The Case and Exceptions Part 20

So Elmendorff departed, but no one ever heard that he took any of the Ancients' practice with him.

It was this atmosphere which Sargent breathed for three years, and perhaps, as has been said, that may account for some of his many eccentricities and explain, in a measure, his treatment of Fenton.

Fenton had married the daughter of Brayton Garland, one of Mr. Harding's clients, and when his wife sued him for divorce he brought the papers to Sargent.

It was in offices very different from the Ancients' that Fenton found his counsel. They were on the 17th floor of the t.i.tan Building, on lower Broadway, where the draught in the hall steadily sucked a stream of people into elevators, which, with the regularity of trip-hammers, shot them up breathless and dropped them gasping.

There were three law firms in the same suite with Sargent,--four attorneys "on their own hook," a Seamless Mattress Company, an Electric Drying Company and a Collection Agency. Typewriters clicked in every room, messengers clattered up and down the long hallway, bra.s.s gates on the railed-off s.p.a.ces swung to and fro crashing with every swing, the telephones sung a constant chorus, electric bells buzzed and tinkled, doors banged, papers rustled, voices droned or struck the air in sharp staccato, and yet in the midst of all this restless human energy there were times when Sargent felt lonely. It was not merely that he missed the atmosphere of quiet and study, but the very rush and scramble seemed to generate ideas and actions foreign to the code of professional ethics and dignity which governed the Ancients.

Sometimes the denizens of the t.i.tan Building discussed the matter with him.

"Theoretically your venerable friends are all right," a brilliant, pushing young lawyer told him one day. "The man who lives by maxims in this day and generation will have food for thought, but he'll never earn his salt. We start with the same point of view, but----"

He shrugged his shoulders.

"But someone throws gold-dust in our eyes?" suggested Sargent.

"Bosh!" was the retort. "Don't talk the cant of the incompetent. The Bar is of a higher average to-day than it ever was before."

But despite the "high average," Sargent often felt himself a solitary outsider looking on at the mad clamour and pitiless pursuit and wondering if it was worth all it seemed to cost. A defect in early education--this pausing to think--for philosophers on lower Broadway are apt to have but brief careers.

"There's nothing in the case," Fenton told his counsel, who sat gazing out of the window at the tiny human ants crawling in and out of the stone heaps in the street below.

Sargent looked narrowly at his client, but the side face told him nothing, so he made no comment and Fenton continued,

"I don't know why she wants to drag us into court. I suppose some long-whiskered tabby has been telling her I ought to stay home every night. Say, Sargent, isn't there some way of bringing her to her senses?"

The speaker turned from the window with a gesture of impatience, and Sargent studied the handsome though somewhat boyish face. He knew Fenton for an easy-going fellow, but no fool. He was a young man who had earned his money by his own brains, acquiring all the self-confidence and other characteristics, good and bad, which accompany achievement. There was strength of character in his face, and a certain firmness of purpose about the mouth that suggested something which the clear blue eyes contradicted.

"You say there is nothing in the case," Sargent answered. "Why do you suppose she brings suit? I don't know Mrs. Fenton, of course, but women are not anxious as a rule to get themselves into court. Have you tried to see her and obtain an explanation?"

"Lord, no! If you knew her you'd see how useless it would be. There's no way out of this except by showing her we mean business. She's nearly killed all the affection I ever had for her by this nonsense, but I want it stopped--and stopped right now."

The suggestive lines of Fenton's mouth were strongly marked as he snapped out the last words.

"If you no longer love your wife,--am I to understand that you want a divorce? Have you anything to set up by way of counterclaim?"

"By way of counterclaim? No.--Yes, I have. I want the children."

Sargent smiled. "That's hardly a counterclaim," he answered.

"Well, it's counterclaim enough for me.--That's just the thing. You push that and we'll see about the rest afterwards. If she wants to go into court she'll have to go without the children."

Fenton's mouth was firmly set, and its lines were almost grim. The boyish look had faded, and without it his features developed coa.r.s.eness.

Sargent hesitated.

"Mr. Fenton," he said at last, "I don't like these cases, and when a man dislikes his work, you know, he's not apt to do it well. I think you would do better to retain other counsel."

"Now that's all nonsense, Sargent. You are just the man for me. I don't want one of those advertising roarers who'll have us in every paper. I want this thing stopped. You'll only have to apply for the children and that'll end it. There are plenty of legal ruffians to be had. I have chosen you because you are a gentleman and know how this business should be handled."

There was no note of flattery in Fenton's tone.

