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Virgil Markham

Oh, for the Life of a Warden!


AT ELEVEN O’CLOCK an agent from a mattress manufacturer came by appointment, and since the steward, as he was called, had mistaken the date and was not in the prison at the time, I took the agent on. When he had gone I was a long way behind my schedule, and it didn’t cheer me to see my secretary, Randall, grinning at me when I reentered the office.

“Lady to see you, Warden. From—”

“No appointment, has she?”

“No, sir.”

“Then I can’t see her today, and you know it.”

He still grinned. “Expect me to tell her that?” he said.

“Why shouldn’t you tell her?”

“I’m leery, Warden. She’s got something—”

“You must be off your feed. Tell her to make an appointment, tell her to come again, tell her not to come again—all the same to me. Did she give you a card?”

“I tried to tell you, she’s from the Woman’s Press Association. There on the blotter.”


“Randall, you’re fired,” I said. “What the hell do you mean by almost letting this woman get away? Tell her to wait.”

My secretary was still grinning all over his face while he marched out to Miss Carmody. I pulled out my latest correspondence file, and thumbed over the letters rapidly. Most of them had flimsy copies of my answers attached, but I hadn’t answered this one, hadn’t trusted myself to. I jerked it out.

My colleague over at Irving was the author. I can repeat his style though not his exact words:


In case you should receive a visit from a Miss Louisa Matthews Carmody, representing the Woman’s Press Association, I am writing you to let you know that this lady visited us without an appointment on a most inconvenient morning and requested to be allowed to inspect all parts of the prison and to have the opportunity to see each prisoner individually face to face, including those in solitary confinement. I felt it was impossible to accede to the request without investigating her credentials, especially as she either would or could not express any definite reason for her desire. Though all this was most unsatisfactory, as you will agree, when she again appeared at the prison, I permitted her, at her very urgent application, to see the men during exercise. As far as I know, there has been no aftermath of her visit, but on consideration I have come to the conclusion that it is not advisable to permit another such apparently meaningless inspection, and therefore I am writing to you.

Miss Carmody informed me that she had visited a great many of the principal penitentiaries of the East, and that she intended to visit as many more as possible, including Franklin. If she visits you, I should deem it not advisable to accede to her request. I am sure that you will receive this in the spirit in which it is given.


I crumpled the sheet and chucked it in the wastebasket, and brought my fist down on the button that buzzed my secretary.

“The old codfish!” I thought. “That’s what comes of having no brains and a Ph.D. Who does he think he is, my grandmother? Not advisable to accede! I’ll give her a run for her money!”

She came in, and for an instant I had a strong desire to laugh. “Not advisable to accede.” She was a small woman in a black cloth coat and black fur collar. She was carrying her hat in her hand and had thrown back the top of her coat.

I motioned her to a chair. “Madam, I have been looking forward to your appearance—ever since I was warned against you.”

She sat perched on the edge of her chair, a trim little figure, perhaps inclining to be gracefully plump, with her smart shoes set close together and her soft little hands folded. Her face was rather plain but pleasant, with a touch of sallowness in her skin and long, dark brown hair containing streaks of gray, lying smoothly back from her forehead. Her features, not by any means as plump as her figure, and the way her head was set, or the way she carried it with her chin tilted, gave her an air of alertness, perhaps even of wariness. Her eyes as they took me in were pleasant and brown, and I noticed that even in her eyebrows there were traces of gray.

I wondered about her age. Her hair made me think forty at least. Then her eyes made me take it back.

She said, “Pardon me, you are the Warden, aren’t you? I didn’t expect—”

“No, Madam, you didn’t,” I said. “After Irving’s warden you would hardly feature one like me.”

“You are rather young, aren’t you?” she asked, and then drew back in confusion. “I’m sorry.”

“Not at all,” I excused her. “They all think so, Madam, but you’re the first one who’s ever said it to my face. It wasn’t my age, though, that you dropped in to see me about?”

“No, Mr. Warden.” As she came to the point, I detected a slight movement of her features, a tightening, as if she was nerving herself for something. “I am, as you know, from the Woman’s Press Association. I am making an investigation of prisons, and have visited several already and shall visit a good many more. I wish to—”

My face made her break off. “But you have heard of my visits, Mr. Warden?”

“Yes, Madam.” I reached down and fished “not to accede” out of the wastebasket, smoothed it out, and handed it across to her. “In confidence, Madam,” I warned, “you did not ring the bell with my brother in Irving.”

“I see,” she said. “Then do I understand, Mr. Warden, that you are opposed to me, too?”

“My brother in Irving is not my keeper, Madam. This prison is independent, and I am in complete charge here. At the same time, on the information I have there is nothing I can do for you. You wish to visit every part of the penitentiary and to see the men individually. Is that it?”

She nodded. “Exactly, Mr. Warden.”

“For what reason, Madam?”

