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The Black Baronet; or, The Chronicles Of Ballytrain, a novel by William Carleton

Chapter 25. The Police Office

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_ CHAPTER XXV. The Police Office

--Sir Spigot Sputter and Mr. Coke--An Unfortunate Translator--Decision in "a Law Case."

It is not our intention to detail the history of occurrences that are calculated to fill the mind with sorrow, not unmingled with disgust, or to describe scenes that must necessarily lower our estimate of both man and woman. On the bench sat two magistrates, of whom we may say that, from ignorance of law, want of temper, and impenetrable stupidity, the whole circle of commercial or professional life could not produce a pair more, signally unqualified for the important offices they occupied. One of them, named Sputter, Sir Spigot Sputter, was an old man, with a red face and perpetual grin, whose white hair was cropped close; but in compensation for this he wore powder and a queue, so that his head, except in vivacity of motion, might not inappropriately be compared to an overgrown tadpole struggling to get free from his shoulders, and escape to the nearest marsh. He also wore a false eye, which gave him a perennial blink that was sadly at variance with magisterial dignity. Indeed the consequences of it were sometimes ludicrous enough. When, for instance, one of those syrens who perambulate our fashionable streets after the sun has gone down, happened to be brought up to answer some charge that came under his jurisdiction, Sir Spigot's custom always was to put his glass to the safe eye, and peer at her in the dock; which act, when taken in connection with the grin and the droop of the glass eye, seemed to the spectators as if he and she understood each other, and that the wink in question was a kind of telegraphic dispatch sent to let her know that she had a friend on the bench. Sir Spigot was deaf, too, a felicitous circumstance, which gave him peculiar facility in the decision of his cases.

The name of his brother on the bench was Coke, who acted in the capacity of what is termed a law magistrate. It is enough, however, to say, that he was a thin man, with a long, dull face, a dull eye, a dull tongue, a dull ear, and a dull brain. His talents for ambiguity were surprising, and it always required a hint from the senior of the office, Darby, to enable him to understand his own decisions. This, however, was not without some beneficial consequences to the individuals before him; as it often happened, that when he seemed to have committed some hardened offender, after the infliction of a long, laborious, obscure harangue, he has immediately ordered him to be discharged. And, on the contrary, when some innocent individual heard with delight the sentence of the court apparently, in his favor, judge of what he must have felt on finding himself sent off to Newgate, Kilmainham, or the Penitentiary. In this instance, however, the advantage to the public was nearly equal; for if the guilty escaped in one case, so did the innocent in another. Here now is where Darby became useful; for Darby, who was well acquainted with his style, and with his meaning, when he had any, always interpreted his decisions to him, and told him in a whisper, or on a slip of paper, whether he had convicted the prisoner, or not.

We shall detail one case which occurred this morning. It happened that an amiable and distinguished literary gentleman, an LL.D., and a barrister, had lost from his library a book on which he placed great value, and he found this book on a stall not very far from the office. On seeing the volume he naturally claimed it, and the woman who had received it from the thief, who was a servant, refused to give it up, unless the money she had paid for it were returned to her. Neither would the wretch disclose the name of the thief, but snapped her fingers in Dr. A----'s face, saying she defied him, and that he could only bring her before Mr. Coke, who, she knew very well, would see justice done her. She lived by buying books, she said, and by selling books; and as he lived by writing books, she thought it wasn't handsome of him to insult the profession by bringing such a blackguard charge against them in her name.

He summoned her, however, and the case was one of the first called on the morning in question. The receiver of the stolen book came forward, with much assurance, as defendant, and modest Dr. A---- as plaintiff; when Sir Spigot, putting his glass to his eye, and looking from the one to the other with his wink and grin as usual, said to Darby:

"What is this man here for?"

"It's a law case, your worship," replied the senior officer.

Coke, who sat solemn and silent, looked at the doctor, and said:

"Well, sir, what is your case? Please to state it."

