Within the Law

Author: Marvin Dana

Chapter I. The Panel of Light

The lids of the girl’s eyes lifted slowly, and she stared at the panel of light in the wall. Just at the outset, the act of seeing made not the least impression on her numbed brain. For a long time she continued to regard the dim illumination in the wall with the same passive fixity of gaze. Apathy still lay upon her crushed spirit. In a vague way, she realized her own inertness, and rested in it gratefully, subtly fearful lest she again arouse to the full horror of her plight. In a curious subconscious fashion, she was striving to hold on to this deadness of sensation, thus to win a little respite from the torture that had exhausted her soul.

Of a sudden, her eyes noted the black lines that lay across the panel of light. And, in that instant, her spirit was quickened once again. The clouds lifted from her brain. Vision was clear now. Understanding seized the full import of this hideous thing on which she looked.... For the panel of light was a window, set high within a wall of stone. The rigid lines of black that crossed it were bars—prison bars. It was still true, then: She was in a cell of the Tombs.

The girl, crouching miserably on the narrow bed, maintained her fixed watching of the window—that window which was a symbol of her utter despair. Again, agony wrenched within her. She did not weep: long ago she had exhausted the relief of tears. She did not pace to and fro in the comfort of physical movement with which the caged beast finds a mocking imitation of liberty: long ago, her physical vigors had been drained under stress of anguish. Now, she was well-nigh incapable of any bodily activity. There came not even so much as the feeblest moan from her lips. The torment was far too racking for such futile fashion of lamentation. She merely sat there in a posture of collapse. To all outward seeming, nerveless, emotionless, an abject creature. Even the eyes, which held so fixedly their gaze on the window, were quite expressionless. Over them lay a film, like that which veils the eyes of some dead thing. Only an occasional languid motion of the lids revealed the life that remained.

So still the body. Within the soul, fury raged uncontrolled. For all the desolate calm of outer seeming, the tragedy of her fate was being acted with frightful vividness there in memory. In that dreadful remembrance, her spirit was rent asunder anew by realization of that which had become her portion.... It was then, as once again the horrible injustice of her fate racked consciousness with its tortures, that the seeds of revolt were implanted in her heart. The thought of revenge gave to her the first meager gleam of comfort that had lightened her moods through many miserable days and nights. Those seeds of revolt were to be nourished well, were to grow into their flower—a poison flower, developed through the three years of convict life to which the judge had sentenced her.

The girl was appalled by the mercilessness of a destiny that had so outraged right. She was wholly innocent of having done any wrong. She had struggled through years of privation to keep herself clean and wholesome, worthy of those gentlefolk from whom she drew her blood. And earnest effort had ended at last under an overwhelming accusation—false, yet none the less fatal to her. This accusation, after soul-wearying delays, had culminated to-day in conviction. The sentence of the court had been imposed upon her: that for three years she should be imprisoned.... This, despite her innocence. She had endured much—miserably much!—for honesty’s sake. There wrought the irony of fate. She had endured bravely for honesty’s sake. And the end of it all was shame unutterable. There was nought left her save a wild dream of revenge against the world that had martyrized her. "Vengeance is mine. I will repay, saith the Lord."... The admonition could not touch her now. Why should she care for the decrees of a God who had abandoned her!

There had been nothing in the life of Mary Turner, before the catastrophe came, to distinguish it from many another. Its most significant details were of a sordid kind, familiar to poverty. Her father had been an unsuccessful man, as success is esteemed by this generation of Mammon-worshipers. He was a gentleman, but the trivial fact is of small avail to-day. He was of good birth, and he was the possessor of an inherited competence. He had, as well, intelligence, but it was not of a financial sort.

