man again.’
The oath was administered to Red for the second time in the case, and gabbled with the perfunctory rapidity of an old hand.
‘Edward Malone,’ demanded the judge with impatient severity, ‘have you anything of importance to add to your former testimony?’
‘I sure have!’ asseverated Red. ‘I did n’t tell it all — no more’n did missioner there.’
The judge studied him with distaste. ‘Officer, what is this man’s record?’
‘Old offender, Yer Honor, secondstory man. Safe-cracker. Three convictions in this court, and bad outside history. Last year sent up fer bein’ implicated with the First National safecracking gang — remember? — Served one year. Been out three weeks.’
His Honor turned to the blear-eyed vagabond. ‘Say what you wish to say, but be brief,’ again consulting his watch. ‘And remember that it may be used against you.’
‘Well, now, Yer Honor,’ Red’s glibness took on confidential intonations,
‘ I’d been on to this yere missioner quite a spell, afore I took that trip up river youse know about. W’en I got back
— blamed if he was n’t there yet — doin’ business at the same ol’ stand. Looked to me like he’d found a mighty good lay. Thinks I, “ I’ll git in on to that. Where’d he git all them nickels and dimes?” I says. And w’en he got to shellin’ out plunks, I says, “Wot’s the answer? — som’ers on Queer Street
— believe me!” ’
‘Get to the point!’
‘That’s wot is the p’int, Yer Honor; him slippin’ me a fiver onct last week. Say! — that looked good to Red! I says — “ Make it fifty-fifty,1 pard, ’r I splits.” Nothing doin’! Turned me down cold. That got my red up, ’n I trails ’im fer sure; swore I’d git ’im — ’n I did! Say! ’ — he leaned toward the Judge, with a knowing leer, behind which the psychologist might have read a canny calculation, — ‘he was bonin’ charitable ol’ ladies ’n gents — wit’ that angel face he’s got on ’im! Good lay — long o’ Christmas time,’ judicially.
‘But,’ commented the judge, ‘not necessarily criminal. Get on with the
‘Well — thinks I — I’ll stick erroun’. So, to-day I trails ’im to this yere apartment house— me gittin’ by easy, ’counta sportin’ missioner’s overcoat he’d give me the night before. Lookin’ purty slick, I was, fer onct. The door of the apartment was on the latch. I looks in. Missioner was standin’ by the winda, back to a dinky tin safe that did n’t look jest tight to me, somehow. So I stepped in and twiddled the lock, jest fer luck — and! — say! — it falls open to me! Me fer the loot! I gathered in them pearls, ’n I’d jest dropped ’em inter me overcoat pocket w’en the missioner turns. Say! —he lights inter me like a tiger-cat, to trun me out! ’
‘You mean to say,’ the Judge interrupted, incredulous, ‘that Mr. — er — Mr. Wright did not take the pearls?’
‘You git me! —that is ter say—’ (carefully), ‘he did n’t steal ’em. He took ’em, all right, from me — but he never knowed it. I hears the girl comin’, so I makes a quick getaway, leavin’ my coat in the missioner’s hands, and them pearls was in the pocket. He never knowed he had ’em till he got pinched — see? I was playin’ bot’ ends ag’inst
the middle. ’F missioner gits nabbed, I’m safe. He won’t never split. ’F he gits clear — I’ll cop them pearls off’n ’im ’fore he ever knows he’s got ’em. See? Well — I gits pinched first, bein’ acquainted like with the cops — an’ I ain’t lookin’ so tony — shy the missioner’s overcoat. I gotta play safe, so I sicks the cop on to the missioner. ’T was ’im er me — I knowed he would n’t split. And — he — did n’t.’
The missioner’s emaciated features twisted convulsively.
‘Don’t listen to him! I stole the pearls! He caught me at it! Much of the rest he said is true — but — I opened the safe! — I stole the pearls! — I!
‘Why did you not tell, before, of Malone’s complicity?’ the judge inquired with severity.
‘It was n’t comp — ’
‘ ’T warn’t complicity!’ Red vociferated, taking the word from the missioner’s lips. His eyes grew more congested than even their evil wont. ‘I done it all myself! He was jest tryin’ to purtect the lady’s propitty — see? — Missioner’s looney, don’t I tell you? Look at him! ’
They were all looking at him by this time, where he struggled feebly in Dr. Travers’s professional grasp, his countenance white and strained.
