The Girl That is Down

Brand Whitlock in the Red Book Magazins July 1 1908

The Girl That is Down

Brand Whitlock in the Red Book Magazins July 1 1908

The Girl That is Down

How the New Judge Released the Offender From Court and Caused her to Resolve to Start the Other Way—A Sad Commentary Upon Some PresentDay Methods in the Administration of Justice and Lack of Helpful Service.

Brand Whitlock in the Red Book Magazins

WHEN her name was called, Mace rose heavily from the bench in the matrons room; the girl beside her

—the one she had fallen in with a month before—arose at the same time, though not so passively.

As they were ushered into the courtroom, the girl sighed, and the sigh irritated Mace ; she could not have told why; perhaps it was because she herself had quit sighing long ago. There were signs, indeed, that the girl still had sentimental notions about herself, about her fate, and about life; but the sentimental had long ago gone out of Mace’s existence, like the sigh that once expressed it. She felt, in common with the officials, in common with the crowd in the old familiar court-room, in common with the world with whose weary modern mood she was so unconsciously in accord, that there was nothing in her state to sentimentalize over. As for emotions, they were dead within her, and only certain counterfeits of them were to be conjured by gin ; but the gin pertained to the night that was gone ; this was morning, with its gray, haggard light filtering into the court-room.

The new girl peered about her a little, but Mace did not. She knew the courtroom, knew it and its processes and could predict them unfailingly; she had had experience of them so often they had lost all meaning for her, just as they had lost all meaning for every one concerned in the official evocation of them, just as they had lost all meaning for the world outside—the old litany of sorrow and

shame had been used so often that its

spirit had departed, leaving only its ghastly form behind.

Beyond the court-room there was for her, thought Mace—if she thought then at all—the black van, the striped gingham gown, the bread and molasses of the workhouse; then the pavement again—until one of the fly coppers should pick her up; then all would be repeated as before.

Silly; thought Mace of the new girl. But the new girl had not noticed Mace’s irritation; she clung close as they stepped forward to the bar. The new girl, perhaps, was partially conscious of the fact that the officers of the court, the reporters, all the habitues of the place, immediately displayed that interest which is always excited by the presentation, in however squalid a form, of the oldest human problem ; something like a laugh went round, and it was evident that the attaches of the court expected the case, as Mace expected it, to be disposed of in the usual jaunty way.

The prosecutor read the affidavits, stated that the girls were charged with “loitering,” and asked them whether they would plead guilty or not guilty.

The new girl - gave a little frightened look toward Mace, and dropped her eyes. Mace hesitated, and then lifted her eyes defiantly.

“Not guilty,” she said.

And the new girl repeated after her:

“Not guilty.”

Suddenly, however, the look of defiance —the old defiance of former appearances— died out of Mace’s countenance, and in its place appeared a mild surprise and wonder, for, instead of the familiar figure on the

bench, there was a new man, not at all like the old une, and there was something disturbing in the fact of this new man, as there is in all change. To some in that courtroom his sensitive face appeared weak; to Mace, he was only young. And Mace wondered w ho he was and how he came to be there. Just then he turned his gaze toward her, and as she felt in that gaze a certain lack of harshness that, for her, amounted almost to kindness, a little blush was perceptible even under the powder which, like a somewhat soiled envelope, covered her face. Then the prosecutor called the officer, who came forward, glanced at the girls contemptuously, and said:

‘T picked these girls up down the line last night ; they've been cruising around down there for a month.”

And addressing himself now more directly to the bench, lie said perspicaciously :

“I know them, your honor, they’re no good.”

The officer’s air gave one to understand that this settled the matter and closed the case. The clerk of the court stood at the elbowr of the new magistrate, possibly in a kindly effort to help out his inexperience in thus judging and condemning human souls, and said in a tone that was respectful rather than confidential :

“About ten and costs.”

