The Official Blog Of Edward Cline

Nullified Barbarisms


Originally finished
in 1992, but not published until 2012, The
Head of Athena
, the second Cyrus Skeen detective novel, addresses in this
chapter the issue of freedom of speech, in which a notorious atheist, Enoch
Paige, attempts to deliver an address in San Francisco in May 1929. The scores
of people who attend the event go not out of agreement with or even curiosity about
what he has to say or about what they expect him to say, but to silence Paige. His
speech, they are certain, will “offend” their religious or moral sensibilities.
Paige is awaiting trial for the murder of his ex-wife; his attorney has asked Skeen
to investigate the crime and produce evidence that will exonerate Paige of the
crime.
            Skeen,
who has not yet met Paige, attends the lecture to assess the man’s character. Here
he encounters Sgt. Robert Hoile of the SFPD, a homicide detective with a
special animus for Paige; his fiancé was murdered in much the same horrific way
as was Paige’s ex-wife, and believes that Paige is guilty. He is looking for
any excuse to lock Paige up again for violating his bail and for disturbing the
peace.
            In
lieu of another column on the importance of freedom of speech (I have written a
few dozen), and the May 3rd attack  n the
The American Freedom Defense Initiative’s Draw Mohammad Contest in Garland,
Texas, I chose to excerpt this chapter from the novel. It dramatizes much of
what I would have said in a regular column. The Garland police officer  nullified
two barbarisms when he shot and killed the two Muslim gunmen.
CHAPTER
6: NULLIFIED BARBARISMS
Founders’ Hall, a rambling, squat building of grimy red
brick with a soiled neoclassical façade, sat a block and a half from the
Southern Pacific rail depot in China Basin, the city’s flat industrial port
south of Market Street. Built by the Metal Casters Association shortly after
the Civil War, it housed the offices of die casting firms, metal jobbers, and
automotive engineers. The offices ringed a small auditorium, which had once
been a locomotive parts warehouse and repair shop.
At
eleven-forty-five, Skeen drove past the building, saw a line of perhaps forty
people, and parked his roadster around the corner. By the time he returned, the
doors had opened and the line was filing inside. Skeen strode to the end of it.
A cheaply printed placard was tied with string to one of the iron pillars of
the portico: TODAY — ENOCH PAIGE ASKS THE QUESTION: IS THE UNIVERSE BIG ENOUGH
FOR GOD AND MAN? ONE DOLLAR ADMITTANCE. At the door, a glowering young man in a
worn tweed suit collected money and handed back mimeographed circulars. Skeen
smiled and dropped a silver dollar in the open palm. The young man dropped it
in turn into a metal cash box on the table before him. Skeen took a circular
from him and went into the auditorium.
About a hundred
wooden folding chairs were set up in two sections, leaving an aisle of bare
plant floor between them. Early afternoon light struggled to pierce the
unwashed glass of the high arched windows that divided the mezzanine above the
hall. Dusty green curtains hung from the ceiling on the sides of the dais. In the
middle stood a battered lectern. Behind it, on either side, were two flag
stands. One was bare, and on the other drooped a dingy American flag that was
missing half of its tassels.
Skeen spotted a
vacant seat in the front row next to a sour-looking spinster and headed for it.
By a step and a half he beat a large, pinched-faced man in a bulky woolen
overcoat that smelled like rotten cabbages. The man regarded him with hostile
eyes, and looked as though he wanted to say something nasty, but he turned around
and found another seat in the third row. Skeen shook out of his raglan and
folded it over the back of the chair, then removed his trilby, folded it, and
stuffed it inside one of the raglan’s pockets. He did not sit down, but stood
and watched the growing audience. Many more people had followed him in and were
filling up the chairs rapidly.
He read the
circular, on which was an encapsulation of Paige’s career, followed by a
statement that his talk this afternoon had originally been sponsored by the
Freethinkers League. Two weeks ago, the League had withdrawn its sponsorship,
and Paige had had to hire the hall at his own expense.
Skeen again
studied the audience, whose composition ranged from very well dressed men and
women to students, sales clerks and manual laborers. As more people came into
the hall and took their seats, he noticed something else: Many in the audience
did not join in the animated chatter, but sat very still with sullen
expressions. They looked too disinterested and too contemptuous, thought Skeen.
These might be troublemakers. There were many who were angling for Paige’s
head.
He finished
reading the circular. The last paragraph read: “This is to be Mr. Paige’s last
scheduled public address. Mr. Paige plans to sequester himself for a time to
examine other matters of gravity. Whether he withdraws from the public eye by
choice, or by compulsion, remains to be seen.”
