Chapter 1 - Rumpole and the Constricted Pupil by A.J. Hall
On arriving at my chambers at Number 3, Equity Court one fine July morning I was a trifle disconcerted to discover a strange young man sitting at the corner of my desk, working his way industriously (though, as a glance over his shoulder ascertained, inaccurately) through the Times crossword.
He did not speak but regarded me apprehensively through unusual topaz-yellow eyes.
I applied the methods of the Master of Baker Street, in which I feared I was growing rusty. The departure of my son Nick to study in Florida had meant the cessation of the detective rambles we had been wont to take over Hampstead Heath.
At a rough estimate, the young man was in his late teens. He wore a painfully new three-piece-suit and a dull navy tie, suitable for an appearance before one of the less discriminating tribunals. Uxbridge Magistrates Court springs to mind. His hair was cut in a floppy, collar-length style reminiscent of the Oxford aesthetes of my youth. It would have had my late father-in-law C.H. Wystan muttering, “Bloody poofter!” but probably got the boy ribbed as hopelessly square at school or university.
The one remarkable thing about him was his watch. That was a 1940s gold Breitling Chronomat with a worn leather strap, a make and model I’d not seen since my wartime service in RAF ground staff, when it had been the hallmark of a certain type of mildly eccentric flyboy of independent means. No doubt the boy had picked it up at Petticoat Lane or Camden Market.
Elementary, my dear Watson.
What we had here was a standard-issue public school product, distinguished from his fellows by a minor streak of nonconformity, as indicated by the hair and watch. Clearly the pressure to stand out from the dull masses had driven him into a rash act of adolescent rebellion, and that in turn had brought him up against some mute inglorious Milton of the Met. It only remained to discover what the charges were and how I could best bring about his acquittal.
First, though, I needed to have a word with my clerk, Henry, about his negligence in letting a client, however young and well-brushed, into my room before I or his instructing solicitors arrived. He would never have been so careless with a Timson.
“Wait here,” I told the boy. My hand was on the doorknob when the door unexpectedly opened inwards to reveal Guthrie Featherstone Q.C. M.P. in all his glory. Which is to say, the old darling looked just as flustered and discombobulated as ever, but regarded me with the faint and unaccustomed light of hope.
He looked over at the boy, who now seemed from his furrowed brow to be in the process of reaping the problems down he had sown with his slapdash answers across.
“Ah, Merrick! You’re here already. That’s good.” Beneath the bonhomie, I detected a certain nervous ripple in his voice.
The boy mumbled something, but did not look up. I eased our learned Head of Chambers out into the corridor and let the door shut behind us.
“You know him?”
“Of course — well, not him, exactly. His father’s the Member for East Dorset. Marigold sees quite a lot of his mother.”
It did not surprise me. I had always assumed from the buffoonery that from time to time appears in the Parliamentary Reports that whoever is running the country, it cannot possibly be our elected members. Whether an inner cabal of M.P.s’ wives, headed by the formidable Marigold Featherstone, was a more or less disquieting candidate for the role than a consortium of international financiers or the Bavarian Illuminati I leave as an exercise for the reader.
Nevertheless, my principle is that a client is a client, irrespective of source, and one has to set aside one’s prejudices in the best tradition of the Bar. (Also, She Who Must Be Obeyed has a formidable hunger for luxuries such as Brillo pads and washing-up liquid and the proceeds of crime barely keep pace with it.)
In the continued absence of instructing solicitors, I looked at Guthrie and said, “Well, cough it up, Gussie. What’s he being done for? TWOCing? Possession of a controlled substance with intent to supply?”
“Rumpole! Of course not.”
I considered the more outré possibilities. Judging by the watch, I would hardly put it past the boy to have acquired an antique sword-stick, and fleeted his time with it, heedless of section one of the Prevention of Crime Act 1953. The reference to “a public place” as I mentally flicked through the elements of that offence jogged my memory. Given those topaz eyes, that faintly foppish air and the fact that I would eat my hat if he had attained the age of twenty-one, I had been overlooking the obvious. That, of course, explained old Guthrie’s cat-on-hot-bricks manner.
“Cheer up, old thing. I’ll give the old darling on the bench Adonais from both barrels, and there’s a sporting chance he’ll remember the tendresse he felt for Pennycuik mi. in Upper V and sum up in our favour in a glow of sentiment. Which reminds me, who’s the other man? If the Vice Squad have been laying springes to catch woodcock again, I can’t see the Bull, for one, being impressed they’ve entangled the teenage son of an M.P.”
“Rumpole!” In his agitation he clutched at my arm and dragged me five yards down the passage, as if he expected young Merrick to be kneeling on the other side of my door, ear pressed to the keyhole. That, or he suspected Marigold of having bugged the English Reports which lined the passage. “He’s not a criminal.”
“Client,” I corrected.
“That’s what I said. Look, weren’t you paying attention in the last Chambers meeting?”
As a matter of fact, I had spent the last Chambers meeting triumphing over my old friend George Frobisher in the latest round of our perennial Battleships tournament. Accordingly, I assured our learned Head of Chambers that I had been paying the very closest attention, and left him to assume its object.
“Well, then, you must remember I announced the summer pupillage scheme then. Young Merrick has just finished his ‘A’ levels and I promised his mother he could spend a couple of weeks sitting in with us, while he decides if he might want to go in for law.”
In my experience, one does not “go in” for law. It goes for you, grabs you by the throat and you surface a few decades later with little to show for it but a taste for Chateau Thames Embankment and an endless store of anecdotes of the type which begin, “It reminds me of the last time I was defending an indecent exposure in the Sodbury petty sessions —”
Having said that, it is rare to find a personality so terminally eccentric as not to be able to find a niche at the Bar. In any event, at that moment I was distracted by Henry emerging from the clerks’ room waving a bundle of papers like a latter-day Chamberlain returned from Munich.
My nose lifted at the unmistakable scent of a brief.
Henry, handing it over, said, “And I’ve booked you a conference for eleven this morning. That should give you nice time to read the papers.”