But the new judge hesitated. It all seemed simple enough, of course; the girls had probably been “loitering” ; there was the law, printed in the worn volume of the ordinances, automatically prescribing the penalty, and yet—

“They always give them about ten and costs,” said the clerk, as if the new' judge had not understood.

And the officer who had arrested the girls moved forward, as one who alone could minister and relieve, and said, vouching for their bad character with perhaps a little more satisfaction than men oftentimes vouch for the good characters of others :

“I know' these girls. They’re old timers. They’ve been here before.”

It was, of course, to be said of these girls, in the sinister phrase of civilized modernity, that they were “known to the police —as cruel a fate, perhaps, as society has yet devised. Most people, doubtless, especially the wdse, the learned, and the virtuous, thought just as the police-

man thought, just as the clerk thought, that the proper, necessary, and even indispensable thing was to fine these girls ten dollars and costs, and to put them in prison, unless, indeed, they had been frugal enough to save from the proceeds of their miserable and precarious trade sufficient money to pay their fines, that is, to buy society off, to bribe it not to take its revenge upon them.

And they all thought this, from habit, even though they knew that these girls, or Mace, at least, had been there many times before, that she had doubtless been lined and doubtless been in prison for this very thing, and yet here she was, turning up again in the old predicament, little changed, unless it were to show a little more the wear and tear of her fearful life. It was apparent that the remedy prescribed by society had done her no good, nor had it, by the example so dearly cherished by society, done others like her any good ; for, beside the new girl, there wrere other girls arraigned on that morning in every court in Christendom, and from that time to this, other girls have been arraigned in the same manner, and from this time omvard in the same manner, the process will go on just as before.

And nobody was any better ; neither Mace nor any girl had been saved or helped by it. If it had had any effect at all, it had been merely to push her farther dowm, if that were possible, further to harden and brutalize those officials whom society paid —partly out of the proceeds of those girls’ crimes.

The officer had turned to go, thinking his work done and the hearing ended. All of the accustomed in that dingy court-room thought the hearing at an end. Was it not, in law', all sufficient that, having been there before, provision should be made for their being there again? Even Mace herself was of this mind, and knowing the judge to be a new one, she had only the slight interest that pertains to any novelty. And this wras not much, for the clerk, whispering to him, was evidently instructing him in the hopeless precedents of the place.

Mace had no illusions as to the result; indeed, no one there had any illusions; for no place in the world is so absolutely without illusions as a police court. This, in its way, was an advantage, had it not

been for the further fact that the place

was also without ideals. No one there had any illusions about Mace or her companion; in the mind of none was there any doubt as to what they were, or if not quite that, any doubt as to what they had done. This place, without illusions and without ideals, asked only one question— “Did you?” It never prefixed to its question any extenuating, illuminating, human “Why ?”

And even if, for instance, it had asked Mace why, she could not have told. She had done most things in her life, so lar as she ^vas able to tell, not so much because she wished to do them, as because she had to ; she had been led about, as it were, much as this officer, the fly cop, Delaney, had led her about, seizing her by the arm and pushing her along to turnkey, matron, bailiff, clerk, prosecutor, judge, and guard. Had any one thought to ask her of her companion, she had one phrase—like the court with its euphemism about “loitering”—she would have said that she was “gone” ; but as to herself, she would have said that she was down and out.

These few phrases were sufficient ; they had their meaning, which was more than could be said of the phrases current in the world above her—such phrases as “law and order,” “the criminal classes,” “encouragement of vice,” or “suspension of crime,” etc., employed by editors, preachers and publicists. These meant as little to Mace as they meant to those who used them ; if they meant anything whatever to her, they meant railing accusations and the application of a force that hurt her each time a little more, but never helped her. No one had ever descended to her from the world above with a kind look, a helpful word, or even a cup of water. She had a dim, unposted, but all inclusive understanding. more a feeling than a concept of her intelligence, that for her and this companion by her side there -was no hope there or anywhere in this world, or, at least, in the civilized portions of this world. Could they have gone to some uncivilized portion of the world, they might there, perhaps, have found savages willing to help them a little, willing to give them something to eat or something to wear. Or, if there remained any undiscovered continent in the world, they might have gone there with

other criminals, and with a new chance

in life, as was the case in Australia, have reared anew the structure of their existence, founded new societies, built new cities, erected new systems, acquired property, grown respectable, and, in time, have constructed churches and prisons of their own.

