Authors: Sarah Caudwell
This page is an exception to the rule that my friends J.T. and J.B. never appear on the same side of anything. Those that follow are dedicated to them jointly, in gratitude for their kindness and encouragement and innumerable drinks in the Corkscrew.
Cost candor what it may, I will not deceive my readers. By some whim of the publishers, and despite my own protests, the ensuing narrative is to be offered to the public in the guise of a work of fiction. Well, I will have no part in so gross an imposture: what follows is not some ingenious invention, but a plain, unembellished account of actual events, of interest, I fear, only to the more scholarly. Some of my readers, perhaps many, having expected to find in these pages diversion rather than instruction, will now hasten back to their booksellers to demand indignantly, it may be with threats of legal action, reimbursement of the sum so ill-advisedly expended. So be it: such readers will give me credit, I hope, for having enabled them by my prompt confession to return the volume unread and in almost pristine condition; and I for my part (for publisher and bookseller I cannot speak) would rather forgo the modest sum which would accrue to me from a sale—very modest, meager might be a better word, one might almost say paltry—would infinitely rather forgo that sum than think it obtained by deception.
Ah, dear reader, would that I could indeed bring to my task the skills not merely of the Scholar but of the novelist. Would that the historian might be permitted to have regard to Art rather than Truth, and so enliven the narrative with descriptions of scenes known only by hearsay or speculation. Would above all that I could begin my story, as the writer of fiction might so easily do, at the true starting-point of the strange and tragic events which I propose to relate: the execution, on a March day in 1934, at the offices in Lincoln’s Inn Fields of Messrs. Tancred & Co., Solicitors, of the last Will and Testament of Sir James Remington-Fiske.
How admirably, and with what profusion of persuasive detail, would a novelist convey the scene: the dark old-fashioned office, its walls lined with Law Reports and Encyclopaedias of Conveyancing Precedents; the window looking out on the green rectangle of Lincoln’s Inn Fields; the weary-eyed, sober-suited clerk, perched on his stool to prepare the engrossment of the Will, copying the draft on to parchment in laborious black copperplate. (So shortly before the client arrived to sign it? Yes, I think so—it may be supposed, since Sir James died within the month, that he already knew the mortality of his condition, and that the Will was a matter of haste and urgency.) Outside, the pale sunbeams play a coquettish hide-and-seek with the springtime clouds; purple crocuses brighten the grass at the foot of the plane trees; a girl in a pretty dress walks past, the breeze ruffling her hair; the clerk, looking up and seeing her, smiles and returns with a lighter heart to his labors.
A motor-car—a Rolls-Royce, I suppose—draws to a purring halt outside the office. The man who steps from it has at first sight the large, loose-knit physique which seems designed for walking grouse moors, and the high complexion that comes from doing so; but his flesh, when one looks more closely, is shrunken by illness, and the skin unhealthily mottled. The woman beside him, not yet middle-aged, still elegant, though she has borne six children, seems already almost in mourning—her round gray hat and veil give her a widowed look. The senior partner, emerging from his private office to greet them with the grave deference appropriate to the client and the occasion, asks anxiously—
No. No, I can’t do it. I do not know if Sir James was tall or short, or what kind of hat his wife wore; the crocuses may have been yellow; there may have been no pretty girls in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that day. I do not know and cannot invent, for the Scholar is the servant not of Art but Truth. Forgive me, dear reader: my narrative must have its starting-point nearly half a century later, when my own interest first became engaged in the affair.
PROFESSOR TAMAR—MR. SHEPHERD RANG AND SAID PLEASE COME TO LONDON AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. YOU CAN STAY AT HIS FLAT AND HE WILL GIVE YOU DINNER. HE SAYS IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH A MURDER.
Awaiting me in my pigeon-hole at the porter’s lodge of St. George’s College, the message perplexed me more than a little. If my former pupil Timothy Shepherd, now in practice as a barrister in Lincoln’s Inn, wished to offer me hospitality, I was more than willing to oblige him: by the sixth week of the Trinity term my academic responsibilities were weighing heavy on my shoulders, and the prospect of a day or two away from Oxford was delightful. I could not account, however, for the pressing nature of the invitation; and as for this question of murder—My step quickened by curiosity, I crossed the quadrangle and mounted the staircase to my rooms. Dialing the telephone number of Timothy’s Chambers, I was answered in the tone of glum hostility which is characteristic of the temporary typist. She admitted with some reluctance that Timothy was available.
“Hilary,” said my former pupil, “how good of you to ring back. How soon can you come to London?”
“Timothy,” I said, “what is all this about murder?”
“Ah yes,” said Timothy, sounding pleased with himself. “I thought that might interest you. Do you happen to recall, by any chance, the Remington-Fiske application?”
