No Defense

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No Defense

By Melville Davisson Post
ILLUSTRATED BY EDMUND FREDERICK

Fatality, which on the marble of ancient tragedies bears the name of a god, and on the tattooed brow of the galleys is called "No Luck."—De Goncourt.

THERE was no sun. The city sat like a ghost in a shroud of dirty yellow fog. This fog entered the courtroom. The gasjets were lighted. The air, heated by these jets, was tainted with the stench of the janitor's mop. It was early in the morning. The judge, a number of prisoners who had been brought over the arched bridge from the jail, the officials of the court and a little group of young attorneys, awaiting assignments to defend those without counsel, were alone in the courtroom.

There was an atmosphere of silence. The whispering of the attorneys, the scratching of the clerk's pen, the words of the judge, the responses of the prisoners, their breathing, the moving of their feet, the creaking of their chairs as they arose and as they reseated themselves, were all sounds detached and audible in this silence. There was here no one of those things that warm and color life. The heat of passion, moving men to violence; the love of adventure; the lust of gain; the lights, the sounds, the words, the gestures—the infinite stimuli that had urged these men against the law—were absent. There was here only the presence of penalty.

When the clerk called the State versus Johnson a young man arose from the line of seated prisoners. Judging by his dress, the man might have been a bank clerk. He got up slowly and stood with his chin lifted, looking at the judge. There was no interest in his face. There was in its stead a profound unconcern. His white, nimble hands, always moving, fingered his coat-pockets. It was a habit rather than a nervous gesture. The resignation in the man's face, in the lift of his head, in the pose of his figure, precluded anxiety. He knew exactly what was going to happen.

The judge did not look up. He inquired whether the prisoner was represented by counsel, and being told that he was not appointed one of the attorneys to defend him. He continued, addressing the attorney:

"If you wish to talk with the prisoner you can take him into the vacant jury room; I will have a page call you before I adjourn; be ready to plead to the indictment."

The attorney beckoned to the prisoner and the two of them went into the jury room. The attorney sat down and indicated a neighboring chair with his hand.

"Well," he said, "what is it—not guilty?" The prisoner did not at once reply; he went over to the window and stood a moment, looking idly through the dirty window-panes. Then he answered.

"I don't care," he said.

The attorney was astonished. "Do you want to go to the penitentiary?"

The man turned sharply on his heel.

"No," he said, "I don't want to go; nobody wants to go.... Do you know what it's like down there?... It's hell down there."

"Then we have got to get busy."

The prisoner shrugged his shoulders. The flash of energy, moving him when he spoke of the penitentiary, was past; he was again listless.

"Come," said the attorney, "we must tell the judge something."

"You can tell him the truth if you want to," replied the prisoner.

"Well," said the attorney, "cut along with the story. If there's anything in it that will do any good I'll put it up to the judge."

The prisoner again shrugged his shoulders.

"It's no use," he said.

The attorney was beginning to be annoyed.

"How do you know it's no use?"

The prisoner sat down in a chair; he put his nervous white hands firmly on his knees. He looked the attorney in the face; a bitter resolution entered his voice.

"I know it very well," he said; "when you hear the story you'll know it too. Listen: I'm what the police call a 'dip'—that is, a pickpocket; and I'm a good one—the cops never pick me up on a job. I know my business."

He suddenly flashed his white, nimble hands. "I can go into a jam at a railroad station and get a pocketbook whenever I want to, or I can go into a crowd any time and get a watch. There's no fly cop that can pinch me at it; they have all had a try. I pass them all up. Of course the police know I do it. You can't keep them from knowing that. But they never caught me at a job; they never could catch me."

"They seem to have caught you this time," said the attorney.

"They—the police!" The prisoner made a contemptuous gesture. "It was something bigger than the police. Did you ever hear of Scott, the man who invented the method of sawing through an iron bar with silk thread and emery dust? No? Well, when it came to brains he had us all trimmed. Scott understood it. He used to say: 'Boys, it's not the police. You always have a chance against the police, but when that other Thing gets in the game you haven't got a ghost of a chance.'"

The attorney was puzzled.

"I don't understand," he said.

"Never mind, " replied the prisoner; "you'll understand in a minute."

He stopped and sat a moment with the muscles of his mouth drawn, his teeth together; then he continued:

"I thought Scott was dopey; I thought he was talking rot. I laughed. 'All right, young man,' he said; 'you're too little yet for the Thing to notice you; but just you wait until you attract its attention! That Thing's on some big job; it has no time for you until you begin to annoy it. Then look out! Mind, it won't land you with a clean upper cut. That's not its method; its way is to do you with a lot of little, trivial, picayune tricks that you will mistake for a run of hard luck. It's like this: it's like an ant crawling over a man's hand when he's busy; for a good while he doesn't notice it, but when he does he knocks it off into the fire. ... Only there's this difference: a man, when he finally did notice it, would brush that ant off into the fire at once; but this Thing takes its finger and heads the ant off here, and it heads it off there, and it steers it and turns it until it drops off into the fire of itself; and every one of those turns and twists and head-offs that ant thinks is an accident.'"

