Chapter 10




THE BENCH.


The wooden Jail and the wooden Court-house of Port Nassau faced one another across an unpaved grass-grown square planted with maples. To-day--for the fall of the leaf was at hand--these maples flamed with hectic yellows and scarlets; and indeed thousands of leaves, stripped by the recent gales, already strewed the cross-walks and carpeted the ground about the benches disposed in the shade--pleasant seats to which, of an empty afternoon, wives brought their knitting and gossiped while their small children played within sight; haunts, later in the day, of youths who whittled sticks or carved out names with jack-knives--ancient solace of the love-stricken; rarely thronged save when some transgressor was brought to the stocks or the whipping-post.

These instruments of public discipline stood on the northern side of the square, before the iron-studded door of the Jail. The same hand, may be, that had blackened over the Jail's weather-boarded front with a coat of tar, had with equal propriety whitewashed the facade of the Court-house; an immaculate building, set in the cool shade, its straight-lined front broken only by a recessed balcony, whence, as occasion arose, Mr. George Bellingham, Chief Magistrate, delivered the text of a proclamation, royal or provincial, or declared the poll when the people of Port Nassau chose their Selectmen.

This morning Mr. Bellingham held session within, in the long, airy Court-room, and dispensed justice with the help of three fellow-magistrates--Mr. Trask, Mr. Somershall, and our friend Mr. Wapshott. They sat at a long baize-covered table, with the Justices' Clerk to advise them. On the wall behind and above their heads hung a framed panel emblazoned with the royal escutcheon, the lion and unicorn for supporters, an inscription in old French to the effect that there is shame in evil-thinking, and another:--

          CAR         II.

FID DEF.

distributed among the four corners of the panel, with the date 1660 below. This had been erected (actually in 1664, but the artist had received instructions to antedate it) when the good people of Massachusetts after some demur rejoiced in the Restoration and accepted King Charles II. as defender of their Faith.

The four magistrates had dealt (as we know) with a case of Sabbath-breaking; had inflicted various terms of imprisonment on two drunkards and a beggar-woman; had discharged for lack of evidence (but with admonition) a youth accused of profane swearing; and were now working through a list of commoner and more venial offences, such as cheating by the use of false weights.

These four grave gentlemen looked up in slightly shocked deprecation; for the Collector entered without taking account of the constable at the door, save to thrust him aside. The Clerk called "Silence in the Court!" mechanically, and a deputy-beadle at his elbow as mechanically repeated it.

"Your Worships"--the Collector, hat in hand advanced to the table and bowed--"will forgive an interruption which only its urgency can excuse."

"Ah! Captain Vyell, I believe?" Mr. Bellingham arose from his high-backed throne of carved oak, bowed, and extended a hand across the table. "I had heard that you were honouring Port Nassau with a visit; but understanding from our friend Mr. Wapshott that the visit was--er-- not official--that, in fact, it was connected with government business not--er--to be divulged, I forbore to do myself the pleasure--" Mr. Bellingham had a courtly manner and a courtly presence. He was a tallish man, somewhat thin in the face and forehead, of classical features, and a sanguine complexion. He came of a family highly distinguished in the history of Massachusetts; but he was in fact a weak man, though he concealed this by some inherited aptitude for public business and a well-trained committee manner.

"I thank you." The Collector shook the preferred hand and bowed again. "You will pardon my abruptness? A girl has fainted outside here, in the street--"

Mr. Bellingham's well-shaped brows arched themselves a trifle higher.

"Indeed?" he murmured, at a loss.

"A young girl who--as I understand--was suffering public punishment under sentence of yours."

"Yes?" Mr. Bellingham's smile grew vaguer, and his two hands touched finger-tips in front of his magisterial stomach--an adequate stomach but well on the right side of grossness. He glanced at his fellow-magistrates right and left. "It--er---sometimes happens," he suggested.

"I dare say." Captain Vyell took him up. "But she has fainted under the punishment. She has passed the limit of her powers, poor child; and they tell me that what she has endured is to be followed, and at once, by five hours in the stocks. Gentlemen, I repeat I am quite well aware that this is most irregular--you may call it indecent; but I saw the poor creature fall, and, as it happens, I know something that might have softened you before you passed sentence."

