One and Threepence


NAVAL docks, Liverpool. A large gray figure, looming in the fog like some clumsy bear escaped from a circus, achieved the more or less perilous swing from the gangway ladder to our ship’s deck and, growling, spraddled and sprawled his way across the rivet-studded plates to where I stood. His voice, which issued from an unseen aperture in his beard, was quite in keeping with the atmospheric conditions: it was very much like a foghorn, though there was a rough, strained quality to it which, if found in a properly tended signal apparatus, would have called for the judicious application of oil. He drew his ponderous figure to its full height.

‘H’ are you the myte, sir?' he rumbled. Overbearing he was, and I sensed the habit of small authority. Hm-m! Where had I heard that tone of voice before? Memory slid back twenty years to a certain church parlor in an Illinois village where an English choirmaster had tried for many futile months to overcome the restlessness of little bodies by sheer vocal violence. Now the officer of the deck on even a small naval auxiliary vessel does not fancy being treated like a boy soprano by a stranger, however vast and bearish he may be. My reply was not uncivil, but perhaps a little more brusque than duty called for. ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘And you?’

He regarded me with the terrible dignity of a druid priest. ‘H’I’m the Beadle,’ he said briefly, as though that explained everything.

‘The Beadle?’ I queried, sparring for time as I cast about desperately for a clue to the meaning of this title — he used it as though it were a password. ‘The Beadle,’ I repeated lamely, ‘er — of what ? ’

‘The Beadle of Bootle, ’ he declaimed stoutly, and fell to staring ferociously at a spot three inches above my head.

Little wonder I felt flattered. That a character from a hitherto undiscovered Gilbert and Sullivan opera should be calling on me! Especially that he should take the trouble to announce himself on such a cold and foggy day! It was overwhelming. I was about to ask him whether he wished to come into the wardroom and tip us a stave or two, when he broke in on me with a queer singsong recitation: —

‘H’I’ve a summins, sor, for the person o’ the capting ’r the myte o’ this vessil t’ appear in ’Is Washup’s chymbers the Bootle District Cawt, h’as a witness t’ identify a tenpenny tin o’ beef tykin from the person of one Tawmus Miggins by Constable Smithers alleged t’ ’ave been stolen from this vessil at tennerclock Weddensday mornin’ h’October ’ighth.’

A little breathless, he drew a large handkerchief from his pocket, applied it to his nose, and blew a powerful blast, as though sounding a brisk fanfare to herald the majesty of the law. I was impressed: no one hearing this clear bugle call at the end of so solemn a pronouncement could doubt the authenticity of his errand. It was as a seal to a state paper; it inspired awe and paralyzed resistance.

To be sure, I was not at all reluctant about going. I had long wanted to view the swift march of British justice, about which one hears so much, and lost no time in assuring the Beadle that I would attend the trial. His errand concluded, a sudden change came over the man. He leaned forward and with a confidential wink whispered, ‘ Yer’ll get one and threepence fee, yer know. ’Andy, yus?'

Ah, so I was to be paid —and handsomely, by George!

The next morning, as I was finishing breakfast, an orderly appeared at the wardroom door and called my name. He was a young chap from the New York Ghetto, and his eloquent eyes, I noticed, were like saucers. When asked what he wanted, he mumbled unintelligibly, and finally stretched discipline to the point of beckoning in a most theatrical manner for me to come outside. Once on deck I quickly perceived the cause of his excitement — the poor lad thought I was about to be arrested. There stood a policeman not a shade under six feet, six inches, in height, his presence radiating the awful authority that goes with many bright brass buttons and a full waistline. He was brief and to the point. ‘Thinkin’ as ’ow yer moight ’ave diffyculty in findin’ the Cawt of Bootle, h’I’ve come t’ show yer the wye. ’

A chance to walk down the street beside so titanic a figure — to me the British police have always been a race of demigods, calm, aloof, omniscient — was not to be scorned, so I hurried into my overcoat and was soon striding along beside him. After a block or two of walking in silence, he essayed a question.

‘H’I’ve a brother in America oo’s a patrolman in Tchicago. ’E ’roites me ’e’s mykin’ forty pound a month. ’E’s ’avin’ me on, now, is n’t ’e?’

It seemed almost sacrilege to destroy his perfect faith in the theory that no policeman could be paid two hundred dollars a month, but I was forced to admit that his brother had not exaggerated.

‘H’and me gettin’ twelve pound a month,’ he murmured. Abruptly he brightened; in solemn optimism spoke. ‘But then me uniform’s found. I fancy ’e don’t get a bit o’ cloth like this over there, sir, do ’e?’

He certainly doesn’t! The faultless fit, the smooth, sleek quality of a hobby’s uniform, have never been successfully imitated.