I personally regard reading the papers before a conference as a great waste of time which could otherwise be spent having a cup of tea (milk, two sugars), and finding out from Dianne in the typists’ room how her weekend had gone. (I had spent many Sundays as a child whiling away the interminabilities of compulsory church and Sunday school with speculations about the nature of the sin of Gomorrah. Dianne’s accounts of her weekends has taught me that whatever it was, it had nothing on an average Saturday in Purley.)
Old Guthrie shuffled his feet and assumed the air of a slightly crest-fallen walrus confronted with a sub-par haddock. “Horace, this isn’t going to be one of your sordid cases, is it?”
“I sincerely hope so.” The outer page of the brief bore only the name and address of a firm of Lincoln’s Inn solicitors who had not previously sullied their scutcheon by instructing Horace Rumpole, being otherwise occupied in extricating the younger members of the Royal family from various vehicular and matrimonial scrapes. “Anyway, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve a con to prepare for.”
I shouldered past him, leaving him bleating something about what was he going to tell Helena? I left that to his non-existent initiative. If Guthrie thought the atmosphere of Number 3, Equity Court likely to corrupt the youth of today, one wondered why he had thought up the summer pupillage scheme in the first place. Presumably the idea had come from Keith at the Lord Chancellor’s office, whom Guthrie meets once a fortnight for golf and sycophancy.
“Try D.E.S.T.R.O.Y instead of D.E.S.P.A.I.R in 7 across,” I suggested, as I re-entered my room. “And then take a look at this. We’ve got the client coming in at eleven, and you won’t understand a thing unless you read the brief.”
I untied the brief’s pink string bindings, tossed it across at him and lit a cheroot. Briefs contain the bits instructing solicitors think are important. I prefer not to clutter up my mind, and instead get the story direct from the horse’s mouth in the fullness of time.
I recognised the client the instant he walked into my room. The last time I had seen Alec Deacon he had been a newly minted registrar, up on charges of importuning an undercover member of the Thames Valley Police in the gentlemen’s conveniences of Gloucester Green bus station, Oxford. That location appears so frequently in charge sheets one wonders how bona fide travellers manage to force themselves through the dense herds of importuners and importunees in order to relieve themselves.
Deacon had proved an admirable client: unflappable and not given either to over-confidence or inconvenient candour in the witness box. Thanks to a lucky question on my part, provoked by a shrewd hint on my client’s, the complainant confessed himself to be suffering from a mild but nonetheless career-limiting form of prosopagnosia. That, coupled with the Bench’s visible distaste for agent provocateur tactics, had been enough to get us home on the benefit of the doubt.
Now he had apparently transmuted into Sir Alec Deacon F.R.C.S. His first words to me on entering the room, followed by a brace of pin-striped goons, were, “Yes, Rumpole: whatever you may think, that really is ‘burglary’ on the charge sheet, not a spelling mistake’.”
I saw the flicker on my summer pupil’s face, like a well-brought up child pretending to its elders not to understand the jokes in Up Pompeii, and decided that in his case the adolescent corruption boat had surely sailed.
The senior goon looked censoriously across the table at my pupil. I decided to take the bull by the horns.
“Before we start, this is — ” I realised no-one, including the lad himself, had deigned to give me his Christian name. “This is young Merrick, who’s spending a few days in Chambers seeing what the law looks like. I take it you’ve got no objection if he sits in on the conference?”
“I most certainly — ” began the senior goon, before Deacon waved a hand and said, “Good God, given what I inflicted on poor unsuspecting patients when I was a trainee medic, I’d not be that much of a hypocrite. Let him stay, by all means.”
The senior goon retired affronted, we all sat down around the table and I waved a hand at Deacon to begin.
“In your own words, if you don’t mind. Merrick here will take a note.”
Alec Deacon had, it seems, had been caught climbing out of the broken back-window of a cottage in what had once been a fishing village on the Jurassic Coast of Dorset, now the preferred weekend resort of wealthy metropolitans seeking the simple life. Newspaper columnists, TV producers, fashion designers and even the odd Q.C. rubbed shoulders down its twisty streets and met for candlelit dinners in bijou seafront restaurants that had once been fish-gutting sheds.
The property in question (an actual cottage, unlike several of the sprawling mansions going by that title in the neighbourhood) had been owned for years by an old friend of Deacon’s, a writer of naval espionage thrillers in the Buchan tradition, but with a piquant dash of post-War disillusionment. They had always had a dogged core of enthusiasts (including yours truly, Horace Rumpole) but a recent BBC1 adaptation had propelled them into the best-seller category.
To prevent any over-alert reader leaping in at this point to observe that people climbing out of — or, for that matter, into — their friends’ houses by unconventional routes does not normally result in charges pursuant to s.9 of the Theft Act 1968, it may be worth mentioning that at the time of the alleged offence the cottage’s owner had been lying in a hospital mortuary some fifteen miles away. Furthermore, Alec Deacon could have been in no doubt about this, having spent the night at his friend’s deathbed. Once all was over at the hospital, he had driven away at a speed far greater than advisable on narrow Dorset roads. Some hours later, the deceased’s nephew caught him climbing out of the aforementioned window. The subsequent police investigation found evidence of a thorough search of the premises. Deacon, both when arrested and ever since, had refused to give any explanation for his activities, simply protesting that he was not a burglar and everything would be explained soon.
Now, with his trial uncomfortably imminent and whatever miracle he had been waiting for not having materialised, he had arrived in my chambers.
“None of this will make any sense if you didn’t know Ralph — ” Deacon waved in the direction of Merrick, whose pen was industriously poised. “The house’s owner. R.R. Lanyon.”
Merrick’s head jerked up from his notebook. “The R.R. Lanyon?”
Someone gave a sharp intake of breath; both goons glared in unison; for one moment the scene resembled a Bateman cartoon: The Barrister Who Allowed His Pupil To Speak in Con. Merrick flamed scarlet and retreated behind his notebook.
I lit another cheroot. “Go on.”
Deacon nodded. “R.R.Lanyon the best-selling author. Indeed. May I have a light?”
I offered him my lighter and he lit up a Sobranie from a plain gold case.
