The Respecters of Law

The Respecters of Law  (1913) 
by Alice Duer Miller
From The Century Magazine, Nov 1913.

Twelve men in a club are constituted an informal "jury" by the thirteenth—; to pick the perpetrator of a crime related him.

The Respecters of Law


ONE afternoon at the of most representative of New York clubs a group of men were assembled. They were of that class in the community who have much to lose, in wealth, occupation, or repute. They had been talking of politics and business; they were not encouraged by the outlook. Their fathers would have said the country was going to the dogs. Their own comment was that "the present spirit of lawlessness constituted a grave menace to our institutions."

A quiet, bearded man in the corner, well known as an editorial writer for a radical newspaper, found himself out of tune with the universal note of pessimism, and said so.

"Oh, that's all very well for you, Parker; you're not so well satisfied as you pretend," some one answered. "You have to write like that for your paper. Papers must sell, and that sort of thing is popular for the moment; but a man of your intelligence must see as clearly as any of us that the lack of respect for law is driving America to ruin."

"The lack of respect for law, eh?" said Parker, and getting up, he came slowly to the fireplace—the center of the group. "I should like to tell you a story," he said. "It's an interesting story, and, besides, it illustrates— But you'll see what I mean. The details came to me as so many curious things do to a newspaper man.

"Some years ago a celebrated emerald necklace was bought in Paris by an American lady—we will call her Mrs. A., though you all, no doubt, know the woman I mean. The necklace had once belonged to Catharine of Russia, but its principal historical interest was that it was one of the jewels given to the notorious Sophia Ernandetta by the most gallant gentleman in Europe. Perhaps we in this country would not have been so much interested in its associations, but there was some dispute about its valuation in the custom-house; and though Mrs. A. was shown to have been scrupulously exact in the matter, the papers took the thing up, and every one soon knew the value of the necklace and the size of the stones.

"The first time that she wore it was to the opera. It was one of the German operas—'Götterdämmerung,' I think—where, at the beginning of the second act, the house is in darkness for a considerable time. Mrs. A. was in a box nearest the stage. It had been offered her at the last moment by a friend, and she had taken no one with her but her nephew, a boy of sixteen or seventeen.

"While the house was still dark, she heard some one enter the box, and an unknown voice said, 'Will you come into the anteroom? I have some bad news for you.'

"It is said that we are all haunted by some impossible nightmare or other. My wife expects every time the telephone rings to hear our daughter has broken a front tooth. I know a man who is always prepared to discover that he has left his safe unlocked. Well, it appears that Mrs. A. had always had a secret terror that the chimneys in her new town house would blow down and kill somebody. She jumped up at once, ready for the worst. She did not get as far as the anteroom, where a dim light was burning. She had just put out her hand to lift the curtain when she ran against the person who had summoned her—a man, and in evening dress. Then she felt a tug at her throat, and knew that her necklace was gone.

"She is a woman of intelligence and of unusual calm. She estimated that it took her perhaps a second to realize what had happened, and another to spring through the anteroom to the corridor. The corridor was well lighted, and absolutely empty. Two seconds were not enough for any one to reach the stairway. She calculated that the thief must be in one of the next three boxes. The fourth was vacant. Remember that she herself was in the stage box, and the corridor ends in a blank wall. She called to her nephew, and, telling him of the situation, she asked him to search very quietly in the anterooms of the three boxes. This, under cover of the music, could be done without attracting any particular attention; people are always making mistakes and getting into the wrong boxes. He came back and reported that all three anterooms were empty. A moment later the lights went up, and she was able to see the occupants.

"There were just five men in those three boxes, and it happened that she knew, at least by name, every one of the five. One of them was the culprit. Which?"

Parker paused, and one of the audience exclaimed, "Was the man caught? How extraordinary that such a thing was kept out of the papers!"

"Very strenuous means were employed to prevent its getting into the papers," said Parker. "Now here you are, a group of unusually intelligent men, some of you lawyers, all of you observers of men and events. I will to the best of my powers describe those five men; not so much their characters, which would involve my own personal view, but I will tell you the bald facts about them as impartially as possible, and you shall guess which one was guilty.

"The first was a contractor. He had, as a young man—a New-Yorker of excellent family and position, but very hard up—gone into organization politics; partly, no doubt, from ambition, but also through a vague desire to do his share in the government of his city. I have no idea what happened to him in the mean time, but I do know that these recent investigations would have connected him with some of the largest of the fraudulent contracts if tremendous influence, and also the statute of limitations, had not worked in his favor. He has retired from business and politics alike, with an income that enables him to have an opera-box one night a week, and there you may see him and his extremely pretty wife any Wednesday evening."

"Well," said a prominent Republican in the group, "those are the fellows I should like to railroad to prison without a trial. They don't even have the excuse of necessity before involving themselves in about as dirty situations as our modern civilization affords."

"The next," said Parker, "was a financier; a railroad president, a man highly thought of by every one until recently—perhaps still highly thought of, for all I know. I must, however, tell you that he is at this moment serving a term in a Federal prison; not, as even his worst enemies admit, for any personal dishonesty, but, as a friend of his described it, on account of a certain wilfulness in running his road. He was never at any time in want of money, and at the moment of the robbery was shown to have had sums in several banks large enough to buy the necklace twice over.