All the seats had
been taken by now, and attendees were beginning to line the sides of the hall
and the rear. Skeen smiled when he recognized a face.
Sergeant Robert
Hoile was leaning against a stone pillar whose blue paint had been flecking
away for years. He permitted himself a brief grin when he saw Skeen approach.
Skeen greeted him and shook his hand.
“Good morning,
Sergeant. What brings you here?”
“I’m surprised to
see you here, Skeen,” Hoile answered. “I didn’t know you went in for this kind
of rabble-rousing.”
Skeen said, “He
might be a client of mine. I don’t mind telling you that, because it would be
hard to conceal the fact if I decide in his favor.”
“Freund talk to
you?”
Skeen nodded, then
waved at the hall. “Are you here to be edified, or are you on business?”
Hoile frowned.
“I’m here to keep an eye on my man. I arrested him, you know.”
“So you did.
Corelli with you?”
“No. He’s on
vacation.”
“Why do you think
Paige needs watching?’
“Because if
there’s any trouble, the bastard goes back to jail, and no amount of money will
get him out again. He’ll sit there until his trial.” Hoile’s eyes hardened, and
little shades of red appeared on his face.
Skeen studied the
sergeant for a moment. “You’re sure he’s guilty, aren’t you?”
“You didn’t see
the body, Skeen,” said the detective. “One of the worst I’ve ever seen. Even if
she was a slut, nobody deserves to die like that.”
“The condition of
her body may be immaterial to Paige’s innocence.”
“If you knew what
I know, maybe you wouldn’t want to help clear this guy.”
Skeen decided to
drop the matter. “I shall endeavor to know as much as you do, Sergeant,” he
said. He nodded, and returned to his seat.
A moment later the
sour young man closed the doors to the hall, strode to the dais, and announced
Enoch Paige. He left as the speaker came in through a side door. A pebbly
applause greeted Paige as he mounted the platform and walked to the lectern. He
put a sheaf of papers on it, and planted two fists on his hips to study the
audience as though he were daring anyone in it to object to his presence there.
Enoch Paige was a
short, wiry man of twenty-seven, with curly brown hair and blue eyes in a
square, impudent face. His eyes and mouth were in perfect harmony; his mouth
expressed what his eyes told, although both features seemed permanently locked
in a curious union of impish humor and satanic intent. He wore a pepper gray
suit and a blue bow tie.
After he had
scrutinized the audience, he said, in a clear, impavid voice, “I must apologize
for underestimating my popularity — or my notoriety. If I’d known so many of
you would come out this fine Sunday morning, I’d have hired more chairs. And I
must extend my gratitude to the Police Department for having dispatched a
single officer to ensure the safety of my person. Welcome, Mr. Hoile.”  Paige swept a hand in the air in the general
direction of the detective, who had not moved from his pillar. Some heads in
the audience turned to look incuriously at him.
Paige clapped his
hands together. “As was announced, the subject of my talk this afternoon is the
question: Can God and man occupy the same universe? More specifically, my
question is: Why has religion exercised a monopoly on the notions of good and
evil? Even more specifically: Is it possible for man to know these notions,
exclusive of God and religion?”
Skeen crossed his
legs and sat back in genuine interest. The audience seemed quietly attentive.
Paige put a hand
on the top sheet of his papers, then withdrew it and put it in his trousers
pocket. “Now — how best should I approach this subject? My options appear to be
limitless. I could ridicule the notion of God, and subject the rituals of
religion to comic treatment. I could insult your intelligence with infantile
jest, and point out that God, spelled backwards, is dog — really, it’s a very
old chestnut, that one! — and dwell on a bawdy but fictitious mutual etymology.
I could tell you that I’ve finished penning an amusing play, after the fashion
of Mr. Bernard Shaw, about how many times the end of the world has come and
gone, and, just to spice up the tale, included in it a fatuous romance between
a Reformed Millenialist drummer and a Second Resurrectionist tuba girl.” Paige
paused and raised a hand. “Or — I could tell you that I’ve written a very serious
play, one in the style of those Continental Expressionist jackdaws, featuring a
handful of symbolic characters marooned in a barren wilderness, who debate and
shout and cry about a savior who never comes — ”
At this, some of
the more studious-looking attendees chuckled. Others in the audience shifted
restlessly in their seats.
