Oh, then tell us, Kings and Judges, where our meeting is to be,
When the laws of men are nothing, and our spirits all are free—
When the laws of men are nothing, and no wealth can hold the fort,
There’ll be thirst for mighty brewers at the Rising of the Court.
THE SAME dingy court room, deep and dim, like a well, with the clock high up on the wall, and the doors low down in it; with the bench, which, with some gilding, might be likened to a gingerbread imitation of a throne; the royal arms above it and the little witness box to one side, where so many honest poor people are bullied, insulted and laughed at by third-rate blackguardly little “lawyers,” and so many pitiful, pathetic and noble lies are told by pitiful sinners and disreputable heroes for a little liberty for a lost self, or for the sake of a friend—of a “pal” or a “cobber.” The same overworked and underpaid magistrate trying to keep his attention fixed on the same old miserable scene before him; as a weary, overworked and underpaid journalist or author strives to keep his attention fixed on his proofs. The same row of big, strong, healthy, good-natured policemen trying not to grin at times; and the police-court solicitors (“the place stinks with ’em,” a sergeant told me) wrangling over some miserable case for a crust, and the “reporters,” shabby some of them, eager to get a brutal joke for their papers out of the accumulated mass of misery before them, whether it be at the expense of the deaf; blind, or crippled man, or the alien. And opposite the bench, the dock, divided by a partition, with the women to the left and the men to the right, as it is on the stairs or the block in polite society. They bring children here no longer. The same shaking, wild-eyed, blood-shot-eyed and blear-eyed drunks and disorderlies, though some of the women have nerves yet; and the same decently dressed, but trembling and conscience-stricken little wretch up for petty larceny or something, whose motor car bosses of a big firm have sent a solicitor, “manager,” or some understrapper here to prosecute and give evidence.
But, over there, on a form to one side of the bench—opposite the witness box—and as the one bright spot in this dark, and shameful, and useless scene—and in a patch of sunlight from the skylight as it happens—sit representatives of the Prisoners’ Aid Society, Prison Gate and Rescue Brigades, etc. (one or two of the ladies in nurses’ uniforms), who are come to help us and to fight for us against the Law of their Land and of ours, God help us!
Mrs Johnson, of Red Rock Lane, is here, and her rival in revolution, One-Eyed Kate, and Cock-Eyed Sal, and one or two of the other aristocrats of the alley. And the weeping bedraggled remains of what was once, and not so long ago, a pretty, slight, fair-haired and blue-eyed Australian girl. She is up for inciting One-Eyed Kate to resist the police. Also, Three-Pea Ginger, Stousher, and Wingy, for some participation in the row amongst the aforementioned ladies. (Wingy, by the way, is a ratty little one-armed man, whose case is usually described in the head-line, as “A ’Armless Case,” by one of our great dailies.) And their pals are waiting outside in the vestibule—Frowsy Kate (The Red Streak), Boko Bill, Pincher and his “piece,” etc., getting together the stuff for the possible fines, and the ten-bob fee for the lawyer, in one case, and ready to swear to anything, if called upon. And I myself—though I have not yet entered Red Rock Lane Society—on bail, on a charge of “plain drunk.” It was “drunk and disorderly” by the way, but a kindly sergeant changed it to plain drunk(though I always thought my drunk was ornamental).
Yet I am not ashamed—only comfortably dulled and a little tired—dully interested and observant, and hopeful for the sunlight presently. We low persons get too great a contempt for things to feel much ashamed at any time; and this very contempt keeps many of us from “reforming.” We hear too many lies sworn that we know to be lies, and see too many unjust and brutal things done that we know to be brutal and unjust.
But let us go back a bit, and suppose we are still waiting for the magistrate, and think of Last Night. “Silence!”’but from no human voice this time. The whispering, shuffling, and clicking of the court typewriter ceases, the scene darkens, and the court is blotted out as a scene is blotted out from the sight of a man who has thrown himself into a mesmeric trance. And:
Drink—lurid recollection of being “searched”—clang of iron cell door, and I grope for and crawl on to the slanting plank. Period of oblivion—or the soul is away in some other world. Clang of cell door again, and soul returns in a hurry to take heed of another soul, belonging to a belated drunk on the plank by my side. Other soul says:
So we’re not in hell yet.
