The Soul Of A Policeman, by Richard Middleton
Outside, above the uneasy din of the traffic, the sky was glorious
with the far peace of a fine summer evening. Through the upper pane
of the station window Police-constable Bennett, who felt that his
senses at the moment were abnormally keen, recognised with a sinking
heart such reds and yellows as bedecked the best patchwork quilt at
home. By contrast the lights of the superintendent's office were
subdued, so that within the walls of the police-station sounds seemed
of greater importance. Somewhere a drunkard, deprived of his boots,
was drumming his criticism of authority on the walls of his cell.
From the next room, where the men off duty were amusing themselves,
there came a steady clicking of billiard-balls and dominoes, broken
now and again by gruff bursts of laughter. And at his very elbow the
superintendent was speaking in that suave voice that reminded Bennett
of grey velvet.
"You see, Bennett, how matters stand. I have nothing at all against
your conduct. You are steady and punctual, and I have no doubt that
you are trying to do your duty. But it's very unfortunate that as far
as results go you have nothing to show for your efforts. During the
last three weeks you have not brought in a charge of any description,
and during the same period I find that your colleagues on the beat
have been exceptionally busy. I repeat that I do not accuse you of
neglecting your duty, but these things tell with the magistrates and
convey a general suggestion of slackness."
Bennett looked down at his brightly polished boots. His fingers were
sandy and there was soft felt beneath his feet.
"I have been afraid of this for some time, sir," he said, "very much
The superintendent looked at him questioningly.
"You have nothing to say?" he said.
"I have always tried to do my duty, sir."
"I know, I know. But you must see that a certain number of charges,
if not of convictions, is the mark of a smart officer."
"Surely you would not have me arrest innocent persons?"
"That is a most improper observation," said the superintendent
severely. "I will say no more to you now. But I hope you will take
what I have said as a warning. You must bustle along, Bennett, bustle
Outside in the street, Police-constable Bennett was free to reflect
on his unpleasant interview. The superintendent was ambitious and
therefore pompous; he, himself, was unambitious and therefore modest.
Left to himself he might have been content to triumph in the
reflection that he had failed to say a number of foolish things, but
the welfare of his wife and children bound him, tiresomely enough for
a dreamer, tightly to the practical. It was clear that if he did not
forthwith produce signs of his efficiency as a promoter of the peace
that welfare would be imperilled. Yet he did not condemn the chance
that had made him a policeman or even the mischance that brought no
guilty persons to his hands. Rather he looked with a gentle curiosity
into the faces of the people who passed him, and wondered why he
could not detect traces of the generally assumed wickedness of the
neighbourhood. These unkempt men and women were thieves and even
murderers, it appeared; but to him they shone as happy youths and
maidens, joyous victims of love's tyranny.
As he drew near the street in which he lived this sense of universal
love quickened in his blood and stirred him strangely. It did not
escape his eyes that to the general his uniform was an unfriendly
thing. Men and women paused in their animated chattering till he had
passed, and even the children faltered in their games to watch him
with doubtful eyes. And yet his heart was warm for them; he knew that
he wished them well.
Nevertheless, when he saw his house shining in a row of similar
houses, he realised that their attitude was wiser than his. If he was
to be a success as a breadwinner he must wage a sterner war against
these happy, lovable people. It was easy, he had been long enough in
the force to know how easy, to get cases. An intolerant manner, a
little provocative harshness, and the thing was done. Yet with all
his heart he admired the poor for their resentful independence of
spirit. To him this had always been the supreme quality of the
English character; how could he make use of it to fill English gaols?
He opened the door of his house, with a sigh on his lips. There came
forth the merry shouting of his children.
Above the telephone wires the stars dipped at anchor in the cloudless
sky. Down below, in one of the dark, empty streets, Police-constable
Bennett turned the handles of doors and tested the fastenings of
windows, with a complete scepticism as to the value of his labours.
Gradually, he was coming to see that he was not one of the few who
are born to rule?to control?their simple neighbours, ambitious only
for breath. Where, if he had possessed this mission, he would have
been eager to punish, he now felt no more than a sympathy that
charged him with some responsibility for the sins of others. He
shared the uneasy conviction of the multitude that human justice, as
interpreted by the inspired minority, is more than a little unjust.