‘ W’y, he’s been preachin’ ’bout people takin’ other folkses doin’s on their own shoulders till it’s clean gone to his head. Now he wants to take my doin’s on to himself— like—like’ — suddenly grown shamefaced — ‘aw —like this yere Jesus Christ he’s alwuz preachin’ about — I guess —’
The missioner freed himself from Dr. Travers.
‘I did not tell about Red,’ he again took up his reply to the judge’s question, ‘ because I not only took the pearls from their rightful owner,’ — he paused,
— ‘if there could be rightful ownership of such gauds, when thousands of people within hands’ reach were starving — and because it was I who put temptation in my brother’s way. I was the occasion of his stumbling. “ Woe to that man through whom the occasion cometh.” The responsibility for his stumbling was mine. It was right that I, upon whom lay the guilt, should pay the penalty. Now — this is the way it happened.’
The short, clear sentences followed one another with the sharp ring of truth.
‘Just as I was closing the safe-door Red came in from the hall, as he told you, wearing my overcoat. He jumped on me, snatched the pearls, and put them into the overcoat pocket. While we were struggling, the maid partly opened the door into the other room. She was coming back. Red got scared. He slipped out of the coat and escaped, leaving the pearls with me. I put the coat on, signed the receipt, as I told you, and left. That was the way of it.’
The judge pondered.
‘You told a different story, under oath,’ he reminded the missioner, with recurring severity. ‘How can you expect me to believe this one? And’ — acutely — ‘what possible motive could Malone have for asserting his guilt? Your religious convictions and the fact that by your own confession you have already paltered with your oath, go far to discredit your present statement. No evidence is so open to suspicion as a volunteer confession,’ he commented wearily.
The missioner’s hard-won self-control broke.
‘I tell you I did it!’ he cried out in sudden passion. ‘I — I !— ’ he swayed, then partly recovered his poise. ‘Red must be drunk —’
‘Aw — gwann!' repudiated Red. An instant later he shouted, ‘Look out! He’s falling!’
The missioner, ghastly but still protesting, steadied himself.
‘I — I warn you! —’ he muttered, looking helplessly about for support.
Dr. Travers forced him, still ineffectually trying to make himself heard, into his chair. The doctor then formally addressed the court, consulting, in so doing, certain notes he had made on the case.
‘ Your Honor, in view of Edward Malone’s confession, corroborated by the testimony of the owner of the pearls and her maid, that William Wright came into her apartment without an overcoat and was wearing one when he left; that on leaving he showed no excitement or haste; also in consideration of Wright’s proved good character, and his religious humanitarianism which could easily lead him to take another’s man’s guilt upon himself — especially if, as in this instance, he felt a moral responsibility for that guilt; so in consideration of his present physical and mental breakdown, due partly to lack of nourishment and partly to overwork in the cause of charity; also in view of his obviously fixed idea that God has use for his services in jail; for these reasons, taken in consideration with the conflict between his two statements in regard to matters of fact, and with Edward Malone’s lack of motive for assuming the guilt of the theft if he were in reality innocent, I ask for the discharge of William Wright from arrest.’
It would have been hard to say whether the judge or Red Malone listened to this somewhat involved yet concise appeal with the more concentrated attention. A moment of deep silence ensued.
‘Discharge is granted,’ pronounced the judge at last, with evident relief. ‘Dr. Travers, I place William Wright in your charge for medical attention. You will produce him should he again be required by the court. Officer, detain Edward Malone.’
While the necessary papers were being made out at the judge’s desk, the missioner, his heart wrung with the knowledge of his guilt, — of which he seemed so strangely powerless to convince any one else, — arose unsteadily from his chair and went over to the new prisoner, who was for the moment left unguarded — although he was well known to be a jail-bird a dozen times over.
‘Red!—’ the missioner broke into anguished expostulation, — ‘you know I did it!’
‘Well,’ Red conceded, after furtively assuring himself that no one was within ear-shot, ‘fact is — you did. Well —’ belligerently, ‘what of it?’
‘Why,’ implored the missioner, ‘why take on yourself the punishment for a sin that is not your own?’
Red shuffled his grotesquely covered feet. An awkward grin bared his broken, tobacco-yellowed fangs. He rolled his bloodshot eyes in complicated paroxysms of bashfulness.
‘Aw!—’ he scoffed. ‘Well — say! — ’cordin’ to your tell — ’t ain’t the first time on earth that there fool stunt’s been put acrost.’
- ‘ Fifty-fifty ’ is argot for dividing even. — THE AUTHOR.↩