Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
The courtroom was crowded, for popular interest in the two cases about to be heard—a false accusation charge brought against the farmer Alexandersson by his servant girl, Alma Jonsson, and a separation suit between Baron and Baroness Sprengel—was running high. The young Judge, only twenty-seven years old, was uneasy: he was taking the bench for the first time. He conferred at length with the Pastor before opening the proceedings.
The Alexandersson-Jonsson case was first. The old farmer admitted accusing the girl of theft; he had, he claimed, caught her red-handed. There were, however, no witnesses; and, as the charges could not be proved, his accusations were false—so the girl’s lawyer asserted. While the court was cleared, Judge and jury conferred. All agreed that the farmer, though actually in the right, was nevertheless technically guilty. Had he denied accusing the girl, nothing could have been done to him; by being honest, however, he had lost his case. Finally the Judge called Alexandersson in and sentenced him to a fine of a hundred crowns—enough, Alexandersson claimed, to cause the loss of his farm.
The divorce case came next. The Sprengels had planned to handle things as amicably as possible. The baron was to bring the complaint against his wife, charging her with a disposition incompatible with his. She was to have a sizable annuity and the custody of their one child, a son. The baron, however, was to retain the right to supervise the child’s education. These were to be the terms, and none of the personal details of their quarrel were to be brought out.
Such was their agreement; but, once the proceedings began, they found that the agreement was not to be honored. The court, the young Judge curtly informed them, would decide the disposition of the child. Meanwhile, the separation case must be decided: the husband, as complainant, must substantiate his claim.
Confused by the attitude of the court and sensing the possibility of losing her child, the baroness responded emotionally to the planned charges of her husband. The baron, realizing that his right to have charge of the boy’s education was threatened by the attitude of the court, asserted that the baroness, by her feminine methods of child-rearing, was undermining the boy’s masculinity.
Here the agreement for an amicable settlement broke down completely. Under the goading of the court, the two became overt enemies. All of the sordid details were dragged into the open. The baroness, turning complainant, charged the baron with adultery and produced letters to prove her accusation. The baron met this charge with a stream of vilification, which the baroness emotionally returned. Enraged, the baron announced a countercharge of adultery. The baroness defied him to prove his accusation. The baron promised that he would.
At that point the young Judge adjourned the proceedings and sought help from the elderly Pastor. The Judge, despairing of doing justice, threatened to give up his profession. The Pastor advised him always to adhere to the strict, abstract letter of the law and never to consider the human involvements in a case—else he would go mad. Meanwhile, the baron and the baroness were exchanging personal vituperations.
When the proceedings resumed, the baroness agreed to testify under oath that she was not guilty of adultery. Technical quibblings on her right to testify followed. Then the farmer Alexandersson, probably as a false witness, piqued by the injustice done him, arose and claimed that he had actually observed the baroness’ infidelities. While the validity of his testimony was being argued, the baron produced copies of incriminating letters, the originals of which the baroness had seen him destroy.
Again the court was cleared so that Judge and jury could confer. As they waited, the husband and wife realized that they both had lost, that they both had been defeated by the inhuman forces of a hostile society. Their child, they knew, would be taken from them and brought up ignobly in the name of peasant morality. This realization brought them temporarily together. The baron left to take the child to his mother, out of the court’s hands.
He returned just in time to hear the verdict. The two were to be separated for a year and the child placed in the custody of a peasant couple. The baron informed his wife that he had not spirited the child away but had left him at the Pastor’s house in preparation for appealing the verdict to a higher court. He predicted the wranglings and heartaches they would endure in the course of the appeal and suggested that it all was a judgment of God upon them for the years that they had lived together unmarried before the child had been born.
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