The very unpopularity with which his uniform endowed him seemed to
him to express a severe criticism of the system of which he was an
unwilling supporter. He wished these people to regard him as a kind
of official friend, to advise and settle differences; yet, shrewder
than he, they considered him as an enemy, who lived on their mistakes
and the collapse of their social relationships.
There remained his duty to his wife and children, and this rendered
the problem infinitely perplexing.
Why should he punish others because of his love for his children; or,
again, why should his children suffer for his scruples? Yet it was
clear that, unless fortune permitted him to accomplish some notable
yet honourable arrest, he would either have to cheat and tyrannise
with his colleagues or leave the force. And what employment is
available for a discharged policeman?
As he went systematically from house to house the consideration of
these things marred the normal progress of his dreams. Conscious as
he was of the stars and the great widths of heaven that made the
world so small, he nevertheless felt that his love for his family and
the wider love that determined his honour were somehow intimately
connected with this greatness of the universe rather than with the
world of little streets and little motives, and so were not lightly
to be put aside. Yet, how can one measure one love against another
when all are true?
When the door of Gurneys', the moneylenders, opened to his touch,
and drew him abruptly from his speculations, his first emotion was a
quick irritation that chance should interfere with his thoughts. But
when his lantern showed him that the lock had been tampered with,
his annoyance changed to a thrill of hopeful excitement. What if
this were the way out? What if fate had granted him compromise, the
opportunity of pitting his official virtue against official crime,
those shadowy forces in the existence of which he did not believe,
but which lay on his life like clouds?
He was not a physical coward, and it seemed quite simple to him to
creep quietly through the open door into the silent office without
waiting for possible reinforcements. He knew that the safe, which
would be the, natural goal of the presumed burglars, was in Mr.
Gurney's private office beyond, and while he stood listening intently
he seemed to hear dim sounds coming from the direction of that room.
For a moment he paused, frowning slightly as a man does when he is
trying to catalogue an impression. When he achieved perception, it
came oddly mingled with recollections of the little tragedies of his
children at home. For some one was crying like a child in the little
room where Mr. Gurney brow-beat recalcitrant borrowers. Dangerous
burglars do not weep, and Bennett hesitated no longer, but stepped
past the open flaps of the counter, and threw open the door of the
The electric light had been switched on, and at the table there sat a
slight young man with his face buried in his hands, crying bitterly.
Behind him the safe stood open and empty, and the grate was filled
with smouldering embers of burnt paper. Bennett went up to the
young man and placed his hand on his shoulder. But the young man wept
on and did not move.
Try as he might Bennett could not help relaxing the grip of outraged
law, and patting the young man's shoulder soothingly as it rose and
fell. He had no fit weapons of roughness and oppression with which to
oppose this child-like grief; he could only fight tears with tears.
"Come," he said gently, "you must pull yourself together."
At the sound of his voice the young man gave a great sob and then was
silent, shivering a little.
"That's better," said Bennett encouragingly, "much better."
"I have burnt everything," the young man said suddenly, "and now the
place is empty. I was nearly sick just now."
Bennett looked at him sympathetically, as one dreamer may look at
another, who is sad with action dreamed too often for scatheless
accomplishment. "I'm afraid you'll get into serious trouble," he
"I know," replied the young man, "but that blackguard Gurney?" His
voice rose to a shrill scream and choked him for a moment. Then
he went on quietly "But it's all over now. Finished! Done with!"
"I suppose you owed him money?"
The young man nodded. "He lives on fools like me. But he threatened
to tell my father, and now I've just about ruined him. Pah! Swine!"
"This won't be much better for your father," said Bennett gravely.
"No, it's worse; but perhaps it will help some of the others. He kept
on threatening and I couldn't wait any longer. Can't you see?"
Over the young man's shoulder the stars becked and nodded to Bennett
through the blindless window.
"I see," he said; "I see."
"So now you can take me."
Bennett looked doubtfully at the outstretched wrists. "You are only a
fool," he said, "a dreaming fool like me, and they will give you
years for this. I don't see why they should give a man years for
being a fool."
The young man looked up, taken with a sudden hope. "You will let me
go?" he said, in astonishment. "I know I was an ass just now. I
suppose I was a bit shaken. But you will let me go?"
"I wish to God I had never seen you!" said Bennett simply. "You have
your father, and I have a wife and three little children. Who shall
judge between us?"
"My father is an old man."
