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The master's house

a tale of Southern life




Page 288


It is no more than justice to Major Trimmer, to state,
that, as the time for the trial of Toadvine approached, he
entered upon his duties with all his soul. He had staked
a great deal of “reputation” upon a successful issue, and
was perhaps more than ever zealous, from the fact, that
there still existed such an “outside pressure” among the
substantial men of the community, against the prisoner;
for this operated in the Major's mind as a challenge to
extra exertion, acting with more force than even the “due
bill,” “saddle-horse,” “promissory note,” and “one half
undivided interest in the boy, Jo.”

The outside of the Court-house indicated an unusual
agitation in the public mind; not for years, except at some
great political excitement, had there been seen so many
horses hitched in its vicinity; and there was also noticeable
a number of old solid planters in the crowd of gentlemen,
who seldom honored such scenes with their presence. Even
Mr. Moreton, who rarely took a part in public proceedings,
evinced great interest on this occasion.


Page 289

Considerable sensation was produced when Gen. Bledsoe
and his friends rode up to the court-house. It was
noticed that they wore stern expressions, and it was very
evident that they had come together, determined to see
that there was no unfair means used to get Toadvine clear,
and that the prosecution should be strengthened by their
presence and sympathies. Gen. Bledsoe, and Mildmay,
came into the court-room together, and the crowd respectfully
gave way, to let them pass, as the sheriff showed
them seats “inside the bar.”

Finally there was a great moving of feet, and a swaying
to and fro of the crowd, and considerable talking and
eager staring about, as the deputy sheriff, accompanied by
the prisoner, came through a door behind the Judges'
bench. Toadvine wore his usually stolid appearance,
although he looked a little pale, an effect rather of being
for some weeks in confinement, than from any excitement
about the result of the trial. Considerable surprise was
manifested at the peculiarity of his overcoat, which was
made of what was originally a white blanket, with a deep
red border, and was so worked up, that this glaring edge
formed a border for the skirts, and prominent stripes on
the shoulders.

“Some one told me,” said Gen. Bledsoe to Mildmay,
observing this marked coat, “that Toadvine's friends had
determined that he should make a break out of the house,
in case the trial went against him—but with that peculiar
coat on, he could `be spotted,' even in the darkest night.”

“There is some infernal trick about it,” continued
Gen. Bledsoe, biting the ivory handle of his riding-whip,


Page 290
“you may depend, Mildmay; that coat has not been put
on that fellow without some ulterior object.”

Mildmay looked at the coat, but saw nothing except
what was presented to his eye, although he perceived, to
his own surprise, that Gen. Bledsoe was evidently in deep
study, inspired by its appearance.

After what appeared to the impatient spectators a great
deal of unnecessary talking between the judge, Major Trimmer,
the prosecuting attorney, and the clerk of the court,
the important matter of empanelling the jury commenced.

Now Major Trimmer had told Toadvine, that every
thing depended upon the complexion of the jury, and that
if he could manage to challenge every “dough-face” and
church-going man in the county, why he could get him
through, without the least possible difficulty.

Acting upon this well-defined principle, the regular
jurors for the term, composed of a certain number of citizens
drawn indiscriminately from among the voters of the
county, were very soon disposed of. As one after another
was called to “the stand,” a struggle ensued between Maj.
Trimmer and the district attorney, and it always appeared,
that just in proportion as the State wanted the particular
juror, the prisoner didn't want him, and by the construction
of the law, the list of regular and responsible jurors was
soon exhausted, and every one had been rejected except a
small repulsive-looking man, who had slipped in by a decision
of the judge, rather than by the wish of either the
district attorney or the ever-indefatigable Trimmer.

The excitement so far had been quite intense, and the
result was considered, on the whole, favorable for the cause


Page 291
of the prisoner. It was perfectly understood, that Trimmer
had accomplished his first object, which was to compel
the jury to be made up of talesmen, or persons taken indiscriminately
from the hangers-on about the court-house
at the time of the trial, and consequently, Major Trimmer
was in ecstasies, and the conservative and well disposed
planters, exceedingly cast down.

