Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 58.djvu/191

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LET us suppose two men before a jury on the accusation of homicide. Each admits that he has occasioned the death of a man, but each has his own account of how the thing came about. In the first instance, the accused was holding the gun that sped the fatal bullet; his finger was on the trigger and pressed it; the discharge followed; the victim fell. But it seems that the gun had been forced into his unwilling hands by one stronger than he; an iron finger lay above his own, and it was under its pressure that his finger became the proximate cause of a series of events which he cannot even now contemplate without horror. He was the unwilling instrument of a bloody deed, and does not account himself the responsible cause; he slew because he 'couldn't help it.'

The second man lays before his jurors a story in many respects different, but ending with the same words. He was alone when the shooting occurred. He was under no compulsion at the hands of another, but was shooting at a mark, and taking delight in dotting the target near the bull's-eye, when lo! across the field, above the hedge that bounds the horizon on that side, appears a tempting mark, the rubicund face of a rustic whose open mouth strikes his joyous mood at just that instant as an irresistible target, and one altogether too delightful to be passed by. "I had not the faintest intention, a moment before, of shooting any man," he explains; "but, really, it was too good a shot to miss, and I simply couldn't help it."

Let us suppose it possible for the same jury to hear these two explanations, one after the other. The action of a petit jury is said to be most uncertain, but there can be little doubt that even a jury would detect an important distinction between these two 'couldn't help's.' The world seems to be full of 'couldn't help's' of the two sorts; the man who stumbled on the stairs couldn't help rolling to the bottom; the man who was thrown from a window couldn't help descending to the street; the man who was seized by the police couldn't help failing to meet his engagement; the greedy boy couldn't help taking the larger muffin; the devoted mother couldn't help spoiling her only child; the emotional philanthropist couldn't help feeling in his pocket on hearing the plausible tale of the wily tramp.

Probably most jurymen would refuse to recognize 'couldn't help's'