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Few saw any possible chance for Armstrong to escape : his condemnation was sure.
Mr. Lincoln rose, while a deeply impressive stillness reigned throughout the court-room. The prisoner sat with a worried, despairing look, such as he had worn ever since his arrest. When he was led into the courtroom a most melancholy expression sat upon his brow, as if he were forsaken by every friend, and the evidence presented was not suited to produce a change for the better.
His counsel proceeded to review the testimony, and called attention particularly to the discrepancies in the statements of the principal witness. What had seemed to the multitude as plain, truthful statements he showed to be wholly inconsistent with other parts of the testimony, indicating a plot against an innocent man. Then, raising his clear, full voice to a higher key, and lifting his long, wiry right arm above his head, as if about to annihilate his client's accuser, he exclaimed: “And he testifies that the moon was shining brightly when the deed was perpetrated, between the hours of ten and eleven o'clock, when the moon did not appear on that night, as your Honour's almanac will show, until an hour or more later, and consequently the whole story is a fabrication."
The audience were carried by this sudden overthrow of the accuser's testimony, and they were now as bitter against the principal witness as they were before against the accused.
Lincoln continued in a strain of singular eloquence, portraying the loneliness and sorrow of the widowed mother, whose husband, long since gathered to his fathers, and his good companion with the silver locks, welcomed a strange and penniless boy to their humble abode, dividing their scanty store with him, and, pausing,
and exhibiting much emotion—"that boy stands before you now pleading for the life of his benefactor's son—the staff of the widow's declining years." The effect was electric ; and eyes unused to weep shed tears as rain. With unmistakable expressions of honest sympathy around him Lincoln closed his remarkable plea with the words, “ If justice is done, as I believe it will be, before the sun sets, it will shine upon my client a free man.”
The jury returned to the court-room, after thirty minutes of retirement, with the verdict of “ Not Guilty.” Turning to his client Lincoln said, “ It is not sundown, and you are free!”
A shout of joy went up from the crowded assembly ; and the aged mother, who had retired when the case was given to the jury, was brought in with tears of gratitude streaming down her cheeks, to receive her acquitted boy, and thank.her noble benefactor for his successful effort.
“Where is Mr. Lincoln ?" she asked. And from her saved boy she pressed her way through the crowd to him, and seizing his hand convulsively attempted to express her gratitude, but utterance was impossible. Tears only told how full her heart was. Lincoln answered only with tears for a few moments. At length, however, controlling his feelings, he said,
“Aunt Hannah, what did I tell you? I pray to God that William may be a good boy hereafter—that this lesson may prove in the end a good lesson to him and to all."
Subsequently, Lincoln went to see her at her home, when she pressed him to take pay for his services.
“Why, Aunt Hannah, I sha'n't take a cent of yours _never. Anything I can do for you I will do willingly, and without any charge.”
Months after this Lincoln heard that some men
were trying to defraud her of land, and he wrote to her :
“Aunt Hannah, they can't have your land. Let them try it in the Circuit Court, and then you appeal it; bring it to the Supreme Court, and Herndon and I will attend to it for nothing."
This William Armstrong, whom Lincoln saved from the gallows, enlisted in the Union army, in response to Abraham Lincoln's first call for seventy-five thousand volunteers. Two years later his mother wrote to President Lincoln that she wanted her boy. She did not speak of any disability, only said that she wanted him. But that was enough for Mr. Lincoln, who had not yet fully paid his old debt of gratitude to his early benefactress, as he thought. He ordered the discharge of her son, and wrote the following brief epistle to her with his own hand :
“ September 1863. “MRS. HANNAH ARMSTRONG, I have just ordered the discharge of your boy William, as you say, now at Louisville, Ky.”
A lawyer was associated with Lincoln in this case, Mr. Walker, and he says of his plea :
“At first he spoke slowly, and carefully reviewed the whole testimony,-picked it all to pieces, and showed that the man had not received his wounds at the place or time named by the witnesses, but afterwards, and at the hands of someone else. . . . He skilfully untied here and there a knot, and loosened here and there a peg, until, fairly getting warmed up, he raised himself in his full power, and shook the arguments of his opponents from him as if they were cobwebs. . . . The last fifteen minutes of his speech
was as eloquent as I ever heard ; and such the power and earnestness with which he spoke to that jury that all sat as if entranced, and when he was through found relief in a gush of tears.” Even one of the prosecutors said, “He took the jury by storm. There were tears in Mr. Lincoln's eyes while he spoke, but they were genuine. His sympathies were fully enlisted for the young man, and his terrible sincerity could not help but arouse the same passion in the jury. I have said a hundred times that it was Lincoln's speech that saved Armstrong from the gallows.”
By this time old Mrs. Armstrong must have realized the full, deep significance of the Divine promise, “ Cast thy bread upon the waters, for thou shalt find it after many days."
In his circuit practice Lincoln devoted himself to self-improvement, by taking books with him-readingbooks, his grammar, arithmetic, and Shakespeare. He read and studied much when riding. The finest passages of Shakespeare were committed in these travels; and he would sometimes stop by the way, and recite them to strangers whom he met. Out of court, during his absence on circuit business, he found considerable time to pore over his books, so that little of his time was lost.
Soon after he began the practice of law he commenced to remit money to his poor parents. There was a mortgage of two hundred dollars on his father's little farm, and he paid it. His foster-brother, John Johnston, was poor and needy, and he assisted him also. John was shiftless and lazy, and Lincoln once wrote to him, “I now promise you that, for every dollar you will, between this and the first of next May, get for your own labour, either in money or as your own indebtedness, I will then give you one other dollar. By this, if you hire yourself at ten dollars a month, from me you will get ten more, making twenty dollars a month for your work." He visited his parents, also, as often as was consistent with his growing business and many cares.
In his early law practice he received five hundred dollars for conducting a criminal case successfully. A legal friend called upon him the next morning, and found him counting his money.
“Look here, judge,” he said ; “more money out of this case than I ever had in my life. If I had two hundred and fifty dollars more, I would go directly and purchase a quarter-section of land, and settle it upon my old stepmother.”
“I will loan you the required amount,” answered the judge.
“Agreed,” rejoined Mr. Lincoln, and proceeded to write a note at once.
"I would not use the money just as you have indicated," then added the judge.
“Why not ?"
“ Your stepmother is getting old, and will not live many years. I would settle the property upon her for her use during her lifetime, to revert to you upon her death."
“I shall do no such thing," answered Lincoln, decidedly. “It is a poor return, at the best, for the good woman's devotion and fidelity to me, and there is not going to be any half-way business about it.”
As soon as he could he purchased the quarter-section, and settled it upon his stepmother.
On hearing of his father's serious illness in January 1851, at a time when pressing business and the sickness of his own wife rendered it impossible for him to