"And my children are little. You had better go before I make up my
Without another word the young man crept out of the room, and Bennett
followed him slowly into the street. This gallant criminal whose
capture would have been honourable, had dwindled to a hysterical
foolish boy; and aided by his own strange impulse this boy had ruined
him. The burglary had taken place on his beat; there would be an
inquiry; it did not need that to secure his expulsion from the force.
Once in the street he looked up hopefully to the heavens; but now the
stars seemed unspeakably remote, though as he passed along his beat
his wife and his three little children were walking by his side.
Bennett had developed mentally without realising the logical result
of his development until it smote him with calamity. Of his betrayal
of trust as a guardian of property he thought nothing; of the
possibility of poverty for his family he thought a great deal?all
the more that his dreamer's mind was little accustomed to gripping
the practical. It was strange, he thought, that his final declaration
of war against his position should have been a little lacking in
dignity. He had not taken the decisive step through any deep
compassion of utter poverty bravely borne. His had been no more than
trivial pity of a young man's folly; and this was a frail thing on
which to make so great a sacrifice. Yet he regretted nothing. His
task of moral guardian of men and women had become impossible to him,
and sooner or later he must have given it up. And there was also his
family. "I must come to some decision," he said to himself firmly.
And then the great scream fell upon his ears and echoed through his
brain for ever and ever. It came from the house before which he was
standing, and he expected the whole street to wake aghast with the
horror of it. But there followed a silence that seemed to emphasise
the ugliness of the sound. Far away an engine screamed as if in
mocking imitation; and that was all. Bennett had counted up to a
hundred and seventy before the door of the house opened, and a man
came out on to the steps.
"Oh, constable," he said coolly, "come inside, will you? I have
something to show you."
Bennett mounted the steps doubtfully.
"There was a scream," he said.
The man looked at him quickly. "So you heard it," he said. "It was
"No, it was not," replied Bennett.
The man led him down the dim passage into the back sitting-room. The
body of a man lay on the sofa; it was curled like a dry leaf.
"That is my brother," said the man, with a little emphatic nod; "I
have killed him. He was my enemy."
Bennett stared dully at the body, without believing it to be really
"Dead!" he said mechanically.
"And anything I say will be used against me in evidence! As if you
could compress my hatred into one little lying notebook."
"I don't care a damn about your hatred," said Bennett, with heat. "An
hour ago, perhaps, I might have arrested you; now I only find you
The man gave a long, low whistle of surprise.
"A philosopher in uniform," he said, "God! sir, you have my
"And you have my pity. You have stolen your ideas from cheap
melodrama, and you make tragedy ridiculous. Were I a policeman, I
would lock you up with pleasure. Were I a man, I should thrash you
joyfully. As it is I can only share your infamy. I too, I suppose, am
"You are in a low, nervous state," said the man; "and you are doing
me some injustice. It is true that I am a poor murderer; but it
appears to me that you are a worse policeman."
"I shall wear the uniform no more from tonight."
"I think you are wise, and I shall mar my philosophy with no more
murders. If, indeed, I have killed him; for I assure you that beyond
administering the poison to his wretched body I have done nothing.
Perhaps he is not dead. Can you hear his heart beating?"
"I can hear the spoons of my children beating on their empty
"Is it like that with you? Poor devil! Oh, poor, poor devil!
Philosophers should have no wives, no children, no homes, and no
Bennett turned from the man with unspeakable loathing.
"I hate you and such as you!" he cried weakly. "You justify the
existence of the police. You make me despise myself because I realise
that your crimes are no less mine than yours. I do not ask you to
defend the deadness of that thing lying there. I shall stir no finger
to have you hanged, for the thought of suicide repels me, and I
cannot separate your blood and mine. We are common children of a
noble mother, and for our mother's sake I say farewell."
And without waiting for the man's answer he passed from the house to
Haggard and with rebellious limbs, Police-constable Bennett staggered
into the superintendent's office in the early morning.
"I have paid careful attention to your advice," he said to the
superintendent, "and I have passed across the city in search of
crime. In its place I have found but folly?such folly as you have,
such folly as I have myself?the common heritage of our blood. It
seems that in some way I have bound myself to bring criminals to
justice. I have passed across the city, and I have found no man
worse than myself. Do what you will with me."
The superintendent cleared his throat.
"There have been too many complaints concerning the conduct of the
police," he said; "it is time that an example was made. You will be
charged with being drunk and disorderly while on duty."
"I have a wife and three little children," said Bennett softly "and
three pretty little children." And he covered his tired face with his