But here, in our civilized society, there was no place for them—no place but the pavement, or some miserable tenement, or the river. There was no place for them in the world above them, no sympathy, no companionship, no work, no hope. Even had their lives heretofore not been such as to unfit and disqualify them for all kinds of useful toil, no one would have been willing to hire them, no one would have been willing to take them into his home—certainly not into her home—as servant or worker of any kind. They were not welcome in any public place—theatre, church, or saloon—except the lowest kind of saloon. It is true, perhaps, that they might have gone, for a little length of time, to a place called a “retreat,” but in the end, they would have been cast back on to the pavement again, bereft, perhaps, of the only happiness that life had given them since they left the vale of childhood.

Mace remembered the “retreat” well enough-—the old house, stranded as she had been stranded, in the poor part of the town, whence the residence-district, with its respectability, was slowly receding like a wavering shore-line before the encroachments of the steady flood-tide of the business district. The patronesses of this retreat evidently had more fear of catching Mace's badness than faith in Mace’s catching their goodness, for the house had a sign over the door to warn the world as to just what manner of people dwelt therein. Inside, as out, it was gloomy, and the walls were decorated with depressing mottoes giving forth obvious moral truths intended to instruct people in the art of being good, but neglecting to state that, in a civilization like ours, before one, according to the standards of that civilization, can do good, it is necessary to have money; and the only means society had left Mace of getting money was, by the very terms of that retreat denied her. And there, in the doleful evenings, the girls might sit and be edified by the singing of hymns or the reading of tracts pretendedly based on the philosophy of One who, when on this

earth, was not afraid to associate on terms divinely human with such as found refuge there.

Rut these modern followers held themselves far from any contact with these girls, except on terms of patronage from which all comradeship, all sense of human relationship was expelled. And here they were to dwell for a time, pending the moral change which no one really thought could ever occur in them, because, before the change could occur in them, a change must occur in those who made the society which environed them. And in those gloomy apartments, on those doleful evenings, amid the winnings of that little reed organ, the reading of those tracts, the singing of those hymns, and the contemplation of those mural mottoes, were nothing but reminders of what they had been, and perhaps little more than the vague, misty hope of what they might yet become. And this was all —this, or the pavement, or the prison, or the river.

There was in Mace no longer anything attractive, either in feature or attire. Even at its best, with all her tawdry finery heaped upon her. that attire made the very impression which the vestige of womanhood in her had sought most to avoid. And yet she could recall a childhood, when she had dwelt in that kingdom, of which little children are said to be the model—the kingdom which is without sin because it is without law’. Rut the world had cast her out of that and now, every hand with which she came in contact was thrust out. not to help, but to hurt, to push her farther along the dark road which ended in blackness and despair.

Mace had known herself to marvel, once upon a time, that in the act which brought condemnation, there was another person for whom society had no condemnation, at whom it did little more than to wag its head in playful reproof before it received the interesting offender to its arms again. And so, in those rare moments of speculation on the right of things in this world, she had come to the conclusion that the law meant one thing for the woman and another for the man, one thing to the poor and another to the rich. What, to use the euphemism of the police officer, was to her such a dark voyage was to those others merely an idle

cruise. She was, of course, unread and so unacquainted with the tale of Aholah and Aholibah, but while it had never once been cited for her benefit, she had known the law. “Then shall the man be guiltless ; but the woman shall bear her inquity.” And without having studied, with modern economists, the law of the economic dependence of woman, she summed up, too logically, the whole of law in the conviction that the one crime lay in being poor.

