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Chapter 6

VI.

Lemuel stood and leaned his head against the wall of his cell. The tears that had come to his relief in the morning when he found that he was robbed would not come now. He was trembling with famine and weakness, but he could not lie down; it would be like accepting his fate, and every fibre of his body joined his soul in rebellion against that. The hunger gnawed him incessantly, mixed with an awful sickness.

After a long time a policeman passed his door with another prisoner, a drunken woman, whom he locked into a cell at the end of the corridor. When he came back, Lemuel could endure it no longer. "Say!" he called huskily through his door. "Won't you give me a cup of that coffee upstairs? I haven't had anything but an apple to eat for nearly two days. I don't want you to give me the coffee. You can take my clasp button——"

The officer went by a few steps, then he came back, and peered in through the door at Lemuel's face. "Oh! that's you?" he said: he was the officer who had arrested Lemuel.

"Yes. Please get me the coffee. I'm afraid I shall have a fit of sickness if I go much longer."

"Well," said the officer, "I guess I can get you something." He went away, and came back, after Lemuel had given up the hope of his return, with a saucerless cup of coffee, and a slice of buttered bread laid on the top of it. He passed it in through the opening at the bottom of the door.

"Oh, my!" gasped the starving boy. He thought he should drop the cup, his hand shook so when he took it. He gulped the coffee, and swallowed the bread in a frenzy.

"Here—here's the button," he said, as he passed the empty cup out to the officer.

"I don't want your button," answered the policeman. He hesitated a moment. "I shall be round at the court in the morning, and I guess if it ain't right we can make it so."

"Thank you, sir," said Lemuel, humbly grateful.

"You lay down now," said the officer. "We shan't put anybody in on you to-night."

"I guess I better," said Lemuel. He crept in upon the lower shelf, and stretched himself out in his clothes, with his arm under his head for a pillow. The drunken woman at the end of the corridor was clamouring to get out. She wished to get out just half a minute, she said, and settle with that hussy; then she would come back willingly. Sometimes she sang, sometimes she swore; but with the coffee still sensibly hot in his stomach, and the comfort of it in every vein, her uproar turned into an agreeable fantastic medley for Lemuel, and he thought it was the folks singing in church at Willoughby Pastures, and they were all asking him who the new girl in the choir was, and he was saying Statira Dudley; and then it all slipped off into a smooth, yellow nothingness, and he heard some one calling him to get up.

When he woke in the morning he started up so suddenly that he struck his head against the shelf above him, and lay staring stupidly at the iron-work of his door.

He heard the order to turn out repeated at other cells along the corridor, and he crept out of his shelf, and then sat down upon it, waiting for his door to be unlocked. He was very hungry again, and he trembled with faintness. He wondered how he should get his breakfast, and he dreaded the trial in court less than the thought of going through another day with nothing to eat. He heard the stir of the other prisoners in the cells along the corridors, the low groans and sighs with which people pull themselves together after a bad night; and he heard the voice of the drunken woman, now sober, poured out in voluble remorse, and in voluble promise of amendment for the future, to every one who passed, if they would let her off easy. She said aisy, of course, and it was in her native accent that she bewailed the fate of the little ones whom her arrest had left motherless at home. No one seemed to answer her, but presently she broke into a cry of joy and blessing, and from her cell at the other end of the corridor came the clink of crockery. Steps approached with several pauses, and at last they paused at Lemuel's door, and a man outside stooped and pushed in, through the opening at the bottom, a big bowl of baked beans, a quarter of a loaf of bread, and a tin cup full of coffee. "Coffee's extra," he said jocosely. "Comes from the officers. You're in luck, young feller."

"I ha'n't got anything to pay for it with," faltered Lemuel.

"Guess they'll trust you," said the man. "Any-rate, I got orders to leave it." He passed on, and Lemuel gathered up his breakfast, and arranged it on the shelf where he had slept; then he knelt down before it, and ate.

An hour later an officer came and unbolted his door from the outside. "Hurry up," he said; "Maria's waiting."

"Maria?" repeated Lemuel innocently.

"Yes," returned the officer. "Other name's Black. She don't like to wait. Come out of here."

Lemuel found himself in the corridor with four or five other prisoners, whom some officers took in charge and conducted upstairs to the door of the station. He saw no woman, but a sort of omnibus without windows was drawn up at the curbstone.

