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Washington Lawyer

Legal Spectator: Letters and Other Things

From Washington Lawyer, October 2011

By Jacob A. Stein

spectatorMy friend Cord Hart has just sent me an e–mail listing nine things that will disappear in our lifetime. First on the list is the Post Office. FedEx, UPS, and e–mail have wiped out the minimum revenue that keeps the Post Office alive. Next will be handwriting itself.

There used to be a fortune teller at 7th and P Streets advertising her expertise in palmistry, tarot cards, and, in addition, mystical graphology, the art of seeing into a person’s life by the subject’s own handwriting. I still see palmistry and tarot cards signs, but no mystical graphology.

Legal disputes have turned on the authenticity of handwriting. In some states (I don’t know whether it’s still true), a handwritten will signed by the testator is valid despite the fact that no witnesses saw the testator as he wrote and signed his will.

John Henry Wigmore (1863–1943), the Emperor of Evidence, devoted an entire section to handwriting law in his 10–volume, 1940 third edition of Treatise on the Anglo–American System of Evidence in Trials at Common Law. Today’s evidence texts have only a page or two on handwriting.

Novelists made good use of letters. W. Somerset Maugham’s short story “The Letter” takes place in a British colony in the Orient. The main characters are club–style English who live in their own colony near the rubber plantations. The woman in the story shoots and kills a man with whom she was carrying on when her husband was away. Her defense was she was assaulted and she had to defend herself. The defense was self–defense.

A letter appeared that contradicted that defense. Get the excellent movie based on the Maugham story. Make sure it’s the one in which Bette Davis is the star. Please give full attention to Bette Davis’s lawyer. The letter placed him in an impossible position. How did he resolve it? See the movie.

Another short story with a letter in the plot is one by Guy de Maupassant (1850–1893), the French writer unrivaled in the writing of short stories. Maugham, in his early years, copied de Maupassant’s style.

The de Maupassant story I wish to mention is “All Over.” It begins on one fine morning in Paris as a French aristocrat is pleased to see himself in his mirror. Yes, some gray hair but otherwise he was still the elegant person he was in his youth. He then enters his drawing room where he keeps his correspondence.

On his table, where everything had its place, the work-table of the gentleman who never works, there were a dozen letters lying beside three newspapers of different opinions. With a single touch of the finger he exposed to view all these letters, like a gambler giving the choice of a card; and he scanned the handwriting—a thing he did each morning before tearing open the envelopes.

It was for him a moment of delightful expectancy, of inquiry, and vague anxiety. What did these sealed mysterious papers bring him? What did they contain of pleasure, of happiness, or of grief? He surveyed them with a sweep of the eye, recognizing in each case the hand that wrote them, selecting them, making two or three lots, according to what he expected from them. Here, friends; there, persons to whom he was indifferent; further on, strangers. The last kind always gave him a little uneasiness. What did they want from him? What hand had traced those curious characters full of thoughts, promises or threats?

As he surveys the letters, one catches his eye. He holds it delicately and tries to read through the envelope. He then opens the letter. He is surprised to see it is from a woman with whom he was once in love. She writes that she is returning to Paris to see her 18–year–old daughter married. She ends the letter by inviting him to dinner at her apartment. She would like him to see her and her daughter. What a delightful surprise.

He rose up and said aloud: “Certainly, I will go and dine with her this evening!” Instinctively, he turned round toward the glass in order to inspect himself from head to foot. He reflected “She must have grown old unpleasantly, more than I have!” And he felt gratified at the thought of showing himself, still fresh, of astonishing her, perhaps of filling her with emotion, and making her regret those bygone days so far, far distant.

The first thing he saw on entering her apartment was a pretty drawing room, freshly furnished, with his own portrait hanging on the wall in an antique silk frame. He sat down, and waited. A door opened behind him. He rose up abruptly and, turning around, saw an old woman with white hair who extended both hands toward him.

The dinner turned out to be strange. He gazed at the two, the young and the old. The young girl had borrowed a certain style of speaking and talking of her mother’s. He saw the difference in age. He and his old girlfriend were old and the girl was young with life’s great expectations.

He left early, taking a turn along the boulevard, reflecting on what had taken place. When he arrived in his apartment, he looked at himself in the same mirror in which he had admired himself. He now saw an elderly man who had been trying to fool himself. He sat down, crushed at the sight of himself, murmuring: “All over.”

As they say in the movies, if you like de Maupassant’s story “All Over,” you should read his short story titled “The Diary of a Mad Man.” It is a courtroom drama compacted into six pages.

Reach Jacob A. Stein at jstein@steinmitchell.com.