TSW Chapter 3.5


A New Star Rises

Excerpt from “Ishmael” 1864

By E.D.E.N. Southworth

 

     The courtroom was full, but not crowded, nothing short of a murder or a divorce case ever draws a crowd to such a place.

     The counsel for the plaintiff was composed of three of the oldest, ablest, and most experienced members of the Washington bar. The first of these, Mr. Wiseman, was distinguished for his profound knowledge of the law, his skill in logic, and his closeness in reasoning, the second, Mr. Berners, was celebrated for his fire and eloquence, and the third, Mr. Vivian, was famous for his wit and sarcasm. Engaged on one side, they were considered invincible. To these three giants, with the law on their side, was opposed young Ishmael, with nothing but justice on his side. Bad look-out for justice! Well, so it was in that great encounter already alluded to between Brian and Ivanhoe.

     Mr. Wisemen, for the plaintiff, opened the case. He was s great, big, bald-headed man, who laid down the law as a blacksmith hammers an anvil, in a clear, forcible, resounding manner, leaving the defense -- as everybody declared -- not a leg to stand upon.

     “Oh, Mr. Worth! It is all over with me, and I shall die!” whispered Mrs. Walsh, in deadly terror.

     “Have patience! His speech does not impress the court as it does you -- they are used to him.”

     Witnesses were called, to prove as well as they could from a bad set of facts, what an excellent husband and father the plaintiff had been, how affectionate, how anxious, how zealous he was for the happiness of his Wife and children -- leaving it to be inferred that nothing on earth but her own evil tendencies instigated the wife to withdraw herself and her children from his protection!

     “Heaven and earth, Mr. Worth, did you ever hear anything like that. They manage to tell the literal truth, but so pervert it that it is worse than the worse falsehood!” exclaimed Mrs. Walsh, in a low but indignant tone.

     “Aye,” answered Ishmael, who sat, pencil and tablets in hand, taking notes, “aye! A lie that is half a truth is ever the blackest of lies’. But the court is accustomed to such witnesses, they do not receive so much credit as you or they think.”

     Ishmael did not cross-examine these Witnesses, the great mass of rebutting testimony that he could bring forward, he knew, must overwhelm them. So when the last witness for the plaintiff had been examined, he whispered a few cheering words to the trembling woman by his side, and rose for the defendant. Now, whenever a new barrister takes the floor for the first time, there is always more or less curiosity and commotion among the old fogies of the forum.

     What will he turn out to be? That is the question. All eyes were turned towards him.

     They saw a tall, broad-shouldered, full-chested young man, who stood with a certain dignity, looking upon the-notes that he held in his hand, and when he lifted his stately head to address the court they saw that his face was not only beautiful in the noble mold of his features, but almost divine from the inspiring soul within.

     Among the eyes that gazed upon him were those of the three giants of the law he had now to oppose. They stared at him mercilessly -- no doubt with the intention of staring him down. But they did not even confuse him, for the simple reason that he did not look towards them. They might stare themselves stone blind, but they would have no magnetic influence upon that strong, concentrated, earnest soul!

     Ishmael was not in the least embarrassed in standing up to address the court for the first time, simply because he was not thinking of himself or his audience, but of his client, and her case as he wished to set it forth, and he was not looking at the spectators, but alternately at the court and at the notes in his hand.

     He did not make a long opening like the Giant Wiseman had done, for he wished to reserve himself for the closing speech in final reply to the others. He just made a plain statement of his client’s case as it is in part known to the reader.

