The Quality of Mercy  (1922) 
by H. Bedford-Jones

Extracted from Munsey's magazine, 1922 November, pp. 267-271.

The Quality of Mercy


By H. Bedford-Jones

THE public has never solved the mystery of John Knuteson's fall. Few lawyers in our city ever attained the reputation for integrity and ability that Knuteson enjoyed during his career at the bar. To this day, few people know why or how he destroyed at one blow his whole life fabric and the future before him.

You recall John Knuteson, undoubtedly? Barely thirty, he was no politician, yet he figured large in politics. The junior member of the biggest firm in the State, he was famed for his policy of never accepting as a client a man whom he believed to be guilty. It is still told that, although not wealthy, he refused a fifty-thousand-dollar fee to defend a crook who had an apparently ironclad alibi which Knuteson had reason to distrust.

He was a handsome man and a powerful speaker. He had handled some remarkable cases. Through his achievement and personality alone, he was the most prominent citizen in our city—a large city, too. He was slated for the next appointment to the supreme bench of the State.

That was John Knuteson.

On the 3rd of last March his only child, a boy of seven, died from pneumonia. On the last day of March the Tilling case came up before Federal Judge Clark.

It is generally supposed that the death of his son had afflicted Knuteson in mind as well as in body. He aged twenty years in a week; yet I have heard it said that when he stood up to make his brief argument for Tilling, there was something angelic in his face. After Judge Clark told me all the facts in the case, I could well believe it.


Knuteson, like most active and successful men, had a hobby. He loved lapis lazuli as some men love diamonds. He probably knew more about lapis than any other man in the United States, for he was a deep student.

Lapis being only a semiprecious stone, John Knuteson could afford to ride his hobby to some extent. He had a passion for the deep, rich blue stone with its irregular gold flecks. His collection of Chinese lapis was remarkable and unique, and in course of time it had grown to be valuable.

Tilling undoubtedly knew of this hobby.

One night, shortly after the funeral of his son, Knuteson received a scrawled and pitiful note from Tilling, a man absolutely unknown to him. The note had been sent from the jail, and it begged Knuteson for help. With it was a large scarfpin. This singular missive concluded:

I have turned over every cent I had in the world to make good the loss. I have no money to pay your fee. I am sending with this a lapis scarfpin which I understand is valuable, and beg that you will take it as a retainer. Later I will pay you in full. I am innocent.

Knuteson glanced at the scarfpin and laid it aside. He looked up the case, because the pathetic quality of Tilling's note appealed to him at the moment. He had aged twenty years in the last two weeks, remember.

The case was obscure, of no moment. Tilling was cashier of a small national bank up the State; his brother-in-law was vice president. The latter dabbled in stocks, and lost several thousand dollars, which he replaced by unsecured personal notes. It was not a large matter, but the bank examiner dropped in at the wrong moment.

The vice president was out of town, and Tilling was not at the bank. He had been there only an hour a day for some days past. Tilling, however, had accepted the notes. The shortage looked larger than it really was. Both officials were prosecuted, and the vice president shot himself. Tilling was left to bear the brunt, and was indicted.

It was natural that Tilling should accept the temporary notes of his brother-in-law, the vice president of the bank. It was not good banking, however.

"Either Tilling is crooked," said Knuteson, "or he's a damned fool!"

Nevertheless, he went to the jail to interview the man.

Imagine the contrast presented when those two men faced each other. Knuteson, despite his deep and bitter sorrow, had the air of one who walked with kings. Tilling, a small and mean person in manner, was completely crushed by the stroke of calamity which had overwhelmed him. Yet how much less was his grief than that which had befallen Knuteson!

What is a prison sentence compared with the loss of a son? So, at least, thought John Knuteson as he looked at the man and commanded his tale.

"There isn't much to tell," babbled Tilling, who was in a fever of hope and fear and eagerness. The words tumbled frantically out of him as he related the story. "Ben was in Chicago, you see. When his notes came in, I accepted them and let him draw on us. To tell you the truth, Mr. Knuteson, I never paid much attention to them."

"Stop driveling!" snapped Knuteson. "Have you the crust to tell me that you could O.K. such paper and never notice what it was?"

A spasm of agony swept over the face of Tilling.

"Oh!" A groan was wrenched from him. "You don't understand—how could you? Six months ago my wife died. All I had left was the baby. He was sick when those notes came in. I wasn't at the bank more than an hour or two each day. I was with him all night, hour after hour—and the little fellow died. I hadn't money for nurses and hospitals. I took care of the kid myself."

Here Tilling uttered an oath that was half blasphemy, half frightful despair.

