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Chapter 3


THE ROAD TO OBLIVION

Five of us stood on the platform of the Pennsylvania station; one stayed
behind as the train moved out. He was the answer to the question, "_Quis
custodiet ipsos custodes?_"--"Who shall watch the watchman?" Our two
marshals were to see that we did not escape; he was to see that they saw.
But his function ended when the departing whistle blew. He was a lean,
pale, taciturn personage in black; Marshal Henkel had perhaps substituted
him for the handcuffs. There was nothing between us and freedom now but
our brace of tipstaves, the train crew, the public in and out of the
train, the train itself moving at a fifty mile an hour pace, the law, and
our own common sense. Moreover, we had decided to see the adventure
through. Something more than nine hundred miles, and twenty-six hours, lay
between us and Atlanta.

The elder of our two guardians was a short but wide gentleman of
forty-five, of respectable attire and aspect, as of one who had seen the
world and had formed no flattering opinion of its quality, yet had not
permitted its imperfections to overcome his native amiable tolerance. He
was prepared to take things and men easy while they came that way, but
could harden and insist upon due occasion. Human nature--those varieties
of it, at least, which are not incompatible with criminal tendencies--was
his "middle name" (as he might have phrased it), so that in his proper
social environment he was not apt to make social mistakes. This
environment, however, could not but be constituted, in the main, of
convicts either actual or potential; and there was probably no citizen,
however high his standing or spotless his ostensible record, who in this
official's estimate might not have prison gates either before him or
behind him, or both. To be able to maintain, under the shadow of
convictions so harsh, a disposition so sunny, was surely an admirable
trait of character.

His assistant in the present job was still in the morning stage of his
career; a big, red-headed, rosy-cheeked, and obtrusively brawny youth of
five and twenty. He might be regarded as the hand of steel in the glove of
velvet of the combination. He may have carried bracelets of steel in his
rear pockets; but his associate earnestly assured me that such was far
from being the case. "I don't mind telling you the truth, Mr. Hawthorne,"
he confided to me with a companionable twist of the near corner of his
mouth, "I'd as soon think of cuffs, for gentlemen like you two, as nothin'
in the world! Why, it's like this--as far as I'm concerned, I'd just put a
postage-stamp on you and ship you off by yourselves--I'd know you'd turn
up all right of yourselves at the other end! That's me; but of course, we
has to foller the regulations; so there you are!" And the ruddy youngster
stretched his herculean limbs and grinned, as who should say, "Cuffs!
Hell! What d'yer know about that? Ain't I good for ten of yer?"

As the comely Pennsylvania landscape slid by, my friend of a lifetime and
I looked out on it with eyes that felt good-by. For us, the broad earth,
bright sunshine and fresh air were a phantasmagoria--we had no further
part in them. From college days onward, through just fifty years of life,
we had traveled almost side by side, giving the world the best that was in
us, not without honor; and now our country had stamped us as felons and
was sending us to jail. It had suddenly discovered in us a social and
moral menace to its own integrity and order, and had put upon us the
stigma of rats who would gnaw the timbers of the ship of state and corrupt
its cargo. The end of it all was to be a penitentiary cell, and disgrace
forever, to us and to ours.

But was the disgrace ours and theirs? When you kick a mongrel cur it lies
down on its back and holds up its paws, whining. But the thoroughbred acts
quite otherwise; you may kill it, but you cannot conquer it. We would not
lie supine under the assault of the blundering bully. Disgrace cannot be
inflicted from without,--it can only come to a man from within. And the
disgrace which is attempted unjustly must sooner or later be turned back
on those who attempted it; the men whom our country had deputed to handle
the machinery of law had blundered, and had convicted and condemned those
who had done no wrong. I had never felt or expressed anything stronger
than contempt for any particular persons actively concerned in our
indictment and trial--the pack that had snapped and snarled so busily at
our heels. Till the last I had believed that their purpose could not be
accomplished,--that the nation would awake to what was being done in the
nation's court, under sanction of the nation's laws. The public must at
last realize the moral impossibility that men who had all that is dearest
to men to lose, should throw it away for such motives as were ascribed to
us--ascribed, but, as we felt, not established. And when the public
realized that, thought I, they would perceive that the shame which the
incompetent handling of the legal machinery aimed to fix on us must
finally root itself not in us but in the public; since the world and
posterity, which, more for our names' sake than for our own, would note
what was being done, would not distinguish between the employee and the
master--the country and the country's attorneys, and would hold the former
and not the latter accountant.