“ — nor even sends
word that he has been delayed by a faux pas in another part of the
universe.” Paige shrugged his shoulders. “I could recite witty limericks or
outrageous ditties and have all of you — or most of you — rolling in the
aisles. Oh, I could do so many things to get your attention. But, I will not
resort to ridicule. Ridicule is a luxury one may indulge in only after seeing
to the grave business of refutation. It is not my way to cajole those whose
intellects I presume to address, although I think I can be an amusing man. I do
not fault apt speakers for using the device of humor to weave a web of
attention over their auditors. I am merely saying that it is a device I choose
not to employ.”
Skeen chuckled and
recrossed his legs.
Paige stared down
at him. “Sir?”
“Yes, Mr. Paige?”
“Were you
scoffing, or was it a compliment you were paying me?”
Skeen grinned. “I
simply realized that you used a combination of the Subtle and Direct
Approaches, as recommended by Cicero in Ad Herennium. Book One, I
believe.”
 Paige looked mildly surprised. “One,” he said.
“Did I do it well?”
“Well enough,”
Skeen answered, “as you’re doing it again.”
“Thank you, sir.”
There was some laughter in the audience. Paige waited for it to subside.
“Marcus Aurelius, a man esteemed not only in our political and intellectual
circles today, but also among the clergy — for, even though he persecuted
Christians and burnt them by the bushel, there is much in his writing to cadge
and clip for many a sermon — said in his Meditations that the ‘purpose
of reasonable beings is to follow the rule and law of the most venerable city
and state.’ I have never held much esteem for Aurelius myself. While I admit
that it is fine to follow rule and law, I question the object of veneration — ”
“Who are you
to talk of law??” shouted a man in the middle of the right hand section. “Who
are you, murderer?”
“This’ll be a
decent state when they cooks you to a cinder!!” yelled another man.
Paige sought out
the first man, who had sunk back into his seat. “You may ask that question of
me when a judge or jury has concluded that I am indeed a murderer, sir. Not
until then.” He turned to the second man. “And you, sir, should take better
care to avoid barbarisms in your speech. There is, after all, a limit to
colorful illiteracy.”
Skeen, too, had
turned to look at the men in the audience. He noticed the pinched-face man in
the third row scowling at a slip of paper in his hand. When he turned again, he
saw also that the spinster next to him sat with her fingers in her ears, her
lips moving in silent prayer.
“ — I question the
objects of veneration,” Paige continued, “just as I must question the rules and
laws. Here I direct your attention to the not-so-coincidental connection
between Aurelius’s imperatives and St. Paul’s admonishments found in Romans,
thirteen, to obey the state and surrender its due. ‘It is an obligation imposed
not merely by fear of retribution but by coincidence.’ To free men who wish to
remain free, these cannot be sage words of advice, but prescriptions for
tyranny….”
Paige spoke on.
Skeen thought that, given the first incidents of hectoring, he would have been
driven from the dais twenty words into his address. But he suspected that the
hecklers were not hearing what they had expected to hear. Five minutes went by
without further interruption.
“…The state and
religion treat you like royalty. You are deemed privileged persons. Laws and
customs are established for your protection. Today, these diminish your
freedom, rather than enlarge it. And, like the royalty of Europe, you must, by
grace of these laws — such as the Sixteenth and Eighteenth Amendments, and all
the countless, merely legislative intrusions on your person and property —
indulge yourselves in secret and mind your own business in the umbra of sin,
scandal and fiat guilt. You drop a coin into the collection basket in church
with the same grudging charity that you fudge your books for taxes or buy your
liquor from a bootlegger or search for loopholes in your business licenses.
These laws and customs, designed to make moral men of you, instead corrupt you
and their administrators, however understanding you or the administrators may
appear in public. I say there is little difference between the fraud
perpetrated on you by the state and that perpetrated on you by any church. In
both instances, there are material exactions and spiritual exactions. They tend
to make us, as Hamlet said of himself, unable ‘as unvalued persons do, to carve
for himself,’ not free of the fetters on our minds and pocketbooks, fetters
created to direct us to some ‘higher’ purpose or approved, salutary existence,
fetters forged to allow us to move only with special dispensation awarded by
those who have quite arbitrarily set themselves above us as our moral warders.”
Paige noted the
coughing and restive movements in the audience, and waited before he continued.
“This brings me to another announcement: I am unable to answer my own question!
I freely confess a stock of requisite knowledge unequal to the task of
formulating an intelligible answer. I shall no longer inveigh against God, or
against superstition, or against the sham of organized belief. Something akin
to the unpleasant ennui one experiences after a helping or two of very rich
food has bothered me for some time. Only yesterday did I realize that it was —
boredom. I have grown tired of tilting against the ghosts in men’s minds. There
are bigger and more substantive specters to lance. I have said all I will say
on the subject. It is a good record. That there is no God is a matter I have
settled to my own satisfaction. In the near future, I shall retire in order to
ponder the question I am now unable to answer, but which I am confident can be
answered. It promises to be an intriguing and exciting quest.”
