Human beings spend a great deal of their time in laughing at one another. Every man seems absurd to his neighbor, not only in his diversions, but also in his sober labors. My own favorite object of mirth is one of the most austere and venerable figures in our society, to wit, the judge. If I frequent courtrooms very little, it is only because I have a high theoretical respect for his office, and so do not want to be tempted to laugh at him. That temptation, in his actual presence, is almost irresistible. There he sits for hour after hour, listening to brawling shysters, murkily dozing his way through obvious perjury, contemplating a roomful of smelly loafers, and sadly scratching himself as he wonders what his wife is going to have for dinner, all the while longing horribly for a drink. If he is not a comic figure, then there is none in this world.
Years ago, when I had literary ambitions, I blocked out a one-act play about a judge. Now that I am too old to write it I may as well give it away. The scene is a courtroom, and the learned judge is on the bench, gaping wearily at his customers. They are of the usual sort—witnesses trying to remember what the lawyers told them to say, policemen sweating in their padded uniforms, bailiffs on the lookout for pickpockets, newspaper readers and tobacco chewers, and long ranks of dirty and idiotic old men, come in to get warm. In front of the judge a witness is being examined by a lawyer. To one side twelve jurymen snooze quietly.
The place smells like an all-night trolley-car on a Winter night. The judge, unable to concentrate his attention upon the case at bar, groans wheezily. It is a dreadful life, and he knows it. Of a sudden the opposition lawyer objects to a question put to the witness, and the judge has to pull himself together. The point raised is new to him. In fact, it goes far beyond his law. He decides in loud, peremptory tones, notes the exception, and resumes his bitter meditations. What a life! What a finish for a man who was once a gay dog, with the thirst of an archbishop and an arm for every neck! What a reward for long years of toil and privation! A tear rolls down the judge’s nose.
As he shakes it off his eyes sweep the courtroom, and a strange thrill runs through him. There, on the last seat, sandwiched between a police sergeant and a professional bondsman, is the loveliest cutie ever seen. There, in the midst of the muck, is romance ineffable. The judge shoots his cuffs out of his gown, twirls his moustache, permits a soapy, encouraging smirk to cover his judicial glower, and gives a genial cough. How thrilled the cutie will be when she sees that he notices her. What a day in a poor girl’s life. What an episode to remember—the handsome and amiable judge, the soft exchange of glances. He coughs a bit louder. The cutie, glancing up, sees him looking at her. Paralyzed with fright, she leaps out of her seat, climbs over the police sergeant, and flees the courtroom.
—THE JUDGE, by Henry Louis Mencken