I was mistaken; the public took the thing resignedly to say the least. And
though I consented to no individual animosities--for individuals in such
transactions are but creatures of their trade, subdued to what they work
in, like the dyer's hand--I could not so easily absolve the impersonal
master. The fault inhered of course not in any grudge of the community
against us, but in the prevalent civic neglect (in which, in my time, I
had participated with the rest) of duties to the state, theoretically
impersonal, but which cannot proceed otherwise than on personal accounts.

Man is frail; but, next to sincere religious conviction, no principle
exists so strong to control him as _noblesse oblige_--the impulse to keep
faith and to deal honestly imposed not by his individual conscience alone,
but by the pure traditions of his inheritance. The man who has the honor
of his forefathers to preserve--an honor which may be a part of the
nation's honor--is a hundred-fold better fortified against base action
than is the son of thieves, or even of nobodies. The latter may find
heroism enough to resist temptation, but the former is not tempted; he
dismisses the thing at the start as preposterous. It is no credit to him
to put such temptation aside, but it is black infamy and treachery to make
terms with it. If he do make terms with it, no punishment can be too
severe--though I take leave to say that the external penalties which state
or nation can inflict are trivial compared with those deadly ones which
torture him from within; but before crediting him with having yielded, the
state or nation should not merely assume his innocence--a stipulation
which our law indeed makes, but which is notoriously disregarded by
prosecuting attorneys--but should weigh and sift with the most anxious and
jealous scrutiny anything and everything which might appear inconsistent
therewith. A son of a thief who steals does but follow his inborn
instinct; but a thief whose ancestors were gentlemen is a monster, and
monsters are rare.

In England and the other older countries, the principle of _noblesse
oblige_ still has weight with the public as well as with the individual;
here, the welter of democracy, which has not evolved into distinct human
form, uniformly ignores it; leveling down, not up, it is quick to see a
scoundrel in any man. Meanwhile, instead of taking thought to abate the
public mania for success in the form of concrete wealth which multiplies
inducements to crime, it creates shallow statutes to punish acceptance of
such inducements, with the result that while in its practical life it
rushes in one direction, it erects in its courts a fantastic counsel of
perfection which points in a direction precisely opposite. Our law tends
not merely to the penalizing of real crimes, but to the manufacture of
artificial ones; and the simple standard of natural or intuitive morals is
bewilderingly complicated with a régimen of patent nostrums, conceived in
error and administered in folly.

Sitting in the car window with my friend, I revolved these things, while
the sunny landscape wheeled past outside, and our guardians chewed gum in
the adjoining section. After all was said and done, amid whatever was
strange and improbable, he and I were going to the penitentiary in the
guise of common swindlers. A pioneer on the western plains, in the old
days, riding homeward after several hours' absence, found his cabin a
charred ruin, his property destroyed, his wife lying outraged with her
throat cut, his children huddled among the débris with their brains dashed
out. Sitting on his bronco, he contemplated the immeasurable horror of the
catastrophe, and finally muttered, "This is ridiculous!"

"This is ridiculous!" I remarked to my companion; and he consented with a
smile; when language goes bankrupt, the simple phrase is least inadequate.
"We may as well have lunch," he said; and we rose and journeyed to the
rear of the train, sedulously attended by our deputies. The spontaneous
routine of the physical life is often a valuable support to the spiritual,
reminding the latter that we exist from one moment to another, and do
wisely to be economical of forecasts or retrospects. We journeyed back,
through innocent scenes of traveling life, to the smoking compartment,
which happened to be vacant; and under the consoling influence of tobacco
our elder companion sought to lighten the shadows of destiny.

