His Christmas Gift by Jacob A Riis

Story type: Literature

“The prisoner will stand,” droned out the clerk in the Court of General Sessions. “Filippo Portoghese, you are convicted of assault with intent to kill. Have you anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon you?”

A sallow man with a hopeless look in his heavy eyes rose slowly in his seat and stood facing the judge. There was a pause in the hum and bustle of the court as men turned to watch the prisoner. He did not look like a man who would take a neighbor’s life, and yet so nearly had he done so, of set purpose it had been abundantly proved, that his victim would carry the disfiguring scar of the bullet to the end of his life, and only by what seemed an almost miraculous chance had escaped death. The story as told by witnesses and substantially uncontradicted was this:

Portoghese and Vito Ammella, whom he shot, were neighbors under the same roof. Ammella kept the grocery on the ground floor. Portoghese lived upstairs in the tenement. He was a prosperous, peaceful man, with a family of bright children, with whom he romped and played happily when home from his barber shop. The Black Hand fixed its evil eye upon the family group and saw its chance. One day a letter came demanding a thousand dollars. Portoghese put it aside with the comment that this was New York, not Italy. Other letters followed, threatening harm to his children. Portoghese paid no attention, but his wife worried. One day the baby, little Vito, was missing, and in hysterics she ran to her husband’s shop crying that the Black Hand had stolen the child.

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The barber hurried home and sought high and low. At last he came upon the child sitting on Ammella’s doorstep; he had wandered away and brought up at the grocery; asked where he had been, the child pointed to the store. Portoghese flew in and demanded to know what Ammella was doing with his boy. The grocer was in a bad humor, and swore at him. There was an altercation, and Ammella attacked the barber with a broom, beating him and driving him away from his door. Black with anger, Portoghese ran to his room and returned with a revolver. In the fight that followed he shot Ammella through the head.

He was arrested and thrown into jail. In the hospital the grocer hovered between life and death for many weeks. Portoghese lay in the Tombs awaiting trial for more than a year, believing still that he was the victim of a Black Hand conspiracy. When at last the trial came on, his savings were all gone, and of the once prosperous and happy man only a shadow was left. He sat in the court-room and listened in moody silence to the witnesses who told how he had unjustly suspected and nearly murdered his friend. He was speedily convicted, and the day of his sentence was fixed for Christmas Eve. It was certain that it would go hard with him. The Italians were too prone to shoot and stab, said the newspapers, and the judges were showing no mercy.

The witnesses had told the truth, but there were some things they did not know and that did not get into the evidence. The prisoner’s wife was ill from grief and want; their savings of years gone to lawyer’s fees, they were on the verge of starvation. The children were hungry. With the bells ringing in the glad holiday, they were facing bitter homelessness in the winter streets, for the rent was in arrears and the landlord would not wait. And “Papa” away now for the second Christmas, and maybe for many yet to come! Ten, the lawyer and jury had said: this was New York, not Italy. In the Tombs the prisoner said it over to himself, bitterly. He had thought only of defending his own.

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So now he stood looking the judge and the jury in the face, yet hardly seeing them. He saw only the prison gates opening for him, and the gray walls shutting him out from his wife and little ones for–how many Christmases was it? One, two, three–he fell to counting them over mentally and did not hear when his lawyer whispered and nudged him with his elbow. The clerk repeated his question, but he merely shook his head. What should he have to say? Had he not said it to these men and they did not believe him? About little Vito who was lost, and his wife who cried her eyes out because of the Black Hand letters. He–

There was a step behind him, and a voice he knew spoke. It was the voice of Ammella, his neighbor, with whom he used to be friends before–before that day.

“Please, your Honor, let this man go! It is Christmas, and we should have no unkind thoughts. I have none against Filippo here, and I ask you to let him go.”

It grew very still in the court-room as he spoke and paused for an answer. Lawyers looked up from their briefs in astonishment. The jurymen in the box leaned forward and regarded the convicted man and his victim with rapt attention. Such a plea had not been heard in that place before. Portoghese stood mute; the voice sounded strange and far away to him. He felt a hand upon his shoulder that was the hand of a friend, and shifted his feet uncertainly, but made no response. The gray-haired judge regarded the two gravely but kindly.

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“Your wish comes from a kind heart,” he said. “But this man has been convicted. The law must be obeyed. There is nothing in it that allows us to let a guilty man go free.”

The jurymen whispered together and one of them arose.

“Your Honor,” he said, “a higher law than any made by man came into the world at Christmas–that we love one another. These men would obey it. Will you not let them? The jury pray as one man that you let mercy go before justice on this Holy Eve.”

A smile lit up Judge O’Sullivan’s face. “Filippo Portoghese,” he said, “you are a very fortunate man. The law bids me send you to prison for ten years, and but for a miraculous chance would have condemned you to death. But the man you maimed for life pleads for you, and the jury that convicted you begs that you go free. The Court remembers what you have suffered and it knows the plight of your family, upon whom the heaviest burden of your punishment would fall. Go, then, to your home. And to you, gentlemen, a happy holiday such as you have given him and his! This court stands adjourned.”

The voice of the crier was lost in a storm of applause. The jury rose to their feet and cheered judge, complainant, and defendant. Portoghese, who had stood as one dazed, raised eyes that brimmed with tears to the bench and to his old neighbor. He understood at last. Ammella threw his arm around him and kissed him on both cheeks, his disfigured face beaming with joy. One of the jurymen, a Jew, put his hand impulsively in his pocket, emptied it into his hat, and passed the hat to his neighbor. All the others followed his example. The court officer dropped in half a dollar as he stuffed its contents into the happy Italian’s pocket. “For little Vito,” he said, and shook his hand.

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“Ah!” said the foreman of the jury, looking after the reunited friends leaving the court-room arm in arm; “it is good to live in New York. A merry Christmas to you, Judge!”

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