We fumble and light up. They leave us our pipes, tobacco and matches; presently, one knocks with his pipe on the iron trap of the door and asks for water, which is brought in a tin pint-pot. Then follow intervals of smoking, incoherent mutterings that pass for conversation, borrowings of matches, knockings with the pannikin on the cell door wicket or trap for more water, matches, and bail; false and fitful starts into slumber perhaps—or wild attempts at flight on the part of our souls into that other world that the sober and sane know nothing of; and, gradually, suddenly it seems, reason (if this world is reasonable) comes back.
“What’s your trouble?”
“Don’t know. Bomb outrage, perhaps.”
But presently he is plainly uneasy (and I am getting that way, too, to tell the truth), and, after moving about, and walking up and down in the narrow space as well as we can, he “rings up” another policeman, who happens to be the fat one who is to be in charge all night.
“Wot’s up here?”
“What have I been up to?”
“Killin’ a Chinaman. Go to sleep.”
Policeman peers in at me inquiringly, but I forbear to ask questions.
Blankets are thrown in by a friend of mine in the force, though we are not entitled to them until we are bailed or removed to the “paddock” (the big drunks’ dormitory and dining cell at the Central), and we proceed to make ourselves comfortable. My mate wonders whether he asked them to send to his wife to get bail, and hopes he didn’t.
They have left our wicket open, seeing, or rather hearing, that we are quiet. But they have seemingly left some other wickets open also, for from a neighbouring cell comes the voice of Mrs Johnson holding forth. The locomotive has apparently just been run into the cleaning sheds, and her fires have not had time to cool. They say that Mrs Johnson was a “lady once,” like many of her kind; that she is not a “bad woman”—that is, not a woman of loose character—but gets money sent to her from somewhere—from her “family,” or her husband, perhaps. But when she lets herself loose—or, rather, when the beer lets her loose—she is a tornado and a terror in Red Rock Lane, and it is only her fierce, practical kindness to her unfortunate or poverty-stricken sisters in her sober moments that keeps her forgiven in that classic thoroughfare. She can certainly speak “like a lady” when she likes, and like an intelligent, even a clever, woman—not like a “woman of the world,” but as a woman who knew and knows the world, and is in hell. But now her language is the language of a rough shearer in a “rough shed” on a blazing hot day.
After a while my mate calls out to her:
“Oh! for God’s sake give it a rest!”
Whereupon Mrs Johnson straightway opens on him and his ancestry, and his mental, moral, and physical condition—especially the latter. She accuses him of every crime known to Christian countries and some Asiatic and ancient ones. She wants to know how long he has been out of jail for kicking his wife to pieces that time when she was up as a witness against him, and whether he is in for the same thing again? (She has never set eyes on him, by the way, nor he on her.)
He calls back that she is not a respectable woman, and he knows all about her.
Thereupon she shrieks at him and bangs and kicks at her door, and demands his name and address. It would appear that she is a respectable woman, and hundreds can prove it, and she is going to make him prove it in open court.
He calls back that his name is Percy Reginald Grainger, and his town residence is “The Mansions,” Macleay Street, next to Mr Isaacs, the magistrate, and he also gives her the address of his solicitor.
She bangs and shrieks again, and states that she will get his name from the charge sheet in the morning and have him up for criminal libel, and have his cell mate up as a witness—and hers, too. But just here a policeman comes along and closes her wicket with a bang and cuts her off, so that her statements become indistinct, or come only as shrieks from a lost soul in an underground dungeon. He also threatens to cut us off and smother us if we don’t shut up. I wonder whether they’ve got her in the padded cell.