The case, being a very plain and brief one, was soon stated, the woman's reply was then heard, after which Mr. Coke looked graver than before, and proceeded somewhat to the following effect:

"This is a case of deep interest to that important portion of the bibiliopolist profession who vend their wares on stalls."

"Thank your worship," said the woman, with a courtesy.

"This most respectable body of persons, the booksellers--[another courtesy from the woman]--are divided into several classes; first, those who sell books in large and splendid shops; next, those who sell them in shops of less pretension; thirdly, those who sell them on stalls in thoroughfares, and at the corners of streets; fourthly, those who carry them in baskets, and who pass from place to place, and combine with the book-selling business that of flying stationer; and fifthly, those who do not sell them at all, but only read them; and as those who read, unless they steal or borrow, must purchase, I accordingly class them as booksellers indirectly, inasmuch as if they don't sell books themselves, they cause others to do so. For this reason it is evident that every man living, and woman too, capable of reading a book, is a bookseller; so that society at large is nothing but one great bookselling firm.

"Having thus established the immense extent and importance of the business, I now proceed to the consideration of the case before us. To steal a book is not in every case an offence against the law of libel, nor against the law of arson, nor against the law of insurrection, nor against the law of primogeniture; in fact, it is only against the law of theft--it offends only one law--and is innocent with respect to all the others. A person stealing a book could not be indicted under the statute of limitations, for instance; except, indeed, in so far as he may be supposed to limit the property of the person from whom he stole it. But on this point the opinion of the learned Folderol would go pretty far, were it not for the opinion of another great man, which I shall presently quote. Folderol lays it down as a fixed principle in an able treatise upon the law of weathercocks, that if property be stolen from an individual, without the aggregate of that property suffering reduction or diminution, he is not robbed, and the crime of theft has not been committed. The other authority that I alluded to, is that of his great and equally celebrated opponent, Tolderol, who lays it down on the other hand, that when a thief, in the act of stealing, leaves more behind him than he found there at first, so that the man stolen from becomes richer by the act of theft than he had been before it, the crime then becomes dupleis delicti, or one of harum-scarum, according to Doodle, and the thief deserves transportation or the gallows. And the reason is obvious: if the property of the person stolen from, under the latter category, were to be examined, and that a larger portion of it was found there than properly had belonged to him before the theft, he might be suspected of theft himself, and in this case a double conviction of the parties would ensue; that is, of him who did not take what he ought, and of him who had more than he was entitled to. This opinion, which is remarkable for its perspicuity and soundness, is to be found in the one hundred and second folio of Logerhedius, tome six hundred, page 9768.

"There is another case bearing strongly upon the present one, in 'Snifter and Snivell's Reports,' vol. 86, page 1480, in which an old woman, who was too poor to purchase a Bible, stole one, and was prosecuted for the theft. The counsel for the prosecution and the defence were both equally eminent and able. Counsellor Sleek was for the prosecution and Rant for the defence. Sleek, who was himself a religious barrister, insisted that the locus delicti aggravated the offence, inasmuch as she had stolen the Bible out of a church; but Rant maintained that the locus delicti was a prima facie evidence of her innocence, inasmuch as she only complied with a precept of religion, which enjoins all sinners to seek such assistance toward their spiritual welfare as the church can afford them.

"Sleek argued that the principle of theft must have been innate and strong, when the respect due to that sacred edifice was insufficient to restrain her from such an act--an act which constituted sacrilege of a very aggravated kind.

"Rant replied, that the motive and not the act constituted the crime. There was prima facie proof that she stole it for pious purposes--to wit, that she might learn therefrom a correct principle for the conduct of her life. It was not proved that the woman had sold the book, or pledged it, or in any-other way disposed of it for her corporal or temporal benefit; the inference, therefore, was, that the motive, in the first place, justified the act, which was in se a pious one; and, besides, had the woman been a thief, she would have stolen the plate and linen belonging to the altar; but she did not, therefore there existed on her part no consciousness nor intention of wrong.