So, little by little, his fortune became shrunken toward nothingness, by reason of injudicious investments. He married a charming woman, who, after a brief period of wedded happiness, gave her life to the birth of the single child of the union, Mary. Afterward, in his distress over this loss, Ray Turner seemed even more incompetent for the management of business affairs. As the years passed, the daughter grew toward maturity in an experience of ever-increasing penury. Nevertheless, there was no actual want of the necessities of life, though always a woful lack of its elegancies. The girl was in the high-school, when her father finally gave over his rather feeble effort of living. Between parent and child, the intimacy had been unusually close. At his death, the father left her a character well instructed in the excellent principles that had been his own. That was his sole legacy to her. Of worldly goods, not the value of a pin.

Yet, measured according to the stern standards of adversity, Mary was fortunate. Almost at once, she procured a humble employment in the Emporium, the great department store owned by Edward Gilder. To be sure, the wage was infinitesimal, while the toil was body-breaking soul-breaking. Still, the pittance could be made to sustain life, and Mary was blessed with both soul and body to sustain much. So she merged herself in the army of workers—in the vast battalion of those that give their entire selves to a labor most stern and unremitting, and most ill rewarded.

Mary, nevertheless, avoided the worst perils of her lot. She did not flinch under privation, but went her way through it, if not serenely, at least without ever a thought of yielding to those temptations that beset a girl who is at once poor and charming. Fortunately for her, those in closest authority over her were not so deeply smitten as to make obligatory on her a choice between complaisance and loss of position. She knew of situations like that, the cul-de-sac of chastity, worse than any devised by a Javert. In the store, such things were matters of course. There is little innocence for the girl in the modern city. There can be none for the worker thrown into the storm-center of a great commercial activity, humming with vicious gossip, all alive with quips from the worldly wise. At the very outset of her employment, the sixteen-year-old girl learned that she might eke out the six dollars weekly by trading on her personal attractiveness to those of the opposite sex. The idea was repugnant to her; not only from the maidenly instinct of purity, but also from the moral principles woven into her character by the teachings of a father wise in most things, though a fool in finance. Thus, she remained unsmirched, though well informed as to the verities of life. She preferred purity and penury, rather than a slight pampering of the body to be bought by its degradation. Among her fellows were some like herself; others, unlike. Of her own sort, in this single particular, were the two girls with whom she shared a cheap room. Their common decency in attitude toward the other sex was the unique bond of union. In their association, she found no real companionship. Nevertheless, they were wholesome enough. Otherwise they were illiterate, altogether uncongenial.

In such wise, through five dreary years, Mary Turner lived. Nine hours daily, she stood behind a counter. She spent her other waking hours in obligatory menial labors: cooking her own scant meals over the gas; washing and ironing, for the sake of that neat appearance which was required of her by those in authority at the Emporium—yet, more especially, necessary for her own self-respect. With a mind keen and earnest, she contrived some solace from reading and studying, since the free library gave her this opportunity. So, though engaged in stultifying occupation through most of her hours, she was able to find food for mental growth. Even, in the last year, she had reached a point of development whereat she began to study seriously her own position in the world’s economy, to meditate on a method of bettering it. Under this impulse, hope mounted high in her heart. Ambition was born. By candid comparison of herself with others about her, she realized the fact that she possessed an intelligence beyond the average. The training by her father, too, had been of a superior kind. There was as well, at the back vaguely, the feeling of particular self-respect that belongs inevitably to the possessor of good blood. Finally, she demurely enjoyed a modest appreciation of her own physical advantages. In short, she had beauty, brains and breeding. Three things of chief importance to any woman—though there be many minds as to which may be chief among the three.