We settle down again, but presently my fellow captive nudges me and says: “Listen!” From another cell comes the voice of a woman singing—the girl who is in for “inciting to resist, your worship,” in fact. “Listen!” he says, “that woman could sing once.” Her voice is low and sweet and plaintive, as of a woman who had been a singer but had lost her voice. And what do you think it is?
The crowd in accents hushed reply—
“Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.”
Mrs Johnson’s cell is suddenly silent. Then, not mimickingly, mockingly, or scornfully, but as if the girl is a champion of Jesus of Nazareth, and is hurt at the ignorance of the multitude, and pities Him:
Now who is this Jesus of Nazareth, say?
The policeman, coming along the passage, closes the wicket in her door, but softly this time, and not before we catch the plaintive words again.
The crowd in accents hushed reply—
“Jesus of Nazareth passeth by.”
My fellow felon throws the blanket off him impatiently, sits up with a jerk, and gropes for his pipe.
“God!” he says. “But this is red hot! Have you got another match?”
I wonder what the Nazarene would have to say about it.
Sleep for a while. I wonder whether they’ll give us time, or we’ll be able to sleep some of our sins off in the end, as we sleep our drink off here? Then “The Paddock” and daylight; but there’s little time for the Paddock here, for we must soon be back in court. The men borrow and lend and divide tobacco, lend even pipes, while some break up hard tobacco and roll cigarettes with bits of newspaper. If it is Sunday morning, even those who have no hope for bail, and have a long horrible day and night before them, will sometimes join in a cheer as the more fortunate are bailed. But the others have tea and bread and butter brought to them by one of the Prisoners’ Aid Societies, who ask for no religion in return. They come to save bodies, and not to fish for souls. The men walk up and down and to and fro, and cross and recross incessantly, as caged men and animals always do—and as some uncaged men do too.
“Any of you gentlemen want breakfast?” Those who have money and appetites order; some order for the sake of the tea alone; and some “shout” two or three extra breakfasts for those who had nothing on them when they were run in. We low people can be very kind to each other in trouble. But now it’s time to call us out by the lists, marshal us up in the passage, and draft us into court. Ladies first. But I forgot that I am out on bail, and that the foregoing belongs to another occasion. Or was it only imagination, or hearsay? Journalists have got themselves run in before now, in order to see and hear and feel and smell for themselves—and write.
“Silence! Order in the Court.” I come like a shot out of my nightmare, or trance, or what you will, and we all rise as the magistrate takes his seat. None of us noticed him come in, but he’s there, and I’ve a quaint idea that he bowed to his audience. Kindly, humorous Mr Isaacs, whom we have lost, always gave me that idea. And, while he looks over his papers, the women seem to group themselves, unconsciously as it were, with Mrs Johnson as front centre, as though they depended on her in some vague way. She has slept it off and tidied, or been tidied, up, and is as clear-headed as she ever will be. Crouching directly behind her, supported and comforted on one side by One-Eyed Kate, and on the other by Cock-Eyed Sal, is the poor bedraggled little resister of the Law, sobbing convulsively, her breasts and thin shoulders heaving and shaking under her openwork blouse—the girl who seemed to pity Jesus of Nazareth last night in her cell. There’s very little inciting to resist about her now. Most women can cry when they like, I know, and many have cried men to jail and the gallows; but here in this place, if a woman’s tears can avail her anything, who, save perhaps a police-court solicitor and gentleman-by-Act-of-Parliament, would, or dare, raise a sneer.
I wonder what the Nazarene would have to say about it if He came in to speak for her. But probably they’d send Him to the receiving house as a person of unsound mind, or give Him worse punishment for drunkenness and contempt of court.
His Worship looks up.
Mrs Johnson (from the dock): “Good morning, Mr Isaacs. How do you do? You’re looking very well this morning, Mr Isaacs.”
His Worship (from the Bench): “Thank you, Mrs Johnson. I’m feeling very well this morning.”
