R v Upward Day 3 (Dickens Dashed)

After spending a day correcting his court reporter’s punctuation, Judge Cocklecarrot was ready to proceed with the trial of Luke Upward for shooting out a neon sign which had polluted his local night sky. “Sir Tipstaff, read out the charges against the accused.”
“Prisoner at the bar, Luke Constant Leigh Upward…”
“What! Is that the accused’s real name? If this is some frolic and flummery intended to elicit vulgar (LAUGHTER) at the court’s expense, I’ll have him held in contempt…”
“With the utmost respect to your Lordship.” The calm voice of the self-represented man-of-letters silenced the expostulating man-of-law as a deep bay from a bloodhound might silence a yapping Shih-Tzu. “That is indeed the accused’s given name, which can be ascertained from the birth certificate at enclosure 27a in Bundle 1c. The accused’s father wished to give him not only a name but also a motto.” Seeing a baffled expression on the opposing counsel, the ponderous Prodnose, he repeated the name slowly with the pitying smile that so often enraged his jealous literary rival Walter Downer. “Look constantly upward.”
“Very well, but I shall not abide any further facetious names,” said Cocklecarrot with unconscious irony. “Proceed, Sir Tipstaff.”
“Prisoner at the bar, Luke Constant Leigh Upward, you are accused of procuring an unlicensed rook rifle and discharging the same on the night …”
“Objection, m’lud.” Again the calm voice of the self-represented man-of-letters silenced the pompous jack-in-office as the note of a falcon towering in her pride of place might silence a chattering chaffinch.
“Counsel for the defence has an objection?” inquired Cocklecarrot with a quizzical look over his half-moon spectacles, which the young court reporter, Charles Dickens, was unable to annotate.
“M’lud, there is no hyphen in the charge as printed on the sheet and as read out by the tipstaff. In its absence, my client remains uncertain of the precise charge against him. Is he accused of possession and discharge of an unlicensed rifle designed for use against rooks? Or, in the alternative, is he accused of possession and discharge of a rifle for use against unlicensed rooks? And if the latter be the case, may I humbly submit to your Lordship that rooks are not domestic fowls within the meaning of the laws of this kingdom or the edicts of the polity known as the European Union but are rather aves ferae naturae (birds savage by nature)” he added in a condescending parenthesis to the puzzled Prodnose, “and that if such birds be not licensed a freeborn Englishman is entitled to procure any weapon that may protect him and his neighbours from their depradations?”
“Objection, m’lud!” Prodnose was on his cheaply-shod feet. “That is a ridiculous interpretation. The charge is perfectly clear and requires no hyphen.”
“M’lud.” Upward was on his faultless handmade brogues. Again the calm voice of the self-represented man of letters silenced his officious opposite as the song of a mighty whale might silence a clamorous clownfish. “For all its modest appearance on the printed page, the humble hyphen is a rich gem in the treasure-house of meaning. It shines in ancient statutes through the mists of memory.” For several hours he traced a history of the hyphen in law, holding the court spellbound as a mighty squid might captivate a classroom of cuttlefish. With scholarship as lightly worn as a white evening scarf on a nimble Astaire he traced the use of the hyphen by the Hivites and the Hittites, in the statutes of Hammurabi and Lycurgus and Solon and Justinian, its disappearance in the Dark Ages, its revival in the model statutes of Edward I, its application by Grotius in developing a law of nations, its use by the Founding Fathers of the United States and its contribution to the Code Napoleon, whose clarity and elegance had inspired the great novels of Stendhal.

The self-represented man-of-letters paused for a sip of water, as a majestic wild elephant might take a drink before trumpeting his final instructions to a waiting herd. The court remained silent. A nervous ironmonger in the jury suppressed a cough with a throat sweet supplied to her by an alert usher. “M’lud. A hyphen, however short, is a golden thread in the pages of law. It is the birthright of every freeborn Englishman who speaks the tongue that Shakespeare spoke, let alone my client who speaks it rather better. Shall Luke Upward forfeit his property, his liberty, his name and reputation, must he bear in the world of letters an indelible stain of criminality, for lack of a simple hyphen?”

“Well, I’m dashed,” said Cocklecarrot. “Well, I’m – dashed!” he repeated more meaningfully but was still unable to elicit any {laughter}. He pondered for a seeming eternity. The court was totally silent until a trembling tailor among the jury dropped a pin, which hit the floor with a deafening report. The sound galvanized Cocklecarrot into a ruling. “Objection sustained. Sir Tipstaff, strike out the first charge against the accused. Before we proceed further, I wish to know who wrote out the defective charge-sheet with the missing hyphen.”

Charles Dickens, the young court reporter who had already been admonished by Cocklecarrot on the recording of merriment in his court, stood up in his place. “Dear me, Mr Dickens. Your career as a court reporter, although brief, has been punctuated with error. I think it has now come to a full stop.” Charles Dickens gathered up his papers and withdrew in the approved legal style, pausing only (since nothing mattered any more) to record the response to the judge’s final sally as (“LAUGHTER”) with mocking inverted commas.
Although himself a perfect punctuator, Upward took pity on the ruined reporter. By using certain of his connexions, he was able to procure Charles Dickens a much sought-after apprenticeship in the blacking industry. The case would continue.

11. February 2013 by rkh
Categories: Belles-Lettres | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on R v Upward Day 3 (Dickens Dashed)