The Manticore – The Deptford Trilogy #2 by Robertson Davies

Diarmuid was very good to me and saw that I got a little work of every kind, including a few of those mad clients all lawyers seem to have if their practice extends into the country. I don’t suggest that city lawyers have no madmen on their books, but I honestly believe the countryside breeds finer examples of the paranoia querulans, the connoisseurs of litigation. He bore in mind that I wanted to work in the courts and put me in the way of getting some of those cases on which most young lawyers cut their teeth; some indignant or incompetent accused person needs a lawyer, and the court appoints a lawyer, usually a young man, to act for him.

I learned a valuable lesson from my first case of this kind. A Maltese labourer was charged with indecent assault; it was not a very serious matter, because the aspiring rapist had trouble with his buttons, and the woman, who was considerably bigger than he, hit him with her handbag and ran away. “You must tell me honestly,” said I, “did you do it? I’ll do my best to get you off, but I must know the truth.” “Meester Stown,” said he, with tears in his eyes, “I swear to you on the grave of my dead mother, I never did no such dirty thing. Spit in my mouth if I even touch this woman!” So I gave the court a fine harangue, and the judge gave my client two years. My client was delighted. “That judge, he’s very clever man,” he said to me afterward; “he knew all the time I done it.” Then he shook my hand and trotted off with the warder, pleased to have been punished by such an expert in human nature. I decided then that the kind of people with whom I had chosen to associate myself were not to be trusted, or at least not taken literally.

My next serious case was a far bigger thing, nothing less than a murderess. Poor woman, she had shot her husband. He was a fanner, known far and wide to be no good and brutal to her and his livestock, but he was decisively dead; she had poked a shotgun through the back window of the privy while he was perched on the seat and blown his head off. She made no denial, and was indeed silent and resigned through all the preliminaries. But they still hanged women in those days, and it was my job to save her from the gallows if I could.

I spent a good deal of time with her and thought so much about the case that Diarmuid began to call me Sir Edward, in reference to Marshall Hall. But one night I had a bright idea, and the next day I put a question to my client and got the answer I expected. When at last the case came to trial I spoke of extenuating circumstances, and at the right moment said that the murdered man had repeatedly beaten his wife in order to make her perform fellatio.

“Know your judge” was one of Diarmuid’s favourite maxims; of course no barrister knows a judge overtly, but most of the Bar know him before he is elevated to the Bench and have some estimate of his temperament. Obviously you don’t take a particularly messy divorce before a Catholic judge, or a drunk who has caused an accident before a teetotal judge, if you can help it. I was lucky in this case because our assize judge that season was Orley Mickley, known to be a first-rate man of the law, but in his private life a pillar of rectitude and a great deplorer of sexual sin. As judges often are, he was innocent of things that lesser people know, and the word fellatio had not come his way.

“I assume that is a medical term, Mr. Staunton,” said he; “will you be good enough to explain it to the court.”

“May I ask your lordship to order the court cleared?” said I; “or if your lordship would call a recess I should be glad to explain the term in your chambers. It is not something that any of us would take pleasure in hearing.”

I was playing it up for all it would stand, and I had an intimation — Dr. von Haller says I have a good measure of intuition — that I was riding the crest of a wave.

The judge cleared the court and asked me to explain to him and the jury what fellatio was. I dragged it out. Oral and lingual caress of the erect male organ until ejaculation is brought about was the way I put it. The jury knew simpler terms for this business, and my delicacy struck them solemn. I did not need to labour the fact that the dead man had been notably dirty: the jury had all seen him. Usually performed by the woman on her knees, I added, and two women jurors straightened up in their chairs. A gross indignity exacted by force; a perversion for which some American states exacted severe penalties; a grim servitude no woman with a spark of self-respect could be expected to endure without cracking.

It worked like a charm. The judge’s charge to the jury was a marvel of controlled indignation; they must find the woman guilty but unless they added a recommendation of clemency his faith in mankind would be shattered. And of course they did so, and the judge gave her a sentence which, with good conduct, would not be more than two or three years. I suppose the poor soul ate better and slept better in the penitentiary than she had ever done in her life.

“That was a smart bit of business,” said Diarmuid to me afterward, “and I don’t know how you guessed what the trouble was. But you did, and that’s what matters. B’God, I think old Mickley would have hung the corpse, if it’d had a scrap of neck left to put in a rope.”

This case gained me a disproportionate reputation as a brilliant young advocate filled with compassion for the wretched. The result was that a terrible band of scoundrels who thought themselves misunderstood or ill used shouted for my services when they got into well-deserved trouble. And thus I gained my first client to go to the gallows.

Up to this time I had delighted unashamedly in the law. Many lawyers do, and Diarmuid was one of them. “If lawyers allowed their sense of humour free play, b’God they wouldn’t be able to work for laughing,” he once said to me. But the trial and hanging of Jimmy Veale showed me another aspect of the law. What I suppose Dr. von Haller would call its Shadow.

Not that Jimmy didn’t have a fair trial. Not that I didn’t exert myself to the full on his behalf. But his guilt was clear, and all I could do was try to find explanations for what he had done, and try to arouse pity for a man who had no pity for anyone else.

Jimmy had a bad reputation and had twice been in jail for petty thievery. He was only twenty-two, but he was a thorough-going crook of an unsophisticated kind. When I met him the provincial police had run him down, hiding in the woods about thirty miles north of Pittstown, with sixty-five dollars in his pocket. He had entered the house of an old woman who lived alone in a rural area, demanded her money, and when she would not yield he sat her on her own stove to make her talk. Which she did, of course, but when Jimmy found the money and left, she appeared to be dead. tHowever, she was not quite dead, and when a neighbour found her in the morning she lived long enough to describe Jimmy and assure the neighbour that he had repeatedly sworn that he would kill her if she didn’t speak up. In this evidence the neighbour was not to be shaken.

Jimmy’s mother, who thought him wild but not bad, engaged me to defend him, and I did what I could by pleading insanity. It is a widespread idea that people who are unusually cruel must be insane, though the corollary of that would be that anybody who is unusually compassionate must be insane. But the Crown Attorney applied the McNaghten Rule to Jimmy, and I well recall the moment when he said to the jury, “Would the prisoner have acted as he did if a policeman had been standing at his elbow?” Jimmy, lounging in the prisoner’s dock, laughed and cried out, “Jeeze, d’you think I’m crazy?” After which it did not take the court long to send him to the gallows.

I decided that I had better be present when Jimmy was hanged. It is a common complaint against the courts that they condemn people to punishments of which the legal profession have no direct knowledge. It is a justifiable reproach when it is true, but it is true less often than tender-hearted people think. There are people who shrink from the whole idea of a court, and there are the There-But-for-the-Grace-of-Godders who seem to think it is only by a narrow squeak that they have kept out of the prisoner’s dock themselves; they are bird-brains to whom God’s grace and good luck mean the same thing. There are the democrats of justice, who seem to believe that every judge should begin his career as a prisoner at the Bar and work his way up to the Bench. Tender-minded people, all of them, but they don’t know criminals. I wanted to know criminals, and I made my serious start with Jimmy.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson