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- Justice in the By-Ways - 26/64 -
Only to-day did George Mullholland reveal to her the almost hopeless condition of poor Tom Swiggs, still confined in the prison, with criminals for associates, and starving. She had met Tom when fortune was less ruthless; he had twice befriended her while in New York. Moved by that sympathy for the suffering which is ever the purest offspring of woman's heart, no matter how low her condition, she resolved not to rest until she had devised the means of his release. Her influence over the subtle-minded old Judge she well knew, nor was she ignorant of the relations existing between him and the accommodation man.
On the conclusion of the feast she invites them to her chamber. They are not slow to accept the invitation. "Be seated, gentlemen, be seated," she says, preserving a calmness of manner not congenial to the feelings of either of her guests. She places chairs for them at the round table, upon the marble top of which an inlaid portfolio lies open.
"Rather conventional," stammers Mr. Snivel, touching the Judge significantly on the arm, as they take seats. Mr. Snivel is fond of good wine, and good wine has so mellowed his constitution that he is obliged to seek support for his head in his hands.
"I'd like a little light on this 'ere plot. Peers thar's somethin' a foot," responds the Judge.
Anna interposes by saying they shall know quick enough. Placing a pen and inkstand on the table, she takes her seat opposite them, and commences watching their declining consciousness. "Thar," ejaculates the old Judge, his moody face becoming dark and sullen, "let us have the wish."
"You owe me an atonement, and you can discharge it by gratifying my desire."
"Women," interposes the old Judge, dreamily, "always have wishes to gratify. W-o-l, if its teu sign a warrant, hang a nigger, tar and feather an abolitionist, ride the British Consul out a town, or send a dozen vagrants to the whipping-post-I'm thar. Anything my hand's in at!" incoherently mumbles this judicial dignitary.
Mr. Snivel having reminded the Judge that ten o'clock to-morrow morning is the time appointed for meeting Splitwood, the "nigger broker," who furnishes capital with which they start a new paper for the new party, drops away into a refreshing sleep, his head on the marble.
"Grant me, as a favor, an order for the release of poor Tom Swiggs. You cannot deny me this, Judge," says Anna, with an arch smile, and pausing for a reply.
"Wol, as to that," responds this high functionary, "if I'd power, 'twouldn't be long afore I'd dew it, though his mother'd turn the town upside down; but I hain't no power in the premises. I make it a rule, on and off the bench, never to refuse the request of a pretty woman. Chivalry, you know."
"For your compliment, Judge, I thank you. The granting my request, however, would be more grateful to my feelings."
"It speaks well of your heart, my dear girl; but, you see, I'm only a Judge. Mr. Snivel, here, probably committed him ('Snivel! here, wake up!' he says, shaking him violently), he commits everybody. Being a Justice of the Peace, you see, and justices of the peace being everything here, I may prevail on him to grant your request!" pursues the Judge, brightening up at the earnest manner in which Anna makes her appeal. "Snivel! Snivel!--Justice Snivel, come, wake up. Thar is a call for your sarvices." The Judge continues to shake the higher functionary violently. Mr. Snivel with a modest snore rouses from his nap, says he is always ready to do a bit of a good turn. "If you are, then," interposes the fair girl, "let it be made known now. Grant me an order of release for Tom Swiggs. Remember what will be the consequence of a refusal!"
"Tom Swiggs! Tom Swiggs!--why I've made a deal of fees of that fellow. But, viewing it in either a judicial or philosophical light, he's quite as well where he is. They don't give them much to eat in jail I admit, but it is a great place for straightening the morals of a rum-head like Tom. And he has got down so low that all the justices in the city couldn't make him fit for respectable society." Mr. Snivel yawns and stretches his arms athwart.
"But you can grant me the order independent of what respectable society will do."
Mr. Snivel replies, bowing, a pretty woman is more than a match for the whole judiciary. He will make a good amount of fees out of Tom yet; and what his testy old mother declines to pay, he will charge to the State, as the law gives him a right to do.
"Then I am to understand!" quickly retorts Anna, rising from her chair, with an expression of contempt on her countenance, and a satirical curl on her lip, "you have no true regard for me then; your friendship is that of the knave, who has nothing to give after his ends are served. I will leave you!" The Judge takes her gently by the arm; indignantly she pushes him from her, as her great black eyes flash with passion, and she seeks for the door. Mr. Snivel has placed himself against it, begs she will be calm. "Why," he says, "get into a passion at that which was but a joke." The Judge touches him on the arm significantly, and whispers in his ear, "grant her the order-grant it, for peace sake, Justice Snivel."