“If it hadn't been for your well-meant, but I fear unfortunate
interference, Mildmay,” said Gen. Bledsoe, his
face glowing with disgust at the preliminary proceedings of
the trial, “we shouldn't have had to listen to this d—d
farce enacting before us; Toadvine would have got his deserts,
and honest men their dues,” and the general snapped
his whip with undisguised impatience.

“I cannot think,” said Mildmay, for the first time in
his life in doubt about the propriety of having done a good
action, “I cannot believe, even with the rejection of our
best men as jurors, but that the prisoner must be punished.”

“It may be so,” mechanically answered Gen. Bledsoe,
from between his teeth, the while surveying the triumphant
looks of Trimmer, and the hopeful face of Toadvine—“it
may be so, but depend upon it, if we are juggled out of a
conviction by these proceedings, there is a tribunal outside
the building, that will not let the prisoner escape.”

Mildmay remained silent, while the painful scene of
the attempted lynching of Toadvine passed in sickening
shadows through his mind, and he shuddered, as if some
undefined spirit of evil had breathed its blasting influence
upon his inmost soul.


Page 292

The judge now squared himself around in his seat,
unbuttoned his Arkansas blanket coat, and threw the collar
gracefully over his shoulders; and helping himself to a
sip of water out of a broken pitcher within his reach, he
took a cigar out of his pocket, and was in the act of lighting
it with a lucifer-match, when he recollected that he
was “the Court:” so he put the cigar back, and getting a
large piece of tobacco from one of the spectators near him,
he crowded one half of the appropriated weed in his
mouth, and laid the remainder beside his spectacles; and
ordered the business of the hour to go on.

The struggle between the district attorney and Trimmer
for the completion of the jury, soon, however, became a
one-sided affair. The alternative was left with the State,
to have no trial at all—which was quite as agreeable to
Toadvine in its results, as a verdict of not guilty—or to
accept for a majority of the members of the jury the very
individuals, whom Trimmer had so artfully managed to
have conveniently at hand.

As the seventh juror took his seat, Trimmer sank
back in his chair, seemingly relieved of much anxiety.
He had up to this moment wrangled and “speechified,”
and quoted law—coaxed the judge, bullied the jurors—
and gone off occasionally into his stereotyped flights of
eloquence, as if he were on the stump; but a benign
smile now played upon his lips: it was evident that a load
was taken from his mind,—a majority of the jury had
been sworn in, who were, according to his purpose, the
very best men. And, therefore, relaxing from his severe
labor, he requested a young lawyer—a relative of his,


Page 293
who was near by—to relieve him for a while of the labor
of cross-questioning and challenging.

“Don't,” said the major, giving his friend a hint—
“don't let a single man on the jury, if you can help it,
that has got a cleanly-shaved face; as a general thing,
that kind of peculiarity is good for a witness in a civil
case, if he's on your side, but a bad symptom, if you are
defending for murder.

“Be careful,” he added, in the very profuseness of his
genius, “not to let slip through your hands any fellow
that wears his coat buttoned around his throat so as to
conceal his linen, if he has any; and be particularly fond
of any one whose eyes are inflamed, and bruised a little:
and, more than all, don't let a fellow in that's got much
forehead. Flat-headed jurors, with all their brains behind
their ears, are the thing for murder cases,—recollect
that;” and the major again relapsed into a momentary

It was, however, useless; the moment that a candidate
for the jury was placed under the official crossfire, Major
Trimmer was again upon his feet, and performing his duties
with characteristic zeal.

The eleventh juror had finally taken his place, and the
audience had become somewhat fatigued with the same
routine of amusement, when it was discovered that every
eligible person present not already sworn in as a juror,
had been “rejected;” and the Court ordered the sheriff
to go literally out in the highways and byways for the
material to make up the “precious dozen.”

