“Yes,” said the Judge, “I ought by this time to know something of Cornish juries. They acquit oftener than other juries, to be sure; and the general notion is that they incline more towards mercy. Privately, I believe that mercy has very little to do with it.”
“Stupidity,” said the High Sheriff sententiously, and sipped his wine. His own obtuseness on the Bench was notorious, and had kept adding for thirty years to the Duchy’s stock of harmless merriment.
“Nothing of the sort,” snapped his lordship. “You can convict a man, I presume, as stupidly as you can acquit him. No: with other juries a crime is a crime, and a misdemeanour is a misdemeanour. You tell them so and they accept it. But with Cornishmen you have first to explain that the alleged offence is illegal; next, you must satisfy them that it ought to be illegal; and then, if you choose, you can proceed to prove that the prisoner committed it. They will finally discharge him on the ground that he never had the advantage of such a clear exposition of the law as they have just enjoyed.”
“Well, but isn’t that stupidity?” persisted the High Sheriff.
The Judge turned impatiently and addressed a grey-headed man on his left. “Did I ever tell you, Mr.–, how I once enjoyed the hospitality of a Cornish village, through the simple accident of being mistaken for a burglar?”
The grey-headed man–an eminent Q.C. and leader of the Western Circuit– dropped an olive into his glass of sherry. He had been dozing. Two or three guests and members of the Junior Bar drew their chairs closer.
“It was in 1845,” the Judge began, “just after I had taken my degree, and I had been walking through Cornwall with a knapsack–no small adventure, I can tell you, in those days. The inhabitants declined to believe that anyone could walk and carry a pack for the fun of the thing, and I left a trail of suspicion behind me. The folks were invariably hospitable, though convinced that I was pursuing no good. You remember, Mr.–, that when Telemachus visited Gerenia he was generously entertained, and afterwards politely asked if he happened to be a pirate. My case was pretty similar, only my Cornish hosts did not ask, but took it for granted.
“In the first week of August–to be precise, on the 4th–I reached Polreen Cove, and found lodging at the small inn. The spot and the people so pleased me that I engaged my rooms for a week. At the week’s end I had decided to stay for a month. I stayed for almost two months.
“Well, as luck would have it, I had not been in Polreen three nights before there happened the first burglary within the memory of its oldest inhabitant–if burglary it was. I incline to think that Mrs. Giddy, the general dealer, had left her shop-door unbolted, and that the culprit, after removing the bell–the door had two flaps, and the bell, hung on a half-coil of metal, was fitted to a socket inside the lower flap–had quietly walked in and made his choice. This choice was a peculiar one– six bars of yellow soap, a cullender, some tallow candles, a pair of alpaca boots, a pair of braces, several boxes of matches, an uncertain amount of cheese, a dozen pocket-handkerchiefs, a coloured almanack, three of Mrs. Giddy’s brass weights, and the bell. He was detected two months later at Bristol, in the act of using one of the handkerchiefs, which illustrated the descent of Moses from Mount Sinai; and four other handkerchiefs were found in his possession, together with Mrs. Giddy’s brass weights. He had disposed of the rest of the booty, and proved to be a stowaway who had been turned out of a Cardiff schooner on Penzance quay, penniless and starving. Nothing further was proved against him, and it still puzzles me how he made his way through the length of Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset, on the not very nutritious spoils of Mrs. Giddy’s shop.