"I thought," he said to an officer, "that there was a lady waiting to see me. Maria Black," he added, seeing that the officer did not understand.

The policeman roared, and could not help putting his head in at the office door to tell the joke.

"Well, you must introduce him," called a voice from within.

"Guess you ha'n't got the name exactly straight, young man," said the policeman to Lemuel, as he guarded him down the steps. "It's Black Maria you're looking for. There she is," he continued, pointing to the omnibus, "and don't you forget it. She's particular to have folks recognise her. She's blacker 'n she's painted."

The omnibus was, in fact, a sort of aesthetic drab, relieved with salmon, as Lemuel had time to notice before he was hustled into it with the other prisoners, and locked in.

There were already several there, and as Lemuel's eyes accustomed themselves to the light that came in through the little panes at the sides of the roof, he could see that they were women; and by and by he saw that two of them were the saucy girls who had driven him from his seat in the Common that day, and laughed so at him. They knew him too, and one of them set up a shrill laugh. "Hello, Johnny! That you? You don't say so? What you up for this time? Going down to the Island? Well, give us a call there! Do be sociable! Ward 11's the address." The other one laughed, and then swore at the first for trying to push her off the seat.

Lemuel broke out involuntarily in all the severity that was native to him. "You ought to be ashamed of yourselves."

This convulsed the bold things with laughter. When they could get their breath, one of them said, "Pshaw! I know what he's up for: preaching on the Common. Say, young feller! don't you want to hold a prayer-meetin' here?"

They burst into another shriek of laughter, so wild and shrill that the driver rapped on the roof, and called down, "Dry up in there!"

"Oh, you mind your horses, and we'll look after the passengers. Go and set on his knee, Jen, and cheer him up a little."

Lemuel sat in a quiver of abhorrence. The girl appealed to remained giggling beside her companion.

"I—I pity ye!" said Lemuel.

The Irishwoman had not stopped bewailing herself, and imploring right and left an easy doom. She now addressed herself wholly to Lemuel, whose personal dignity seemed to clothe him with authority in her eyes. She told him about her children, left alone with no one to look after them; the two little girls, the boy only three years old. When the van stopped at a station to take in more passengers, she tried to get out—to tell the gentlemen at the office about it, she said.

After several of these halts they stopped at the basement of a large stone building, that had a wide flight of steps in front, and columns, like the church at Willoughby Pastures, only the church steps were wood, and the columns painted pine. Here more officers took charge of them, and put them in a room where there were already twenty-five or thirty other prisoners, the harvest of the night before; and presently another van-load was brought in.

There were many women among them, but here there was no laughing or joking as there had been in the van. Scarcely any one spoke, except the Irishwoman, who crept up to an officer at the door from time to time, and begged him to tell the judge to let her have it easy this time. Lemuel could not help seeing that she and most of the others were familiar with the place. Those two saucy jades who had mocked him were silent, and had lost their bold looks.

After waiting what seemed a long time, the door was opened, and they were driven up a flight of stairs into a railed enclosure at the corner of a large room, where they remained huddled together, while a man at a long desk rattled over something that ended with "God bless the commonwealth of Massachusetts." On a platform behind the speaker sat a grey-haired man in spectacles, and Lemuel knew that he was in the court-room, and that this must be the judge. He could not see much of the room over the top of the railing, but there was a buzz of voices and a stir of feet beyond, that made him think the place was full. But full or empty, it was the same to him; his shame could not be greater or less. He waited apathetically while the clerk read off the charges against the vastly greater number of his fellow-prisoners arrested for drunkenness. When these were disposed of, he read from the back of a paper, which he took from a fresh pile, "Bridget Gallagher, complained of for habitual drunkenness. Guilty or not guilty?"

"Not guilty, your honour," answered the Irishwoman who had come from Lemuel's station. "But make it aisy for me this time, judge, and ye'll never catch me in it again. I've three helpless childer at home, your honour, starvin' and cryin' for their mother. Holy Mary, make it aisy, judge!"

A laugh went round the room, which a stern voice checked with "Silence, there!" but which renewed itself when the old woman took the stand at the end of the clerk's long desk, while a policeman mounted a similar platform outside the rail, and gave his testimony against her. It was very conclusive, and it was not affected by the denials with which the poor woman gave herself away more and more. She had nothing to say when invited to do so except to beg for mercy; the judge made a few inquiries, apparently casual, of the policeman; then after a moment's silence, in which he sat rubbing his chin, he leaned forward and said quietly to the clerk,

"Give her three months."

