XI.THE COUNTY COURT.
THE first and last and only taste of law I ever indulged
in was at a County Court. It is a long time ago, and I was new in the brain
market when Judas M'Swill, the publisher, demurred to the liquidation of a
little account of mine. Litigation was never to my mind, and it was not until I
had seriously impaired a pair of double-soled shoes in "calling
again," that I appealed to one of her Majesty's Commissioners, who promptly
cited Judas and I to appear before him that the matter might be settled. It was
settled. Judas paid the money, and has I hope by this time recovered the painful
extraction. I have spent the money, and forgotten even what I bought with it, so
we will say no more about it. Indeed, the little affair would never have been
mentioned at all, only, as I was bound to account in some way for my presence at
so undesirable a place, I saw no particular reason why truth should suffer.
About the ways of the Court, therefore, or the laws which regulate its working, I am as ignorant, as I should wish to remain. I don't even know for certain whether or no a man who owes a debt, and won't or can't pay it, may be remitted to prison from time to time for the term of " forty days," and for all the days of his life; and am by no means assured of the accuracy of the popular belief that you may with impunity owe a man threepence- halfpenny, or threepence threefarthings even-that you may at once embark in the business founded by Jeremiah Diddler, and, while you keep your individual defalcations at threepence-threefarthings, may laugh your creditors to -scorn, and defy them to set the law at you. But beware of owing the other farthing. That is the other little coin that breaks the back of the law's patience. Threepence-threefarthings, if you please; throw in another fourth of a penny, and up goes the County Court Commissioner.
I certainly might have ascertained more about these matters if, instead of lingering about the lobby till the crier cried " Greenfinch v. M'Swill !" I had remained in the body of the Court and joined the bare-headed motley crowd that, thick as cattle in a cattle-ship, crowded the narrow space that fronted the judicial bar. Here again my ignorance of County Court practice bothers me. Ten o'clock is the hour at which the doors of the Court are opened, and at ten o'clock the whole number of plaintiffs and defendants concerned in the day's business-to the number of at least three hundred-are bound to attend; and, packed in the stifling justice-room, hanging about the stone-paved lobby, or beguiling the time at the public-house next door, and over the way, and round the corner, wait till their "case" comes on, which may happen at twelve, two, or four o'clock, according to the programme. The sum for which County Court litigants may set the curious machinery of the law in motion is certainly very low, and they can scarcely, while enjoying the sweet spectacle, expect first-class accommodation at third-class fare here any more than elsewhere; but why they should be condemned to corn-crushing and suffocation before ever their causes are tried seems, to an ignorant mind, somewhat inexplicable.
It was a curious mob that crowded that mite of a Court. There were placid-faced debtors, with whom owing money was a natural weakness, and one they were perfectly resigned to; and shame-faced debtors, who, perspiring freely, keep in the rear of bulky people, and who were in agonies when a move in the business shifted their screen and exposed their guilty presence to the majority of the assembly; there were saucy debtors, who from the shadow of their bonnets regarded their creditors defiantly, and or, with a wag of the head that plainly expressed, " Much good you will get by this business, my friend;" and meek, used-up, listless debtors, on whom the shadow of the "forty days" had already fallen, who were used to " forty days," and regarded their advent with dull eyes, significant of spirits whipped to rags by adversity. Of the genus Creditor the samples were as numerous. There was the hard-faced, bullet-headed man, looking as pugnacious at least as a " second" at a prize-fight, and who had come there to "have it out," who looked out constantly for the Judge's eye, and when he caught it smiled at his Worship in a friendly way, and winked softly, as much as to say, "My case will be on directly; if it don't astonish you, never trust me again." There was the smug-faced " tally" rascal, and his brother, the director of the Cent.-per-Cent. Loan Office, both to be known by the pencil behind their ears and the slip of paper in their hands, and each looking as complacent as might a fox that, having run down and lamed a rabbit, was content to lick his lips awhile and contemplate its picking. Then there was the nervous creditor (as was Greenfinch), whose debtor was cunning and eelish, and might be expected to glide through the meshes of the law, leaving the creditor richer in nothing but experience. Very curious, too, was it to observe the gulpings, and winkings, and mumbling of lips indulged in by plaintiff and defendant and witnesses, conning over the neat things they meant to say to his Worship when come to his awful presence. Ah ! those gulpings and winkings ! How much good conscience is swallowed and put to sleep during the process! It is terrible to think how much; for it may be safely assumed that in seven cases out of every ten that come before the Judge of the Debtors' Court, A. will solemnly swear that white is black and B. that black is white, so that the real evidence in -the case is of no weight at all; and the Judge, on the strength of his experience, awards a verdict to the most modest perjurer of the two.