“Ralph, as I was about to say, has — had — a shockingly romantic streak beneath that cynical crust. You only have to read his books. All those self-reliant heroes with their emotions firmly repressed and every so often a chink in the armour lets the reader glimpse the sensitive, tortured soul beneath. The BBC played it to the nth degree, and women, in particular, lapped it up like cream. You should have seen the letters. Everything from tweedy dog-breeding spinsters sending hand-knitted scarves to schoolgirls treating him like the sixth Bay City Roller.”
Merrick stirred in his seat. I gave him a pre-emptive glare and mouthed, “Later”.
“Anyway, when his sister — whose existence, I have to say, came completely out of the blue (Ralph always was the original oyster when it came to his family) — showed up with her husband and two hulking louts of nephews, I assumed the worst and he said it. Behind closed doors, at least. It does look a touch pointed to ignore your only brother for forty years and then decide to recognise him as soon as he makes the Sunday Times best-seller list.”
Deacon took a thoughtful drag on his cigarette. “I told him at the time, he should have shown them the door the moment they appeared. But there was always that touch of sentiment about Ralph. Plus, his sister can’t have been more than about nine or so when he — left home. I suppose he thought it wasn’t entirely fair to blame her for his parents. At least, at first.”
The suited goons stirred, restively. Clearly they thought all this digression only of tangential relevance. I, on the other hand, had rather more faith in Deacon than in his instructing solicitors.
“And the rift within the lute?”
“I cannot imagine what the woman could possibly have been thinking.” His mobile features twisted with distaste. “Perhaps she was too much of a doting mother to think at all. Anyway, her younger boy was in the Sixth form of some godforsaken minor public school somewhere in the wilds. You know the kind of place. A cross between a third-rate penitentiary and a sanctuary for snobbish middle-class mediocrities.”
I thought (but did not say) that it sounded remarkably like my own alma mater.
“I don’t think, to be as fair as I can be to those people, their making up to Ralph was ever wholly about the money. There’s a sort of glamour about the lone author, pounding out stirring tales of spies and the sea on his trusty Imperial typewriter, with a whisky bottle at his elbow and a half-smoked pack of Players Navy Cut next to the hand that was half blown away at Dunkirk. At least, in theory and the glossy supplements.”
He stubbed out his cigarette with a twisting finality.
“So, Speech Day was coming up at the nephew’s school, and the imbecile woman decided that it would be a feather in the family’s cap if the boy’s famous uncle were to be on the podium handing out the prizes. Not that Ralph’s nephew would have been in the running for any, not if he’d inherited his mother’s absence of brains. Anyway, she didn’t bother asking Ralph if he didn’t mind. She wrote straight to the headmaster, proposing him for the job. The headmaster leapt on the idea.”
“It didn’t go down well?”
Deacon gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Not given how Ralph’s own schooldays ended. The headmaster’s letter arrived at breakfast time — Ralph’s normal breakfast time, that is. Second post. About ten-thirty. His cleaning lady happened to be there when he opened it. I spoke to her later. Her husband used to be a Marine sergeant; she’s not one to call the odd ‘damn’ effing and blinding like the world was ending. I think, quietly, she was quite impressed.”
He drew a deep breath. “Anyway, that was on a Tuesday. According to his cleaning lady, he packed an attaché case — no point trying to draw conclusions from that, Ralph could have gone round the world with what he could hold in an attaché case — gave her the week’s wages and headed off to the station. It’s unmanned, blast it. Presumably he bought a ticket from the conductor on whatever train he caught going wherever he was going.”
I nodded, this always being a sensible thing to do when one’s client is in full flow. “And then?”
“The following Tuesday his cleaning woman came in as usual — or tried to come in, because when she unlocked the front door it wouldn’t budge more than about six inches. So she looked through the letter-box, only to see Ralph, slumped on the mat. From what we managed to piece together later, he’d probably got in some time on Sunday evening and been there ever since, passed out on the mat. Drunk, obviously, but turns out there’d also been a small bleed in the brain. They found that on the autopsy. Not the first bleed, either, it turned out, once I’d had a chance to talk to his G.P.”
Deacon paused, looking grey. I suppose even an F.R.C.S. finds the thought of his friends being cut up after death a trifle disconcerting. After a moment, he continued.
“She ran and found her husband, and they broke a window at the back, clambered through and called the ambulance. Then she called me, bless her. Well, given what she’d heard Ralph say the previous week, she wasn’t going to ring the next of kin. I suppose I came up early in his Rolodex and was obviously a medic of some sort and only as far off as Oxford. He may even have mentioned me to her. One never knows.”
“And what did you find when you got to the hospital?”
Deacon sighed. “Ralph was only intermittently lucid — and, some of the time, having quite detailed conversations with people who weren’t there. Also, given he’d spent however long it was lying on the stone floor of an eighteenth century fisherman’s cottage, pneumonia was the obvious complication. But, shortly before the end — you know, it’s the oddest thing but I checked, afterwards, and it really was on the turn of the tide — he roused himself up, looked straight at me and said, quite briskly, “You’ll tell Laurie, won’t you? And whatever you do, don’t let them take them. Good. I knew I could rely —” And then he sort of yawned, and — went.”
“Don’t let them take them.” I focussed, I’m sorry to say, on the part of the witness’s testimony of most relevance in a case of burglary. “Did you have any idea what he might have meant?”
“I’d a good idea.” Deacon looked almost surprised to be asked. “Ralph kept diaries. Pretty frank ones, I suspect. I’d warned him before it was giving hostages to fortune. Especially once he became famous enough to get the likes of the News of the World interested.”
I nodded, and resisted the temptation to rub my hands together. Lives of great men all remind us/As we o’er their pages turn/That we too may leave behind us/Letters that we ought to burn. An underrated poet, Tom Hood. “So then?”
He grimaced. “I know how these things work. I headed off to the cottage before the next of kin could get there; the hospital would have called them or sent the police round to do it. No sign of the cleaning woman — she’d locked up and gone off somewhere to recover from the shock or carry on with her rounds or whatever. I poked in all the obvious places, in case Ralph had been in the habit of leaving a spare key under a plant pot or whatever, but no luck. So, there already being a conveniently broken window at the back with just a board propped across it, I nipped in that way and started a hunt for anything Ralph might have left that he mightn’t want his sister’s brood to get their hands on.”
