Before the Little Justice

The justice of the peace, a smiling, amiable man, given to trade and knowing nothing of the law, nor professing to, except as it was filtered to him through the hints of lawyers, bowed politely as he entered, and taking his seat, said:
“I am ready to hear your case now, officer.”
Upon this Blott, who had in some measure regained his composure, stepped forward and raised his hand to be sworn, but remembering that such formality was unnecessary, dropped it, with a gesture of disgust, and answered:
“Please, your honor, this is the lad the summons was for,” nodding down on me as he concluded.
Motioning me to come forward, the justice spoke up, with a reassuring smile:
“Don’t be frightened, my son, for no one here intends you harm.” This as if in answer to my distressed look, or perhaps because he too had a child somewhere more happily placed than I. Then, assuming the air of his office, he went on, but mildly and as if to give me courage:
“What is your name, young man?”
“Gilbert Holmes, sir?”
“How old are you?”
“Twelve, if you please.’
“You look older. Are your parents alive?”
“No, sir.”
“Have you a guardian?”
“No, sir.”
“What near relatives?”
“My uncle, Job Throckmorton, and my aunt, Miss Jane Holmes.”
“Where does your aunt live?”
“On her farm, near Little Sandy.”
“Does she seek to become your guardian?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Does any one else?”
“Yes; Uncle Job.”
“Is your uncle present?”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, turning around and pointing him out to the justice.
At this Uncle Job, taking a step forward, bowed, and addressing the justice, said:
“This lad is my nephew, if you please, and I am taking him to my home. He is in my care, and I trust you will allow us to to go on without further hindrance.”
“I am sorry to put you to any trouble, sir, but I must look into the matter now that it is brought before me,” the justice answered, politely, scrutinizing Uncle Job as he spoke. Then turning to me he continued: “If you were allowed a choice, my son, which would you choose for your guardian, this gentleman or your aunt?”
Ere I could answer, the gray-faced little lawyer, thrusting himself to the front, interposed angrily, saying:
“I protest, your honor, against this method of trying the case. It will not lead to anything definite, for the lad is not of age to choose for himself, and has therefore no voice in the matter. I—”
“Excuse me, sir, but what interest have you in the matter?” the justice interrupted, annoyance clearly showing in his mild face.
“My name appears as attorney in the affidavit, as you ought to know. It is Sylvester Moth, lawyer, and I am here to represent the interests of my client, Miss Jane Holmes, from whom this lad was abducted by Job Throckmorton, surreptitiously and with malice aforethought.”
“I protest that what he says about the lad’s being abducted is not true,” Uncle Job objected.
“We will come to that in a moment,” the justice answered, pleasantly. Then turning to Moth, he asked: “Is the Miss Holmes you refer to the guardian of the lad?”
“Every one understood she was to act in that capacity, your honor, and it was generally recognized as the only fit thing. Because of this, legal steps were thought to be unnecessary; but upon the matter being brought to the attention of the proper tribunal, in the emergency that has arisen, the judge has expressed a desire to pass upon it in due form—and in Miss Holmes’s interest, I may add.”
“Let me see his summons,” the justice interposed.
“Please, your honor, upon hearing of the lad’s abduction, the necessity for haste was so great that I only had time to consult the judge informally before my departure. There can be no doubt, however, what his decision in the matter will be.”
“Why should he favor Miss Holmes, may I ask, in preference to the other claimant?” the justice said, glancing in the direction of Uncle Job, who stood looking on with a face black as midnight.
“Because of the two she only is fit to serve. There can be but one choice between them, as you yourself must acknowledge when you hear the facts. Miss Holmes is a woman of mature years and great respectability, and possessed, moreover, of large property, so that she is able to look after the lad’s comfort while young, and advance his fortunes when he comes to manhood. She is his aunt, his father’s devoted sister, and deeply attached to him, and earnestly solicitous of his bringing-up and final position in the world, and for these reasons should be his guardian.”
