The Justice of Men

The arrest of Berry Hamilton on the charge preferred by his employer was the cause of unusual commotion in the town. Both the accuser and the accused were well known to the citizens, white and black⁠—Maurice Oakley as a solid man of business, and Berry as an honest, sensible negro, and the pink of good servants. The evening papers had a full story of the crime, which closed by saying that the prisoner had amassed a considerable sum of money, it was very likely from a long series of smaller peculations.

It seems a strange irony upon the force of right living, that this man, who had never been arrested before, who had never even been suspected of wrongdoing, should find so few who even at the first telling doubted the story of his guilt. Many people began to remember things that had looked particularly suspicious in his dealings. Some others said, “I didn’t think it of him.” There were only a few who dared to say, “I don’t believe it of him.”

The first act of his lodge, “The Tribe of Benjamin,” whose treasurer he was, was to have his accounts audited, when they should have been visiting him with comfort, and they seemed personally grieved when his books were found to be straight. The A.M.E. church, of which he had been an honest and active member, hastened to disavow sympathy with him, and to purge itself of contamination by turning him out. His friends were afraid to visit him and were silent when his enemies gloated. On every side one might have asked, Where is charity? and gone away empty.

In the black people of the town the strong influence of slavery was still operative, and with one accord they turned away from one of their own kind upon whom had been set the ban of the white people’s displeasure. If they had sympathy, they dared not show it. Their own interests, the safety of their own positions and firesides, demanded that they stand aloof from the criminal. Not then, not now, nor has it ever been true, although it has been claimed, that negroes either harbour or sympathise with the criminal of their kind. They did not dare to do it before the sixties. They do not dare to do it now. They have brought down as a heritage from the days of their bondage both fear and disloyalty. So Berry was unbefriended while the storm raged around him. The cell where they had placed him was kind to him, and he could not hear the envious and sneering comments that went on about him. This was kind, for the tongues of his enemies were not.

“Tell me, tell me,” said one, “you needn’t tell me dat a bird kin fly so high dat he don’ have to come down some time. An’ w’en he do light, honey, my Lawd, how he flop!”

“Mistah Rich Niggah,” said another. “He wanted to dress his wife an’ chillen lak white folks, did he? Well, he foun’ out, he foun’ out. By de time de jedge git thoo wid him he won’t be hol’in’ his haid so high.”

“W’y, dat gal o’ his’n,” broke in old Isaac Brown indignantly, “w’y, she wouldn’ speak to my gal, Minty, when she met huh on de street. I reckon she come down off’n huh high hoss now.”

The fact of the matter was that Minty Brown was no better than she should have been, and did not deserve to be spoken to. But none of this was taken into account either by the speaker or the hearers. The man was down, it was time to strike.

The women too joined their shrill voices to the general cry, and were loud in their abuse of the Hamiltons and in disparagement of their high-toned airs.

“I knowed it, I knowed it,” mumbled one old crone, rolling her bleared and jealous eyes with glee. “W’enevah you see niggahs gittin’ so high dat dey own folks ain’ good enough fu’ ’em, look out.”

“W’y, la, Aunt Chloe I knowed it too. Dem people got so owdacious proud dat dey wouldn’t walk up to de collection table no mo’ at chu’ch, but allus set an’ waited twell de basket was passed erroun’.”

“Hit’s de livin’ trufe, an’ I’s been seein’ it all ’long. I ain’t said nuffin’, but I knowed what ’uz gwine to happen. Ol’ Chloe ain’t lived all dese yeahs fu’ nuffin’, an’ ef she got de gif’ o’ secon’ sight, ’tain’t fu’ huh to say.”

The women suddenly became interested in this half assertion, and the old hag, seeing that she had made the desired impression, lapsed into silence.

The whites were not neglecting to review and comment on the case also. It had been long since so great a bit of wrongdoing in a negro had given them cause for speculation and recrimination.