"You gentlemen," he said, uttering smoke enjoyingly through mouth and
nostrils, "don't need to worry none. It's like this: the judge figured to
let you off easy. He's bound, of course, to play up to the statute by
handin' you your bit, but, to start with, he cuts it down all he can, and
then what does he do but date you back four months to the openin' of the
trial! All right! After four months you're eligible for parole on a year
and a day's sentence, ain't yer? Your trial began on November 25th, and
to-day is the 24th of March. That means, don't it, that you make your
application the very next thing after they gets you on the penitentiary
register to-morrer! Why, look-a-here," he continued, warming to his theme,
and becoming, like Gladstone as depicted by Beaconsfield, intoxicated with
the exuberance of his own verbosity, "it wouldn't surprise me, not a bit,
sir, if you and your mate was to slip back with us on the train to-morrer
evenin', and the whole bunch of us be back in little old New York along
about Wednesday! That's right! An' what I says is, that ain't no
punishment--that's no more'n takin' a pleasure trip down South, at the
suitable time o' year! An' I guess I been on the job long enough to know
what I'm talkin' about!"

We guessed he knew that he was talking benevolent fictions; and yet there
was plausibility in his argument. The law did not allow parole on
sentences of a year or under, but on anything over one year, a convict was
eligible, and our sentence of twenty-four hours over the twelvemonth
therefore brought us within this provision. In imposing that extra day,
the judge could hardly have been motived by anything except the intention
to open this door to us; and although the regular meeting of the parole
board at the prison was not due just then, we were informed that an extra
meeting might be summoned at any time. The board consisted of the warden
of the prison, the doctor, and the official who presided at all parole
board meetings at the various federal penitentiaries throughout the
country,--Robert LaDow. The law declares that a majority of the board
decides the applications that come before it; and as two members of the
board make a quorum, it seemed obvious that the warden and the doctor of
Atlanta Penitentiary would serve our turn--if they wanted to. Mr. LaDow,
of course, might be appealed to by telegraph if expedient.

Turning the thing over, therefore, with the cozening rogue in front of us
drawing our attention to the buttered side as often as it appeared, we
could hardly avoid the conclusion that there was a possibility of his
being right. We might be required to remain in Atlanta barely long enough
to don a suit of prison clothing and to have our bertillons made, and
forthwith make a triumphal return home, with our scarlet sins washed white
as snow. Of such an imprisonment it might be said, as wrote the poet of
the baby that died at birth,

"If it so soon was to be done for,
One wonders what it was begun for,"

but it would not be the first thing that we had noticed in Federal
administration of justice which might have been similarly criticized.

My allusion to this subject here is only by way of leit-motif for a
thorough discussion hereafter. The juggling with the parole law, by the
Department of Justice and the parole boards, is one of the most
indefensible and cruel practical jokes that "the authorities" play upon
prisoners. It caused two deaths by slow torture while I was at Atlanta,
as shall be shown in the proper place; and there is no reason to suppose
that the percentage at other prisons was not as large or larger. The
sufferings short of death that are due to it cannot be calculated. A
practical joke?--yes; but there is a practical purpose back of it. The
miserable men who are practised upon by this means, helpless but hoping,
are led to believe that they may buy freedom at the price of treachery
to their fellows. Can it be credited that a convict in his cell, with
perhaps years of living death before him,--you do not yet know what that
means, but if I live to tell this story, you will be able to guess at
its significance before we part--will refuse the opportunity offered to
end it at once in return for merely speaking one or two names?--a
convict--a creature outlawed, crushed, damned, dehumanized,
despised,--can we look from him for a heroism, a martyrdom, which might
shed fresh honor on the highest name in the community? I confess that I
would not have looked for it a year ago, and I doubt whether you look
for it now. But, I have to report, with joy in the goodness and
selflessness in men whom you and I have presumed to look down upon, that
in very few instances that I have heard of, and in almost none that I
know, has a convict thus terribly tempted even hesitated to answer--NO!
But many an old and cherished prejudice will begin painfully to gnaw its
way out of your complacent mind before we are done.

The City of Brotherly Love flickered by and was left behind, like the
sentiment which it once stood for. We were headed for Washington, where
the will and conscience of the nation take form and pass into effect.
Government of the people by lawyers, for lawyers; did they know what
they were doing? The Constitution, bulwark of our liberties; the letter
of the law, technicalities, precedents, procedure, the right of the
individual merged in the public right, and lost there! The House--five
hundred turbulent broncos, each neighing for his own bin; the
Senate--four score portentous clubmen, adjusting the conservative
shirt-front of dignity and moderation over the license of privilege and
"the interests"; the Executive--dillydallying between nonentity and the
Big Stick; the Supreme Court--a handful of citizens and participators in
our common human nature, magically transmuted into omniscient and
omnipotent gods by certificates of appointment! And the rest of our
hundred millions, in this era of new discoveries and profound upheavals,
on this battlefield of Armageddon between Hell and Heaven, in this
crumbling of the old deities and the looming of the Unknown,--are we to
lie down content and docile and suffer this hybrid monster of
Frankenstein, under guise of governing, to squat on our necks, bind our
Titan limbs, bandage our awakening eyes, gag our free voices, sterilize
our civic manhood, and debase us from sons of divine liberty into the
underpinning of an oligarchy?