As a rule, however, when fiscal foemen pass the threshold of the justice-hall, personal feeling is tacitly sheathed, and no more formidable weapons displayed than figures, assertions that are more or less facts, and hard swearing. Decorum is insisted on. Mrs. M'Turvey, who lent her best shawl to Miss Donovan-a favour which that person acknowledged by mortgaging the garment for enough money to enable herself and the bridegroom to get dreadfully tipsy, and while in that state to fall on and maltreat the entire Turvey family-much as the outraged Mrs. M'T. maybe stirred by a recital of her injuries, she does not allude to the aggressor in stronger terms than as a "woman" and a "person." The weak-kneed tailor who summonses Mr. Levy for 10d., the price for making a pair of the celebrated "Peckham" trousers, is bound, in deference to his Honour's awful presence, to allude to his bone-grinder as "that gentleman." If you would see debtor and creditor au naturel, you must not go beyond the lobby of the Court. Here the shoemaker meets his tardy customer, and wishes to know if "things is to go on, or is he to be paid as a gentleman should;" and the general dealer meets the out-o'-work carpenter's wife, and discusses with her the payment of that long bread-and-butter score; and the bland undertaker meets the poor soul in black crape, that she and he may presently stand before the justice-seat to argue why an execution should or should not be levied on the widow's goods. Not that it must be imagined that County Court law is an instrument whose sole use is to aid the strong Right against the unfortunate Wrong, or to hamper the feet of those steeped in misery till nearly drowned. Without its intervention much roguery would go unchecked, and simple honesty go lean, while clever chicanery fattened. It is the disciples of this latter school, especially, who are anxious for "lobby" settlements. They evade the Commissioner as the sufferer from toothache evades the dentist, and, to get off quietly, will pay down their money rather than have it forcibly extracted by judicial forceps.
Within the lobby, and lurking about the outer steps, may any hour of the day be seen dodging and worming in and about the disputatious throng, restless as ants and impudent as flies, certain sharp-shanked, seedy sharks, who, having somehow picked up a few scraps of legal knowledge, set up as public advisers on a small scale. They don't pretend to fees (they know enough of criminal law not to risk that). Anything will do, a shilling or six-pence, or-or, indeed, anything but odd half-pence. The tactics of some of this fraternity are ingenious. Brown disputing an account with Robinson, endeavours to settle matters without going into Court. Brown doesn't succeed, and the disputants part company. Long-eared Shark has overheard something of the case and the names of the disputants. Two minutes afterwards Shark taps Brown on the shoulder: "I say now, Mr. Brown," says he, "let me prevail on you to come to some arrangement with Robinson: save hearing-fees, you know; and from what I know of the case, it will certainly go against you." That is, of course, according to his version of the story. You could put a different complexion on the matter, eh?" "Well, well, don't mind me; I'm no more Robinson's man than yours-just a lawyer friend, who doesn't like to see honest men quarrel." Robinson's lawyer, thinks the affrighted Brown; and for his credit's sake proceeds to put the legal gentleman in possession of the facts of the case, together with the terms he will come to. "And suppose I bring him to accept?" inquires the Shark, significantly. Brown has heard of the constitutional roguery of lawyers, and thinks it nothing very dreadful to avail himself of the perfidy of Robinson's adviser at the expense of half a guinea. Straightway is Brown's overture carried to Robinson, who, making sure from the Shark's knowledge of the case that he is specially retained by Brown, comes to terms, and the business is completed. As it is generally understood that County Court Judges are apt to favour the victims of the "tally" trader's machinations, and to dislike his representative within the Court, there is another to be found in the lobby with whom "terms "-say the expense of the summons and five shillings for the creditor's trouble paid down, and the weekly payments to go on as usual-may be made. Or perhaps the debtor's employer will be responsible for the debt, or one or two of the tally debtor's neighbours will " put their names" by way of security. I saw one of the above-mentioned Sharks who had pinned what seemed to be an engineer behind a pillar, and, being a little inquisitive to know the Shark's tactics, I leant against the other side of the pillar. "Oh, no " exclaimed the engineer, "it ain't a tally debt-leastways it ain't now; but it was. Three pun' fourteen the bill was last Whitsuntide, and a weskit, and a shawl and a pair of military heels for my missus, was the things. Well, we brought it down to two pun' fifteen, and then I fell slack. Then he comes and he says, ' You're a respectable man; why don't you borrow the money ?' Says I, 'I wouldn't like any of my people to know as I wanted it; besides, it ain't so easy to borrow as to talk.' 'Well,' said he, 'borrow it at a loan-office. I wouldn't press you, but I must make up a bill by Tuesday. Borrow it at Sloman's, and I'll be your security. Borrow five pounds, and then you'll have a little for yourself after you've paid me.' So I agreed. Let's see ! Two pun' fifteen to him, sixteen and tenpence stopped for interest and that-well, I got about three 'arf-crowns. Now, you know, it stands this way. The tallyman, being my security, was obliged to pay the 'rears of the loan, which it's all 'rears, besides a jolly lot of fines; and now he summonses me, which of course it's his right, and I'll pay him if he gives me time. I've got work now, and I'll pay him five shillings a week, if he'll take it." "Ah, well," said the Shark, " I'll go and see what I can do for you." That he did something satisfactory I am pretty well certain, for, on passing up the street shortly afterwards, I saw the engineer and the Shark emerging from a public-house.