“Is not this gentleman equally worthy, equally solicitous?” the justice asked, as Moth came to a halt.
“No, your honor; it is impossible. The lad’s reputed uncle, Job Throckmorton, who is he? No one knows. A youth without friends or fortune or fixed abode! Who can tell what he designs doing with the lad? Who will hold him accountable? Who trace him hereafter? A myth—here to-day, to-morrow where? What fate has he in store for this tender and homeless youth? We may surmise, and doing so, hesitate. Will it be a home and careful schooling and Christian example, such as Miss Holmes offers? Or—the thought chills me—the slave-block perhaps, and afterward some far-off plantation in the everglades of Florida, where a fortune may be had for such a lad? In view of this, and other things that will occur to a man of your experience and discernment, can there be but one course to follow in disposing of the lad? No; and in this I am sure we will agree.”
This tirade was more than Uncle Job could patiently listen to, and thrusting himself forward, he again addressed the justice:
“May it please you honor, this man’s insinuations in regard to myself and what I will do are unworthy of your notice. What he says about my having no fixed home is true, but I will devise ways for caring for the child, and such as his father and mother would approve and applaud were they alive. I am most tenderly attached to him, and having no family, will make his happiness the concern of my life. This I pledge you my word.”
This true statement Uncle Job thought unanswerable; but while he hesitated, considering whether it was best to say more, Moth broke in again, more vehemently than before.
“Stuff! Nonsense! Talk, your honor; nothing else. Mr. Job Throckmorton, if I know anything of men, is nothing more or less than an adventurer. He seeks possession of the child to gratify a spite against my client, the lad’s loving aunt, and not from any interest in the child himself. His malice is born, I may say, in misapprehension and fostered by a vindictive spirit that only a man with a bad heart could have. Miss Holmes offers her nephew a home, shielded by love, and holds out to him the care of a wise and tender mother. Could more be asked? In one direction, your honor, security and happiness await the youth. In the other, uncertainty, distressing doubt—at best the life of a vagrant. In view of all this, I crave your enlightened action in furtherance of the beneficent purposes of my client. This, I may add, will be secured by your holding her nephew to await the summons of the judge having jurisdiction in the case.”
Such disposition of the matter, it was clear, struck the justice as being, under the circumstances, a way that could be safely followed, and looking toward me, he nodded as if in acquiescence. Thus in a moment all my hopes were destroyed—and oh, the grievousness of it! To be disposed of out of hand, as if I were a mere baby and helpless, when, oh, how dim and immeasurably distant childhood seemed to me! Not a thing, indeed, of yesterday, but far off, as if it had never been. No, never was I to know again the unconscious happiness of youth, but in its place the maturity that sorrow and abandonment quickly bring. Thus mourning, my thoughts turned, as in every emergency of my life, to Constance. Sweet Constance! How her heart would bleed did she but know of my sad plight, and this unhappiness she would share, with embrace of love, as always; but oh, how unavailingly! Thus thinking, I was comforted as if she were near me, and in the thought forgot my misery and where I was.
While my mind was thus filled with tender remembrance of my love, Mr. Lincoln arose and made his way forward to the cleared space before the justice, and the latter, observing him, stood up, and with a smile of recognition, shook him warmly by the hand. After some further exchange of greeting, wherein both seemed pleased, the justice asked:
1“Do you desire to appear in this case, Mr. Lincoln?”
“Yes, if you please,” he responded, moving back a step and bowing to the justice, as if in recognition of the dignity of the law, howsoever presented; “and may it please your honor,” he went on, in his slow, melancholy way, “I venture to do so without solicitation, but properly, I think, in view of the unfriended state of this youth. I am, I may say, in a measure familiar with the case, and may add that it appeals to me deeply. What has been said by my brother lawyer in regard to the social position, wealth, and high character of his client, Miss Jane Holmes, is true in every particular,” he continued, bowing to Moth. “She is well known to me, and that her every thought in regard to her nephew is creditable to her I cannot doubt. She has no object in desiring to befriend him save his good, and this I firmly believe, and in this view of the matter she has my gratitude and admiration, as she should that of every man.” NORFLOXACIN NICOTINATE
“You see, your honor,” Moth here broke in, exultingly, “he confirms what I have said in every particular.”