My friend and I--while our licensed proprietors napped with one eye
open--smiled to each other perhaps, recognizing how the prick of
personal injury and injustice will arouse far-reaching rebellion against
human wrongs and imperfections in general. But our famous American sense
of humor may be worked overtime, and, from a perception of the
incongruity and relative importance of things, be insensibly degraded
into pusillanimous indifference to everything, good or bad. The soberest
observer may concede that there is a spiritual energy and movement
behind visible phenomena, whose purport and aim it is the province of
the wise to understand. The peril of Armageddon lies in the fact that
evil never fights fair, but ever masks itself in the armor of good. Not
only so, but good may be changed into evil by hasty and misdirected
application, and do more harm--because unsuspected--than premeditated
evil itself. Public endowment of chosen persons with power is good and
necessary in our form of civilization, and the chosen ones may accept it
in good faith. But in a community where everybody has business of his
own to mind, and is put to it so to conduct it as to keep off the poor
rates, deputed powers, designed to be limited, always tend to become
absolute. It is heady wine, too, and intoxicates those who partake of
it. And it is only a seeming paradox that absolute and irresponsible
power is more apt to develop in a democracy than under any other form of
human association. Holders of it, moreover, instead of fighting for
supremacy among themselves, and thus annulling their own
mischievousness, as would at a first glance seem likely, soon learn the
expediency of agreeing together; each keeps to his own area of
despotism, cooperating, not interfering with the rest. But the system
inevitably takes the form of rings within rings, each interior one
possessing progressively superior dominion. At last we come to a central
and small group of men who are truly absolute, and are supported and
defended in their stronghold by the self-interested loyalty of the rest.
But they do not proclaim their supremacy; on the contrary, they hide it
under clever interpretations of law, and, at need, by securing the
enactment of other laws fitted to the exigency of the occasion. If there
is remonstrance or revolt among their subjects, they subdue it partly by
pointing out that it is the law, and not themselves, that is
responsible; and partly by employing other legal forms to put down the
resistance. You cannot catch them; they vanish under your grasp as
principles, not men. Their voice is never heard saying, "I will!" but
always, "The law requires." And these autocrats--this oligarchy--are
only men like ourselves, with like passions, limitations and sinful
inheritance. They were not born to the purple--they just happened to get
to it. But being possessed of it--and apart of course from any crude and
obvious malfeasance in office--they cannot be "legally" dislodged; and
if they step aside, it is only to let alter egos take their place. The
King of England--the Emperor of Germany--can be deposed by the people,
and his head cut off; but the free and independent--but
law-abiding--citizens of the United States cannot throw off this subtle
tyranny, because it is identified with legal provisions which we have
insensibly allowed to creep into the inmost and most personal fibers of
our lives. As for modifying or abolishing the law itself--that would be
anarchy!