“Which is why,” the younger goon interjected, unexpectedly, “the police found our client’s fingerprints all over the house. Including, unfortunately, in places they decided couldn’t possibly be explained by his explanation of a casual visit, some time ago.”
A grim smile lifted Deacon’s lips. “I didn’t think it would actually help , in the circumstances, to enlighten them about where Ralph’s casual visitors might have put their fingers.”
I avoided looking at Merrick, and suppressed a sigh. Given it must have been second nature for Deacon to pull on surgical gloves in his day-job, it would hardly have taken much forethought for him to do it when he decided to start moonlighting as a petty criminal.
“Was there anything to be found?” I phrased the question carefully. Despite the usual canard aimed at criminal lawyers, the very last thing one wants to know is that one’s client is guilty.
Despite his gaffe about the gloves, Deacon had sound criminal instincts. “If there was, I didn’t find it. More’s the pity.”
I avoided commenting. “So what then?”
“I climbed out the way I’d climbed in — and practically landed on top of Ralph’s elder nephew, who was lurking about in the bushes near the window. His story, of course was that he’d come along, leaving his mother at the hospital, in order to ensure that the property was secured against longshore pickers up of unconsidered trifles, now it was known to be empty. My words, or, rather, Shakespeare’s, not his. But that was the gist of his offensive splutterings.”
“But what did you think?” Long experience has taught me that the motives people attribute to others shed remarkable light on their own.
Deacon laughed. “If I’d not come out when I did, he’d have been in there like a ferret down a rabbit hole, looking for Ralph’s Will. The sister swore blind that Ralph hadn’t been to see her during the missing week, and that may have been true, as far as it goes. But if I know Ralph, he’d have written or phoned, to tell her it’d be a cold day in Hell before he saw her or any of her family again. Whatever they may have hoped to get out of him before, they’d no hope after. That’s why I let myself be arrested; I thought if the police had the cottage pegged as a crime scene, it might stop the family having another go.”
“I take it no-one’s found a Will, as yet?”
Deacon shook his head. “Not at his publishers or his agent’s, and his solicitors only handle his copyrights and so on, not anything personal. Nothing at the cottage. I tried to get hold of Spud — Laurie Odell — he’d be the obvious choice as literary executor, but the BBC told me he’s out in the Central Asian Republics, filming an historical documentary on the travels of Alexander, and the comrades are being as obstructive as possible. If Ralph did try to send him his Will, it’s probably sitting in a tray in the K.G.B branch office in Samarkand. I take it if it never turns up, the sister gets the lot?”
One of the goons took this as his cue to expand at some length on the law of intestacy (the answer came down in favour of the sister, on balance), while I thought furiously.
The Theft Act 1968 is a complete giraffe of an Act (i.e “a horse, designed by committee.”) It revolves around a small number of crucial concepts, all of them equally intractable. These are: “belonging to another” “dishonestly appropriate” and “intention permanently to deprive”.
In this case, the property (the diaries) almost certainly belonged to another. If that other were Lanyon’s sister (and family) then Deacon had had a clear intention permanently to deprive them of any access to his friend’s private papers. If, instead, Lanyon had bequeathed his estate to a friend of his own persuasion, then Deacon would probably have handed them over to that friend without demur. Since Deacon (according to his own story, anyway) had not succeeded in removing anything from the premises, a conviction under s.9 (burglary) depended on his having intended to steal something there at the point when he had entered as a trespasser. Which, in turn, brought us back to the thorny question of who owned what.
In short, until we found and opened the Will, Deacon was Schrödinger’s cat-burglar.
I got rid of my client and his instructing solicitors soon afterwards. I had a lot to do if I were going to keep Alec Deacon out of chokey, and proposed to start with my summer pupil, whose restiveness during the con had piqued my curiosity. Merrick’s father was the M.P. for East Dorset, which made Lanyon one of his constituents. If Guthrie were anything to go by, our elected Members have not the slightest concept of discretion, and something of interest might have come to young Merrick’s ears.
“So,” I said, lighting another cheroot and absently correcting M.O.N.T.R.E.A.L. to M.O.N.T.R.O.S.E in 16 across, “suppose you now tell me everything you were dying to confide in there about the late Ralph Ross Lanyon, D.S.O.?”
Young Merrick drew a deep breath, glanced all round the room as if seeking inspiration and then said, all in a rush, “I think someone I know spoke to Lanyon in the week before he died. And I think there was something funny about it. Peculiar, I mean, not ha-ha.”
“Well.” I leant back in my chair and exhaled. “Tell me everything. Don’t leave a thing out.”
That last instruction turned out to be a mistake. Whatever they had taught him at school, narrative method did not seem to have featured highly. I have taken the liberty of editing to remove rambling, back-tracking and several digressions into falconry and the state of the late 20th century Catholic Church.
Young Merrick, it seemed, had a friend called Nicola Marlow, who was, literally, the girl next door. By Merrick standards, this meant she lived about a mile away. His insistence she was not his girl-friend was so vehement it set all my instincts tingling. No cross-examiner ever had a better motto than “the lady doth protest too much.”
In any event, girl-friend or not, when they had both been home from school during the previous November half-term, they had amused themselves by hacking across country to Wade Abbas, where they had stabled their ponies at a local riding school and gone for a wander round town. Wade Abbas boasted an excellent book-shop (a rarity, in this increasingly illiterate age) whose window, to Nicola Marlow’s unconfined excitement, featured R.R.Lanyon’s latest, all his older works which his publishers had rushed out with new covers showing stills from the TV series, and an announcement that the great man himself would be available to sign books from two pm that afternoon.
After some convoluted teenage financial manoeuvres (which boiled down to Merrick, being eighteen and the son of the local Member, finding it much easier to persuade the local bookshop to extend credit to him than to young Nicola) the two of them joined what was now a considerable (and growing) queue.
In due course they arrived at the signing table, the author looked up, smiled and asked “Who shall I say it’s to?” and Nicola went pink and said, “Nicola Marlow, please”. At that point, as young Merrick claimed, the author:
“Looked as if he’d been struck a massive heap. The two middle-aged females in the queue behind us got quite restive, because up to then it’d been Smile, Ask, Sign; Smile, Ask, Sign. Everything ship-shape and Bristol fashion: a maximum of twenty seconds per fan, but twenty very intense seconds, so no-one felt short-changed. You could tell he’d done a million times before. Only now he stopped signing altogether — I remember watching his fountain pen, with a drop of blue ink forming on the nib, because I thought it was going to drop off onto the frontispiece and wreck Nick’s new book — and just stared at her, standing there in her jodhs and hacking jacket, like she’d beamed down from the Enterprise .”