     He told the court how, at the age of fifteen, she had been decoyed from her mother’s house and married by the plaintiff, a man more than twice her age, how when she had come into her property he had squandered it all by a method that he, the plaintiff, called speculation, but that others called gambling, how he had then left her in poverty and embarrassment and with one child to support, how he remained a way two years, during which time her friends had set his wife up in business in a little fancy store. She was prospering when he came back, took up his abode with her, got into debt which he could not pay, and when all her stock and furniture was seized to satisfy his creditors, he took himself off once more, leaving her with two children. She was worse off than before, her friends grumbled, but once more came to her assistance, set her up a little book and news agency, the stock of which was nearly all purchased on credit, and told her plainly that if she permitted her husband to come and break up her business again they would abandon and leave her to her fate. Notwithstanding this warning, when at the end of seven or eight months he came back again she received him again. He stayed with her thirteen months, leaving her within a few weeks of becoming the mother of a third child. A few days after his disappearance another execution was put into the house to satisfy a debt contracted by him, and everything was sold under the hammer. She was reduced to the last degree of poverty, her friends held themselves aloof, disgusted at what they termed her culpable weakness: she and her children suffered from cold and hunger, and during her subsequent illness she and they must have starved and frozen but for the public charities, that would not let anyone in our midst perish from want of necessary food and fuel. When she recovered from her illness, one relative, a widow now present in court, had from her own narrow means supplied the money to rent and furnish a small schoolroom, and this most hapless of women was once more put in a way to earn daily bread for herself and children. Nine years passed, during which she enjoyed a respite from the persecutions of the plaintiff. In these nine years, by strict attention to business, untiring industry, she not only paid off the debt owed to her aged relative, but she bought a little cottage and garden in a cheap suburb, and furnished the house and stocked the garden. She was now living a laborious but contented life and rearing her children in comfort. But now at the end of nine years comes back the plaintiff. Her husband? No, her enemy! For he comes, not as he pretends, to cherish and protect, but as he ever came before, to lay waste and destroy! How long could it be supposed that the mother would be able to keep the roof over the heads of her children if the plaintiff were permitted to enter beneath it? If the court did not protect her home against his invasion, he would again bring ruin and desolation within its walls. They would prove by competent witnesses every point in this statement of the defendant’s case, and then he would demand-for his client, not only that she should be secured in the undisturbed possession of her children, her property, and her earnings, but that the plaintiff should be required to contribute an annual sum of money to the support of the defendant and her children, and to give security for its payment.

     “That’s’ carrying the war into Africa’ with a vengeance.” whispered Walsh to his counsel, as Ishmael concluded his address.

     He then called the witnesses for the defendant. They were numerous and of the highest respectability. Among them was the pastor of her parish, her family physician, and many of the patrons of her school.

     They testified to the facts stated by her attorney.

     The three giants did their duty in the cross-examining line of business. Wiseman cross-examined in a stern manner, Berners in an insinuating way, and Vivian in a sarcastic style, but the only effect of their forensic skill was to bring out the truth from the witnesses -- more clearly, strongly, and impressively.

     When the last witness for the defendant had been permitted to leave the stand Wiseman arose to address the court on behalf of the plaintiff. He spoke in his own peculiar sledge-hammer style, sonorously striking the anvil and ringing all the changes upon law, custom, and precedent, and so forth that always gave the children to the custody of the father. And he ended by demanding that the children be at once delivered over to his client.

     He was followed by Berners, who had charge of the eloquence “business” of that stage, and dealt in pathos, tears, white pocket handkerchiefs, and poetical quotations. He drew a most heart-rending picture of the broken-spirited husband and father, rejected by an unforgiving wife and ill-conditioned children, becoming a friendless and houseless wanderer over the wide world, in danger of being driven, by despair, to madness and suicide! He compared the plaintiff to Byron, whose poetry he liberally quoted. And he concluded by imploring the court, with tears in his eyes, to intervene and save his unhappy client from the gulf of perdition to which his implacable wife would drive him. And he sank down in his seat utterly overwhelmed by his feelings and holding a drift of white cambric to his face.

     “Am I such an out-and-out monster, Mr. Worth?” whispered Mrs. Walsh, in dismay.

     Ishmael smiled.

     “Everybody knows Berners -- his ‘madness’ and ‘suicide’, his ‘gulf of perdition’ and his white cambric pocket-handkerchiefs are recognized institutions. See! The judge is actually smiling over it.”