"Sleek rejoined, that if the woman had felt any necessity for religious advice and instruction, she would have gone to the minister, whose duty it was to give it.

"Rant replied, that upon Sleek's own principles, if the minister had properly discharged his duty, the woman would have been under no necessity for taking the Bible at all; and that, consequently, in a strict spirit of justice, the theft, if theft it could be called, was not the theft of the old woman, but that of the minister himself, who had failed to give her proper instructions. It was the duty of the minister to have gone to the old woman, and not that of the old woman to have gone to the minister; but, perhaps, had the woman been young and handsome, the minister might have administered consolation.

"I find that Sleek here made a long speech about religion, which he charged Rant with insulting; he regretted that a false humanity had repealed some of those stringent but wholesome laws that had been enacted for the preservation of holy things, and was truly sorry that this sacrilegious old wretch could not be brought to the stake. He did not envy his learned, friend the sneering contempt for religion that ran through his whole argument.

"Rant bowed and smiled, and replied that, in his opinion, the only stake the poor woman ought to be brought to was a beefsteak; for he always wished to see the law administered with mercy.

"Sleek was not surprised at hearing such a carnal argument brought to the defence of such a crime, and concluded by pressing for the severest punishment the law could inflict against this most iniquitous criminal, who--and he dared even Rant himself to deny the fact--came before that court as an old offender; he therefore pressed for a conviction against a person who had acted so flagrantly contra bonos mores.

"Rant said, she could not or ought not to be convicted. This Bible was not individual property; it was that of a parish that contained better than eighteen thousand inhabitants. Now, if any individual were to establish his right of property in the Bible, and she herself was a proprietress as well as any of them, the amount would be far beneath any current coin of the realm, consequently there existed no legal symbol of property for the value of which a conviction could be had.

"As I perceive, however," added Mr. Coke, "that the abstract of the arguments in this important case runs to about five hundred pages, I shall therefore recapitulate Judge Nodwell's charge, which has been considered a very brilliant specimen of legal acumen and judicial eloquence.

"'This, gentlemen of the jury,' said his lordship,' is a case of apparently some difficulty, and I cannot help admiring the singular talent and high principles displayed by the learned counsel on both sides, who so ably argued it. Of one thing I am certain, that no consciousness of religious ignorance, no privation of religious knowledge, could ever induce my learned friend Sleek to commit such a theft. Rather than do so, I am sure he would be conscientious enough to pass through the world without any religion at all. As it is, we all know that he is a great light in that respect--'

"'He would be a burning light, too, my lord,' observed Rant.

"No; his reverence for the Bible is too great, too sincere to profane it by such vulgar perusal as it may have received at the hands of that destitute old woman, who probably thumbed it day and night, without regard either to dog-ears or binding, or a consideration of how she was treating the property of the parish. The fact, however, gentlemen, seems to be, that the old woman either altogether forgot the institutions of society, or resolved society itself in her own mind into first principles. Now, gentlemen, we cannot go behind first principles, neither can we go behind the old woman. We must keep her before us, but it is not necessary to keep the Bible so. It has been found, indeed, that she did not sell, pledge, bestow, or otherwise make the book subservient to her temporal or corporal wants, as Mr. Rant very ingeniously argued. Neither did she take it to place in her library--for she had no library; nor for ostentation in her hall--for she had no hall, as my pious friend Counsellor Sleek has. But, gentlemen, even if this old woman by reading the Bible learned to repent, and felt conversion of heart, you are not to infer that the act which brought her to grace and repentance may not have been a hardened violation of the law. Beware of this error, gentlemen. The old woman by stealing this Bible may have repented her of her sins, it is true; but it is your business, gentlemen, to make her repent of the law also. The law is as great a source of repentance as the Bible any day, and, I am proud to say, has caused more human tears to be shed, and bitterer ones, too, than the Word of God ever did. Even although justified in the sight of heaven, it does not follow that this woman is to escape here. It is the act, and not the heart, that the law deals with. The purity of her motives, her repentance, are nothing to the law; but the law is everything to the person in whom they operate; because, although the heart may be innocent, the individual person must be punished. A penitent heart, or a consciousness of the pardon of God, are not fit considerations for a jury-box. You are, therefore, to exclude the motive, and to take nothing into consideration but the act; for it is only that by which the law has been violated.