"Now, if you will tell me why you take so deep an interest in getting them fellows out of prison, I will grant the order of release," Mr. Snivel says, and with an air of great gallantry leads her back to her chair.
"None but friendship for one who served me when he had it in his power."
"I see! I see!" interrupts our gallant justice; "the renewal of an old acquaintance; you are to play the part of Don Quixote,--he, the mistress. It's well enough there should be a change in the knights, and that the stripling who goes about in the garb of the clergy, and has been puzzling his wits how to get Tom out of prison for the last six months--"
"Your trades never agree;" parenthesises Anna.
"Should yield the lance to you."
"Who better able to wield it in this chivalrous atmosphere? It only pains my own feelings to confess myself an abandoned woman; but I have a consolation in knowing how powerful an abandoned woman may be in Charleston."
An admonition from the old Judge, and Mr. Snivel draws his chair to the table, upon which he places his left elbow, rests his head on his hand. "This fellow will get out; his mother-I have pledged my honor to keep him fast locked up-will find it out, and there'll be a fuss among our first families," he whispers. Anna pledges him her honor, a thing she never betrays, that the secret of Tom's release shall be a matter of strict confidence. And having shook hands over it, Mr. Snivel seizes the pen and writes an order of release, commanding the jailer to set at liberty one Tom Swiggs, committed as a vagrant upon a justice's warrant, &c., &c., &c. "There," says Justice Snivel, "the thing is done-now for a kiss;" and the fair girl permits him to kiss her brow. "Me too; the bench and the bar!" rejoins the Judge, following the example of his junior. And with an air of triumph the victorious girl bears away what at this moment she values a prize.
IN WHICH TOM SWIGGS GAINS HIS LIBERTY, AND WHAT BEFALLS HIM.
ANNA gives George Mullholland the letter of release, and on the succeeding morning he is seen entering at the iron gate of the wall that encloses the old prison. "Bread! give me bread," greets his ear as soon as he enters the sombre old pile. He walks through the debtors' floor, startles as he hears the stifled cry for bread, and contemplates with pained feelings the wasting forms and sickly faces that everywhere meet his eye. The same piercing cry grates upon his senses as he sallies along the damp, narrow aisle of the second floor, lined on both sides with small, filthy cells, in which are incarcerated men whose crime is that of having committed "assault and battery," and British seamen innocent of all crime except that of having a colored skin. If anything less than a gentleman commit assault and battery, we punish him with imprisonment; we have no law to punish gentlemen who commit such offences.
Along the felon's aisle-in the malarious cells where "poor" murderers and burglars are chained to die of the poisonous atmosphere, the same cry tells its mournful tale. Look into the dark vista of this little passage, and you will see the gleaming of flabby arms and shrunken hands. Glance into the apertures out of which they protrude so appealingly, you will hear the dull clank of chains, see the glare of vacant eyes, and shudder at the pale, cadaverous faces of beings tortured with starvation. A low, hoarse whisper, asks you for bread; a listless countenance quickens at your footfall. Oh! could you but feel the emotion that has touched that shrunken form which so despondingly waits the coming of a messenger of mercy. That system of cruelty to prisoners which so disgraced England during the last century, and which for her name she would were erased from her history, we preserve here in all its hideousness. The Governor knows nothing, and cares nothing about the prison; the Attorney-General never darkens its doors; the public scarce give a thought for those within its walls-and to one man, Mr. Hardscrabble, is the fate of these wretched beings entrusted. And so prone has become the appetite of man to speculate on the misfortunes of his fellow-man, that this good man, as we shall call him, tortures thus the miserable beings entrusted to his keeping, and makes it a means of getting rich. Pardon, reader, this digression.
George, elated with the idea of setting Tom at liberty, found the young theologian at the prison, and revealed to him the fact that he had got the much-desired order. To the latter this seemed strange-not that such a person as George could have succeeded in what he had tried in vain to effect, but that there was a mystery about it. It is but justice to say that the young theologian had for six months used every exertion in his power, without avail, to
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