Perhaps prompted by my recollections of Alec Deacon and his contretemps at Gloucester Green bus station, I said, “What was he like, Lanyon? I mean, how did he strike you?”
Merrick, with more credit to his youthful innocence than he might have preferred to display, took that as an enquiry about Lanyon’s appearance.
“Well, actually, that was a bit odd. I mean - I don’t mean to imply he was some sort of gargoyle. Quite the reverse — distinguished, I suppose you’d say. Terrifically wiry and upright, with impressive eyes and a manner that came over like a challenge to the world to do its worst.”
Merrick gave that last phrase the full-blown Sidney Carson treatment, then his voice dropped into a deflated, workaday tone. “As a matter of fact, he looked as if he could have been Nick’s grandfather. Or her great-uncle. The same combination of thin face, sharp bones and fine blonde hair. And the same sort of facing the firing squad without a blindfold expression.”
I must have looked up, because he said, quickly, “But that’s absurd. She’s got seven sisters and brothers, all alike.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said. The odds against having a case which included both a missing Will and a long-lost daughter must be considerably longer than a million to one. Furthermore, Deacon’s description of Lanyon suggested he was unlikely to have the indiscretions of his youth return to him in that particular form. “What then?”
“He said, ‘Excuse me, this may sound like an odd question, but you don’t happen to know a Robbie Anquetil, do you?’ And Nicola was struck literally speechless. He said something — I can’t remember what, and then he looked at the line and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m neglecting my duties. But I see you do. If you’re not pushed for time, could we have a word, afterwards?’”
“And did they?”
“Yes. Except — well, we went over to a corner of the bookshop, and Nick was in a right flap, and then she said —” Merrick’s voice acquired a tinge of disbelief, not unmixed with outrage. “She asked me if I minded making myself scarce for an hour or so, while she talked to Lanyon. So naturally we had a row — I said that she couldn’t just go off somewhere with a man she’d only just met, and she insisted that it wasn’t anything like that but she couldn’t tell me what it was, and a famous author wasn’t going to abduct her from the middle of Wade Abbas in broad daylight, and anyway, the long and the short of it was we were still arguing when Lanyon finished with his fan club and came over to find us.”
“And what did he say?”
Merrick flushed. “As a matter of fact, what he actually said, to Nicola, was, ‘Your friend is quite right. Have the events of the Easter before last taught you nothing?’ and she grinned at him and said, ‘I didn’t think anyone was supposed to know about those.’ But he looked at me as if he was finding something massively hilarious about the whole situation, and I wasn’t in on the joke.”
Plainly, Merrick had had his nose put thoroughly out of joint by his not-a-girlfriend-honestly daring to have a life which did not revolve around him. I pressed with a few further questions from which it transpired that Merrick had accompanied Nicola and Lanyon as far as a tea-shop called The Copper Kettle and collected her, as arranged, precisely sixty minutes later. What she and Lanyon had discussed, Nicola did not reveal. However, towards the end of the ride home, she had remarked, apropos of A High Wind in Jamaica, which Nicola’s school had inflicted on her by way of ‘O’ Level set text, that she had thought all that business about Emily not realising that she had experienced something until someone else put a name on it was nonsense, but after today she now thought there was something in it.
Interesting as all this was (I made a note to ask Deacon whether Lanyon had ever mentioned a Robbie Anquetil) I pointed out that he had promised me information about the last week of Lanyon’s life, not six months earlier.
“I was coming to that.”
Lanyon’s death had even made the national news, so the local radio had had a field day. Merrick, with somewhat more tact than I’d given him credit for, had set off to see if he could be the first to break the news to Nicola. In that, he had succeeded. What he had not expected was Nicola’s unguarded first reaction:
“But he looked perfectly OK last week.”
On which admission, when pressed, she had stubbornly refused to give any further and better particulars whatever.
As a barrister one is not supposed to hobnob with or coach potential witnesses. But when Fate hands one an opportunity like this, in a case where, so far, there had been pretty few breaks for the defence, who can blame an Old Bailey hack for taking his chances?
I told young Merrick in no uncertain terms that a man’s liberty and good name were at stake (it is just possible that I delivered myself of the salient points of my “who steals my purse makes trash” speech which goes down so well in parts of the Northern, Midland and Wales and Chester circuits.) Accordingly, I directed him, it was incumbent on him to call his not-a-girlfriend-honestly forthwith and ask her to cough up whatever she knew about the late Ralph Ross Lanyon.
Merrick took the telephone receiver with the air of a trainee snake charmer essaying his first black mamba. Eventually, after a longish pause while someone went to find someone else, he discovered that his possibly-not inamorata was not at home in Dorset, but up in London, staying for a few weeks with a school friend. The person on the other end of the line clearly was offering him her number there. This, he wrote down with the greatest reluctance.
Then he looked up. “Please could you call it for me?”
There were many things I could have said, most of them true. But it was quite clear that young Merrick had been overcome by paralysing shyness at the prospect of having to call a strange number, and if I wanted it rung, I would have to do it myself.
After a couple of rings, a gentle, rather hesitant voice answered my call. “Hello? Nathan West speaking.”
That made life simpler. I knew and liked Nathan West, whose scrupulously balanced expert’s report had saved Perceval Timson from the clutches of H.M.P. Wandsworth on the occasion (rare, for a member of that family) of his being falsely accused in the matter of a faked-antiques ring.
“West, it’s Horace Rumpole here. Yes, from 3 Equity Court. Look, my summer pupil, young Merrick, tells me you’ve got a friend of his, Nicola Marlow, staying. Would it be possible to have a word?”
“Certainly. She was here a moment ago — Miranda, can you let Nicola know there’s a call for her — nothing wrong, I trust?”
“Not at all. I was rather hoping she — and your daughter, of course — might join Merrick and me for a wander round Temple Gardens and Church at lunchtime tomorrow.”
