A New Home: Who'll Follow
Life in the Clearings
First published in 1839
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The Suit for Slander
It was "an honor that I dreamed not of," to be called before this same Squire Jenkins in his dignified capacity of "Justas." I had not even heard a murmur of the coming storm, when I was served with a subpoena, and learned at the same time the astounding fact, that at least half the Montacute Female Beneficent Society were about to receive a shilling's worth of law on the same occasion. A justice court? "My flesh did creep, and each particular hair did stand on end—" but there was no remedy.
The court was to be held at the Squire's, and as Mrs. Jenkins was a particular friend of mine, I went early, intending to make her a call before the awful hour should approach, and hoping that in the interval I might be able to learn something of the case in which I was expected to play the important part of witness.
But good Mrs. Jenkins, who was in her Sunday gown and looked very solemn, considered herself bound to maintain an official mysteriousness of deportment, and she therefore declined entering upon the subject which was so soon to come under the cognizance of "the good people of this state." All she would be persuaded to say was, that it was a slander suit, and that she believed "women-folks" were at the bottom of it.
But ere long the more prominent characters of the drama began to drop in. Mrs. Flyter and her "old man," and two babies were among the first, and the lady looked so prodigiously sulky, that I knew she was concerned in the fray at least. Then entered Squire Jenkins himself, clean shaved for once, and arrayed in his meetin' coat. He asked his wife where the pen and ink was, and said he should want some paper to write down the "dispositions."
And the next comer was the plaintiff, the Schneider of our village, no Robin Starveling he, but a magnificent Hector-looking fellow, tall enough to have commanded Frederick of Prussia's crack regiment; and so elegantly made, that one finds it hard to believe his legs have ever been crossed on a shop-board. The beetle-brows of this stitching hero were puckered like the seams of his newest 'prentice, and he cast magnanimous glances round the assembly, as who should say—"Come one, come all! this rock shall fly from its firm base as soon as I!" Though the rock was but slenderly represented by Mrs. Jenkins's bureau, against which he leaned.
The world now began to flock in. The chairs were soon filled, and then the outer edges of the two beds. Three young pickles occupied the summit of the bureau to the imminent jeopardy of the mirrored clock which shone above it. Boards were laid to eke out the chairs, and when the room was packed so that not a chink remained, a sensation was created by the appearance of Mrs. Nippers and Miss Clinch. Much turning out and tumbling over was now to be done, although those active ladies appeared less than usually desirous of attracting attention.
All was at length ready, and the Squire opened the court by blowing his nose without calling upon his pocket handkerchief.
What was my surprise when I learned that our "most magnanimous mouse," Mr. Shafton, the tailor, had been set down a thief; and that Mr. Flyter had been called on, by the majesty of law, to answer for the calumny; not that he had ever thought of bringing such a charge against his neighbor, for he was a silent man, who always had his mouth too full of tobacco to utter slander, or anything else; but that his lady, on a certain occasion where women had convened in aid of one of the afflicted sisterhood, had, most "unprudently," as she said herself, given vent to certain angry feelings towards Mr. Shafton, "in manner as aforesaid." To think of bringing a woman into trouble for what she happened to say after tea! I began to consider Mr. Shafton as no more than the ninth part of a man, after all.
Things went on very quietly for a while. The "dispositions" occupied a good deal of time, and a vast amount of paper; the scribe finding the pen less germane to his fingers than the plough, and making his lines bear no small resemblance to the furrows made by a "breaking-up team." But when the ladies began to figure on the stage, the aspect of affairs was altered. Each wished to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth;" and to ask one question, elicited never less than a dozen answers; the said answers covering a much larger ground than the suit itself, and bringing forward the private affairs and opinions of half the village. In vain did Mr. Jenkins roar "silence!" his injunctions only made the ladies angry, and of course gave their tongues a fresh impetus.
"Cabbage! yes, you said he took a quarter of a yard of satinett, and that that was as bad as stealing!" "Yes! and then Miss Flyter said he did steal cloth, and thread and buttons too! "Well, Miss Nippers told me so, and she said she see a chair-cushion at Miss Shafton's, that was made all out of great pieces of fulled cloth!" "Who? I? oh, mercy! I don't believe I ever said such a word!" "Oh you did, you did! I'm willin' to take my afferdavy of it!" "Silence!" vociferated Squire Jenkins. "Ladies," began Mr. Phlatt, the plaintiff's counsel, "if you would wait a minute—"In vain—alas! in vain, ye gallant few!" In vain do ye assay to control "The force of female lungs, sighs, sobs and passions, and the war of tongues." And Mr. Phlatt sat down in despair, looked out of the window, and drummed on the table with his fingers, as if to pass away the time till he could be heard.
Squire Jenkins, who was but newly dignified, and did not like to proceed to extremities, now adjourned the court for one hour, a recess much needed by the exhausted state of some of the witnesses. During this interval, and while the wordy war was waxing stronger and stronger, Mr. Flyter and Mr. Shafton very wisely withdrew, and in less than five minutes returned, and informed the company that they had "settled it." Mr. Flyter was to pay Mr. Shafton three dollars and fifty cents worth of lumber for his character, with costs of suit; and Mrs. Flyter was to unsay all she had said, and confess that three yards of satinett for a pair of pantaloons, would leave the tailor no more than his regular cabbage.
So here was four hours' time of something like thirty people spent to good purpose in chasing a Will-o-the-wisp. And Montacute sees equally important suits at law every few weeks; expensive enough, if "settled" midway as they often are, between the parties themselves; still more so if left to pursue the regular course, and be decided by the Justice.
The intelligence of the "settlement" was received with various aspects by the persons concerned. The counsel on both sides were of course disappointed, for they had calculated largely upon the spunk of the splendid-looking son of the shears, and had counted on a jury-trial at least, if not an appeal. Mrs. Flyter was evidently much relieved to find that she had come off so easily; and sundry other ladies, who had been trembling under the consciousness of conversational "sins unwhipped of justice," shawled and India-rubbered with more than usual alacrity, and I doubt not, made vows, sincere, whether well-kept or not, to let their neighors' business alone for some time.
Mr. Jenkins was evidently disappointed at the tame result of so much glorious preparation. He had made up his own mind on the first statement of the case, and had prepared his decision, with the addition of a concise view of the universe from chaos to the present day. But that will do for the next time, and he will not be obliged to reserve it long. Bartholine Saddletree himself would weary of the "never-ending, still-beginning" law-pleas of Montacute. Bad fences, missing dogs, unruly cattle, pigs' ears, and women's tongues, are among the most prolific sources of litigation; to say nothing of the satisfactory amount of business which is created by the collection of debts, a matter of "glorious uncertainty" in Michigan. These suits are so frequent, that they pass as part and parcel of the regular course of things; and you would find it impossible to persuade a thorough-bred Wolverine, that there was anything unfriendly in suing his next door neighbor for a debt of however a trifling amount.
Actions for trespass and for slander are rather more enjoyed, as being somewhat less frequent; but anything like a trial, will always be enough to keep half a dozen unconcerned people idle for a day or more.
Mr. Shafton's spirited defense of his fair fame will, I see plainly, prove a lasting benefit to the talking sex of Montacute. It is perfectly incredible how much was done and how little said at the last week's meeting of the Female Beneficent Society. Mrs. Nippers to be sure had the ague, and did her chattering at home, and Miss Clinch stayed to take care of her, as in duty bound. But I think that alone would not account for the difference. We shall see next week.
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