"The third man was a judge. He had just at that time resigned from the bench, many said in order to avoid impeachment. I myself have seen evidence which convinced me that he decided an important case against his own legal judgment and in conformity with political pressure. He stated almost in so many words that he believed that the continuance of his party in power was more important to the welfare of the country than justice in that instance to an individual."

"Well," said a Wall Street man, "as far as I am concerned, you need go no further. There we have the total absence of moral sense."

"In that I must disagree with you," remarked one of the lawyers, pressing the tips of his fingers together. "I hold no brief for the judges, goodness knows, for they have always caused me a great deal of trouble, but I doubt if any one except a lawyer understands the infinity of considerations that enter into the forming of a legal opinion; and if you do, you will admit that a man might be unconsciously influenced in his judgment without being on that account a common criminal."

"The higher the responsibility, the lower the fall—" the Wall Street man began, but Parker interrupted him.

"The fourth man," he continued, "was a broker; a generous, warm-hearted fellow enough, a member here now, I believe, who had very gaily perpetrated some of those little crimes which we all used to admire and envy, and which we are all so much shocked at now. Unhappily his historical sense was at fault; he did in 1912 what was permitted only previous to 1909."

"The organization of the stock-market," said the broker, "is as delicate—as delicate as a flower." He was momentarily checked by cheers and laughter. "The attempt to legislate on such matters is absurd."

"I am bound to tell you," continued Parker, "that besides these little technical crimes of which I spoke, this broker was known to be excessively attentive to a Russian singer, whose special taste for emeralds had already occasioned remark in several capitals. The fifth and last man was a young socialist; a fellow who had just come into prominence by an attempt to arouse popular opinion in favor of an anarchist who was trying to land in this country. This young man, having given up the little that he inherited from his father on the ground that it was derived from a patent in some way opposed to his principles, was gaining his living very comfortably by going about the country lecturing on all the more inflammable subjects. Wherever there was trouble between labor and capital, he was always to be found doing all he could—and he had distinct eloquence—to render the working-man and the working-woman more discontented than they already were."

"If I had the power," said a neatly dressed old gentleman, who had not hitherto spoken, "I would string every one of those fellows up, without the smallest compunction."

Parker went on, without noticing the interruption: "His fine words had a charm for all our great ladies, who thought they were getting near the heart of the people without the trouble of leaving their own drawing-rooms, and for a winter or two he was asked everywhere. Thus, rather against some of his principles, perhaps, he happened to be at the opera on the night when Mrs. A.'s necklace was stolen. Such, my friends, were the five men on whom suspicion fell."

He had hardly ceased speaking before an argument arose as to the guilty person—an argument so warm that Parker interposed.

"One moment," he said. "I note that there are just twelve of you about the fire. Constitute yourselves a jury, and see if you can agree on a verdict as to which of those men took the necklace, or, if you prefer, which was most justly open to suspicion. I'm going to the writing-room. You can send for me when you've decided."

"Suppose we can't agree," some one asked.

"Oh, you ought to be able to agree," Parker answered. "You're a much more homogeneous group than any real jury ever was; and your collective guess, after due discussion, will be far more interesting -than your scattered, individual surmises."

"You assure us," one of the lawyers asked, "that the necklace was not dropped in the carriage or left at home by mistake?"

"The necklace," Parker returned, "was torn from Mrs. A.'s neck by one of the five men I have described," and so saying he left the room. As he shut the door behind him he heard the sound of twelve men talking at once.

It had been half past five when he ended his story, and he had already begun to consider the propriety of ordering his dinner before he was summoned to return. It was evident that high words had passed, but equally clear that the storm was over. The prominent Republican was still breathing a trifle heavily, and one of the lawyers was looking rather more severely scornful than usual, but otherwise complete amity seemed to reign.

"Yes," said the spokesman, "we have reached a verdict. We are unanimously agreed, after a very careful discussion, that it was the young socialist who stole the necklace."

Parker nodded, more in thought than in agreement. "And could you give me your reasons?"

"Why," said the spokesman, "the whole life of such a fellow is an attack on property. Surely if you want to take everything away from those who have it, it would be a small matter to steal a necklace from a woman."

"Except," said Parker, "that stealing a necklace is a crime, whereas, so far as I know, wanting anything is not as yet on the books, even as a misdemeanor."

"A lot a fellow like that would care what was on the books," some one exclaimed. "What has he to lose?"

"Well, gentlemen," said Parker, "as friends, as members of your various professions, you are an admirable body; but as respecters of the law, I must tell you you are somewhat below the average—as indeed I feared you might prove."

He was asked to explain himself.

"I pass over your remarks about railroading people to prison, and stringing up others without due process, and draw your attention merely to the fact that, among the five men I described, the one person whom you all unanimously suspected was the only one who had not committed a crime against those laws of which you all profess yourselves the supporters."

Above the turmoil which arose the Wall Street man was heard saying:

"Well, we've guessed right, evidently. That's why Parker is so annoyed. Own up, Parker."

"Yes, tell us," cried another. "I could even bear being wrong, for this has been the most interesting afternoon I have spent for months."

Parker smiled. "I hope," he said, "that none of you will think it less interesting when I confess that I invented the story as a test for my friends."

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1942, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 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.