Here the Clerk interposed, stiffening the Chief Magistrate, who wore a smile of embarrassed politeness.

"As His Honour--as Captain Vyell--suggests, your Worships, this is quite irregular."

"To be sure--to be sure--of course," hemm'd Mr. Bellingham. "We can only overlook that, when appealed to by a person of your distinction;" here he inclined himself gently. "Still, you will understand, a sentence is a sentence. As for a temporary faintness, that is by no means outside our experience. Our Beadle--Shadbolt--invariably manages to revive them sufficiently to endure--er--the rest."

I'll be shot if he will this time, thought the Collector grimly, with a glance down at a smear across the knuckle of his right-hand glove. The sight of it cheered him and steadied his temper. "Possibly," said he aloud. "But your worships may not be aware--and as merciful men may be glad to hear--that this poor creature's offence against the Sabbath was committed under stress. Her mother and grandfather have starved this week through, as I happen to know."

"That may or may not be," put in Mr. Trask--a dry-complexioned, stubborn, malignant-looking man, seated next on the Chairman's right. "But the girl--if you mean Ruth Josselin--has not been scourged for Sabbath-breaking. For that she will sit in the stocks--our invariable sentence for first offenders in this respect." From under his down-drawn brows Mr. Trask eyed the Collector malevolently. "Ruth Josselin," he continued, "has suffered the scourge for having resisted Beadle Shadbolt in the discharge of his duty, and for unlawful wounding."

"Excuse me," put in Mr. Somershall, speaking across from the Chairman's left. Mr. Somershall was afflicted with deafness, but liked to assert himself whenever a word by chance reached him and gave him a cue. He leaned sideways, arching a palm around his one useful ear. "Excuse me; we brought it in 'attempted wounding,' I believe? I have it noted so, here on the margin of my charge-sheet." He glanced at the Clerk, who nodded for confirmation.

"It didn't matter," Mr. Trask snapped brutally. "She got it, just the same."

"Oh, quite so!" Mr. Somershall took his hand from his ear and nodded, satisfied with having made his point.

"Wounding?" echoed the Collector, addressing the Chairman. "To be frank with you, sir, I had not heard of this--though it scarcely affects my plea."

Mr. Bellingham smiled indulgently. "Say no more, Captain Vyell--pray say no more! This is not the first time an inclination to deem us severe has been corrected by a fuller acquaintance with the facts. . . . Yes, yes--chivalrous feeling--I quite understand; but you see--" He concluded his sentence with a gentle wave of the hand. "You will be glad to hear, since you take an interest in the girl, that Providence overruled her aim and Shadbolt escaped with a mere graze of the jaw--so slight, indeed, that, taking a merciful view, we decided not to consider it an actual wound, and convicted her only of the attempt. By the way, Mr. Leemy, where is the weapon?"

The Clerk produced it from his bag and laid it on the table. Captain Vyell drew a sharp breath.

"It is my pistol."

"Eh?"

"I have the fellow to it here." He pulled out the other and handed it by the muzzle.

"To be sure--to be sure; the pattern is identical," murmured Mr. Bellingham, examining it and for the moment completely puzzled. "You--er--suggest that she stole it?"

"Certainly not. I lent it to her."

There followed a slow pause. It was broken by the grating voice of Mr. Trask--

"You remember, Mr. Chairman, that the prisoner stubbornly refused to tell how the pistol came in her possession? Does Captain Vyell give us to understand that his interest in this young woman is of older date than this morning's encounter?"

"My interest in her--such as it is--dates, sir, from the evening before last, when she was dismissed from the Bowling Green Inn. The hour was late; her home, as you know, lies at some distance--though doubtless within the ambit of your authority. I lent her this small weapon to protect herself should she be molested."

"And she used it next day upon the Beadle! Dismissed, you say? Why was she dismissed?"