"You don't know what it means to sit up with your own kid, hour after hour, day after day, and see him fading out under your eyes! To know you're helpless and that God ain't going to help; to hear the doctor saying that he can't understand the case, and you praying and cursing and asking God to take you instead of the kid—and God stone deaf all the while! And then to go to work and stagger through a lot of papers with tears blinding you—how was I to do my work, knowing what was taking place back home? Don't tell me there's hell worse than what I been through! But you can't understand that, you and all you highfaluting folks. All you can see is that I shouldn't have done thus and so, and if I didn't do it I can go to jail for all you care!"

"Stop! For God's sake, stop!" said Knuteson. His voice cut the babble of Tilling like a knife. "I buried my own son a week ago, Tilling," he added. "Now, calm down and tell me the whole thing."

Tilling, ashamed of his vehement outburst, obeyed and spoke more coherently.

While he listened to the man, John Knuteson grew older and sterner and harder of face. His thoughts were less with Tilling than with what he could see would happen at the trial. Perhaps it was an old strain of Scandinavian blood that was leaping and boiling in him.

"I warned Ben the last time it happened," concluded Tilling in despair. "He promised he'd never do it again. I'd have refused his notes, too, if I'd realized what they were; but who would believe such a story now? Nobody. And when I come up before old Judge Clark—you know what he is."

Knuteson knew Clark well—knew him for a bitter and intolerant man. Judge Clark, simply from the effort to be impartial, would be prejudiced against any case Knuteson handled. When Knuteson mentioned this, Tilling groaned and dropped his haggard face in his hands.

"Law is law and justice is justice," he said. "They ain't the same. There's no justice for me, because property rights were hurt. Property rights! And I turned over everything I had in the world to make good! Will you take the case, Mr. Knuteson? You're the only man living who can get me a show."

"I'll take it," said Knuteson; "but I don't think you have a hope in the world."

"I haven't one anyhow," said Tilling bitterly, "with my kid gone!"

Knuteson winced at that. The words lingered with him, sank into him, stuck in his mind.

"Tilling," he said, "I'll get you off if it costs me everything I have!"


Paxham was the prosecutor. One afternoon Knuteson dropped into Paxham's office. The two men were old friends, and John Knuteson had no reserve in making his plea for Tilling.

"I'm surprised that you've taken the case," said Paxham frankly. "Of course, it's an obscure case. At the same time, Tilling hasn't a hope in the world, John!"

Again Knuteson winced at those words.

"He's innocent," he responded, and told about Tilling's baby.

He saw instantly that his words had no effect. Paxham concluded that Knuteson, owing to his own recent grief, had been worked upon by sympathy.

Knuteson was watching Paxham more closely than the latter realized, and was still appalled by thought of the thing he had come here to do. He hoped that he would not have to do it.

"The bank directors are really the guilty ones," he went on. "They were criminally negligent. They knew Tilling was coming to the bank only an hour or two each day, and yet they let things slide. With his brother-in-law away, he had to show up. A small bank like that has no excuse for neglecting the personal element."

Paxham made a weary gesture.

"The law can't neglect justice, John."

"This is not justice!" exclaimed Knuteson with energy. He bent upon the other man a look of such savage intensity that Paxham was startled. "If Tilling could tell his story as he told it to me, any impartial jury would free him; but sympathy won't go in Clark's court. Clark will throw in some ironic comment that 'll break the man up. I dare not let him plead for himself."

"We'll do the very best we can for him, John," said Paxham; "but you know yourself that we can't do much. He'll have to take his medicine, that's all. If there was anything I could do, I'd do it for your sake. You've no business taking this thing into court, anyway, after the trouble you've been through lately."

"Don't worry about me." Knuteson smiled thinly, "See here—if I can find a decision of the Supreme Court that will bring a dismissal of this case, will you ask for the dismissal?"

Paxham shrugged.

"Yes—gladly; but I'm afraid you can't do it, John."

Knuteson stood up,

"That's a promise, then! And remember, if this case is dismissed, it is to be my last case. I'm through with the law. By the way, will you be good enough to lend me a book from your library? Mine is mislaid somewhere. I'll have it back to you in a couple of days—I want the Supreme Court decisions for 1904."

"Sure thing!" assented Paxham heartily. "I'll get it for you myself."

John Knuteson walked out with the volume under his arm.

Not a hope in the world! Those words echoed to his footsteps. All his own hopes had died when two blue eyes closed. Tilling—justice—no hope! It was like a Gordian knot which some Alexander must cut.

"The law isn't justice," he murmured with a mournful intonation. "There is no justice in the law. The law can see no mercy. Some day—some day this country will know what every honest lawyer knows."

He halted and stared up at the sky for a moment. What did he see there? Was it some vision of his own shattered future, his sacrifice, his failure, his victory? No. He was not even thinking of himself at all. Perhaps it was the fatal strain of berserker blood rioting through his veins, lifting his thoughts to some far abstraction.

When he lowered his head again, he was smiling.


When John Knuteson stood up before Judge Clark, he was smiling again. This smile was not of mirth, however; it was more an expression set upon his features, a shining-through of some inward serenity.