"'But is there no such thing as mercy, my lord?' asked a juror.

"In the administration of the law there is such a fiction--a beautiful negation, indeed--but we know that Justice always holds the first place, and when she is satisfied, then we call in Mercy. Such, at least, is the wholesome practice and constitutional spirit of British law. I have now, gentlemen, rendered you every assistance in my power. If you think this old woman guilty, you will find accordingly; if not, you will give her the benefit of any doubt in her favor which you may entertain.

"The woman," continued Coke, "was convicted, and here follows the sentence of the judge.

"Martha Dotinghed--you have been convicted by the verdict of twelve as intelligent and respectable gentlemen as I ever saw in a jury-box; convicted, I am sorry to say, very properly, of a most heinous crime, that of attempting to work out your salvation in an improper manner--to wit, by making illegally free with the Word of God.

"'In troth, my lord,' replied the culprit, 'the Word of God is become so scarce nowadays, that unless one steals it, they have but a poor chance of coming by it honestly, or hearing it at all'."

"You have been convicted, I say, notwithstanding a most able defence by your counsel, who omitted no argument that could prove available for your acquittal; and I am sorry to hear from your own lips, that you are in no degree penitent for the crime you have committed. You say, the Word of God is scarce nowadays--but that fact, unhappy woman, only aggravates your guilt--for in proportion to the scarcity of the Word of God, so is its value increased--and we all know that the greater the value of that which is stolen, the deeper, in the eye of the law, is the crime of the thief. Had you not given utterance to those impenitent expressions, the court would have been anxious to deal mercifully with you. As it is, I tell you to prepare for the heaviest punishment it can inflict, which is, that you be compelled to read some one of the Commentaries upon the Book you have stolen, once, at least, before you die, should you live so long, and may God have mercy on you!

"Here the prisoner fell into strong hysterics, and was taken away in a state of insensibility from the dock.

"Now," proceeded Coke, closing the ponderous tome, "I read this case from a feeling that it bears very strongly upon that before us. Saponificus, the learned and animated civilian, in his reply to the celebrated treatise of 'Rigramarolius de Libris priggatis,' commonly called his Essay on Stolen Books, asserts that there never yet was a book printed but was more or less stolen; and society, he argues, in no shape, in none of its classes--neither in the prison, lockup, blackhole, or penitentiary--presents us with such a set of impenitents and irreclaimable thieves as those who write books. Theft is their profession, and gets them the dishonest bread by which they live. These may always read the eighth commandment by leaving the negative out, and then take it in an injunctive sense. Such persons, in prosecuting another for stealing a book, cannot come into court with clean hands. Felons in literature, therefore, appear here with a very bad grace in prosecuting others for the very crime which they themselves are in the habit of committing."

"But, your worship," said Dr. A----, "this charge against authors cannot apply to me; the book in question is a translation."

"Pooh!" exclaimed Coke, "only a translation! But even so, has it notes or comments?"

"It has, your worship; but they--"

"And, sir, could you declare solemnly, that there is nothing stolen in the notes and comments, or introduction, if there is any?"

The doctor, "Ehem! hem!"

"But in the meantime," proceeded Coke, "here have I gone to the trouble of giving such a profound decision upon a mere translation! Who is the translator?"

"I am myself, your worship; and in this case I am both plaintiff and translator."

"That, however," said Coke, shaking his head solemnly, "makes the case against you still worse."

"But, your worship, there is no case against me. I have already told you that I am plaintiff and translator; and, with great respect, I don't think you have yet given any decision whatever."

"I have decided, sir," replied Coke, "and taken the case I read for you as a precedent."

"But in that case, your worship, the woman was convicted."