“I tell you,” said old Horace Talbot, who was noted for his kindliness towards people of colour, “I tell you, I pity that darky more than I blame him. Now, here’s my theory.” They were in the bar of the Continental Hotel, and the old gentleman sipped his liquor as he talked. “It’s just like this: The North thought they were doing a great thing when they come down here and freed all the slaves. They thought they were doing a great thing, and I’m not saying a word against them. I give them the credit for having the courage of their convictions. But I maintain that they were all wrong, now, in turning these people loose upon the country the way they did, without knowledge of what the first principle of liberty was. The natural result is that these people are irresponsible. They are unacquainted with the ways of our higher civilisation, and it’ll take them a long time to learn. You know Rome wasn’t built in a day. I know Berry, and I’ve known him for a long while, and a politer, likelier darky than him you would have to go far to find. And I haven’t the least doubt in the world that he took that money absolutely without a thought of wrong, sir, absolutely. He saw it. He took it, and to his mental process, that was the end of it. To him there was no injury inflicted on anyone, there was no crime committed. His elemental reasoning was simply this: This man has more money than I have; here is some of his surplus⁠—I’ll just take it. Why, gentlemen, I maintain that that man took that money with the same innocence of purpose with which one of our servants a few years ago would have appropriated a stray ham.”

“I disagree with you entirely, Mr. Talbot,” broke in Mr. Beachfield Davis, who was a mighty hunter.⁠—“Make mine the same, Jerry, only add a little syrup.⁠—I disagree with you. It’s simply total depravity, that’s all. All niggers are alike, and there’s no use trying to do anything with them. Look at that man, Dodson, of mine. I had one of the finest young hounds in the State. You know that white pup of mine, Mr. Talbot, that I bought from Hiram Gaskins? Mighty fine breed. Well, I was spendin’ all my time and patience trainin’ that dog in the daytime. At night I put him in that nigger’s care to feed and bed. Well, do you know, I came home the other night and found that black rascal gone? I went out to see if the dog was properly bedded, and by Jove, the dog was gone too. Then I got suspicious. When a nigger and a dog go out together at night, one draws certain conclusions. I thought I had heard bayin’ way out towards the edge of the town. So I stayed outside and watched. In about an hour here came Dodson with a possum hung over his shoulder and my dog trottin’ at his heels. He’d been possum huntin’ with my hound⁠—with the finest hound in the State, sir. Now, I appeal to you all, gentlemen, if that ain’t total depravity, what is total depravity?”

“Not total depravity, Beachfield, I maintain, but the very irresponsibility of which I have spoken. Why, gentlemen, I foresee the day when these people themselves shall come to us Southerners of their own accord and ask to be re-enslaved until such time as they shall be fit for freedom.” Old Horace was nothing if not logical.

“Well, do you think there’s any doubt of the darky’s guilt?” asked Colonel Saunders hesitatingly. He was the only man who had ever thought of such a possibility. They turned on him as if he had been some strange, unnatural animal.

“Any doubt!” cried Old Horace.

“Any doubt!” exclaimed Mr. Davis.

“Any doubt?” almost shrieked the rest. “Why, there can be no doubt. Why, Colonel, what are you thinking of? Tell us who has got the money if he hasn’t? Tell us where on earth the nigger got the money he’s been putting in the bank? Doubt? Why, there isn’t the least doubt about it.”

“Certainly, certainly,” said the Colonel, “but I thought, of course, he might have saved it. There are several of those people, you know, who do a little business and have bank accounts.”

“Yes, but they are in some sort of business. This man makes only thirty dollars a month. Don’t you see?”

The Colonel saw, or said he did. And he did not answer what he might have answered, that Berry had no rent and no board to pay. His clothes came from his master, and Kitty and Fannie looked to their mistress for the larger number of their supplies. He did not call to their minds that Fannie herself made fifteen dollars a month, and that for two years Joe had been supporting himself. These things did not come up, and as far as the opinion of the gentlemen assembled in the Continental bar went, Berry was already proven guilty.