Only Knuteson knew that upon his words hung disgrace or victory.

"I refer the court," he said briefly, "to the case of the people versus Hickox and others, on page three hundred and forty-five of the Supreme Court decisions for the year 1904. By this decision it is held that under stress of acute mental anguish a man cannot be adjudged wholly responsible for an act of negligence. I shall have no difficulty in showing that my client, at the time of his negligent act, was suffering under very acute mental anguish, and that my plea is bona fide."

It is impossible to describe the consternation which these words created—the old judge, staring down at John Knuteson with jaw agape; the thunderstruck and incredulous eyes of Paxham; above all, the serene and lofty countenance of John Knuteson, who had now turned and was watching the prosecutor with a significant gaze.

Paxham remembered the promise he had made, and wiped his brow.

"I'd like to see that decision, Mr. Knuteson," said the judge harshly. "I have had some little acquaintance with the law for forty years, sir, and I cannot recall any such decision."

"It was not handed down until 1904, your honor," said Knuteson sweetly, and stepped forward with the open volume in his hand.

Judge Clark glanced over the page before him, with bewildered wonder in his eyes. Paxham, who had hurriedly sent out to his offices across the street, received a volume that was brought in to him, and rapidly turned the pages. Blank dismay settled in his face as he read. He looked up and met the gaze of John Knuteson.

When certain evidence had been heard, Paxham rose to his feet, acknowledged his defeat, and asked that the case should be dismissed.

Judge Clark looked from one man to the other. Reluctantly, almost grudgingly, he ordered the case dismissed. Tilling was a free man. Then he added sharply:

"Court is adjourned for the day. I desire to see the opposing counsel in my own chambers immediately. Mr. Paxham, kindly bring your volume of the 1904 decisions. I see that you have it under your hand."

John Knuteson stayed only to shake hands with Tilling. Then he went to the private chambers of the judge. As he went, he fingered the lapis scarfpin which was in his necktie, and smiled slightly. He did not appear a ruined and unhappy man. On the contrary, he wore the air of one who has conquered greatly, and in whose veins victory runs like wine!

The three men standing about the table in the judge's chambers presented a picture—Knuteson, smiling and assured, a stern firmness in his eye; Paxham, a combination of wild incredulity and dazed bewilderment; and old Judge Clark himself, regarding Knuteson more in sorrow than in wrath.

"Well, John!" said the judge evenly, when the door had closed, "What's your fee in this case? What are you getting out of it?"

Knuteson chuckled, and touched his scarfpin.

"This," he said. "No money, but this. Tilling had nothing else to give. He thought this was valuable. As a matter of fact, it's worth nothing. It's what is known as Swiss lapis in the trade. Many people buy it for lapis, but it's really nothing but agate."

"I asked you, John, what you are getting out of this case."

Knuteson became grave.

"First, why do you ask?"

"Because Paxham and I have been talking together. I've struck something to-day that is new in my experience of the law, John. I don't know what to do about it. This book"—Judge Clark struck the volume of Supreme Court decisions—"cites a case on page three hundred and forty-five, but that case is not entered in the index. Now, John, before I say any more, tell me what you're getting."

"Very well," said Knuteson quietly. "I'm getting justice out of it for my client. That's all—absolutely all. Before I came into court to-day, judge, I resigned from the firm; I also resigned from the bar association. I shall never practice law again. You may call that a high price to pay, but I don't. I am satisfied. Are you?"

That final sharp, short question drove home with stunning force. For once Judge Clark was silenced. He perceived that in his hands was laid the decision—and he hesitated. It was Paxham who took up the volume and held it toward Knuteson.

"John," he said, "I can't believe this, but it's true. You'd better borrow this book again and return it to me later. We're your friends, John; this thing must get no publicity."

"Thanks," said Knuteson, and took the book. "I was going to ask for the loan of it."

Paxham turned and went out of the room.

Judge Clark looked at the younger man. His intolerant, uncompromising features were very harshly set and bitterly lined.

"John, you've made a mock of the law to-day. Have you any plea to offer?"

Knuteson shook his head.

"Nothing more than has already been said much better, judge—'The quality of mercy is not strained.'"

Judge Clark looked at him for a long moment, then turned to the window.

"Go home, John," was all he said. "I wish you had never seen this man Tilling!"


So John Knuteson went home—a ruined man, every one said, though no one knew just how or why.

At home, he paid a printer's bill. Then he replaced a page in his own volume and in Paxham's volume of Supreme Court decisions, with the original pages—which did not mention the case he had cited. After that, when any one asked him why he wore a large lapis scarfpin, which did not look like very good lapis, he would smile.

"A symbol," was his answer. "A symbol of victory in defeat."

And Tilling never knew that justice had been won for him by fraud—and purchased at a heavy price.

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1928.

The longest-living author of this work died in 1949, so this work is in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 73 years or less. This work may 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.

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