“I should think they’d be delighted — oh, there you are, Nicola. It’s Horace Rumpole for you — no, he’ll explain. Good afternoon, Rumpole.”
In the distance I heard a door shut.
“Hello? Mr Rumpole?”
“Miss Marlow —”
She giggled, nervously. “Oh, please, call me Nicola. The other one makes me sound like my sister Rowan putting her foot down with the man from the Min of Ag and Fish.”
This probably made sense to Miss Marlow. “Nicola, it’s about a case I’ve got on at the moment, where I hoped you might be able to help. I understand from young Merrick, who’s spending a week or so in my Chambers, that you may have known the writer, R.R. Lanyon?”
There was a pause. Then, in a voice which sounded suddenly closed, she said, “There’s not been any trouble about the pub, has there? The landlord looked as if he thought it was all right —”
I hastened to assure her that I had no news of any breach of the licensing laws, and hoped the sub-text, that I had no wish to know of any, came through loud and clear.
“It’s only a question of establishing some facts about Mr Lanyon’s last days. A lot hangs on it for my client.” I gave her a brief summary of Deacon’s predicament.
When I had finished she paused for a moment and then said, “Oh. So that’s why —”
The note of enlightenment in her voice was like the trumpets sounding for me on the other side.
“Miss Marlow — Nicola — if there is anything you know, please can I ask you to tell me. It is truly important.”
“Well, yes, I can see that. It’s just — well, it’s all tied up with stuff that isn’t mine to tell. Patrick keeps teasing me to tell him, but it really is can’t not won’t for heaps of it — all the bit to do with the lighthouse, to begin with.”
I summoned the shade of the Master to my aid once more. “Ah! The politician, the lighthouse keeper and the trained cormorant, a tale for which the world is not yet prepared — would that be it?”
She giggled appreciatively. I felt I had gained the sympathy of the tribunal.
“Well, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had dilemmas like that. Look, suppose you and your friend come and meet me and young Merrick tomorrow, say about 1pm in front of the main door of the Temple Church? We could have a wander round the gardens and you could see what it was that you can say.”
“Wild horses wouldn’t stop me,” she assured me, and hung up.
Miss Nicola Marlow proved to be an alert, blonde child of about sixteen, who arrived at our assigned meeting point accompanied by West’s daughter, Miranda.
The West child endeared herself to me at once by her amused but wary tolerance of my summer pupil, and her protective attitude towards her friend. I think she suspected Nicola was at risk of being Done Wrong by young Merrick, if he could ever manage to disentangle his arse from his elbow, and was determined not to let it happen on her watch.
Young Merrick, oblivious to all this, showed off the garden to them both as if he had been a Bencher of the Inn for the last quarter century.
“And here,” he said, gesturing towards a particularly fine specimen of flowering Jeanne d’Arc, is where it all began. When Richard’s father challenged the other nobles to show him where they stood.” He pulled a flowering spray towards himself.
“Let him that is a true-born gentleman
And stands upon the honour of his birth,
If he suppose that I have pleaded truth,
From off this brier pluck a white rose with me.”
“Really here, on this very spot? How absolutely super.” Nicola looked at the roses in an entranced sort of way.
“Give or take a few acres and the Thames Embankment,” I observed. While normally I am all for the young getting drunk on poetry, there is a time and a place for everything, as Juliet’s Nurse no doubt wished she had reminded her charge more often. “Anyway, Nicola, tell us about the last time you saw Ralph Lanyon. It was, I gather, during the Easter holidays?”
She nodded. “Yes. It was the Friday before Palm Sunday; we’d broken up the day before. You remember, Patrick; I came over to see if you wanted to do anything with Regina, and you’d got yourself into a state about ‘A’ Level revision, and sent me away with a proper flea in my ear —”
“Don’t rub it in,” Merrick said. “I was up to my neck in Racine. Bloody Andromache.”
Nicola grinned. “Fair enough. Only, when you gave me the brush-off, I didn’t actually fancy crawling back home to face Ann and Ginty with ‘Not wanted on voyage’ written all over me.”
West’s daughter slid a sidelong glance at Merrick, who was looking studiously blank. “So what did you do?”
“Mooched off towards the village. Just as I was getting there I heard a train whistle and I realised if I ran I could just make the train to Portsmouth, and go and look at H.M.S. Victory.”
Nicola drew a deep breath. “Only I’d just got to the ticket place at the Victory when I heard someone call my name. So I looked round and there was Mr Lanyon coming out of a door marked ‘staff only’ with another man. He said something like ‘Goodbye, George, thanks for everything’ to him, they shook hands and the other man went back inside the staff place. Then Mr Lanyon turned to me and said, ‘Over the course of a misspent life, I’ve become more and more convinced the Greek playwrights were on to something. There really is no such thing as a chance meeting. Miss Marlow, may I buy you a cup of coffee?’”
I scribbled a note on my pad. The Friday before Palm Sunday was squarely within the missing week, and a man called “George” who worked at H.M.S.Victory ought to be traceable.
“What did you do?” The West child was not going to let the witness off the hook.
“Well, natch I said, yes, I’d be delighted.” Plainly, Nicola had absorbed the Swallows and Amazons dictum of “Grab a chance and you’ll never be sorry for a Might Have Been.”
“So where did you go?”
She grinned, a trifle sheepishly. “He suggested the George but I wasn’t wearing anything fit for the best hotel in Portsmouth — any hotel, really — and though he set off telling me it didn’t matter, after a bit he sort of smiled and said over to me, my choice. I think he thought I wanted to go to a milk bar or somewhere, but I’d spotted a pub on the edge of the Dockyard with this fab name — The Ship Leopard — which I knew I’d never get a look inside in ordinary circumstances, and I thought it was worth chancing my arm. And he looked completely taken aback, and then laughed like a drain and told me I was on, but I wasn’t to blame him if the landlord collapsed in apoplexy at the sight of me, me ‘not being the sort of female he was accustomed to entertain in his establishment’.”
Looking at Merrick, I felt the landlord was not the only one at risk of apoplexy.
“So what happened?” the West child enquired.