“Will you keep still!” Blott spoke up, laying his hand on Moth’s shoulder. “You can’t hold the yarn an’ wind it, too, Pickle. Let the other side have a chance, man. Why you’re as full of wind as a bellus.”
“While we may admit Miss Holmes’ worth,” Mr. Lincoln resumed, “that does not lessen the claim of Mr. Throckmorton; and before proceeding it is my duty, as it is the duty of every one when the character of another is aspersed, to clear it from suspicion, so far as may be. This I desire to do in the case of Mr. Throckmorton, for Mr. Moth is misinformed, and grossly so, in regard to him. On no other grounds are his statements worthy of his calling as a lawyer or the dignity of the court he addresses. The facts are in every way honorable to Mr. Throckmorton. The candor of his face is proof of this, and I beg of you to study it attentively. The Almighty thus stamps the character of his children so that all may see, if they will. This is especially true of the young. For if malignant or uncharitable, time has not been granted in which to hide it behind the smile of complaisance; and if honest, distrust has not yet led its owner to conceal the truth behind a mask of cunning or a smile of incredulity. Thus we may judge, and never mistakenly, and we may do so in this case without going astray. I am confident of Mr. Throckmorton’s uprightness and good intentions, and believing as I do, hope to make it equally plain to your honor. This is my reason and excuse for appearing here. It has been my good fortune to be the close companion of these young gentlemen for several days, and during that time my opportunities for studying them have been such as rarely fall to one’s lot, and unconsciously too, and without purpose on their part. Moreover, I know Mr. Throckmorton through others, and no man stands higher in the regard of men, for he is trusted and his word accepted wherever given. Such is the testimony. That he will do as he says in this case, there can be no shadow of doubt, and I confidently appeal to you to believe him. He has no home, as has been said, and that is to be regretted; but he has the boy’s love and entire confidence. In return his heart is tenderly regardful of the youth’s happiness. Is not that a home in which childhood may safely dwell, if virtue and strength abide there? Can such a home be weakened or destroyed? Can it be lost, as wealth may be? Is it not the most secure anchorage and the only refuge for the young? Can the substantiality of wealth or position alone replace it? Here, your honor, a phase of the case presents itself that I approach with reluctance. My brother lawyer has recounted the virtues of his client, and to all he says in that respect I cheerfully subscribe. I leave it to candid men to judge, however, which of the two, Miss Holmes or Mr. Throckmorton, is the more likely to enlist the lad’s sympathy and love. The maiden lady of fifty, a recluse upon her farm, without knowledge of children, with a demeanor that cannot, unhappily, be called inviting, or the young man, with a warm heart and blood still running fresh and vigorous along the lines of youth this child is treading, and will for many a day? Every instance, I am constrained to believe, recommends Mr. Throckmorton in preference. He had the mother’s love and the father’s confidence, and he loved them in return. Miss Holmes, if her heart responded to theirs, gave no sign, for they died believing in her indifference, if not her enmity. This lady now seeks control of their child, knowing what she does. Can we have any doubt in regard to the youth’s feelings or preferences? Nothing, it seems to me, could be more inopportune, more incongruous, than Miss Holmes’s action. It needs no great discernment on our part, your honor, to trace this lad’s future. Had his father and mother lived, they could have controlled him. He would have been obedient and patient; but dying, others cannot fill their office unless he loves and trusts them. No one else will he obey. That is human nature; for lacking the wisdom that only comes of experience, he will revolt when discipline clashes with desire; for even in the case of men, you know, judgment and prudence travel with halting step when inclination leads the other way.”