The woman gave a wild Irish cry, "O my poor childer!" and amidst the amusement of the spectators, which the constables could not check at once, was led wailing below.

Before Lemuel could get his breath those bold girls, one after the other, were put upon the stand. The charge against them was not made the subject of public investigation; the judge and some other elderly gentleman talked it over together; and the girls, who had each wept in pleading guilty, were put on probation, as Lemuel understood it, and, weeping still and bridling a little, were left in charge of this elderly gentleman, and Lemuel saw them no more.

One case followed another, and Lemuel listened with the fascination of terror; the sentences seemed terribly severe, and out of all proportion to the offences. Suddenly his own name was called. His name had been called in public places before: at the school exhibitions, where he had taken prizes in elocution and composition; in church, once, when the minister had mentioned him for peculiar efficiency and zeal among other Sabbath-school teachers. It was sacred to him for his father's sake, who fell in the war, and who was recorded in it on the ugly, pathetic monument on the village green; and hitherto he had made it respected and even honoured, and had tried all the harder to keep it so because his family was poor, and his mother had such queer ways and dressed so. He dragged himself to the stand which he knew he must mount, and stole from under his eyelashes a glance at the court-room, which took it all in. There were some people, whom he did not know for reporters, busy with their pencils next the railings; and there was a semicircular table in the middle of the room at which a large number of policemen sat, and they had their straw helmets piled upon it, with the hats of the lawyers who sat among them. Beyond, the seats which covered the floor were filled with the sodden loafers whom the law offers every morning the best dramatic amusement in the city. Presently, among the stupid eyes fixed upon him, Lemuel was aware of the eyes of that fellow who had passed the counterfeit money on him; and when this scamp got up and coolly sauntered out of the room, Lemuel was held in such a spell that he did not hear the charge read against him, or the clerk's repeated demand, "Guilty or not guilty?"

He was recalled to himself by the voice of the judge. "Young man, do you understand? Are you guilty of assaulting this lady and taking her satchel, or not?"

"Not guilty," said Lemuel huskily; and he looked, not at the judge, but at the pretty girl, who confronted him from a stand at the other end of the clerk's desk, blushing to find herself there up to her wide-flung blue eyes. Lemuel blushed too, and dropped his eyes; and it seemed to him in a crazy kind of way that it was impolite to have pleaded not guilty against her accusation. He stood waiting for the testimony which the judge had to prompt her to offer.

"State the facts in regard to the assault," he said gravely.

"I don't know as I can do it, very well," began the girl.

"We shall be satisfied if you do your best," said the judge, with the glimmer of a smile, which spread to a laugh among the spectators, unrebuked by the constables, since the judge had invited it.

In this atmosphere of sympathy the girl found her tongue, and with a confiding twist, of her pretty head began again: "Well, now, I'll tell you just how it was. I'd just got my book out of the Public Library, and I was going down Neponset Street on my way home, hurrying along, because I see it was beginning to be pretty late, and the first thing I know somebody pulled my hat down over my eyes, and tore the brim half off, so I don't suppose I can ever wear it again, it's such a lookin' thing; any rate it ain't the one I've got on, though it's some like it; and then the next thing, somebody grabbed away the satchel I'd got on my arm; and as soon as I could get my eyes clear again, I see two fellows chasin' up the street, and I told the officer somebody'd got my book; and I knew it was one of those fellows runnin' away, and I said, 'There they go now,' and the officer caught the hind one, and I guess the other one got away; and the officer told me to follow along to the station-house, and when we got there they took my name, and where I roomed, and my age——"

"Do you recognise this young man as one of the persons who robbed you?" interrupted the judge, nodding his head toward Lemuel, who now lifted his head and looked his accuser fearlessly in her pretty eyes.

"Why, no!" she promptly replied. "The first thing I knew, he'd pulled my hat over my eyes."

"But you recognise him as one of those you saw running away?"

"Oh yes, he's one of them," said the girl.

"What made you think he had robbed you?"

"Why, because my satchel was gone!" returned the girl, with logic that apparently amused the gentlemen of the bar.

"But why did you think he had taken it?"

"Because I see him running away."

"You couldn't swear that he was the one who took your satchel?"

"Why, of course not! I didn't see him till I saw him running. And I don't know as he was the one, now," added the girl, in a sudden burst of generosity.