Halfway down a narrow, desertedlooking little street my companion executed a grave and deliberate salute. There was no one in sight save ourselves, and I naturally looked at him in some perplexity. He colored a deep red. ‘H’I lives there,’ he said awkwardly, jerking his hand back toward a window we had just passed, ‘and me little gel likes a bit ’f a nod.’

His daughter, it, seemed,was six years old. I like to think of her standing there in the window, soberly accepting so magnificent a gesture!


At the next corner the police station hove into view, a sombre gray building so solid and formidable as to look as though it had been piled up by some prehistoric upheaval of the earth. The courtroom where we soon found ourselves was equally dark and forbidding. No sooner had I settled myself in a chair than I heard a voice in my ear asking if I was ‘quite comfortable.’ I looked up to see the now familiar cocked hat of the Beadle. ‘H’it eyen’t goaning ter be long ’ere, sir. Your cyse is number three, sir.’ Scarcely had this assurance been offered me when there came the noise of scraping chairs and shuffling feet, and I rose with the rest of them while the magistrate took his seat.

It is rather difficult to describe him. He looked like Scraggsy, if you recollect that sublime Western character in our fiction of two decades ago, whose appearance was that of ’a forlorn hope lost in a fog.’ Bald, rather wizened, with a long wispy moustache colored by tobacco, he wore his glasses wall down on his nose and looked over them with a pair of pale, cold eyes. He had a peculiar nervous smile which came to his face at the most unexpected times, and, since he was the most absentminded man alive, it resulted in his interrogating witnesses with the air of one engaged in Holy Inquisition, and sentencing prisoners with the bland pleasantry of a bishop. A court clerk sat on his right, a clerk whose duties seemed to consist of keeping some sort of record, supplying statistics, and recalling ‘Is Washup’s’ vagrant mind to earth when it took flight in the ethereal void of abstraction.

The first case was rather unusual. There was no defendant. The plaintiff was a typical liverpool slavey, an untidy slattern with dirty red face, fierce hawklike eyes, and a greasy nondescript costume. Not one touch of decent feminine care could be discerned in either her face or her person. The magistrate looked at her in cold disapproval, shuddered slightly, and looked inquiringly at the bailiff. The bailiff opened his mouth to speak, but the hopeless creature cut him short. Striking an attitude, she burst forth with pent-up violence in a rasping voice: —

‘Me ’usbing’s walkin’ aht with a young woming, Yer Washup; h’apassin’ hisself orf h’as a single man, an’ him married to me, stroike me pink, this two year, the bloody little—’

The magistrate, pale with horror, nearly broke his gavel in checking the flood of gutter sewerage that started from her twisted mouth. He looked at her sternly for a minute; then some little ray of pity for her ghastly, forlorn condition lit his face and he said, kindly enough: ‘My poor young woman, do you approach His Majesty’s Court with any proof of infidelity on the part of your husband?'

‘Awr-r-r-r! Proof be blowed!’ she croaked contemptuously. ‘Eyen’t h’I tellin’ Yer Washup h’as ’ow me ’usbing is walkin’ aht, the dirty —

Again the gavel crashed. ‘Young woman, lacking proof of infidelity, it is not within the jurisdiction of this Court to interfere with the personal social preferences of His Majesty’s subjects. Dismissed!' Suddenly the nervous smile appeared on his face, and he drawled absently: ' Er — aw — might I suggest that you take a few of the more obvious steps toward improving your outward appearance?’

He conferred a moment behind his hand with the clerk, and, seemingly refreshed by the latter’s nod of approval, turned to the next case. The prisoner appeared through a sort of trapdoor leading out of subterranean chambers, giving the impression of an inexhaustible store below, and the very bailiff handed him up with a gesture which seemed to say, ‘How does this one suit? We’ve a large assortment below, y’ know.’ Your Briton takes pride in his work.

Charge, wife beating. Third offense. Sentence, thirty days in the workhouse, at hard labor — ‘and the next time you lay violent hands upon your miserable wife this Court will strive to be more ingenious. Bailiff, look into the circumstances of this creature’s family, and report to me personally.’ Turning to his clerk, the magistrate whispered indignantly, — all apathy had left him for the moment, — and the clerk nodded a great many times and glared also as the prisoner was being hustled below.

There was a brief delay, during which the magistrate’s thoughts went far afield, if one were to judge by the quick play of expressions on his face. Then the bailiff brought up the third case, and the Beadle leaned over and nudged me. ‘H’it’s im!’ he whispered dramatically. ‘Him’ was a white-faced, furtive little rat of a man, who stood twisting his cap like a schoolboy and blinking terrified eyes at the Court while his wretched shoulders twitched apprehensively. The magistrate leaned far out over his little desk, adjusted his glasses a notch lower on his nose, gestured aimlessly with his left hand, raised his eyebrows to an incredible height, and cleared his throat as though to speak — remember, the charge had not yet been read. Then he blushed, said ‘Sorry!’ and relapsed into grimacing vacancy while the charge was being read.

