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It will be seen from the above that doubt cast its sombre shadow over his mind. It is such foreboding that flits across the mind of every young candidate for practice as he stands at the threshold of his professional career. He has to pass through the weary hours of watching and waiting; he has to read and read and re-read till his mind becomes saturated with law, and still no chance to squeeze it out; his soul becomes filled with anxiety and his heart grows faint with “hopes deferred.”
Luckily for Prentiss, he did not have to wait long for an opportunity, and with him opportunity meant success.
General Felix Huston, a distinguished member of the bar, was attracted by the youth and soon became his friend. He proposed a partnership; this was immediately accepted, and Prentiss was therefore at once placed above the pressing anxiety of how he was to support himself ad interim. He felt safe in thus having secured a competency, at least for the present. He occupied as his room and office the brick building on the eastern side of Pearl Street, south of Main, just in front of the vegetable market, and now the residence of E. B. Baker.
There is a tradition, for which I shall not vouch, but will tell it as told to me, that Huston remarked when he took Prentiss into partnership he thought he was getting a boy who would help him now and then in the drudgery of the practice, but that he soon found Prentiss was the leader and he the assistant.
It is not often that a young lawyer's first cases are remembered, but it might be said of this wonderful man what Johnson said o: Goldsmith, “Nihil quod tetigit non ornavit.” And so the very first case in which Prentiss appeared is recollected. It was an affair of burglary, and rested entirely upon circumstantial evidence. Under the window of the house which was broken open was found an old shoe. One shoe-track and one barefoottrack was traced to a house under the hill, in this house the prisoner was found with one shoe on which matched the one found under the window. Prentiss prosecuted the man and convicted him. The culprit was so struck with the oratory of the prosecutor that he remarked, when the trial was over, “ If an angel of light were tried and that man were the prosecutor he would convict The other case was one in which the plaintiff brought suit against the defendant for the value of a horse that the defendant had killed under peculiar circumstances, which palliated, though it did not quite justify, the act. Prentiss for the defendant, in legal parlance, demurred to the declaration ; that was an admission of the facts as stated, but a denial of any legal obligation resulting from the facts. A young friend of Prentiss's told me that he knew Prentiss was going to make an argument and that it would be worth hearing, therefore he lingered around the court-house, in expectancy, for several hours. At last the case was called, and he never in his life heard so brilliant a speech. Prentiss brought into play, in rapid succession, ridicule, pathos, and satire; he alternately convulsed the court and by-standers with laughter, and then moved them to tears. The result was the demurrer was sustained, and the case stands on the record to-day as dismissed.
Succeeding juvenile members of the Natchez bar, when they wished something spicy to amuse themselves, used to con over that demurrer as the highest type of legal wit. Now, while it is true that the forensic efforts of a lawyer are usually confined to the precincts of the court-room, yet such was the peculiarity of the style of Prentiss that he almost immediately rose to distinction; every one began to speak of him as a prodigy, and so his fame grew and waxed strong.
When he was admitted to the Natchez bar, to use his own expression, “ the profession was very much crowded.” My elder readers will recognize some of the distinguished names as I give the roll, -John Antony Quitman, John T. McMurran, Aylette Buckner, Eli and Felix Huston, Covington Rawlings, Thomas Armat, George Winchester, Robert H. Adams, Alexander Montgomery. Well might the neophyte feel some trepidation in entering the list against such an array of talent, but he felt so conscious of his powers that he knew he could sustain himself if he could only have the opportunity; subsequent events proved that he was not mistaken.
It matters not how profound a lawyer may be in the theory of the laws, the routine of practice can only be acquired by experience; therefore is it of inestimable value to a novice to
be associated with a veteran who will point out the minutiæ. The old practitioner is to him what the demonstrator of anatomy in the dissecting-room is to the young medical student. The first year, therefore, of Prentiss's novitiate with General Huston was of vast importance to him.
On the 11th of July, 1830, he renewed his partnership with Huston, but on far better terms : he was to have one-third of the profits. This contract fixed his destiny as a citizen of the South. The hopes of returning to his native home gradually faded away, and finally, like so many of our earthly hopes, was buried forever. To give some idea of how little emigration there was at that time from the State of Maine to this country, we note that up to this date Prentiss had met with but one former acquaintance here, and that was S. S. Boyd.