As for society, in its thought of her, it persisted in the delusion that hers was a pleasant and happy lot. It invariably spoke of her as if her choice had been premeditated, and chose to regard her as the creature of a joyous environment who was exchanging the uncertainties of a future far remote, for the certainties of a happy present, and she might almost have thought, hearing society talk and speculate about her, as sometimes it did with bated breath, that her lot wras to be envied, if one only had the courage to select it.

Society did not pause to reflect that her lot was mean and sordid, that she led a life of constant, cruel shame, of w'ant and hardship, in which food itself was scarce, and that only now and then, in some moment of despair, was she able to forget, in the liquor which society, as a silent partner in the enterprise, provided for her. Society did not reflect that she was where she was and what she was, not because she wished to be, but because she had to be : society did not reflect that it had made her what she wras and put her where she was ; that it kept her there remorselessly and with a shame that should be considered greater than any she could know7.

There were in that society persons respected, admired, and emulated, whose failures differed in degree but not in kind from those which society so fearfully punished in her. There were, for instance, lawvers who sold their brains for prices far higher than those for which these girls sold their souls: editors, writers, artists, and statesmen who sold talent and influence, and even clergymen who sold their abilities, finding it convenient to condemn only the vulgar vices which the refined members of their own congregations were not tempted to commit. And

there were, too, respected women who had sold themselves, or by their parents had been sold, to men, and thought that the act underwent some subtle antiseptic process by reason of the observance of certain conventional formulas. For all these, society had no condemnation, but rather commendation and reward.

Of these things, Mace had a feeling, venr vague and very uncertain, but in its effect upon her, very conclusive, after all. She felt that she was of no use or value in the world; and yet she was of far greater importance, after all, than she knew o* imagined. She belonged, indeed, -to the oldest profession in the world; she had been treated of exhaustively by moralists and savants and economists, to say nothing of the fact that she had been the subject and inspirer of folios of foolish legislation. Had she known all this, she might not have been without consolation.

She was not aware of the fact that she played an important and necessary place in society as constituted. That quarter of the town which she was compelled to inhabit was more important than she knew. It contributed of the funds it made by such dreadful waste of body and at such sacrifice of soul, out of its death and destruction, to the support of many of the most fashionable institutions of the city, and there were fine and delicate ladies on the avenues and boulevards whose furs and costly garments were provided from the rents of those structures in which miserable creatures hid away by day; and there were gentlemen, pillars in the church, whose pockets, though indirectly, • were filled with money that came from this source and from which they reared universities and temples.

That there might be wealth and affluence at the one end of the city, it was necessary that Mace and her companions should live in povertv and vice at the other: and their sacrifices were necessary to selfishness and luxury far away. Their business was a profitable one, not to them but to those who condemned them. Where they dwelt, property values were kept low by economic law so that taxes could be avoided and laws violated, and as a result of the moral degradation of these girls and their constant or occasional companions, they were mulcted in heavy sums for rent.

And yet it was the importance of the

hopeless ; for there was no more hope for her than there was for that society which produced her, and would be none until the day, should it ever come, when those who drew back their skirts for fear of defilement should realize their responsibility for this: realize that their extravagances, their luxury, their very refinement even, the things they counted on to make their lives happier and themselves better than others are made by the compulsory sacrifices of those condemned and miserable ones.

But even such superficial and fugitive speculations were not for Mace, any more than they were for those whose extortions suggest them; just now she was beginning to wonder at the unusual delay in judgment. For the officer had not gone: he still stood there; and the clerk drew back in some incertitude from the new judge; and the new judge himself was speaking not to her, strangely enough, but to the officer.