It would be foolish to contend that our rulers are actuated by any
personal malevolence or even, at first, by unlawful personal ambition;
they are, as I have said, for the most part lawyers, and law is their
fetish--their magical cure-all and philosopher's stone. They almost
persuade themselves, perhaps, that we the people make the laws; whereas
not more than one man in ten thousand--even of lawyers--knows what the
law in any given case is, nor would the majority of us approve any
particular law, if we were afforded the chance. Any one of us will
support the law against his enemy, but not, in behalf of his enemy,
against himself. But our legalized sultans and satraps, Councils of Ten
and Grand Inquisitors, keep an easy conscience; the Law is King and can
do no wrong. A few centuries ago it was law in England to kill a man for
taking any personal liberties; there was not much harm in that, for most
of the persons that counted were above the law, being nobles or
gentlemen. But our way is far more injurious; if a man takes a personal
liberty, the cry is, Put him in jail! Death is a penalty which only
disposes of a man forever; but jail is poisonous; the man survives, but
he becomes criminal, and an enemy of society. And this cry for jail does
not appear to emanate from legal tribunals merely, but we the people
ourselves have caught it up, and invoke cells and chains for the
lightest infraction of public or personal convenience; nay, we clamor
for more laws to supplement our already overburdened statute-books. Thus
do we thoughtlessly strengthen the hands of our masters. The nostrum
which they manufactured to govern us withal, and which at first had to
be administered to us willy-nilly, has now become like that notorious
patent medicine for which the children cry. We kiss the rod--as long as
it is laid across our fellows' backs and not our own. And the rule of
Law, by lawyers, for lawyers, shows no signs of vanishing from our
earth. Only convicts and ex-convicts dissent; for they know what they
dissent from. As an unidentified friend wrote to me of late, "No thief
ere felt the halter draw, With good opinion of the law"; but the thief
had reason on his side. And it may yet come to pass that his reasons may
be listened to.

Darkness set in as we entered the sacred soil of Virginia; night lay
before us--our next night would be spent inside penitentiary walls. Was
it a dream, or would some cosmic cataclysm occur in season to prevent
it? No: the ancient routine of one fact after another, of cause and
effect, would keep on with no regard for our sensibilities; however
important we might appear to ourselves, we were but specks infinitesimal
in the vast scheme of things. Miracles and special providences are for
story books; if you are the victim of abuses, be sure that the remedy
will come not through averting them, but by carrying them out to the
finish. On the morning of his execution, it seemed incredible that
Charles I should be beheaded; but he mounted the scaffold, laid his head
upon the block, and the masked man lifted his sword and cut it off. All
that is left for you is not to falter--to keep down that tremor and
sickening of the heart; when Danton of the French Revolution reached the
guillotine, he was heard to mutter, "Danton, no weakness!" And many an
unrecorded Danton, on the night before his appointed death, has lain
down and slept soundly. It recurred to my memory that my father, shortly
before his death, had said to an old friend of his, "I trust in Julian."
On the day following his death, that friend had journeyed to Concord to
tell me those words--returning to Boston immediately. My father's son
had lived to be proclaimed a felon; but I slept sound that night.

All next day we were passing through the raw red soil of the South, with
its cotton plantations, forlorn at this season, its omnipresent idle
negroes, and its white folks, lean and solemn, standing guard over what
fate had left to them. At stopping places we would step out for a few
minutes on the platform of the observation-car, to breathe the air and
feel the sunshine,--the affectionate deputies close at our elbows. Some
of our fellow passengers were bound for Florida or Cuba, to escape the
crudity of the northern March; "May be we'll meet up again there!" some
of them said, innocently unsuspicious of what sort of characters they
were addressing. Paradise and the Pit travel side by side on this earth,
and find each other very tolerable company.

Into Atlanta station the train at last rolled; the journey to oblivion
was all but finished. The restless little city, turmoiling in its boom,
swarmed around us; we had to wait half an hour, our gripsacks in our
hands, for the surface-car to the prison, three miles or more beyond the
town. We awaited it with some impatience--such is the unreasonableness
of our mortal nature. At last we were rumbling off on our trip of twenty
minutes, sitting unnoticed in the midway seats, our considerate but
careful guardians on the watch at the front and rear platforms. The car
took its time; it stopped, started again, stopped, started, after the
manner of ordinary cars; oh, for a magic carpet or pneumatic tube, to
make an end of this! or for a thousand years! It was as if the headsman
were making preliminary flourishes with his sword, ere delivering his
blow. These were difficult minutes.

They ended; "Here we are!" We alighted, and advanced to the entrance of
an expanse of ornamental grounds, with a cement pathway leading up to an
extensive fortified structure--a wall thirty feet high sweeping to right
and left from the tall steel gateway, with the summits of stone towers
emerging beyond. I stepped out briskly, in advance of the others; I
noticed some bright-hued flowers in a bed on the right. In a few moments
I was ascending a wide flight of steps; as I did so, the gateway yawned,
and two men in uniform stepped out. There was a transient halt, a few
words were exchanged; we went forward, and the gate closed behind us.

Julian Hawthorne

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