"I regret that I was not more curious at the time," answered the Collector with the politest touch of weariness. "I believe it was for saving the house from fire--something of that sort. As told to me, it sounded rather heroical. But, sir--" he turned again to the Chairman--" I suggest that all this does not affect my plea. Whatever her offence, she has suffered cruelly. She is physically unfit to bear this second punishment; and when I tell you on my word as a gentleman--or on oath, if you will--that on Saturday I found her grandparent starving and that her second offence was committed presumably to supply the household wants, surely I shall not entreat your mercy in vain?"

The Chief Magistrate hesitated, and a frown showed his annoyance. "To tell you the truth, Captain Vyell, you put me in a quandary. I do not like to refuse you--" Here he glanced right and left.

"But it can't be done," snapped Mr. Trask. Mr. Wapshott, sitting just beyond, shook his head gently and--as he hoped--unperceived by the Collector.

"You see, sir," explained Mr. Bellingham with a sigh, "we sit here to administer justice without fear or favour. You see also to what scandal it might give rise if a culprit--merely on the intercession of a gentleman like yourself--influential--er--and, in short--"

"--In short, sir," the Collector broke in, "you have in the name of justice committed one damnable atrocity upon this child, and plead your cowardice as an excuse for committing another. Influential, am I? And you prate to me of not being affected by that? Very well; I'll take you at your word. This girl resisted your ruffian in the discharge of his duty? So did I just now, and with such effect that he will resume it neither to-day nor to-morrow. She inflicted, it appears, a slight graze on his chin. I inflicted two cuts on his face and knocked in three of his teeth. You can take cognisance of my wounding, I promise you. Now, sir, will you whip me through your town?"

"This is mere violence, sir." Mr. Bellingham's face was flushed, but he answered with dignity. "The law is as little to be exasperated as defied."

"I will try you in another way, then," said the Collector, recovering grip of his temper and dropping his voice to a tone of politest insolence. "It is understood that you have not the courage to do this because, seated here and administering what you call justice, you have, each one of you, an eye upon England and preferment, and you know well enough that to touch me would play the devil among the tailors with your little ambitions. I except"--with a bow towards Mr. Trask--"this gentleman, who seems to have earned his influence on your counsels by rugged force of character, And--" for here Mr. Trask, who enjoyed a dig at his colleagues, cast his eyes down and compressed a grin--"is, I should judge, capable of striking a woman for the mere fun of it." Here Mr. Bellingham and Mr. Wapshott looked demure in turn; for that Mr. Trask led his wife a dog's life was notorious.

"--In truth, gentlemen," the Collector continued easily, "I am at some loss in addressing you, seeing that through some defect of courtesy you have omitted to wait on me, albeit informed (I believe) that I came as His Majesty's Commissioner, and that therefore I have not even the pleasure of knowing your names. I may except that of Mr. Wapshott, whom I am glad to see convalescent this morning." Here he inclined to Mr. Wapshott, whose gills under the surprised gaze of his colleagues took a perceptibly redder tinge. "Mr. Wapshott, gentlemen," explained the Collector, smiling, "had a slight attack of vertigo yesterday, on the steps of his Place of Worship. Well, sirs, as I was saying, I will try you in another way. You have not the courage to bring me to trial for assaulting your beadle. You have not even the courage, here and now, to throw me out. I believe, however, that upon a confessed breach of the law--supported by evidence, if necessary--I can force you to try me. The Clerk will correct me if I am wrong. . . . Apparently he assents. Then I desire to confess to you that yesterday, at such-and-such an hour, I broke your laws or bye-laws of Lord's Day Observance; by bathing in the sea for my pleasure. I demand trial on this charge, and, if you convict me--here you can hardly help yourselves, since to my knowledge some of you witnessed the offence--I demand my due punishment of the stocks."

"Really--really, Captain Vyell!" hemm'd the Chief Magistrate. "Passing over your derogatory language, I am at a loss to understand--"

"Are you? Yet it is very simple. Since you reject my plea for this poor creature, I desire to share her punishment."

"Let him," snapped the mouth of Mr. Trask again, opening and shutting like a trap.

"You at any rate, sir, have sense," the Collector felicitated him and turned to the Chief Magistrate. "And you, sir, if you will oblige me, may rest assured that I shall bear the magistracy of Port Nassau no grudge whatever."




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