He paused a moment, his slender fingers tightening on his knees.

"I thought Scott was giving me a line of hot air. 'Everybody has luck,' I said. 'Sure they do,' said Scott, 'but this Thing's not luck—it's intention. Luck's a thing that comes by chance, but there's no chance about this Thing. Luck's an accident here and an accident there, without any connection; but this Thing's a system.'"

"What has all this got to do with your case?" asked the attorney.

"I'm coming to that," replied the prisoner. "Listen: It was in the afternoon; the sun had brought everybody out. The snow was melting and the gutters were running full of dirty slush, but the sidewalks were dry and warm. I was coming along the street. I wasn't out for business. I wasn't looking for anything. Finally I hit a crowd on the corner. A faker had a piece of black carpet laid along the sidewalk, and he was selling a mechanical toy—two little dummy figures. He'd make a speech about the wonders of science, then he'd put his mechanical toy down on this carpet, and the two little figures would begin to dance, and they'd keep on dancing—they'd dance forever. The crowd was wild. The faker was selling this toy for twenty-five cents, put up in a neat box with instructions, and they were going like gold dollars.

"It took me a minute to get on to his game. There was a tiny black thread stretched along this carpet, and out at the other end—on the edge of the crowd—a hobo with his hands in his pockets was working the thread. The faker just hooked his toy on to this thread, and of course it would dance until the hobo's elbow wore out.

"I was standing there watching this bunch of suckers take the hook when, out in the crowd, I noticed a big man with his hat on the back of his head, a cigar in his mouth, a diamond in his shirtfront, and a gold watch-chain, as thick as your little finger, stretched across his waistcoat. The thing was like an invitation. I didn't have a pair of nippers on me, so I didn't go after the diamond, but I moved out into the crowd and lifted the watch. I dropped it into my pocket, edged out of the crowd and sauntered on up the street toward home. The big man never missed the watch; he was standing there spread out, with the cigar in his mouth, when I passed out of sight.

"I went on. As I turned into the street on which I live I met a policeman. I knew him; he was a friend of mine.

" 'Hello, Johnson,' he said, 'I was looking for you.'

" 'What do you want with me?' I said.

" 'Well,' he said, 'I guess I've got to take you along to the station-house.'

"I was astonished, but I kept my nerve.

" 'Now, look here, Scally,' I said, 'you haven't got any charge against me.'

" 'I know it,' he said.

"I was more astonished now.

" 'Then what kind of a bluff are you running?' I said.

" 'I'm not running a bluff,' he said; 'the chief has just issued an order for us to round-up all the old suspects and bring them down to the station-house.'

"I understood it then. Whenever a new chief has nothing else to do he takes the census. I tried to get off.

" 'Now, look here, Scally,' I said, 'what's the use of taking me down there?'

" 'No use,' he said.

" 'Then pass me up, old man.'

" 'Can't do it, Johnson,' he said; 'you're on my list and I've got to account for you. If you didn't show up they'd say I tipped you off.'

"Then he tried to smooth it over.

" 'They've got nothing against you; they'll turn you loose in an hour.'

"'I know that,' I said, 'but I'm tired of the same old questions, and the same old Bertillon measurements, and all that rot— ain't there some way round?'

"He shook his head.

"'Not this time; you're located in my district. I've got to produce you.'

"I saw it was no use, so I tried to get him to permit me to go into my house before we started— so I could get rid of the watch in my pocket. It was only a few doors farther on. I gave him a good excuse and he would have done it, but just then a mounted sergeant came along. He knew us, and we had to start for the station-house.

"We went out to the corner and turned down the street that I had just come up. We walked along until we approached the faker and his bunch of suckers. Then, just as we were coming up to them, that big man out in the crowd suddenly missed his watch, grabbed the man who was standing next to him and began to holler. There was a general mix-up, and some one turned in the patrol alarm. The wagon came in a hurry. They hustled the big fellow and the man he had nailed into it just as we came up. And Scally said to me:

" 'It's a mile to the station-house; let's ride.'"

The prisoner stopped. He got up and went over to the window. The fog lying on the city had deepened. The million lights struggling in it seemed about to be extinguished.

There was a knocking on the door.

The attorney replied.

"All right," he said; "in a minute."

Then he turned toward the prisoner leaning on the sill, looking out over the submerged city.

"Well," he said.

The prisoner continued:

"We got in.... There's not much more.... I had to get rid of that watch. The dirty slush was running deep in the gutters. I determined on a plan. As I got out of the wagon I would make a misstep, put my right foot into the slush and let the watch slip down the leg of my trousers. I worked the watch out of my pocket into my hand, and when we stopped I stepped down, stumbled, lost my balance; my right foot went down into the slush, I caught the rail with my left hand, leaned back and let go of the watch.

"The next minute I knew that I was all in. In catching the band of my trousers between my thumb and finger I caught also the band of my undergarment, and the watch was in my shoe!"


Note—The germinal incident of this story is true. It occurred in a Western court and was related to the writer by one of the ablest criminal prosecutors in America.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.


The author died in 1930, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.