“Was that the one with the Greek boy, who had such a deplorable effect on Julia?”
“That’s right. Do you remember it?”
I did, I did indeed.
It had been about three months earlier, a Thursday in late February. I had been persuaded by an obligation of friendship to attend a seminar in the London School of Economics. By a quarter past five I could endure no more: I slipped out into Lincoln’s Inn Fields and sought refuge in 62 New Square.
Not pausing to announce myself in the Clerks’ Room—Henry, the Senior Clerk, does not altogether approve of me—I ascended the bare stone staircase to the second floor, occupied by the more junior members of Chambers and commonly known as the Nursery. Timothy’s room was empty. Knocking, however, on the door opposite, I was invited to come in.
Desmond Ragwort and Michael Cantrip, the usual occupants of the room, were seated facing each other at their respective desks, in attitudes which suggested a rather decorative allegory of Virtue reproving Wantonness. From the pinkness which qualified the chaste pallor of Ragwort’s marble cheek and the unsanctified sparkle in the witch-black eyes of Cantrip I gathered that Cantrip had done something of which Ragwort disapproved—it was not so rare a circumstance as to arouse my curiosity.
Timothy, some three or four years senior to the other two, stood by the fireplace, supporting his long and angular frame by resting his elbow on the mantelpiece: he seemed to disdain the comfort of the large leather armchair facing the window, which from my position in the doorway appeared unoccupied. I was gratified by the warmth of his greeting.
“My dear Hilary, what a pleasant surprise. What brings you to Lincoln’s Inn?”
“I am a refugee from a gathering of sociologists,” I said. “I thought that your company would raise my spirits.”
“You mean,” said a voice from the depths of the armchair, “that you thought we would take you for drinks in the Corkscrew.” The voice had once been described to me by an impressionable county court judge, a guest on High Table in St. George’s, as resembling Hymettus honey slightly seasoned with lemon juice. Hearing it, I did not need the glimpse of blond hair and retroussé nose afforded by a second glance at the armchair to know that it was occupied after all by the fourth member of the Nursery, Selena Jardine.
“Some such notion,” I said, “had crossed my mind. What a fortunate coincidence that none of you is busy.”
“Not busy?” said Ragwort. “My dear Hilary, you surely do not imagine that we have abandoned our labors at this early hour of the afternoon to engage in idle gossip? We are in conference.”
“That’s right,” said Cantrip. “We’ve all got to zoom along to old Loppylugs tomorrow to get him to do a trust bust.” Cantrip was educated—I use the expression in its broadest possible sense—at the University of Cambridge, and I do not always find it easy to understand him. From my acquaintance with him, however, I was now sufficiently familiar with the Cambridge idiom to gather that the members of the Nursery were all instructed in connection with an application under the Variation of Trusts Act to be made on the following day before Mr. Justice Lorimer.
“With a view to saving our clients a large sum in capital transfer tax,” said Selena, “we are varying the trusts in reversion on the interest of a lady in her late eighties, and not, alas, in the best of health. The saving depends on this being done in her lifetime, and we’re rather anxious that there shouldn’t be any defect in our evidence which might oblige us to ask for an adjournment. So we’re going through it now to make sure it’s in order.”
They decided, after some debate, that the evidence was not of a confidential nature, and that I might remain to hear it; they promised that after this we would adjourn to the Corkscrew. When I had settled myself in the least uncomfortable of the chairs provided for lay clients and solicitors, Selena began to read her client’s affidavit.
I, Jocasta Fiske-Purefoy of Fiske House, Belgrave Place, London S.W. 1, Widow, make oath and say as follows:
For the assistance of my readers, I have arranged for a copy of exhibit J.F.-P.1 to be reproduced at the beginning of this volume. It will be observed, however, that the precise dates of birth, marriage and death of the baronet’s descendants have been left incomplete—a circumstance which caused Selena some vexation: she did not, she said, expect much of her instructing solicitors, but she had imagined that even a dozy firm like Tancred’s would have known how to prepare a family tree.
“We have the certificates,” said Ragwort. “If I go through them while you’re reading your affidavit and make a note of the dates, we can hand it to the judge at the hearing.”
“With apologies,” said Selena, still displeased, “for it’s not being properly sworn. Yes, thank you, Ragwort, that would be most kind.”
“There are persons of great eminence,” I remarked, “whose surname is Robinson. But I somehow suspect a certain coming down in the world.”
“You suspect rightly,” said Selena. “After spending her first youth—and indeed most of her second youth—in dutiful spinsterhood, Lalage sniffed the permissive air of the Sixties and ran off with a garage mechanic. I gather that the family weren’t too pleased.”