Solemnly a policeman with a fierce red face and a curiously mild voice testified that he had ‘caught the little chap red-handed.’ My name was then called, and I mounted the witness stand and identified the tin of beef—there was no doubt about its being navy property. A long silence ensued, during which the magistrate, with the appearance of not having heard a word spoken during the last five minutes, tapped out some intricate pattern on his desk with a pencil. Recalled to this world at last, — I’m sure the clerk actually nudged him, — the worthy dispenser of justice again stretched the law of gravitation to the breaking point by leaning a full twothirds of his body out over his bench, and said: ‘Eh— come, come, my poor fellow, and what is your wage?’

‘Three puns a wake, sor,’ said the unfortunate wretch. The magistrate in his astonishment sat down very abruptly, dropped his pencil, lifted his eyebrows to the top of his head, set his glasses on the very tip of his nose, and gasped in a sirangled whisper: ‘How — much — did — you — say?’ ‘Three puns a wake, Yer Washup,’ reiterated the prisoner with some defiance. Some little spark of manhood, as yet not quite extinguished, evidently impelled him to resent such exaggerated incredulity as to his earning power.

Fiercely the magistrate looked at him, immediately forgot himself and smiled engagingly, caught himself at it and frowned, chewed his moustache, and with a helpless gesture turned to his clerk, with whom he conferred for several moments. (Why did I suddenly think of the court scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland?) Finally he turned on the prisoner and said: ‘If, as you say, you are earning three pounds a week — eh, three pounds a week, I understood you to say?’ The prisoner nodded defiantly again. ‘If, I say, you are getting a wage of three pounds a week’ (even at the third repetition he could n’t prevent a shade of mistrust. — almost apologetic now — from creeping into his voice), ‘what on earth possessed you that you should steal a tenpenny tin of beef?’

The little cockney braced himself, gave his hat a frantic twist, coughed, and blurted out: ‘H’impulse o’ the momint, sor!’

The magistrate threw up both his hands, smiled benignly, checked himself and glared balefully, looked at the bailiff as if for corroboration, tugged at his moustache, peered over his glasses at me, realized he was glowering like a tiger, changed expressions, smiled and gave me a slight bow, twitched his eyebrows, picked up his pencil, and turned helplessly to the clerk, with whom he conversed behind his hand. Swinging back to his desk, he picked up some papers, read them half through, quite unconsciously, and came to with a start. After pronouncing the sentence, which consisted of a fiftyshilling fine, he beamed upon the prisoner, looked daggers at the policeman who had appeared against him, raised his eyebrows at me, and coughed sternly. As I left the courtroom, he was absently staring an Italian woman out of countenance, and, pencil again in hand, beating out the measures of a particularly sprightly minuet.


I’m afraid the Beadle was terribly disappointed that day. Most unctuously he guided me to the cashier’s window, where I received my princely witness fee of one and threepence. Expectantly he waited, but I dared not give it him. I knew where he would spend it; and, were his complexion to deepen one more shade, there was no doubt in my mind that he would burst into flames. So instead I sought out the genial giant who had acted as my guide, and asked him to take it to his ’little gel.’

‘She’ll want the old ’oman t’ buy ’er h’a ribbing, sor, tremenjous red,’ he prophesied as we strode back to the ship. ‘H’eye for color, that little gel!’ he added proudly.

Possibly the color of which he spoke reflected his thoughts into gruesome channels; at any rate his next remark startled me. ‘ You ’ve an ’xstrawd’n’ry number of murders in America, ’ave n’t you?’ he asked abruptly.

‘Yes,’ I admitted reluctantly, ‘I’m afraid that is true.’

‘H’I eyen’t speakin’ o’ wot you’d corl common murders, sor. Mean t’ say, sor, look at the constables an’ police they’re a-murderin’ h’every dye in America!’

He was obviously leading up to something, so I encouraged him. ‘Ah!’ I said. ‘Shocking, is n’t it!’

‘Guv’nor,’ he said, with terrible earnestness, ‘h’it eyen’t once in ten year that one of ours is done in, h’an’ they ’re a-killin’ them every dye in America! Why?’

‘What is the reason?’ I asked, for the want of any solution myself.

Writers here and abroad have grappled for a hundred years with the British mind. Learned men have written volumes about it, shallow essayists have snapped innumerable epigrams at it, poets have made of it great thunders. Little did this humble policeman realize that in his answer he summed it up for all time.

‘Ah, well y’ moight ask!’ he cried triumphantly. ‘Your police are all armed. We’re not. They can’t very well shoot us, knowin’ we’re not armed, now, can they?’