During the summer vacation of this year Prentiss spent a portion of his time at the whilom semi-capital of Mississippi, Columbia,—at one time our seat of government was ambulating and swung like a pendulum from Natchez to that place. It was a healthy spot, redolent of rosin and perfumed with the fragrance of vast forests of pine.
At that time he became acquainted with the mother-in-law of Huston, Mrs. Dangerfield, who lived at “Coventry” (so was her residence called), within a mile of the village of Washington. She was to him a second mother, and he became devotedly attached to her, so much so that, in writing home, he sent word to his mother not to be uneasy concerning him, for, should he be ill, this kind lady would take as good care of him as she herself.
After his return from Columbia, he spent a part of the summer months in dolce far niente style at “Coventry,”—riding about and gunning; there was no good fishing in the neighborhood, therefore he had to forego that, his favorite sport. One of his chief amusements was pistol-shooting. This was the fashion, or rather passion, of the young men of his day, just as rifle-teaming is the passion of our day. Tons of powder and lead were thus wasted, and fortunes were lost in practising. The idea was to be always ready for the chances and changes of this Southern life. Huston himself was a devotee and a splendid slot, both with the rifle and the pistol. The custom was to
practise "firing at the word.” A tape-line, the height of a man, was stretched upon an upright pole or tree for the target. The marksman would take his position about ten or twelve paces in front of the mark, with his loaded pistol in his right hand down by his side. The man who was to give the word would then call out emphatically, but slowly, “Gentlemen, are you ready? -Fire—one—twothreestop !" The rule was to fire between “one” and “stop.” Prentiss was gifted with a nerve of iron, and was an unerring shot: he rarely failed to cut the tape.
On one of these “practising occasions” a very painful incident occurred. He had just bought a brace of pistols, and was testing their accuracy ; before loading he usually snapped a cap 10 clear the tube of its obstruction. Huston was lolling on the grass near him. Prentiss snapped the percussion-cap as usual, when, to his infinite distress, he saw Huston clap his hand to his eye and cry out in an agony of pain,-a fragment of the copper from the cap had penetrated his eye. He suffered excruciating pain for a while, but it subsided in the course of time. The wound healed over, but the vision of the eye was never recovered. Huston saw that it was entirely accidental, and had too much magnanimity to reproach his friend; knowing how deeply distressed Prentiss was, he studiously avoided ever alluding to the accident. Once, and once only, it was painfully, though unintentionally, brought to mind. Huston, who was to argue a case, came into the office the day before the case was to come off to search for an authority he knew was in point; the lights were dim and he could not find it; losing his patience, he threw down the book, exclaiming, with the usual expletive, as he did so, “I believe I'm going blind ; I can't find anything !"
During all this period Prentiss was, so to speak, a voracious reader, and devoured the current literature of the day. The literary sky was still blazing with stars of the first magnitude. Bulwer, in rapid succession, threw off his brilliant novels; G. P. R. James was draping history in the garb of fiction ; Scott was still charming the world, and puzzling them as to whether he was best entitled to the laurel as a novelist or as a poet; Moore was still scattering his melodies ; Campbell was
mute, it is said, only because he was afraid of the shadow of his own reputation; Byron had sunk beneath the sun at Missolonghi, but the echo of his harp still vibrated through the world.
Of the poets, Shakspeare, Campbell, Scott, and Byron were Prentiss's favorites, and he could rehearse them, I might almost say, by the volume, and in rehearsing from them he could thrill any one. His contemporary licentiate, W. C. Harris, who did not profess to have the least bit of poetry in his composition, once told me that Prentiss never failed to melt him to tears as he repeated the “ Sailor Boy's Dream.”
"In slumbers of midnight the sailor boy lay,
His hammock swung loose at the play of the wind,
And visions of happiness danced o'er his mind.
And pleasures that waited on life's merry morn,
And restored every rose, but secreted the thorn.
“Oh, sailor boy! woe to thy dream of delight !
In darkness dissolves the gay frost-work of bliss;
Thy parent's fond pressure, and love's honeyed kiss?
Shall home, love, or kindred thy wishes repay ;
Full many a score fathom, thy frame shall decay.
Days, inonths, years, and ages shall circle away,
And still the vast waters above thee shall roll;
Oh, sailor boy ! sailor boy! peace to thy soul !"
I myself, though but a boy at the time, remember being thrilled by his rendering of the night scene of “ Alf the Renegade" in the “Siege of Corinth":
“ And he saw the lean dogs beneath the wall
Hold o'er the dead their carnival.