As for the prisoner himself, after the first day when he had pleaded “Not guilty” and been bound over to the Grand Jury, he had fallen into a sort of dazed calm that was like the stupor produced by a drug. He took little heed of what went on around him. The shock had been too sudden for him, and it was as if his reason had been for the time unseated. That it was not permanently overthrown was evidenced by his waking to the most acute pain and grief whenever Fannie came to him. Then he would toss and moan and give vent to his sorrow in passionate complaints.

“I didn’t tech his money, Fannie, you know I didn’t. I wo’ked fu’ every cent of dat money, an’ I saved it myself. Oh, I’ll nevah be able to git a job ag’in. Me in de lockup⁠—me, aftah all dese yeahs!”

Beyond this, apparently, his mind could not go. That his detention was anything more than temporary never seemed to enter his mind. That he would be convicted and sentenced was as far from possibility as the skies from the earth. If he saw visions of a long sojourn in prison, it was only as a nightmare half consciously experienced and which with the struggle must give way before the waking.

Fannie was utterly hopeless. She had laid down whatever pride had been hers and gone to plead with Maurice Oakley for her husband’s freedom, and she had seen his hard, set face. She had gone upon her knees before his wife to cite Berry’s long fidelity.

“Oh, Mis’ Oakley,” she cried, “ef he did steal de money, we’ve got enough saved to mek it good. Let him go! let him go!”

“Then you admit that he did steal?” Mrs. Oakley had taken her up sharply.

“Oh, I didn’t say dat; I didn’t mean dat.”

“That will do, Fannie. I understand perfectly. You should have confessed that long ago.”

“But I ain’t confessin’! I ain’t! He didn’t⁠—”

“You may go.”

The stricken woman reeled out of her mistress’s presence, and Mrs. Oakley told her husband that night, with tears in her eyes, how disappointed she was with Fannie⁠—that the woman had known it all along, and had only just confessed. It was just one more link in the chain that was surely and not too slowly forging itself about Berry Hamilton.

Of all the family Joe was the only one who burned with a fierce indignation. He knew that his father was innocent, and his very helplessness made a fever in his soul. Dandy as he was, he was loyal, and when he saw his mother’s tears and his sister’s shame, something rose within him that had it been given play might have made a man of him, but, being crushed, died and rotted, and in the compost it made all the evil of his nature flourished. The looks and gibes of his fellow-employees at the barbershop forced him to leave his work there. Kit, bowed with shame and grief, dared not appear upon the streets, where the girls who had envied her now hooted at her. So the little family was shut in upon itself away from fellowship and sympathy.

Joe went seldom to see his father. He was not heartless; but the citadel of his long desired and much vaunted manhood trembled before the sight of his father’s abject misery. The lines came round his lips, and lines too must have come round his heart. Poor fellow, he was too young for this forcing process, and in the hothouse of pain he only grew an acrid, unripe cynic.

At the sitting of the Grand Jury Berry was indicted. His trial followed soon, and the town turned out to see it. Some came to laugh and scoff, but these, his enemies, were silenced by the spectacle of his grief. In vain the lawyer whom he had secured showed that the evidence against him proved nothing. In vain he produced proof of the slow accumulation of what the man had. In vain he pleaded the man’s former good name. The judge and the jury saw otherwise. Berry was convicted. He was given ten years at hard labour.

He hardly looked as if he could live out one as he heard his sentence. But Nature was kind and relieved him of the strain. With a cry as if his heart were bursting, he started up and fell forward on his face unconscious. Someone, a bit more brutal than the rest, said, “It’s five dollars’ fine every time a nigger faints,” but no one laughed. There was something too portentous, too tragic in the degradation of this man.

Maurice Oakley sat in the courtroom, grim and relentless. As soon as the trial was over, he sent for Fannie, who still kept the cottage in the yard.

“You must go,” he said. “You can’t stay here any longer. I want none of your breed about me.”

And Fannie bowed her head and went away from him in silence.

All the night long the women of the Hamilton household lay in bed and wept, clinging to each other in their grief. But Joe did not go to sleep. Against all their entreaties, he stayed up. He put out the light and sat staring into the gloom with hard, burning eyes.