“Nonsense, you honor! What he needs is a master with a good wrist and a stack of rawhides,” Moth angrily interrupted. “What would become of the world if such ideas were to govern the bringing-up of children? Why, we would have a nation of bandits, and no man would be safe.”
“Will you oblige me,” the justice objected, “by not interrupting Mr. Lincoln again?”
“Put him in the jug, your honor, for contempt. He’ll git fat on the fare, an’ll fool the rats, for they haven’t any likin’ for bones if there ain’t any meat on ’em,” Blott spoke up excitedly, appealing confidently to the justice.
“You may withdraw, officer; we will not need you longer. I will myself look after the lad,” the justice spoke up, scrutinizing Blott’s flushed face and trembling limbs.
“All right, your honor, I’m glad to git rid of the job; but if anything should turn up needin’ somebody to handle Pickle, I’m your man, an’ll not ask any fee either,” Blott answered, scowling upon Moth as he made his way from the room.
“The heart of guardian and child must be responsive,” Mr. Lincoln went on when quiet had once more been restored; “and can there exist any bond of sympathy between Miss Holmes and this young lad? No. How many wretched men and women does the world hold to-day, made so by disregarding truths of this nature! How many are there broken and lost who might have led useful lives but for lack of a sympathetic heart in which to confide when young! A child bereft, as in this case, is like a man cast naked upon an island. The world it knew is gone, and with it the love that nourished its life. It cannot, if it would, easily take up with new conditions. Yet upon its being able to do so finally depends its acceptability and usefulness to society when grown to manhood. Viewing the problem thus, can we conceive of any duty devolving upon those who execute our laws more delicate, more tender of application, than the disposition of children subject to their control, a disposition so fraught with good or bad to those whom it affects? The bodies and souls of those needlessly wrecked in youth because of lack of conscience or care in this respect cry out against the neglect of their just needs.” Here Mr. Lincoln’s voice quavered and died away, as if some black, unwholesome recollection of his own youth had suddenly obtruded itself across his mind. “To leave this feature of the case, however,” he went on, slowly and in alow voice, “of which I have, perhaps, said too much, what are the rights of the parties? For the law is made to protect every one, and cannot be subverted now, more than at another time, that good may possibly follow. In this case it is clearly perverted, for there is no just warrant for holding the lad. Of this there can be no doubt, though circumstances for the moment may excuse it. The summons of the proper court has not been issued, and only a court of competent jurisdiction can act in its place. I need not point out, your honor, that acting alone you possess no authority, though conjointly with another justice you might. Putting aside this feature of the case, is there, I ask, any call for intervention? I feel assured there is not. The happiness and well-being of the child may safely be intrusted to Mr. Throckmorton, and sincerely believing this, and pledging you my faith that it is so as man to man, I ask that your honor annul the order of detention and let the lad go free”; and so concluding, Mr. Lincoln bowed to the magistrate and stepped back.
“May I ask your honor,” he resumed after a moment, “that you will act in the matter with such promptness as you can, as we very much desire to go on by the boat now about to leave?”
Moth, however, had no intention of submitting the case without further hearing, and pushing forward, exclaimed:
“I protest, your honor, that this—” However, he got no further, his protest falling on deaf ears. For the justice had heard enough, and holding up his hand to command silence, said:
“I have to thank you, gentlemen, most heartily; and while listening to your statements have endeavored to weigh what you have said fairly. My conclusion is, that I have no right to act in the matter, and that being so, the case is dismissed.”
At this termination a great silence fell on the assemblage, followed by a shout of approval from every one present; but Mr. Lincoln, not waiting to hear more, grasped my hand, and turning, walked rapidly from the room.
Gaining the boat, I looked back to see Moth, who had followed, regarding me with such savage determination that I shuddered at the sight, feeling that in him I had and should ever have a bitter and unforgiving enemy.