“It was completely magic. Absolutely everyone else in there was a dockyard worker or a trawlerman or something like that, and Mr Lanyon somehow managed to get them all telling him yarns about the sea. I think, after a while, he forgot all about me, because when the bell rang for last orders — that would have been at twenty-past two — he looked almost surprised to find I was still there. But then he said, ‘Look, Nicola, I’d been meaning to ask a favour. I’ve got some notebooks and letters I’d been planning to entrust to Robbie for a few weeks, but it turns out he’s out of the country. Do you mind looking after them until he gets back?’”
The West girl frowned at her. “But surely, after the Changegear huha —”
“That’s what I said. Well, I didn’t explain all about it, but I said that after a massive row at school I’d made a rule not to take pigs in pokes, but that obviously I’d like to help if I could. And he said, fair enough, and would it be OK if I saw what I was going to be looking after in advance, and that it absolutely wasn’t anything illegal, just personal stuff which he thought needed to get back to the person it most concerned, and Robbie was the best person to ensure that happened, as he — Mr Lanyon, that is — couldn’t do it directly. So I said that sounded OK, and he had a word with one of the trawlermen and gave him a couple of quid and the trawlerman went off to the newsagents on the corner and came back with brown paper, string and sealing wax.”
The time has come, the Walrus said…
“And did you get a good look at the inside of the parcel?” This, of course, was the sixty-four thousand dollar question as far as my client’s case was concerned.
“Oh, yes. Mr Lanyon promised.” Nicola furrowed her brow. “There were about four or five hard-backed notebooks — big ones, foolscap, I think, not A4. The marble-patterned sort with cloth spines. He opened a couple, so I could see what was in them, but they looked like diaries, so obviously I only sort of skimmed.”
That restraint may have been obvious to a Miss Nicola Marlow, but, as Alec Deacon’s defence counsel, I could have done with someone more inquisitive and less honourable. “Anything else?”
“A couple of letters, in sealed envelopes. One was addressed to someone I didn’t know — L.P. someone or other — and the other to Mr Anquetil.” She shivered, although the afternoon sun was beating down on Temple garden. “You know, when I — when Patrick told me Mr Lanyon had been found dead about four days later, I wondered if — I know this sounds completely like something out of Hannay, but I did just wonder if they might have been those sort of letters. You know: If you are reading this, then I’m sorry to say —”
She broke off.
“Doesn’t sound at all like the R.R. Lanyon you’ve been talking about,” the West girl said briskly. “More like, ‘Whatever you do, don’t let the Sun get their paws on my diaries while I’m abroad. Drinks in the Boar’s Head when I get back.’ “
While from a defence advocate’s point of view I rather hoped she was wrong, as a friend it was exactly the right thing for her to say. Nicola cheered up at once.
“Anyway, the last thing, before he finally sealed up the package, he pulled a long red envelope out of his jacket pocket, said, ‘Might as well’ and put it in with the other two.”
If you believe my Chancery brethren, about a quarter of the probate cases going through the courts result from amateurs making mistakes with W.H.Smith’s DIY Will forms. Nevertheless, their distinctive red envelopes are very hard to mistake for anything else.
“Look here, Nick, I can’t see how Lanyon could possibly have done all of this in the ten minutes after they called last orders,” Merrick said, displaying a genius for missing the point worthy of Claude Erskine-Brown.
Nicola blushed pink. “Oh, didn’t I say? The landlord, about half-way through the yarning session, did sort of hiss at Mr Lanyon, ‘Whenever you like, sir; just give the word and we’ll let you and the young lady out the side door.’ I think it was well past half-three by the time we finished. I had to run to make sure of catching the 16.09.”
“Nicola! You crafty so-and-so. You were in a lockin!” The West child looked visibly impressed.
“In a dockside pub in Pompey. I can’t think what the parents are going to say.” Nicola’s attempt at nonchalance failed to convince.
“Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,” I said. “So, he entrusted the parcel to you. Do you still have it?”
She nodded. “He said he’d write to Robbie — to Mr Anquetil — and let him know I’d got it, and I promised I wouldn’t open it or hand it over to anyone except him. It’s in the back of my wardrobe at Trennels, locked in my old suitcase that used to be Giles’.”
“Well, then,” Merrick said, “we can go down and get it this afternoon. There’s no time to waste.”
Nicola looked at him with an almost sisterly exasperation. “Honestly, Patrick, you are the limit. You sound like Ann. I can’t do that; I promised.”
“But you can’t let someone go to gaol just because you made a promise to a dead man. It’s not like it was a vow; Mr Lanyon couldn’t possibly have known how things were going to turn out.”
“But don’t you see, that’s the point? If it had been what I thought it was when I met him in Portsmouth, that he was going abroad and didn’t know when he’d be back, then I’d take a chance, because I could always explain and apologise later. But it’s different, somehow, now he’s dead —”
“The undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns,” the West child said unexpectedly. “Look, Mr Rumpole, surely this must come up in law from time to time? I remember once at the Shop, there was a kerfuffle where one of our customers was supposed to have done something shady — under- or over-declared the value of stuff he’d bought off us to fiddle tax or something. Anyway, the Inland Revenue showed up, asking Daddy to let them have a look at his accounts so they could prove what the real prices had been. And, you have to understand, the one thing that Daddy really cannot abide is tax fiddling of any sort. Every so often some accountant comes to him with some scheme or another and even when it’s absolutely 100% blue chip he can’t show them the door fast enough. So he was completely on the Revenue’s side, but then, in order to help them out, he’d have had to betray customer confidence, and that’s a no-no too.”
“So what did he do?” Nicola enquired.
“Said that they had a statutory right to seize his books for inspection, and if they used it, he wouldn’t challenge them. My mother was furious; she said if people knew that we’d had our books seized by the tax inspectors they’d think the fiddle was on our side. But Daddy said no: if he forced the Revenue to demand them formally, rather than just tamely surrender them, it’d show any customers that they could expect him to defend their interests as far as the law permitted, and no further. And that no-one had any right to expect any more or any less.”
“Oh, I see. Sneaky. It’s a whatchamacallit —” Nicola said. “You know. Like a peppercorn rent.”
“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘legal fiction’,” the West child said. “Is there anything like that in this case, Mr Rumpole? Because there ought to be.”