There’s a pause, but there is no “laughter.” The would be satellites don’t know whom the laugh might be against. His Worship bends over the papers again, and I can see that he is having trouble with that quaintly humorous and kindly smile, or grin, of his. He has as hard a job to control his smile and get it off his face as some magistrates have to get a smile on to theirs. And there’s a case coming by and by that he’ll have to look a bit serious over. However—
Mrs Johnson is here present, and reminds the Sergeant that she is.
Then begins, or does begin in most courts, the same dreary old drone, like the giving out of a hymn, of the same dreary old charge:
“You—Are—Charged—With—Being—Drunk—And—Disorderly—In—Such—And—Such—A—Street—How—Do—You—Plead—Guilty—Or—Not—Guilty?” But they are less orthodox here. The “disorderly” has dropped out of Mrs Johnson’s charge somehow, on the way from the charge room—I don’t know what has been going on behind the scenes, but, anyway, it is Christmas-time, and the Sergeant seems anxious to let Mrs Johnson off lightly. It means anything from twenty-four hours or five shillings to three months on the Island for her. The lawyers and the police—especially the lawyers—are secretly afraid of Mrs Johnson.
The Sergeant: “This woman has not been here for six weeks, your Worship.”
Mrs Johnson (who has him set and has been waiting for him for a year or so): “It’s a damned lie, Mr Isaacs. I was here last Wednesday!” Then, after a horrified pause in the Court “But I beg your pardon, Mr Isaacs.”
His Worship’s head goes down again. The “laughter” doesn’t come here, either. There is a whispered consultation, and (it being Christmas-time) they compromise with Mrs Johnson for “five shillings or the risin’,” and she thanks his Worship and is escorted out, rather more hurriedly than is comportable with her dignity, for she remarks about it.
The members of the Johnsonian sisterhood have reason to be thankful for the “lift” she has given them, for they all get off lightly, and even the awful resister of Law-an’-order is forgiven. Mrs Johnson has money and is waiting outside to stand beers for them; she always shouts for the boys when she has it. And—what good does it all do?
It is very hard to touch the heart of a woman who is down, though they are intensely sympathetic amongst themselves. It is nearly as hard as it is to combat the pride of a hard-working woman in poverty. It was such women as Mrs Johnson, One-Eyed Kate, and their sisters who led Paris to Versailles, and a King and a Queen died for it. It is such women as Mrs Johnson and One-Eyed Kate and their sisters who will lead a greater Paris to a greater Versailles some day, and many “Trust” kings and queens, and their princes and princesses shall die for it. And that reminds me of two reports in a recent great daily:
Miss Angelina De Tapps, the youngest daughter of the well-known great family of brewers, was united in the holy bonds of matrimony to Mr Reginald Wells—(here follows a long account of the smart society wedding). The happy paid leave en route for Europe per the —— next Friday.
Jane Johnson, an old offender, again faced the music before Mr Isaacs, S.M., at the Central yesterday morning—(here follows a “humorous” report of the case).
Next time poor Mrs Johnson will leave en route for “Th’ Island” and stay there three months.
The sisters join Mrs Johnson, who has some money and takes them to a favourite haunt and shouts for them—as she does for the boys sometimes. Their opinions on civilization are not to be printed.
Ginger and Wingy get off with the option, and, though the fine is heavy, it is paid. They adjourn with Boko Bill, and their politics are lurid.
Squinny Peters (plain drunk-five bob or the risin’), who is peculiar for always paying his fine, elects to take it out this time. It appears that the last time Squinny got five bob or the risin’ he ante’d up the splosh like a man, and the court rose immediately, to Squinny’s intense disgust. He isn’t taking any chances this time.
Wild-Flowers-Charley, who recently did a fortnight, and has been out on bail, has had a few this morning, and, in spite of warnings from and promises to friends, insists on making a statement, though by simply pleading guilty he might get off easily. The statement lasts some ten minutes. Mr Isaacs listens patiently and politely and remarks:
Charley saw the humour of it afterwards, he says.
But what good does it all do?
I had no wish to treat drunkenness frivolously in beginning this sketch; I have seen women in the horrors—that ought to be enough.