"And if it was to do over again, I should say as much to the officers at the station. But I got confused when they commenced askin' me who I was, and how much I weighed, and what my height was; and he didn't say anything; and I got to thinkin' may be it was; and when they told me that if I didn't promise to appear at court in the morning they'd have to lock me up, I was only too glad to get away alive."

By this time all the blackguard audience were sharing, unchecked, the amusement of the bar. The judge put up his hand to hide a laugh. Then he said to Lemuel, "Do you wish to question the plaintiff?"

The two young things looked at each other, and both blushed. "No," said Lemuel.

The girl looked at the judge for permission, and at a nod from him left the stand and sat down.

The officer who had arrested Lemuel took the stand on the other side of the rail from him, and corroborated the girl's story; but he had not seen the assault or robbery, and could not swear to either. Then Lemuel was invited to speak, and told his story with the sort of nervous courage that came to him in extremity. He told it from the beginning, and his adventure with the two beats in the Common made the audience laugh again. Even then, Lemuel could not see the fun of it; he stopped, and the stout ushers in blue flannel sacks commanded silence. Then Lemuel related how he had twice seen one of the beats since that time, but he was ashamed to say how he had let him escape out of that very room half an hour before. He told how he had found the beat in the crowd before the saloon, and how he was chasing him up the street when he heard the young lady hollo out, "There they go now!" and then the officer arrested him.

The judge sat a moment in thought; then said quietly, "The charge is dismissed;" and before Lemuel well knew what it meant, a gate was opened at the stand, and he was invited to pass out. He was free. The officer who had arrested him shook his hand in congratulation and excuse, and the lawyers and the other policemen gave him a friendly glance. The loafers and beats of the audience did not seem to notice him. They were already intent upon a case of coloured assault and battery which had been called, and which opened with the promise of uncommon richness, both of the parties being women.

Lemuel saw that girl who had accused him passing down the aisle on the other side of the room. She was with another girl, who looked older. Lemuel walked fast, to get out of their way; he did not know why, but he did not want to speak to the girl. They walked fast too, and when he got down the stairs on to the ground floor of the court- house they overtook him.

"Say?" said the older girl, "I want to speak to you. I think it's a down shame, the way that you've been treated; and Statira, she feels jus' 's I do about it; and I tell her she's got to say so. It's the least she can do, I tell her, after what she got you in for. My name's 'Manda Grier; I room 'th S'tira; 'n' I come 'th her this mornin' t' help keep her up; b't I didn't know 't was goin' to be s'ch a perfect flat-out!"

As the young woman rattled on she grew more and more glib; she was what they call whopper-jawed, and spoke a language almost purely consonantal, cutting and clipping her words with a rapid play of her whopper-jaw till there was nothing but the bare bones left of them. Statira was crying, and Lemuel could not bear to see her cry. He tried to say something to comfort her, but all he could think of was, "I hope you'll get your book back," and 'Manda Grier answered for her——

"Oh, I guess 't ain't the book 't she cares for. S' far forth 's the book goes, I guess she can afford to buy another book, well enough. B't I tell her she's done 'n awful thing, and a thing 't she'll carry to her grave 'th her, 'n't she'll remember to her dyin' day. That's what I tell her."

"She ha'n't got any call to feel bad about it," said Lemuel clumsily. "It was just a mistake." Then, not knowing what more to say, he said, being come to the outer door by this time, "Well, I wish you good morning."

"Well, good morning," said 'Manda Grier, and she thrust her elbow sharply into Statira Dudley's side, so that she also said faintly—

"Well, good morning!" She was fluent enough on the witness-stand and in the police station, but now she could not find a word to say.

The three stood together on the threshold of the court-house, not knowing how to get away from one another.

'Manda Grier put out her hand to Lemuel. He took it, and, "Well, good morning," he said again.

"Well, good morning," repeated 'Manda Grier.

Then Statira put out her hand, and she and Lemuel shook hands, and said together, "Well, good morning," and on these terms of high civility they parted. He went one way and they another. He did not look back, but the two girls, marching off with locked arms and flying tongues, when they came to the corner, turned to look back. They both turned inward, and so bumped their heads together.

"Why, you—coot!" cried 'Manda Grier, and they broke out laughing.

Lemuel heard their laugh, and he knew they were laughing at him; but he did not care. He wandered on, he did not know whither, and presently he came to the only place he could remember.

William Dean Howells