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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859–1927)

The Stage Lawyer

From “Stage-Land”

HE is very old, and very long, and very thin. He has white hair. He dresses in the costume of the last generation but seven. He has bushy eyebrows, and is clean-shaven. His chin itches considerably, so that he has to be always scratching it. His favourite remark is “Ah.”

In real life we have heard of young solicitors, of foppish solicitors, of short solicitors; but on the stage they are always very thin and very old. The youngest stage solicitor we ever remember to have seen, looked about sixty—the oldest, about a hundred and forty-five….

The stage lawyer never has any office of his own. He transacts all his business at his clients’ houses. He will travel hundreds of miles to tell them the most trivial piece of legal information.

It never occurs to him how much simpler it would be to write a letter. The item for “travelling expenses,” in his bill of costs, must be something enormous.

There are two moments in the course of his client’s career that the stage lawyer particularly enjoys. The first is when the client comes unexpectedly into a fortune; the second, when he unexpectedly loses it.

In the former case, upon learning the good news, the stage lawyer at once leaves his business, and hurries off to the other end of the kingdom to bear the glad tidings. He arrives at the humble domicile of the beneficiary in question, sends up his card, and is ushered into the front parlour. He enters mysteriously, and sits left, client sits right. An ordinary, common lawyer would come to the point at once, state the matter in a plain, business-like way, and trust that he might have the pleasure of representing, etc. But such simple methods are not those of the stage lawyer. He looks at the client, and says:

“You had a father.”

The client starts. How on earth did this calm, thin, keen-eyed old man in black know that he had a father? He shuffles and stammers, but the quiet, impenetrable lawyer fixes his cold, glassy eye on him, and he is helpless. Subterfuge, he feels, is useless, and amazed, bewildered, at the knowledge of his most private affairs possessed by his strange visitant, he admits the fact: he had a father.

The lawyer smiles with a quiet smile of triumph, and scratches his chin.

“You had a mother, too, if I am informed correctly,” he continues.

It is idle attempting to escape this man’s supernatural acuteness, and the client owns up to having had a mother also.

From this, the lawyer goes on to communicate to the client, as a great secret, the whole of his (the client’s) history from his cradle upward, and also the history of his nearer relatives, and in less than half an hour from the old man’s entrance, or, say, forty minutes at the outside, the client almost knows what the business is about.

On the other occasion, when the client has lost his fortune, the stage lawyer is even still happier. He comes down himself to tell the misfortune (he would not miss the job for worlds), and he takes care to choose the most unpropitious moment possible for breaking the news. On the eldest daughter’s birthday, when there is a big party on, is his favourite time. He comes in about midnight, and tells them just as they are going down to supper.

He has no idea of business hours, has the stage lawyer—to make the thing as unpleasant as possible seems to be his only anxiety.

If he cannot work it for a birthday, then he waits till there’s a wedding on, and gets up early in the morning on purpose to run down and spoil the show. To enter among a crowd of happy, joyous fellow-creatures, and leave them utterly crushed and miserable is the stage lawyer’s hobby.

The stage lawyer is a very talkative gentleman. He regards the telling of his client’s most private affairs to every stranger that he meets as part of his professional duties. A good gossip, with a few chance acquaintances, about the family secrets of his employers, is food and drink for the stage lawyer.

They all go about telling their own and their friends’ secrets, to perfect strangers, on the stage. Whenever two people have five minutes to spare, on the stage, they tell each other the story of their lives. “Sit down, and I will tell you the story of my life,” is the stage equivalent for the “Come and have a drink,” of the outside world.

The good stage lawyer has generally nursed the heroine on his knee, when a baby (when she was a baby, we mean)—when she was only so high. It seems to have been a part of his professional duties. The good stage lawyer also kisses all the pretty girls in the play, and is expected to chuck the housemaid under the chin. It is good to be a good stage lawyer.

The good stage lawyer also wipes away a tear when sad things happen; and he turns away to do this, and blows his nose, and says he thinks he has a fly in his eye. This touching trait in his character is always held in great esteem by the audience, and is much applauded.

The good stage lawyer is never, by any chance, a married man. (Few good men are, so we gather from our married lady friends.) He loved, in early life, the heroine’s mother. That “sainted woman” (tear and nose business) died, and is now among the angels. The gentleman who did marry her, by-the-bye, is not quite so sure about this latter point, but the lawyer is fixed on the idea.

In stage literature of a frivolous nature, the lawyer is a very different individual. In comedy, he is young, he possesses chambers, and he is married (there is no doubt about this latter fact); and his wife and his mother-in-law spend most of the day in his office, and make the dull old place quite lively for him.