Terminology apart, I had no quarrel with someone who could come up with the subpoena duces tecum from first principles.
“There is indeed, Miss West. And we shall do precisely that.”
Miss Nicola Marlow was a dream in the witness box, helped, somewhat by the fact that the fates had sent us Mr Justice Graves, who softened to a remarkable degree before her clear, girlish soprano and general air of well-brought-up candour.
I took her through her evidence in chief, which she gave pretty much as she had told us in Temple Gardens, omitting the lock-in. She even managed to make the Ship Leopard, which she did not name, sound like the kind of quaint little dockside taverna, totally authentic and packed with the most amazing local characters beloved of travel writers gushing about the Cyclades or the Bay of Naples.
Then I invited her to produce the package Lanyon had entrusted to her, still intact in its original string and sealing wax. After much heart-searching, I had decided to put it into evidence unopened, as the least of numerous evils. I quizzed her about her recollections of its contents and, despite Erskine-Brown’s somewhat inept attempts to shake her memory, she remained steadfast in her assertion that she had seen it wrapped and it contained some four or five hard backed notebooks and three sealed envelopes, one red.
After Erskine-Brown had finished his attempts at cross-examination, I asked that the package be handed to Alec Deacon. He confirmed (and was promptly told off by Erskine-Brown for purporting to give expert evidence) that the handwriting on the outside certainly looked like Ralph Lanyon’s; also, by way of aside, that only Ralph could manage to fold hospital corners on a parcel.
Erskine-Brown then launched a fundamentally misconceived effort to have the package ruled inadmissible, which promptly lost him the sympathy of the jury. Breathes there a man with soul so dead who, when confronted with a sealed package handed by a renowned spy-thriller writer to a young and attractive blonde girl mere days before his unexpected death, would pass up the chance of seeing what was inside on a mere legal technicality?
I thought not. So did Mr Justice Graves.
He leaned over towards Nicola and said, in his most avuncular manner, “Miss Marlow, while I appreciate that you gave Mr Lanyon a promise to pass his papers only to his friend Mr Anquetil, who regrettably is not available to receive them, you are here as a result of a subpoena duces tecum. Do you know what that means?”
I caught a hint of an impatient snort from the West girl, for whom I had obtained leave to sit next to my instructing solicitors, on the (unspoken) basis that her contribution to the defence had been of considerably more use than theirs.
“It means I had to bring the parcel with me for inspection,” Nicola said, in that clear, confident voice. “By order of the court. Under penalty, if I didn’t.”
Mr Justice Graves nodded. “Your Latin teacher is to be congratulated. In that case, please would you open it for us?”
There was a moment’s amusement in court when Nicola produced from inside her shoulder-bag a lavishly multi-bladed penknife of the sort I (and, I strongly suspected, Mr Justice Graves) had lusted after at prep school. She sliced through the waxed knots with brisk efficiency, and unwrapped the paper. Everyone craned their heads to look.
Inside the brown-paper wrappings were five hard-backed note-books, large, two white envelopes and one red.
I reached for the red envelope first, held it up, and slit it open with Nicola’s helpfully proffered knife. A Will, as I expected. Ralph Lanyon’s family were mentioned nowhere; there were scattered bequests to individuals and the King George’s Fund for Sailors scooped the rest.
The important thing, though, was the executor. I read the name and heaved a large (internal) sigh of relief.
I handed notebooks, letters and Will up to Mr Justice Graves and submitted that they should be put into evidence, as being highly material to the issues of “property belonging to another” and “dishonest appropriation” in the case against my client.
The old darling conceded that they certainly appeared to be material evidence, leaving Erskine-Brown with no more spirit in him. Nicola was released from the witness box. She made her way to a seat at the back of the court, making discreet thumbs up signals to her friend as she passed.
I asked for my client to be recalled to the stand. I had one final question for him.
“Mr Deacon, do you know a Laurence Odell?”
Alec Deacon looked like a batsman at the crease, pleasantly surprised to find the bowling so friendly. He paused for one second and, metaphorically, hit my question out of the ground.
“Yes, Mr Rumpole. In fact, he’s just walking into Court now.”
Sensation in the public gallery, as they used to say in the press reports. I turned my head to see a tired-looking, grey-haired man, leaning on a stick, making his way forwards. I turned back to Mr Justice Graves and threw caution to the winds.
“M’lud, may I have permission to call one more witness? I would have called him earlier, but I understood him to have been unavoidably detained. In Samarkand.”
Despite having participated in one of the most satisfyingly dramatic cases I could remember (Alec Deacon, pausing to shake hands on his way out of court, murmured, “Rumpole, you and I are going to have to stop meeting like this. Or they’ll be scraping me off the doormat with a bleed in my brain.”) the law did not appear to have grabbed young Merrick for its own.
I received a note, a day or so after the end of his summer pupillage, thanking me for all I had taught him, but conspicuously failing to mention whether he had enjoyed the experience or had any intention of repeating it.
My grief on the subject was controllable (a phrase I had picked up from Nicola Marlow), the more so since the same post brought a letter from the West child, shyly enquiring if the summer pupillage scheme would be running again next year and, if so, whether it might be possible for a pre- rather than post-‘A’ Level student to apply for it?
A further, unexpected item in that day’s mail was a gilt-edged card, inviting me to a service at All Hallows by the Tower, to celebrate the life of Ralph Ross Lanyon, and thereafter at an evening reception on HQS Wellington, on the Embankment.
I missed the service, as it happens; one of the Timsons had got himself involved in a misunderstanding over a frozen food lorry which required my attendance at Ilford Crown Court. By the time I got back to Chambers it was past six. I was in two minds about going to the evening event. I would know no-one there, with the possible exception of Alec Deacon, and it is always awkward socialising with clients. Strangers ask how one comes to know another, and a mention of the Crown Court seldom goes down well.
Nevertheless, it was a beautiful evening and doubtless the quality of drinks at Lanyon’s wake would be far higher than Jack Pommeroy’s vin very extraordinaire.
I locked my room behind me, and stepped out into Temple Gardens, which were heavy with the scent of cut grass and the last of the roses. I turned my steps towards the Embankment after all. A sailor had embarked on his final voyage and we, left behind, would gather to wish him “God speed.”
Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.