Paige paused. “I
realize that I have not delivered my usual tirade, which is what many of you
came to hear today. So, if any of you feel cheated, your admission fee will be
returned to you without question or reproach – ”
What is this??”
shouted a short, skinny old man in the second row. “You said you was gonna talk
about God! What kinda trick is this?”
“You have no right
to speak of morality, you heathen, Godless blasphemer!” shouted the spinster
next to Skeen, brandishing her umbrella.
“You wanna
retire?” yelled a man in the fourth row. “You’re gonna be retired — in the
‘lectric chair!”
Skeen turned to
look at the last heckler, but saw the pinched-face man rise and read from his
slip of paper. “There’s no love or forgiveness for him who denies the Lord!”
Behind him, another man rose and shouted, “God can’t be understood with reason
or defeated with fancy talk!”
A tomato sailed
through the air and hit the plaster wall behind Paige. “Ah!” he exclaimed. “I
see that my appreciation society is upset!”
Another tomato and
an egg rocketed over Skeen’s head and splattered against the dais wall. “God’s
aim seems a tat off today!” laughed Paige. “But — even though I’ve announced my
temporary retirement and should have left this stage by now, I’ll not budge
from this stage until this hall has been emptied!”
“Begone, ye of no
faith!” cried the spinster, shaking her umbrella at Paige.
“If you don’t
leave that stage,” shouted the pinched-faced man, “there’s enough of us to make
you, you little squit!”
Skeen rose and
turned to see the commotion that had exploded behind him. Between twenty and
thirty people were shouting threats and denunciations at Paige, while others
argued violently with the hecklers. He saw one man punched by another and
collapse between the chairs. A woman screamed. Others, sensing the growing
trouble, abandoned their seats for the safety of the rear.
Sergeant Hoile was
nowhere to be seen.
Something hard hit
the wall behind Paige. Skeen turned and saw a rock bounce to a rest on the
planks of the dais. Paige stood still, glaring at the pandemonium, his arms
folded, determined to stand his ground. Skeen mounted the dais, briefly saluted
him, and stood with him. The sour faced young man also stepped onto the dais
and stood next to Paige.
“Thank you for the
gesture, sir,” said Paige over the racket, “but there’s no need for you to get
a pummeling, too.”
“It’s no gesture,”
Skeen said, offering his hand. “Cyrus Skeen, latter day roving Musketeer, at
your service.”
Paige grinned and
shook the hand thoughtfully as a large potato missed his head by inches. “In
that case,” he said, “allow me to introduce my protégé, Humphrey Garnett.” The
sour faced young man extended his arm, but he was hit above his left ear by a
small stone. Stunned, he began to collapse, but Paige caught him in his arms.
Skeen stepped back
and picked up one of the stones. He spotted the pinched-face man, who had
retreated a couple of rows and was reaching into his overcoat for another
missile. Skeen hefted the stone in his hand, then reached back and hurled it.
The man watched stupidly as it flew through the air and struck him on the bridge
of his nose.
Skeen did not have
a chance to see what happened to him. Someone yelled, “Let’s show ‘em we mean
business!” and a dozen or so men knocked chairs and spectators out of the way
and rushed the dais.
Skeen took the
lectern by its base and swung it at the first man to step onto the stage,
hitting him in the face and knocking him back into two others. He swung again
and caught another in the chest, but the force of the blow and the weight of
the lectern yanked the thing from his grip. The lectern fell apart as it and
the man crashed into the chairs below, falling at the feet of the spinster, who
had fainted. Paige had lowered the unconscious Garnett to the planks, and stood
in front of him, wildly swinging what looked like a blackjack at his attackers,
keeping them at bay.
A stone grazed
Skeen’s temple above his right ear. He stepped back and grabbed the unused flag
stand and removed it from the brass base. He handed the pole to Paige and took
the base at the stem in both hands. Instead of waiting for the men to rush him,
he rushed them, striking out at their heads.
Just then a
cacophony of shrill whistles erupted in the hall, and a dozen uniformed
policemen swept in through the main doors, led by Hoile. The attackers leapt
from the dais and tried to disperse, but were brought down by nightsticks. One
man ran up the center aisle and tried to shoulder Hoile aside, but Hoile let
him fly by and pistol-whipped him as he passed. The man plummeted to the floor
and lay still.