     Mr. Vivian arose to follow -- he did up the genteel comedy, he kept on hand a supply of “little jokes” gleaned from Joe Miller, current comic literature, dinner tables, clubs, etc. -- “little jokes” of which every point in his discourse continually reminded him, though his hearers could not always perceive the association of ideas. This gentleman was very facetious over family jars, which reminded him of a “little joke“, which he told, he was also very witty upon the subject of matrimonial disputes in particular, which reminded him of another “little joke”, which he also told, but most of all, he was amused at the caprice of womankind, who very often rather liked to be compelled to do as they pleased, which reminded him of a third “little joke”. And if the court should allow the defendant the exclusive possession of her children and a separate maintenance, it was highly probable that she would not thank them for their trouble, but would take the first opportunity of voluntarily reconciling herself to her husband and giving him back herself, her home and her children which would be equal to any “little joke” he had ever heard in his life, etc.etc.etc.

     The audience were all in a broud grin. Even Mrs. Welsh, with her lips of “life-long sadness“, smiled.

     “You may smile at him,” said Ishmael, “and so will I, since I do not at all doubt the issue of this trial, but for all that, joker as he is, he is the most serious opponent that we have. I would rather encounter a half a dozen each of Wisemans and Berners than on Vivian. Take human nature in general, it can be more easily laughed than reasoned or persuaded in or out of any measure. People would rather laugh than weep or reflect, Wiseman tries to make them reflect, which they won’t do, Berners tries to make them weep, which they can’t do, but Vivian with his jokes, makes then laugh, which they like to do. And so, he has joked himself into a very large practice at the Washington bar.”

     But the facetious barrister was bringing his speech to a close, with a brilliant little joke that eclipsed all the preceding ones and set the audience in a roar. And when the laughter had subsided, he finally ended by expressing a hope that the court would not so seriously disappoint and so cruelly wrong the defendant as by giving a decision in her favor.

     Ishmael waited a few minutes for the excitement produced by the last, address to subside -- the last address that in its qualities and effects had resembled champagne -- sparkling but transient, effervescent but evanescent. And when order had been restored Ishmael arose amid a profound silence to make his maiden speech, for the few opening remarks he had made in initiating the defense could scarcely be called a speech. Once more then all eyes were fixed upon him in expectancy. And, as before, he was undisturbed by these regards because he was unconscious of them, and he was calm because he was not thinking of himself or of the figure he was making, but of his client and her cause. He did not care to impress the crowd, he only wished to affect the court, so little did he think of the spectators in the room, that he did not observe that Judge Merlin, Claudia, and Beatrice were among them, seated in a distant corner -- Judge Merlin and Claudia were watching him with curiosity, and Bee with the most affectionate anxiety. His attention was confined to the judges, the counsel, his client, and the memoranda in his hand. He had a strong confidence in the justice of his cause, perfect faith in the providence of God, and sanguine hopes of success.

     True, he had arrayed against him an almost overpowering force, the husband of his client, and the three greet guns of the bar -- Wiseman, Berners, and Vivian, with law, custom, and precedent. But with him stood the angels of Justice and Mercy, invisible, but mighty, and, over all, the Omnipotent God, unseen, but all seeing!

     Ishmael possessed the minor advantages of youth, manly beauty, a commanding presence, a gracious smile, and a sweet, deep, sonorous voice. He was besides a new orator among them, with a fresh original style.

     He was no paid attorney, it was not his pocket that was interested, but his sympathies, his whole heart and soul were in the cause that he had embraced, and he brought to bear upon it all the genius of his powerful mind.

     I would like to give you the whole of this great speech that woke up the Washington court from its state of semi-somnolency and roused it to the sense of the unjust and cruel things it sometimes did when talking in its sleep. But I have only time and space to glance at some of its points, and if anyone wishes to see more of it, it may be found in the published works of the great jurist and orator.

     He began to speak with modest confidence and in clear, concise, and earnest terms. He said that the court had heard from the learned counsel that had preceded him a great deal of law, sentiment, and wit. From him they should now hear of justice, mercy, and truth!

     He reverted to the story of the woman’s wrongs, sufferings, and struggles, continued through many years, he spoke of her love, patience and forbearance under the severest trials, he dwelt upon the prolonged absence of her husband, prolonged through so many weary years, and the false position of the forsaken wife, a position so much worse than widowhood, in as much as it exposed her not only to all the evils of poverty, but to suspicion, calumny, and insult.

