An Impression (Leigh)
By David Leigh
Courtrooms always make me think of the story of the woman who tried to match her thread. She hung on to her garment so long that it wore out during the search. Meantime, the styles changed; but she was not aware of it.
At the Hindu trial, now going on in San Francisco, I expected to see red. I saw black. Even the light, as reflected from where I sat, gave the judge a dusky hue; and the soldier bailiff (also in the shadow) could easily have been mistaken for a Filipino. We are fooled often-—all of us—by appearances.
The doorkeeper said I could not go in, at first; but, somehow, after a little, he made room for me (in his heart), and so I stepped in. The place was face-packed, full of eyes, but black to me, very black. There were so many Hindus. One glance made me almost believe India, en masse, had come to pay us a visit. But that, of course, was a mirage. There are blond defendants also.
Twelve or more astute attorneys flank the defendants, as accepted counsel. These men are patriots, with possibly one exception. They look well fed and unworried. Nobody excepts to their remunerated interest. Nobody questions the fact of their association with those who are, at present, in bad odor officially. Nobody even hints that it is not in line with patriotism to defend individuals so charged. Theirs, evidently, is a course in conformity with the code de facto. The code de facto abounds with irreconcilable angles. Pay and way, while not synonyms, have a certain correlative significance, in this, our warring day. At the prosecutor’s table sits one man—and a woman. One would not mention the woman did she not have light hair. There is something about light hair which attracts. The prosecutor looks small, sitting. He is tall, standing; and he has a stentorian voice. It savors of “that deep and dreadful organ-pipe.” To sit behind him is to hear the sea roll. To sit opposite him is to see contentious waves spurt foam. Personally, he lacks impress. He arrests one’s attention through sound only. Behind the prosecutor sat half a dozen ladies, knitting, friends of his, I am told, society ladies. They appeared to knit very well. They seemed so interested—in their knitting. One of these ladies, I learn, once attended a lecture given by one of the Hindu defendants, on ‘Prostitution.” She was present the other day when the District Attorney grilled this same defendant for his ideas, in re this subject. She said not a word in the courtroom—not even that she had attended the lecture.
Knitting appears to be an absorbing occupation. They say it takes one’s mind off other things. If that is so, would it not be a capital idea to have the men who frequent houses of prostitution learn to knit? Just an idea, of course.
The judge is a little man. Chair-framed, he appears diminutive. He drinks water constantly. The water reposes in a beautiful silver pitcher. Filled as the room is with human beings, nothing in it stands out like that pitcher. It wafts serenity from its inert sides. In fact, it has a distinct judicial air.
Two electric fans whir over the judge’s head. Introducing perpetual motion, they seem to clash with ensconced precedent. Nobody pays the least attention to them; but they keep on whirring. Electricity has given us action, if not ideas.
The defendants sit bunched together. I say defendants, meaning Hindus. The seeing eye can only be conscious of darkness in that room; and the Hindus, of course, being black, overshadow the blond presence. They are a splendid-looking lot of men, thoughtful, perceiving, purposeful. As the session continued, their poses were various. One, with a face supernal, tilted his chair slightly backwards and gazed at the ceiling. I read in his look conceptions of a beyond that would shock the earthly-centered, could they see it. Another, bespectacled, with classical nose and ebullient intelligence, gave his attention exclusively to the perusal of a court transcript. He smiled esoterically at parts of it.
The jurors are youngish-looking men, business men, evidently. They do not look like a theatre party. I noticed, though, during the recess, they smiled (at each other) with the grace of free men. The recess seems to be wisdom’s contribution to court proceedings. Its effect is magical on everybody. It puts stress to flight, it transforms artifice into feeling, it releases sympathy. Let Providence be thanked for the idea of recess. So powerful is it that it lingers (if only for a moment) after the session reconvenes. The judge brought back a smile with him that would have dispelled a London fog.
So many old men, among the spectators. (I counted fifteen.) And young men there, too, in plenty, equally old. Only one did I see who was ageless. He sat beside me. Came in during the recess, with a paper and opinions, which he rattled and aired. He knew the man next to him. He talked to him and at me,—beyond. “They’re a bloody lot, the bunch of ‘em. They ought to hang the whole crowd. (Pause; glances.)
“I tell you I’m a good American. My people was born in Germany; so was I; but that don’t matter. No better ‘Mericans ever lived than me and my people. (More observation.) “We’ve got to kill this Kaiser business— and the niggers that are in with ‘em. They’re a dirty bunch. They ought to hang ‘em all first—and try ‘em afterwards. That’s what they’d do to ‘em in Germany.” . . .
After attending the court session I accompanied one of the Hindu defendants to the studio of a friend, a young Russian pianist. The sudden change nearly unbalanced me. For a moment I felt light-headed. It was like being hoisted to Mt. Ararat after a sojourn in a coal pit.
In the room were a grand piano, several chairs, stacks of music and—that comforter divine—the unspoken welcome. Judge, jury, bailiff, counsel were noticeably absent.
“Play what you set to music for me,” said the Hindu to his friend, ‘—that last one. You remember.”
The pianist glanced comprehension. Then he brought forth some typewritten verses and a sheet of stiff paper, on which was penciled an amazing succession of cryptic bars and dots— his own work Without preliminary, he began to play. But play is scarcely the word. Rather did he caress the page unto himself (and us) till there was no presence in the room, save Beauty.
“Bravo!” cried the Hindu. “That is great, my friend.”
Then they sang the words (written by the Hindu), which gave Beauty the mate of Sympathy and gladness its spiritual raiment; and, looking unon them, I wondered why courts are places where sound alone presides. I wondered why it is that men venture so little in a sphere which is freighted with so much. I wondered what it is non-observers get out of life.
I wondered then; and I still wonder.
- David Leigh, “An Impression,” Mother Earth Series 2, 1, no. 7 (April 1918): 5-6.