It Is Never Too Late to Mend by Charles Reade
His reverence in the late battle showed himself a strategist, and won without bringing up his reserves; if he had failed with Mr. Lacy he had another arrow behind in his quiver. He had been twice to the mayor and claimed a coroner's jury to sit on a suicide. The mayor had consented and the preliminary steps had been taken.
The morning after the jailer's dismissal the inquest was held. Mr. Eden, Evans, Fry and others were examined, and the case came out as clear as the day and black as the night.
When twelve honest Englishmen, men of plain sense, not men of system, men taken from the public not from public offices, sat in a circle with the corpse of a countryman at their knees, fiebat lux; 'twas as though twelve suns had burst into a dust-hole.
"Manslaughter!" cried they, and they sent their spokesman to the mayor and said yet more light must be let into this dusthole, and the mayor said, "Ay and it shall, too. I will write to London and demand more light." And the men of the public went to their own homes and told their wives and children and neighbors what cruelties and villainies they had unearthed, and their hearers, being men and women of that people, which is a god in intellect and in heart compared with the criticasters that try to misguide it with their shallow guesses and cant and with the clerks that execute it in other men's names, cried out, "See now! What is the use our building courts of law or prisons unless they are to be open unto us. Shut us out--keep walls and closed gate between us and our servants--and what comes of our courts of law and our prisons? Why they turn nests of villainy in less than no time."
The twelve honest Englishmen had hardly left the jail an hour, crying "manslaughter!" and crying "shame!" when all in a moment "TOMB!" fell a single heavy stroke of the great prison bell. The heart of the prison leaped, and then grew cold--a long chill pause, then "TOMB!" again. The jurymen had told most of his fellow-sufferers how Josephs was driven into his grave--and now--
"TOMB!" the remorseless iron tongue crashed out one by one the last sad, stern monosyllables of this sorrowfulest of human tales.
They put him in his coffin ("TOMB!") a boy of sixteen, who would be alive now but that caitiffs, whom God confound on earth, made life an impossibility to him ("TOMB!"), and that Shallows and Woodcocks, whom God confound on earth, and unconscientious non-inspecting inspectors, flunkeys, humbugs, hirelings, whom God confound on earth ("TOMB!"), left these scoundrels month after month and year after year unwatched, though largely paid by the queen and the people to watch them ("TOMB!"). Look on your work, hirelings, and listen to that bell, which would not be tolling now if you had been men of brains and scruples instead of sordid hirelings. The priest was on his knees, praying for help from heaven to go through the last sad office with composure, for he feared his own heart when he should come to say "ashes to ashes" and "dust to dust" over this hapless boy, that ought to be in life still. And still the great bell tolled, and many of the prisoners were invited kindly in a whisper to come into the chapel; but Fry could not be spared and Hodges fiercely refused. And now the bell stopped, and as it stopped, the voice of the priest arose, "I am the resurrection and the life."
A deep and sad gloom was upon all as the last sad offices were done for this poor young creature cut short by foul play in the midst of them. And for all he could do the priest's voice trembled often, and a heavy sigh mingled more than once with the holy words.
What is that? "THIS OUR BROTHER!"--a thief our brother?--ay! the priest made no mistake, those were the words; pause on them. Two great characters contradicted each other to the face over dead Josephs. Unholy State said, "Here is the carcass of a thief whom I and society honestly believe to be of no more importance than a dog--so it has unfortunately got killed between us, no matter how; take this carcass and bury it," said unholy State. Holy Church took the poor abused remains with reverence, prayed over them as she prays over the just, and laid them in the earth, calling them "this our brother." Judge now which is all in the wrong, unholy State or holy Church--for both cannot be right.
Now while the grave is being filled in, judge, women of England and America, between these two--unholy State and holy Church. The earth contains no better judges of this doubt than you. Judge and I will bow to your verdict with a reverence I know male cliques too well to feel for them in a case where the great capacious heart alone can enlighten the clever, little, narrow, shallow brain.
Thus in the nineteenth century--in a kind-hearted nation--under the most humane sovereign the world has ever witnessed on an earthly throne--holy Church in vain denouncing the miserable sinners that slay the thief their brother--Edward Josephs has been done to death in the queen's name--in the name of England--and in the name of the law.
But each of these great insulted names has its sworn defenders, its honored and paid defenders. It is not for us to suppose that men so high in honor will lay aside themselves and turn curs.
Ere I close this long story, let us hope I shall be able to relate with what zeal and honor statesmen disowned and punished wholesale manslaughter done in the name of the State; and with what zeal and horror judges disowned and punished wholesale manslaughter done in their name; and so, in all good men's eyes, washed off the blood with which a hireling had bespattered the state ermine and the snow-white robe of law.
For the present, the account between Josephs and the law stands thus:--Josephs has committed the smallest theft imaginable. He has stolen food. For this the law, professing to punish him with certain months' imprisonment, has inflicted capital punishment; has overtasked, crucified, starved--overtasked, starved, crucified--robbed him of light, of sleep, of hope, of life; has destroyed his body, and perhaps his soul. Sum total--1st page of account--
Josephs a larcenist and a corpse. The law a liar and a felon.