“The court is aware,” spoke the voice, to the tones of which that court was not yet accustomed, a tone of such quality as to suggest the lack of likelihood of courts becoming accustomed to it for some decades hence, “the court is aware, of course, of the statute on loitering. But just what, in your mind, is meant by loitering? In other words, just what were these girls doing that led you to arrest them?”

The officer, disconcerted for an instant, recovered himself mentioned a shady, disreputable street in the city and then added : “I picked them up there last night about nine o’clock. They were talking with two men.”

“What were the two men doing?” “Talking to the girls. They’ve been cruising around down there, as I stated, holding up men.”

“Do you mean that they were robbing men?”

“No, not that.”

“Did the men resist them?”

The officer looked as if he were being guyed.

“No,” he said finally. And then lowering his head a little, and glancing up under his eyebrows, he said:

“Aw, you know what I mean.”

“You mean that the men were cruising about, too, don’t you?”

“Yes, I suppose they were.”

“So that the girls were doing no more than the men?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“And whatever these girls may have done in the past, within your knowledge or belief”—it seemed well enough to indulge in some legal phraseology—“there were always men doing the same thing, no less and no more, were there not?” “Yes, I suppose so.”

“Then why did you not bring the men in also?”

The officer did not hesitate long; he was frank enough and honest enough, and he was doing his duty well, doing, indeed, just what society wished him to do and was paying him for doing. And he said:

“It is not customary to bring the men in.”

The new judge leaned back in his chair, and his gaze, wandering from the officer and from the girls before him, fixed itself, finally, on some obscure point far out the tall windows of the court-room, across the ugly roofs and chimneys of that hideous quarter of the town.

“I confess,” he said, “that I can not solve this problem—the oldest in the world. Perhaps, if I had the men before me, I might do so, although I am not certain. There would be others, doubtless, besides these girls, besides those men, who are concerned in this offence, others whom the processes of this court can not reach.”

He paused a moment and gazed on as before. Then it seemed that he would speak again, continuing his reflections, but he left off as if, after all, they were of little utility.

And then he said, as one who recalls himself from a reverie :

“The defendants may be discharged.”

He bent his head and wrote in his docket.

The accustomed ones in the court-room exchanged glances, and Mace herself did not understand. She looked up at the new judge, then at the girl beside her, and wondered.

The new judge looked at her.

“You may go,” he said.

The old bailiff, with a functionary’s facility in ending painful scenes, touched

her on the shoulder with his gavel, then with the same insignia of authority, pointed toward the door, and Mace and her companion went out of the court-room, back to the only life they knew or could know, to resume doubtless, their hopeless cruise in those back waters of the sea of life. But they went with a more tripping gait than they had come, and, as she left, Mace herself could not refrain from casting back one little human look of triumph, over her shoulder, at the discomfited officer she left behind.

In the street outside, she paused. The winter sun was shining warm.

“Which way?” asked the new girl, taking a step, however, in the old direction.

“Wait a minute,” said Mace. She stood and squinted up at the sun, and then her breast rose and fell as she took a deep breath of the keen air.

“Say, kid,” she said presently, “how far is your home from here?”

“About thirty miles down in the country. Why?” She put the question almost timidly.

“Well, I was thinking, after what the new beak said—you see, you’re young yet; you’re not like me, and—and then maybe

To Mace there had come a new sense, a sense of having been, for a moment, restored to that humanity from which so long she had been excluded. Ignorant as she was, unaware that she had been the subject of a striking phrase by Cato, and of an imperishable paragraph by the famous historian of European morals, whose imaginative vision could behold her, while creeds and civilizations rise and fall, the eternal priestess of humanity, blasted for the sins of the people, she had heard a moment before one accent of that spiritual voice which through America’s prophetic poet had called to her, “Not till the sun excludes you, do I exclude you”; and that sun was warm upon her now, and for the moment warm within her heart. And as she buttoned her little tan-colored jacket about her, she said:

“Not that way this morning, kid. We'll start the other way. It won’t hurt to try.”