“Among other things I have in view, I have been commissioned to make a report to an anonymous party on men who are specially deserving of encouragement or in any way needing special help or, in case of their discharge, of financial assistance.”

I told her bluntly that it sounded thin to me, and that I objected on principle to making a show of the men.

She stiffened up suddenly, and her hands became fists. “You may not understand, Mr. Peters, but you should understand this: I have been the means of helping quite a few in every place I have visited. Your friend at Irving does not mention it in his letter, but there are half a dozen prisoners there who deserve help and who will get it.”

I paused a moment. “Well, Mr. Peters?” she said anxiously, and the calm, or pretended calm, of her earlier self was gone.

I still hadn’t made up my mind, or perhaps I pretended to myself that I hadn’t. I shook my head.

“Why not, why not?” she exclaimed. “It isn’t irregular, is it, to show visitors about the prison and to allow them to see the men? Are you afraid that I am bringing in weapons or drugs?”

“If you are attempting to smuggle anything in here, you will not succeed.”

“I see. Then why do you hesitate, Mr. Peters? If I am so harmless, that is.”

I buzzed Randall. “I was thinking more of my morning’s work,” I said. “I will conduct you personally, Madam, over every portion of this prison, from the roofs to the basement.”

“Oh, thank you, Warden Peters! But—you will let me see the men?”

“If you wish to see them as they file out from mess, you can.”

Her eagerness would not be concealed. There was a flash of her even teeth and a glint in her eye, a look of gladness that was personal and intimate and had nothing to do, I was sure, with the Woman’s Press Association.

“Randall,’’ I said to my secretary, “I’m going to introduce this lady to Franklin; so take the rest of the day off and try to have a good time in this godforsaken town. We’ll work tonight instead of now. I’ll talk to Dorsey and Edwards after mess. Let them have the regular grub.”

I turned to my visitor. “This way, Madam,” I said, and behind my back I tipped Randall a wink and made a sign with my thumb that said, “Somebody follow us up and keep us in sight.”

We made the rounds of the cells and the mills and the chapel and the library and the yards and the wards and the keepers’ lockers and the kitchen. I took her into the nearest thing we have to a dungeon, light and airy, with nice white tiles, but depressing just the same when you’ve been there solitary for a few days. A couple of big apes there made faces at us, and we passed on, but she had looked the inmates in the eye. I even took her into the death house because she asked for it.

“Did my friend at Irving let you do this?” I asked.

“No, but he—he let me see—their pictures.”

Throughout the rounds she had seemed interested in everything, peering with her sharp little head, asking questions. I never had a more intelligent visitor, or one who understood more quickly the reason why we worked this or that in the way we did. Yet I felt that her primary interest was in the men themselves, not in the conditions.

I didn’t change my mind when I observed her as the men came out of the mess hall in a double file. She tried to conceal the vital interest that she felt in them for some reason, but I don’t think that one went by without her having a clear instantaneous photograph of him, his face, his hands, his walk. A number of times she turned to me quickly and indicated a man, and I made a mental note of him. Those she picked were in most cases such as I would have selected myself for consideration if I had been doing the humanitarian stunt.

We went back to the office, where I asked her if she would stay and eat a bite, as it was well past one. But she thanked me and said “No.” I saw that she was disinclined to remain where she might have to answer questions instead of ask them. “If you will send the names of the men I chose to the Association, they will look into their cases. If you recommend others, they will be considered, too.”

“With pleasure,” I said. “When can I expect to read your account of the American penal system?”

“You had better not expect it before you see it, sir,” she answered. She held out her hand. “Goodby, Mr. Warden. You’ve been more than kind. And I can’t help saying that you really are young, sinfully young.”

“Thank you, there’s a reason.”

“I wish I had the same reason,” she said, and then an orderly, who had answered my buzz, escorted her to the gate.

I interviewed the trusties who had taken turns trailing me, and none had anything suspicious to report. “She carried her hat in her hand,” was the most damaging thing either of them could say.

“She laid it down oncet,” added the other. “In the ward.”

“No one else went near it?”

“No, sir.”

“Then there’s nothing in the hat.”

Randall’s assistant, Peisner, came in to say that a call had come from the Lieutenant Governor. I was to escort a party of three through the cell-rows. Something to do with the Break-proof Prisons people.

“Oh, my God!” I exclaimed. I was fed up with prison.

“Yes, sir,” said Peisner.

“Never mind ‘yes, sir,’ wiseguy. I’m going to lunch. No, I’ll talk to those two tramps first. Have Edwards and Dorsey brought up.”

While I ate my food I kept wondering about my woman visitor. I couldn’t feel that her visit quite made sense, but I couldn’t tell why. On the surface, perhaps, it had been a normal matter, but I couldn’t slay the thought that there had been something about it I had missed. And about the little brown-gray woman herself there was something elusive and captivating. “My lady, you’ve not done with me yet,” I said softly.


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