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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesTogether - Part Seven - Chapter 71
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Together - Part Seven - Chapter 71 Post by :Jay_White Category :Long Stories Author :Robert Herrick Date :May 2012 Read :2572

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Together - Part Seven - Chapter 71

PART SEVEN CHAPTER LXXI

The government attorney had already begun his argument when Isabelle, escorted by Teddy Bliss, returned to the court-room. The district attorney was a short, thick-set, sallow-faced man, with bushy gray hair growing in the absurd "Pompadour" fashion, and a homely drooping mustache. Another "bounder," thought Isabelle, one of the hungry outsiders, not in fee to the corporations, who hired only the best lawyers. Perhaps he was aware of his position there in the dingy court-room before the trained gladiators of his profession--and also before his country! The lawyers for the defendants lolling in their chairs settled themselves placidly to see what this humble brother would make of the business. Mr. Brinkerhoff's eyelids drooped over his gentle eyes, as if to shut out all distractions of sense from his brain. The thick-set district attorney frequently scraped his throat and repeated the phrase, "if it please your honor." He had a detestable nasal whine, and he maltreated the accents of several familiar words. The culture of letters and vocal delivery had evidently not been large in the small inland college where he had been educated. These annoying peculiarities at first distracted Isabelle's attention, while the lawyer labored through the opening paragraphs of his argument. In the maze of her thoughts, which had jumped across the continent to the little mountain village, there fell on her ears the words, "In a land of men born free and equal before the law." Was it the tone of unexpected passion vibrating through those ancient words, or the idea itself that startled her like an electric shock? That pathetic effort of our ancestors to enact into constitutional dogma the poetic dream of a race! "Born free and equal"!--there was nothing more absurd, more contrary to the daily evidence of life, ever uttered. Isabelle fancied she saw a soft smile play over the benign face of Mr. Brinkerhoff, as if he too had been struck by the irony of the words. But to the district attorney they did not seem to be a mere poetic aspiration, nor a catch phrase with which to adorn his speech; they voiced a real idea, still pulsating with passionate truth. From this moment Isabelle forgot the lawyer's nasal intonation, his uncultivated delivery.

He stood there, so it seemed, as the representative of the mute millions which make the nation to defend before the court their cause against the rapacious acts of the strong. This great railroad corporation, with its capital of three hundred and seventy-five millions of dollars in stocks and bonds (a creature, nevertheless, of the common public, called into existence by its necessities and chartered by its will), had taken upon itself to say who should dig coal and sell it from the lands along its lines. They and their servants and allies had, so the charge ran, seized each individual man or association of men not allied to them, and throttled the life in them--specifically refusing them cars in which to transport their coal, denying them switching privileges, etc.... The government, following its duty to protect the rights of each man and all men against the oppression of the few, had brought this suit to prohibit these secret practices, to compel restitution, to punish the corporation and its servants for wrong done.... "The situation was, if your honor please, as if a company of men should rivet a chain across the doors of certain warehouses of private citizens and should prevent these citizens from taking their goods out of their warehouses or compel them to pay toll for the privilege of transacting their lawful business.... And the government has shown, if it please your honor, that this Pleasant Valley Coal Company is but a creature of the defendant corporation, its officers and owners being the servants of the railroad company, and thereby this Pleasant Valley Coal Company has enjoyed and now enjoys special privileges in the matter of transportation, cars, and switching facilities. The government has further shown that the Atlantic and Pacific, by its servant, John Lane...."

At this point the railroad counsel looked interested; even the serene Mr. Brinkerhoff deigned to unclose his eyes. For the district attorney, having disposed of his oratorical flourish of trumpets, had got down to the facts of the record and what they could be made to prove. In the close argument that followed, Isabella's thoughts went back to that trumpet phrase,--"all men born free and equal." Slowly there dawned in her an altogether new comprehension of what this struggle before her eyes, in which her husband was involved, meant. Nay, what human life itself, with all its noisy discord, meant!

Their forerunners, the fathers of the people, held the theory that here at last, in this broad, rich, new land, men should struggle with one another for the goods of life on an equal basis. Man should neither oppress nor interfere with man. Justice at last to all! The struggle should be ordered by law so that men might be free to struggle and equal in their rights. To all the same freedom to live, to enjoy, to become! So these fathers of the republic had dreamed. So some still dreamed that human life might be ordered, to be a fair, open struggle--for all.

But within a brief century and a quarter the fallacy of this aspiration had become ridiculously apparent. "Born free and equal!" Nothing on this globe was ever so born. The strong who achieved, the weak who succumbed--both knew the nonsense of it. Free and equal,--so far as men could maintain freedom and equality by their own force,--that was all!

(There was that man who begged John to give him cars. Poor thing! he could not maintain his right.)

And every man who complained at the oppression of another either oppressed some one or would so oppress him, if he had the chance and the power. It was, of course, the business of the law to police the fight,--the game had its rules, its limits, which all must obey, when not too "destructive." But essentially this new land of liberty and hope was like all other human societies,--a mortal combat where the strong triumphed and the weak went under in defeat.... That was what the array of brilliant counsel employed by the Atlantic and Pacific really represented. "Gentlemen, you can't block us with silly rules. We must play this game of life as it was ordered by God it should be played when the first protoplasm was evolved.... And really, if it were not for us, would there be any game for you little fellows to play?"

Egotism, the curse of egotism! This was stark male egotism,--the instinct for domination. And defendants and plaintiffs were alike in spirit, struggling for position in the game. The weaker ones--if they had the hold--would pluck at the windpipe of their oppressors....

So while the attorney for the people spoke on about rate-sheets and schedules A and B, and bills of lading from the Pleasant Valley Company (marked "exhibits nine and ten"), the woman in the court-room began to comprehend dimly the mystery behind this veil of words. Every man felt instinctively this spirit of fight,--the lively young clerk at her side as well as the defendant before the bar, her husband; the paid writers for Mr. Gossom's patriotic magazine as well as the President and his advisers,--all had it in their blood. It was the spirit of our dominating race, fostered through the centuries,--the spirit of achievement, of conquest. Mr. Gossom's clever writers, the President, and the "good element" generally, differed from their opponents only in manner and degree. "Gently, gently, gentlemen," they called. "Play according to the rules of the game. Don't bang all the breath out of your adversary's body when you have him by the throat. Remember, gentlemen, to give every one his turn!"

In the light of this understanding of the nature of the game of life, the efforts of the government to preserve order in a row of this magnitude became almost farcical,--so long as the spirit of man was untouched and SUCCESS was admittedly the one glorious prize of life! ...

Finally the district attorney ceased to speak, and the judge looked at his watch. There was not time for the defence to make its argument to-day, and so court was adjourned. The lawyers stretched themselves, chatted, and laughed. The raw district attorney had done his worst, and judging from Mr. Brinkerhoff's amiable smile, it was not very bad. The newspaper men scurried out of the room for the elevators,--there was good copy this afternoon!

Lane joined his wife after a few moments, and they left the court-room.

"Are you tired?" he asked solicitously. "It must have been dull for you, all that law talk."

"Oh, no! ... I think I was never so much interested in anything in my life," she replied with a long sigh.

He looked as if he were puzzled, but he made no further reference to the trial, either then or on their way to her mother's house. And Isabelle in a tumult of impressions and feelings was afraid to speak yet, afraid lest she might touch the wrong nerve, strike the wrong note,--and so set them farther apart in life than they were now.

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