In the days of my childhood, and up to the year 1886, the Justices of the Peace for the Gantick Division of Hundred of Powder, in the county of Cornwall, held their Petty Sessions at Scawns, a bleak, foursquare building set on the knap of a windy hill, close beside the high road that leads up from the sea to the market town of Tregarrick. The house, when the county in Quarter Sessions purchased it to convert it into a police station and petty sessional court, had been derelict for twenty years–that is to say, ever since the winter of 1827, when Squire Nicholas, the last owner to reside in it (himself an ornament in his time of the Gantick Bench), broke his neck in the hunting field. With his death, the property passed to some distant cousin in the North, who seldom visited Cornwall. This cousin leased the Scawns acres to a farmer alongside of whose fields they marched, and the farmer, having no use for the mansion, gladly sub-let it. The county authorities, having acquired the lease, did indeed make certain structural adaptations, providing tolerable quarters for the local constabulary, with a lockup in the cellarage (which was commodious), but apart from this did little to arrest the general decay of the building. In particular, the disrepair of the old dining-room, where the magistrates now held Session, had become a public scandal. The old wall-paper dropped in tatters, the ceiling showed patches where the plaster had broken from the battens, rats had eaten holes in the green baize table-cloth, and the whole place smelt of dry-rot. From the wall behind the magistrates’ table, in the place where nations more superstitious than ours suspend a crucifix, an atrocious portrait of the late Squire Nicholas surveyed the desolated scene of his former carousals. An inscription at the base of the frame commemorated him as one who had consistently “Done Right to all manner of People after the Laws and Usages of the Realm, without Fear or Favour, Affection or Ill-will.”
Beneath this portrait, on the second Wednesday in June, 1886, were gathered no fewer than six Justices of the Peace, a number the more astonishing because Petty Sessions chanced to clash with the annual meeting of the Royal Cornwall Agricultural Society, held that year at the neighbouring market town of Tregarrick. Now, the reason of this full bench was at once simple and absurd, and had caused merriment not unmixed with testiness in the magistrates’ private room. Each Justice, counting on his neighbour’s delinquency, had separately resolved to pay a sacrifice to public duty, and to drop in to dispose of the business of Sessions before proceeding to the Show. The charge-sheet, be it noted, was abnormally light: it comprised one single indictment.
“Good Lord!” growled Admiral Trist, Chairman of the Bench, Master of the famous Gantick Harriers. “Six of us to hear a case of sleeping out!”
“Who’s the defendant?” asked Sir Felix Felix-Williams. “‘Thomas Edwards’–Don’t know the name in these parts.”
“I doubt if he knows it himself, Sir Felix,” answered Mr. Batty, the Justices’ Clerk. “The Inspector tells me it’s a tramping fellow the police picked up two nights ago. He has been in lock-up ever since.”
“Then why the devil couldn’t they have sent round and fished up one of us–or a couple–to deal with the case out of hand?”
“Damned shame, the way the police nurse this business!” murmured Lord Rattley, our somewhat disreputable local peer. “They’re wanted at Tregarrick to-day, and, what’s more, they want the fun of the Show. So they take excellent care to keep the charge-list light. But since Petty Sessions must be held, whether or no, they pounce on some poor devil of a tramp to put a face on the business.”