     But he bade them note how the woman had passed through the fire unburned, how she had fought the battle of life bravely and come out victoriously, how she had labored on in honorable industry for years until she had secured a home for herself and little girls. He spoke plainly of the arrival of the fugitive husband as the coming of the destroyer who had three times before laid waste her home, he described the terror and distress his very presence in the city had brought to the little home, the flight of the mother with her children, and her agony of anxiety to conceal them, he dwelt upon the cruel position of the woman whose natural protector has become her natural enemy, he reminded the court that it had required the mother to take her trembling little ones from their places of safety and concealment and to bring them forward, and now that they were here he felt a perfect confidence that the court would extend the aegis of its authority over these helpless ones, since that would be the only shield they could have under heaven. He spoke noble words in behalf not only of his client, but of woman -- woman, loving, feeble, and oppressed from the beginning of time -- woman, hardly dealt with by nature in the first place, and by the laws, made by her natural lover and protector, man, in the second place. Perhaps it was because he knew himself to be the son of a woman only, even as his Master had been before him that he poured so much of awakening, convicting, and condemning fire, force, and weight into this part of his discourse. He uttered thoughts and feelings upon this subject, original and startling at that time, but which have since been quoted, both in the Old and New World, and have had power to modify those cruel laws which at that period made woman, despite her understanding intellect, an idiot, and despite her loving heart a chattel -- in the law.

     It had been the time-honored prerogative and the invariable custom of the learned judges of this court to go to sleep during the pleadings of the lawyers, but upon this occasion they did not indulge in an afternoon nap, I assure you!

     He next reviewed the testimony of the witnesses of the plaintiff, complimented them on the ingenuity they had displayed in making “The worst appear the better cause.”, by telling half the truth and ignoring the other half, but warned the court at the same time         “That a lie which is half truth, is ever the blackest of lies, that a lie that is all a lie may be met and fought with outright but a lie which is part-a truth, is a harder matter to fight.“

     Then he reviewed in turn the speeches of the counsel for the plaintiff -- first that of Wiseman, the ponderous law-expounder, which he answered with quite as much law and a great deal more equity, secondly, that of Berners, the tear-pumper, the false sentiment of which he exposed and criticized, and thirdly that of Vivian, the laugh-provoker, with which he dealt most severely of all, saying that one who could turn into jest the most sacred affections and most serious troubles of domestic life, the heart’s tragedy, the household wreck before them, could be capable of telling funny stories at his father’s funeral, uttering good jokes over his mother’s coffin.

     He spoke for two hours, warming, glowing, rising with his subject, until his very form seemed to dilate in grandeur, and his face grew radiant as the face of an archangel, and those who heard seemed to think that his lips like those of the prophet of old had been touched with fire from heaven. Under the inspiration of the hour, he spoke truths new and startling then, but which have since resounded through the senate chambers of the world, changing the laws of nations in regard to woman.

     Nora, do you see your son? Oh, was it not well worthwhile to have loved, suffered, and died, only to have given him to the world!

     It was a complete success. All his long, patient, painful years of struggle were rewarded now. It was one splendid leap from obscurity to fame.

     The giants attempted to answer him, but it was of no use. After the freshness, the fire, the force, the heart, soul, and life in Ishmael’s utterances, their old, familiar, well-worn styles, in which the same arguments, pathos, wit that had done duty in so many other cases was paraded again, only bored their hearers. In vain Wiseman appealed to reason, Berners to feeling, and Vivian to humor, they would not do, the court had often heard all that before, and grown heartily tired of it. Wiseman’s wisdom was found to be foolishness, Berner’s pathos laughable, and Vivian’s humor grievous.

     The triumvirate of the Washington bar were dethroned, and Prince Ishmael reigned in their stead.

     A few hours later the decision of the court was made known. It had granted all that the young advocate had asked for his client -- the exclusive possession of her children, her property, and her earnings, and also alimony from her husband.

 

 

 

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"The Scribbling Women"
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