I have said nothing specific thus far as to the outer being of Mary Turner—except as to filmed eyes and a huddled form. But, in a happier situation, the girl were winning enough. Indeed, more! She was one of those that possess an harmonious beauty, with, too, the penetrant charm that springs from the mind, with the added graces born of the spirit. Just now, as she sat, a figure of desolation, there on the bed in the Tombs cell, it would have required a most analytical observer to determine the actualities of her loveliness. Her form was disguised by the droop of exhaustion. Her complexion showed the pallor of sorrowful vigils. Her face was no more than a mask of misery. Yet, the shrewd observer, if a lover of beauty, might have found much for delight, even despite the concealment imposed by her present condition. Thus, the stormy glory of her dark hair, great masses that ran a riot of shining ripples and waves. And the straight line of the nose, not too thin, yet fine enough for the rapture of a Praxiteles. And the pink daintiness of the ear-tips, which peered warmly from beneath the pall of tresses. One could know nothing accurately of the complexion now. But it were easy to guess that in happier places it would show of a purity to entice, with a gentle blooming of roses in the cheeks. Even in this hour of unmitigated evil, the lips revealed a curving beauty of red—not quite crimson, though near enough for the word; not quite scarlet either; only, a red gently enchanting, which turned one’s thoughts toward tenderness—with a hint of desire. It was, too, a generous mouth, not too large; still, happily, not so small as those modeled by Watteau. It was altogether winsome—more, it was generous and true, desirable for kisses—yes!—more desirable for strength and for faith.

Like every intelligent woman, Mary had taken the trouble to reinforce the worth of her physical attractiveness. The instinct of sex was strong in her, as it must be in every normal woman, since that appeal is nature’s law. She kept herself supple and svelte by many exercises, at which her companions in the chamber scoffed, with the prudent warning that more work must mean more appetite. With arms still aching from the lifting of heavy bolts of cloth to and fro from the shelves, she nevertheless was at pains nightly to brush with the appointed two hundred strokes the thick masses of her hair. Even here, in the sordid desolation of the cell, the lustrous sheen witnessed the fidelity of her care. So, in each detail of her, the keen observer might have found adequate reason for admiration. There was the delicacy of the hands, with fingers tapering, with nails perfectly shaped, neither too dull nor too shining. And there were, too, finally, the trimly shod feet, set rather primly on the floor, small, and arched like those of a Spanish Infanta. In truth, Mary Turner showed the possibilities at least, if not just now the realities, of a very beautiful woman.

Naturally, in this period of grief, the girl’s mind had no concern with such external merits over which once she had modestly exulted. All her present energies were set to precise recollection of the ghastly experience into which she had been thrust.

In its outline, the event had been tragically simple.

There had been thefts in the store. They had been traced eventually to a certain department, that in which Mary worked. The detective was alert. Some valuable silks were missed. Search followed immediately. The goods were found in Mary’s locker. That was enough. She was charged with the theft. She protested innocence—only to be laughed at in derision by her accusers. Every thief declares innocence. Mr. Gilder himself was emphatic against her. The thieving had been long continued. An example must be made. The girl was arrested.

The crowded condition of the court calendar kept her for three months in the Tombs, awaiting trial. She was quite friendless. To the world, she was only a thief in duress. At the last, the trial was very short. Her lawyer was merely an unfledged practitioner assigned to her defense as a formality of the court. This novice in his profession was so grateful for the first recognition ever afforded him that he rather assisted than otherwise the District Attorney in the prosecution of the case.

At the end, twelve good men and true rendered a verdict of guilty against the shuddering girl in the prisoner’s dock.

So simple the history of Mary Turner’s trial.... The sentence of the judge was lenient—only three years!


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Chicago: Marvin Dana, "Chapter I. The Panel of Light," Within the Law in Within the Law (New York: George E. Wood, 1850), Original Sources, accessed April 22, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UE6C55XHARIJZGD.

MLA: Dana, Marvin. "Chapter I. The Panel of Light." Within the Law, in Within the Law, Vol. 22, New York, George E. Wood, 1850, Original Sources. 22 Apr. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UE6C55XHARIJZGD.

Harvard: Dana, M, 'Chapter I. The Panel of Light' in Within the Law. cited in 1850, Within the Law, George E. Wood, New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 April 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=UE6C55XHARIJZGD.