"But, Mr. Fenton, admitting there is nothing in the case, the custody of the children is still a matter resting wholly in the discretion of the Court and you may not succeed. Mr. Harding is an excellent lawyer and will doubtless make a good fight. You remember, of course, that I was in his office some years ago?"

Fenton looked sharply at his counsel and his eyes narrowed slightly as he answered.

"Well, that doesn't make any difference, does it? It ought to be all the better. You must know all the old chap's tricks."

There was a suggestion of cunning about the man which completely transformed him for a moment. His watchful eyes, however, read the doubt in Sargent's face and bespoke a charming sincerity as he added:

"Why, of course, I knew you were brought up with 'the Ancients,'

Sargent. I was only joking. But that is merely another reason why you are best fitted to undertake this case. If it were the ordinary divorce dirt I wouldn't ask you to plough it up. But it's not. Mr. Harding knows you and you will be able to approach him easily. Mrs. Fenton has been poorly advised, I think, but the mischief's not yet wholly done. Make your 'motion' or whatever you call it, and then you'll find the rest is easy. I know you can handle the matter as few men could. I've wanted to give you some business for a long time and I'm sorry to begin with this.

However, it will not be the last, you know."

Sargent had built up a fair practice since he left "the Ancients," but this was the first time he had ever been opposed to them. He confessed to himself that he did not like it.

Fenton was not wholly convincing, but if he did not take up this case someone else would. If he was better than his profession it was high time to retire from it. Then, too, Mr. Harding was growing old, and doubtless the woman deceived by silly stories had deceived him. Very probably, as Fenton said, the first aggressive move would settle the whole affair. What fools women were to listen to every Old Wife who came along with idle t.i.ttle-tattle seeking recruits for the great Army of the Misunderstood! Fenton's business was worth having, and if this matter went well there was no knowing where it might lead. Moreover all the essential facts were in the defendant's favour, and as Sargent skilfully set them forth in his "moving papers" he experienced that subtle influence, known to every lawyer, which can turn the most judicial counsel into a partisan, and make the silliest quarrel a matter of deadly moment between strangers to its cause.

II.

Any Court with jurisdiction in divorce proceedings draws an audience peculiar to itself.

Every Court Room has, of course, its individual devotees. For instance "Dutch Pete" is accustomed to the corner bench in Part XV. and would not change it for any other sleeping quarters, and even the migratory loafers seem to know and respect old "Lawyer" Brady's seat in Trial Term Part XX.

But, with divorce matters on the calendar, Special Term Part I. appeals to a particular cla.s.s. One can recognise its women out in the Rotunda long before they turn toward the haven, and one can almost feel its moist and clammy type of man.

To see the women with their hard faces well nigh intelligent with curiosity--their long necks and ears turned to catch each salacious morsel--is a sight to sicken every man with memory of a mother. To watch the flabby-jowled, pimply persons of the masculine gender, their drooling mouths fashioned to a grin, and their perspiring hands clutching the soiled and soiling newspapers, is to understand the cynic who protested that "the more he saw of men the better he liked dogs."

"Mr. Harding," said the Justice, as the arguments in _Fenton_ vs.

_Fenton_ closed, "it seems to me the defendant has made out a reasonable case. As you have said, this matter rests wholly in the discretion of the Court, and although we hold the parents joint and equal guardians of their children and do not follow the old world rule that a father has a superior claim to the possession of his offspring, yet, as it seems to me, this is a case where that rule should apply. Mrs. Fenton has left her husband's house without just cause, as he alleges. She makes no claim for his support, and the complaint, as has been shown, is deficient in its detail. If I am wrong, a trial will set the matter right. In the meantime I award the possession of the children to the father. If you can agree with Mr. Sargent upon the terms of the order, I will make such provision for occasional visits of the mother as justice may----"

A sc.r.a.ping of chairs and rustling of skirts drowned the closing words of the Judge and Sargent turned to see a woman entering the Court Room with two little children at her side. She walked directly toward the counsel's table, and the restless eye-lashes of the uns.e.xed "painted"

her in rapid sweeping glances, now up--now down--and the fat-paunched leerers followed her with looks scarcely less offensive.

"My child, you should not have come here," whispered Mr. Harding, as he rose and offered her his chair.

She was scarcely more than a girl, but her tall graceful figure bespoke a quiet dignity, and the grey eyes with their steady gaze told of developed character.

Sargent glanced at his client. Fenton must have seen the doubt expressed in the lawyer's face, for he spoke up sharply.

"Let's finish this business, Sargent. I suppose I can take the children now."

But his counsel did not answer, and Fenton, growing impatient, addressed the Court.

"Your Honour, these are my children--I suppose I may take them now?"

The Judge, busy with the signing of papers, frowned but took no other notice of the questioner.

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