Skeen stood on the
dais, holding the brass base in one hand. Paige stood a few feet away from him,
holding the two ends of the wooden pole, which looked splintered. Five
unconscious men lay at their feet among the sheets of Paige’s scattered notes.
Skeen had a small cut above his right ear, while Paige’s face boasted a pair of
bruises.
Paige put down the
pole, and bent to look at Garnett. With a groan, the young man opened his eyes
and sat up.
Sergeant Hoile
approached the dais with a uniformed officer and stepped onto the dais. He put his
revolver away and stood over Paige. “You were warned, Paige,” he said. “Any
kind of ruckus, and back you go.”
Paige rose to face
the detective. “You know this wasn’t my doing.”
Skeen said, “You
saw how it happened, Sergeant. If you arrest him, you’ll have to clap steel on
me, as well.” He put down the brass base and approached the policemen.
“I’ve got no
argument with you, Skeen,” Hoile said. “You did what you thought needed doing.
But I can’t let this man go free to incite more public disturbances.”
“He didn’t incite
it. He was finished. There were men here who were looking for an excuse to
cause trouble. You know that.”
Hoile drew himself
up and faced Skeen. “Don’t tell me what I know!”
The hall became
still. Spectators, policemen and arrested men alike turned to watch and listen.
Skeen gestured to
the hall. “There are as many witnesses to what we saw as there are to how it
all started.”
“God damn you,
Skeen,” muttered Hoile beneath his breath.
“Arrest Paige, and
I’ll pay his bail, too.”
Hoile studied Skeen
for a moment, then turned to Paige. “All right. You’ll have to come down to the
Hall, if you want to lodge a complaint.” He turned, stepped down from the dais,
and stalked away, shouting to a uniformed sergeant. “Don’t just stand there!
Clear this place out! Now! Get moving!”
Paige sighed as he
watched Hoile retreat. Then he turned to Skeen and they silently shook hands.
                                                           
Skeen sat with a cigarette on the edge of the dais and
dabbed at the cut on his temple with a wet handkerchief. Enoch Paige was
gathering his notes. Humphrey Garnett sat in one of the folding chairs and held
a wet towel to the side of his face. Hoile paced back and forth in the rear of
the auditorium, waiting for ambulances to take away the few injured spectators
and the men Paige and Skeen had felled. He threw angry scowls at Skeen and
Paige and snapped at the officers under his command.
Paige lit a cigarette of his own and walked up to Skeen
with a tired grin. “There was a debate Cicero had no advice for, eh, Mr.
Skeen?”
“You won it, nonetheless.”
“So we did. But I wouldn’t want to adjudicate the point
with such Catilines very often.” Paige studied Skeen for a moment. “Where’d you
pick up your Cicero?”
“At Yale.”
Paige’s face lit up. “Not Professor Xavier Warmington??”
Skeen nodded.
“Old ‘Warm Up to My Subject Warmington? By God!” exclaimed Paige. “Another Eli stuck in the
Styx! What year?”
“Twenty-one,” said Skeen.
“Twenty-three!” Paige laughed. He slapped Skeen on the
shoulder. “Of course, you know, even if you’d been a Harvard man, I’d have
welcomed your help all the same, and still called you friend!”
Skeen smiled. “I’d have helped you even were you an
alumnus of Sequoia College of Dentistry in Portland, Oregon.”
“Paige!”
They turned to face Hoile in the rear of the hall. The
sergeant said, “Are you coming down to the Hall to lodge your complaint or
not?”
“Yes, I am, Mr. Hoile. I’ll be right with you.”
“Then, come on! I haven’t got time to waste!” Hoile turned
and walked out.
Humphrey Garnett rose and came up to Paige. “You go ahead,
sir. I’ll see the custodian about the damages and have these chairs carted back
to the rental.”
“All right, Humphrey. Sure you’re okay?”
The man nodded with a weak smile and began to fold the
chairs.
Paige turned to Skeen. “I know how to reach you, Mr.
Skeen. Freund said you’d be dropping by here, but I wasn’t paying him much
attention. I’d better be going, before the law changes its mind.” He went into
the side door and returned with his overcoat and hat. He waved goodbye and
strode out of the auditorium.
Skeen dropped the handkerchief on the dais and rose to
survey the carnage. He could not imagine how Paige could have committed murder.
Murderers did not defend their right to speak in such a manner. 
He walked over to the splintered flagpole and picked it
up. He examined the ornamental brass tip, which was shaped and as sharp as a
spearhead. It was smeared with bright red.



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1 Comment

  1. Teresa

    Most appropriate- and now I have to read Athena again. I hope Geller has a Skeen every time she needs one.

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