Now there was living in the vicinity of the court-house,


Page 294
a hard-working and ingenious mechanic—a saddler
by trade, who adorned the name of Buatt. This person
never left his shop except on business, and he was
often heard to say, “that all he wanted in this world, was
plenty of work, and no one to interfere with his attending
to it.”

To Buatt, singular as it may at first appear, the sheriff
was the great terror of his life. Not that Buatt owed a
cent in the world,—far from it; he was the model of
promptness in the payment of debts;—not that he ever
got into brawls, for he was, being truly brave, one of the
most quiet men in the community;—but when the sheriff
wanted a juror, and none could be found, Buatt was his
last, but certain resource: and in this way, the saddler
was defrauded of his time, and consequently, out of his

This sacrifice of Buatt to the public had become in Beechland
a standing joke, for there was rarely a tedious trial
in prospect, but that the poor fellow was subpœnaed as a
juror, until, finally, in self-defence, he had laid it down as
a solemn principle, to “hang,” every jury he might be on;
and to such an extent, in his grievances, had he carried
this determination, that Buatt looked upon all trials as
mere farces, to involve him in annoyances,—rob clients of
their money, and jurymen of their time,—and nothing
more; the solemnity and importance that should attach to
them had long since passed from his mind.

On the occasion of the “Toadvine trial,” he was as
usual hard at work in his shop,—a great many little jobs
naturally coming in, from the unusual crowd of people


Page 295
about the court-house,—when the deputy sheriff laid an
order before him, to attend the Court. On ordinary occasions
he would have been furious at such a summons, but
never dreaming how much he was needed, he concluded to
“step around,” go through the form of being “qualified,”
and then be dismissed with the usual laugh, and thus be
left quietly to attend to his business; and in this humor,
and much to the surprise of the “deputy,” Buatt with
alacrity left his work-bench, and accompanied the officer of
the Court.

When the saddler presented himself, a general laugh
ensued: “There's the old stand-by,” whispered one;
“He's part of the law,” suggested another; and this feeling
finally burst forth in loud applause. The sheriff
looked out of the window, cried “Silence!” and the legal
dispute began.

Buatt still feeling perfectly conscious that he would be
rejected, and Major Trimmer and the district attorney
being under the same delusion, two or three questions
were asked, which Buatt answered in a careless manner,
when, to the astonishment of every person, the judge
accepted of Buatt as a juror,—the mutual challenges of
the two lawyers to the contrary notwithstanding.

The evident annoyance of the “victim,” as he took his
seat, was irresistibly comic; and as he completed the jury,
another round of applause was given, which “the Court,”
with a singularly bland smile, desired would not again be
repeated,—but which desire was instantly disregarded, as
Buatt arose, and addressing the judge by his given name,


Page 296

“Jo, if you will keep me here in this d—d box, send
somebody around to lock up my shop.”

“Order! order!” cried the sheriff, while the judge
suddenly burying his face in a law book, pretended not to
have heard the expression, so much calculated to infringe
upon his dignity.

A few moments of confusion followed, as the spectators
sighed out their relief that the jury was at length empanelled,
and that a new act would commence, of what
General Bledsoe now pronounced to be, a “contemptible
legal farce.”

The judge now asked if the parties interested in “The
State vs. Toadvine,” were ready for trial; and being
answered in the affirmative, with some other very unmeaning
preliminaries, the clerk proceeded to read the usual indictment.

The district attorney then rose, and “opened the case.”
He briefly and clearly stated to the jury the nature of the
crime charged against the prisoner, declaring, that although
the person murdered was civilly treated as property,
he was as to crimes and offences considered as a
person. He further defined murder to be, according to
Sir Edward Coke, “when a person of sound memory
and discretion unlawfully killeth any reasonable creature,
being in, and under, the king's peace, with malice aforethought,
either express or implied.” The district attorney
then stated the facts of the case, and said, that he
believed he could prove them by an unusual array of truthful