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OUR KNIGHT IN JAIL
As Haldane emerged from the office into the open glare of the street, he was oppressed with such an intolerable sense of shame that he became sick and faint, and tottered against the policeman, who took no other notice of his condition than the utterance of a jocular remark:
"You haven't got over your drunk yet, I'm athinking."
Haldane made no reply, and the physical weakness gradually passed away. As his stunned and bewildered mind regained the power to act, he became conscious of a morbid curiosity to see how he was regarded by those whom he met. He knew that their manner would pierce like sword-thrusts, and yet every scornful or averted face had a cruel fascination.
With a bitterness of which his young heart had never before had even a faint conception, he remembered that this cold and contemptuous, this scoffing and jeering world was the same in which only yesterday he proposed to tower in such lofty grandeur that the maiden who had slighted him should be consumed with vain regret in memory of her lost opportunity. He had, indeed, gained eminence speedily. All the town was hearing of him; but the pedestal which lifted him so high was composed equally of crime and folly, and he felt as if he might stand as a monument of shame.
But his grim and legal guardians tramped along in the most stolid and indifferent manner. The gathering rabble at their heels had no terror for them. Indeed, they rather enjoyed parading before respectable citizens this dangerous substratum of society. It was a delicate way of saying, "Behold in these your peril, and in us your defence. We are necessary to your peace and security. Respect us and pay us well."
They represented the majesty of the law, which could lay its strong hand on high and low alike, and the publicity which was like a scorching fire to Haldane brought honor to them.
Although the journey seemed interminable to the culprit, they were not long in reaching the police court, where the magistrate presiding had already entered on his duties. All night long, and throughout the entire city, the scavengers of the law had been at work, and now, as a result, every miserable atom of humanity that had made itself a pestilential offence to society was gathered here to be disposed of according to sanatory moral rules.
Hillaton was a comparatively well-behaved and decorous city; but in every large community there is always a certain amount of human sediment, and Haldane felt that he had fallen low indeed, when he found himself classed and huddled with miserable objects whose existence he had never before realized. Near him stood men who apparently had barely enough humanity left to make their dominating animal natures more dangerous and difficult to control. To the instincts of a beast was added something of a man's intelligence, but so developed that it was often little more than cunning. If, when throwing away his manhood, man becomes a creature more to be dreaded than a beast or venomous reptile, whichever he happens most to resemble, woman, parting with her womanhood, scarcely finds her counterpart even in the most noxious forms of earthly existence. She becomes, in her perversion, something that is unnatural and monstrous; something, so opposite to the Creator's design, as to suggest it only in caricature, or, more often, in fiendish mockery. The Gorgons, Sirens, and Harpies of the ancients are scarcely myths, for their fabled forms only too accurately portray, not the superficial and transient outward appearance, but the enduring character within.
Side by side with Haldane stood a creature whose dishevelled, rusty hair, blotched and bloated features, wanton, cunning, restless eyes, combined perfectly to form the head of the mythological Harpy. It required little effort of the imagination to believe that her foul, bedraggled dress concealed the "wings and talons of the vulture." Being still unsteady from her night's debauch, she leaned against the young man, and when he shrank in loathing away, she, to annoy him, clasped him in her arms, to the uproarious merriment of the miscellaneous crowd that is ever present at a police court. Haldane broke away from her grasp with such force as to make quite a commotion, and at the same time said loudly and fiercely to the officer who had arrested him:
"You may have power to take me to jail, but you have not, and shall not have, the right nor the power to subject me to such indignities."
"Silence there! Keep order in the court!" commanded the judge.
The officer removed his prisoner a little further apart from the others, growling as he did so:
"If you don't like your company, you should have kept out of it."
Even in his overwhelming anxiety and distress Haldane could not forbear giving a few curious glances at his companions. He had dropped out of his old world into a new one, and these were its inhabitants. In their degradation and misery he seemed to see himself and his future reflected. What had the policeman said?--"Your company," and with a keener pang than he had yet experienced he realized that this was his company, that he now belonged to the criminal classes. He who yesterday had the right to speak to Laura Romeyn, was now herded with drunkards, thieves, and prostitutes; he who yesterday could enter Mrs. Arnot's parlor, might now as easily enter heaven. As the truth of his situation gradually dawned upon him, he felt as if an icy hand were closing upon his heart.
But little time, however, was given him for observation or bitter revery. With the rapid and routine-like manner of one made both callous and expert by long experience, the magistrate was sorting and disposing of the miserable waifs. Now he has before him the inmates of a "disorderly house," upon which a "raid" had been made the previous night. What is that fair young girl with blue eyes doing among those coarse-featured human dregs, her companions? She looks like a white lily that has been dropped into a puddle. Perhaps that delicate and attractive form is but a disguise for the Harpy's wings and claws. Perhaps a gross, bestial spirit is masked by her oval Madonna-like face. Perhaps she is the victim of one upon whom God will wreak his vengeance forever, though society has for him scarcely a frown.
The puddle is suddenly drained off into some law-ordained receptacle, and the white lily is swept away with it. She will not long suggest a flower that has been dropped into the gutter. The stains upon her soul will creep up into her face, and make her hideous like the rest.
The case of Egbert Haldane was next called. As the policeman had said, his own admissions were now used against him, for the confidential clerk, and, if there was need, the broken-nosed reporter, were on hand to testify to all that had been said. The young man made no attempt to conceal, but tried to explain more fully the circumstances which led to the act, hoping that in them the justice would find such extenuating elements as would prevent a committal to prison.
The judge recognized and openly acknowledged the fact that it was not a case of deliberate wrongdoing, and he ordered the arrest of the superior young gentleman who had introduced the New York gamblers to their victim; and yet in the eye of the law it was a clear case of embezzlement; and, as Mr. Arnot's friend, the magistrate felt little disposition to prevent things from taking their usual course. The prisoner must either furnish bail at once, or be committed until he could do so, or until the case could be properly tried. As Haldane was a comparative stranger in Hillaton there was no one to whom he felt he could apply, and he supposed it would require some little time for his mother to arrange the matter. Upon his signifying that he could not furnish bail immediately, the judge promptly ordered his committal to the common jail of the city, which happened to be at some distance from the building then employed for the preliminary examinations.
It was while on his way to this place of detention that he heard Mrs. Arnot's voice, and encountered her eyes and those of Laura Romeyn. His first impulse was to end both his suffering and himself by some desperate act, but he was powerless even to harm himself.
The limit of endurance, however had been reached. The very worst that he could imagine had befallen him. Laura Romeyn had looked upon his unutterable shame and disgrace. From a quivering and almost agonizing sensibility to his situation he reacted into sullen indifference. He no longer saw the sun shining in the sky, nor the familiar sights of the street; he no longer heard nor heeded the jeering rabble that came tramping after. He became for the time scarcely more than a piece of mechanism, that barely retained the power of voluntary motion, but had lost ability to feel and think. When, at last, he entered his narrow cell, eight feet by eight, the wish half formed itself in his mind that it was six feet by two, and that he might hide in it forever.
He sat down on the rough wooden couch which formed the only furniture of the room, and buried his face in his hands, conscious only of a dull, leaden weight of pain. He made no effort to obtain legal counsel or to communicate his situation to his mother. Indeed, he dreaded to see her, and he felt that he could not look his sisters in the face again. The prison cell seemed a refuge from the terrible scorn of the world, and his present impulse was to cower behind its thick walls for the rest of his life.
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