"And so she is in this, sir," replied Coke. "Officer, put Biddy Corcoran forward. Biddy Corcoran, you are an old woman, which, indeed, is evident from the nature of your offence, and have been convicted of the egregious folly of purchasing a translation, which this gentleman says was compiled or got up by himself. This is conduct which the court cannot overlook, inasmuch as if it were persisted in, we might, God help us, become inundated with translations. I am against translations--I have ever been against them, and I shall ever be against them. They are immoral in themselves, and render the same injury to literature that persons of loose morals do to society. In general, they are nothing short of a sacrilegious profanation of the dead, and I would almost as soon see the ghost of a departed friend as the translation of a defunct author, for they bear the same relation. The regular translator, in fact, is nothing less than a literary ghoul, who lives upon the mangled carcasses of the departed--a mere sack-'em-up, who disinters the dead, and sells their remains for money. You, sir, might have been better and more honestly employed than in wasting your time upon a translation. These are works that no men or class of men, except bishops, chandlers, and pastrycooks, ought to have anything to do with; and as you, I presume, are not a bishop, nor a chandler, nor a pastrycook, I recommend you to spare your countrymen in future. Biddy Corcoran, as the court is determined to punish you severely, the penalty against you is, that you be compelled to read the translation in question once a week for the next three months. I had intended to send you to the treadmill for the same space of time: but, on looking more closely into the nature of your offence, I felt it my duty to visit you with a much severer punishment."

"That, your worship," replied the translator, "is no punishment at all; instead of that, it will be a pleasure to read my translation, and as you have pronounced her to be guilty, it goes in the very teeth of your decision."

"What--what--what kind of language is this, sir?" exclaimed Sir Spigot Sputter! "This is disrespect to the court, sir. In the teeth of his decision! His worship's decision, sir, has no teeth."

"Indeed, on second thoughts, I think not, sir," replied, the indignant wit and translator; "it is indeed a very toothless decision, and exceedingly appropriate in passing sentence upon an old woman in the same state."

"Eh--eh," said Sir Spigot, "which old woman? who do you mean, sir? Yourself or the culprit? Eh? eh?"

"Your worship forgets that there are four of us," replied the translator.

"Well, sir! well, sir! But as to the culprit--that old woman there--having no teeth, that is not her fault," replied Sir Spigot; "if she hasn't teeth, she has gum enough--eh! eh! you must admit that, sir."

"You all appear to have gum enough," replied the wit, "and nothing but gum, only it is gum arabic to me, I know."

"You have treated this court with disrespect, sir," said Coke, very solemnly; "but the court will uphold its dignity. In the meantime you are fined half-a-crown."

"But, your worship," whispered Darby, "this is the celebrated Dr. A----, a very eminent man."

"I have just heard, sir," proceeded Coke, "from the senior officer of the court, that you are a very eminent man; it may be so, and I am very sorry for it. I have never heard your name, however, nor a syllable of your literary reputation, before; but as it seems you are an eminent man, I take it for granted that it must be in a private and confidential way among your particular friends. I will fine you, however, another half-crown for the eminence."

"Well, gentlemen," replied the doctor, "I have heard of many 'wise saws and modern instances,' but--"

"What do you mean, sir?" said Sir Spigot. "Another insult! You asserted, sir, already, that Mr. Coke's decision had teeth--"

"But I admitted my error," replied the other.

"And now you mean to insinuate, I suppose, that his worship's saws are handsaws. You are fined another half-crown, sir, for the handsaw."

"And another," said Coke, "for the gum arabic."

The doctor fearing that the fines would increase thick and threefold, forthwith paid them all, and retired indignantly from the court.

And thus was the author of certainly one of the most beautiful translations in any language, at least in his own opinion, treated by these two worthy administrators of the law. (* A fact.) _

Read next: Chapter 26. The Priest Returns Sir Thomas's Money And Pistols

Read previous: Chapter 24. An Irish Watchhouse In The Time Of The "Charlies"

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