The first draft of An Uncommon Attorney was written in the first person, but my literary agent at the time, Andrew Gordon, suggested I change it to the third person. Here is that first chapter as originally drafted. If you’ve read the book you’ll notice that this earlier version starts at a different point in the narrative, as the protagonist reflects on his journey north five years before.
There had seemed such promise when I set off from London that morning in the year 1788. My journey nonetheless had been an arduous one, perhaps an omen in itself in retrospect. By day two I could stand it no longer and was so incommoded by a fat woman and her dog that I surrendered my place and joined the shiverers outside in the moonless dark. I had soon regretted my decision, wishing again that I could be down below, cosily crushed inside the machine. The wind was sharp, ripping through my clothes like the skilled swordsman I could never be. And when it finally abated, somewhere in Lincolnshire, the rain came down in icy droplets of the cruellest torture. Had I been alone I would have wept, but I have always managed, in company at least, to keep my composure. On this occasion I was helped by the brandy in my pocket flask and by memories of London that were yet warm.
I had left the metropolis on Thursday morning, said my farewells the night before, drinking with fellow clerks at my favourite tavern in Holborn, a stone’s throw from Furnival’s Inn where I’d lived and worked. No matter what Congreve’s character had said, I was proud to have been an attorney’s clerk of the family of the Furnivals. I’d spent the final year of my clerkship in the offices of Messrs Allen and Richardson, London agents for my Shrewsbury employer Mister Povey, who’d deemed it prudent I complete my training in the capital, learning at first hand the business of the principal courts. My year completed, I’d remained with my employers in a junior capacity, a sort of midshipman on a vessel of the law, biding my time till an offer came my way.
Patience paid dividends, or so I’d thought. Mr Allen learned that Abraham Balme of Horseford in the West Riding of Yorkshire was in need of a younger partner to transact the more burdensome aspects of his business. ‘It’s just the start you’ve been looking for,’ declared my employer, adjusting the hat which never seemed to sit properly upon his head. ‘Old Balme’s only in a small way of business, and isn’t the sort to set the legal world ablaze, but he’s a sound country practitioner with a few choice clients.’ Besides, he might have added, I could ill afford to be choosy; my patrimony was a slender one and must be used wisely in pursuit of modest aims. Thus had I written to Mr Balme offering my money and services, complemented by a summary of my pedigree and training. Within a week I’d had a reply, penned in his streaky hand, stating he was much gratified to hear of my offer, and requesting the pleasure of my company three weeks hence to discuss the terms he trusted would suit.
So on we went, the coach rumbling and creaking in monotonous rhythm, the meaty sweat of the horses steaming on the cold night air, until at last, close on ten o’clock, the coach had reached the inn-yard in Briggate where Mr Balme’s servant, by prior arrangement, was there to meet me with his master’s gig.
‘Mister Eagle?’ he’d enquired in a rough deferential tone, lingering comically on the capital vowel of my name. ‘I’m George Lister, sir, Mister Balme’s man.’ He had flexed his eyebrows as he spoke, making his hat joggle on his head. I remember looking at his square-shaped face, wrapped at the chin with a thick wool comforter. How his features had seemed unfinished, as though the sculptors who’d fashioned him had tired early of their work that day and sent him forth as he was – more Celtic stone head than human being of blood and bone. Poor George, who’d since passed away, had a vaguely wounded expression, as if he were privy to this outrage fifty years before. And yet he’d managed a smile, showing more gum than teeth as he’d climbed down ponderously to collect my box.
In a little over an hour we had come to Horseford, a large village nestled in a sort of bowl. Above was an overhanging wedge of moorland, black against the blacker sky. Candlelight flickered dully from the many cottages dotted thereabouts, a brighter glow marking an inn or beer house – I counted two in number, both of which I came to know well. All was dark in the streets themselves, dark and silent as the churchyard we passed at a trot, turning left down a gently sloping street to journey’s end. Fink Hill House, fink being of Nordic etymology meaning elbow, was a long three-storeyed building fronting the road. Its construction was of the sombre millstone grit so typical of the area, and as George led horse and gig into a side enclosure, I ventured round the front of the building and knocked gently on the studded door with a date – 1684 – inscribed upon the lintel.
Answer had been a long time coming, but presently a shuffle and a low muffling could be heard within. Bolts were drawn and a key scraped in the lock. The heavy door rasped open, emitting a long streak of yellow light.
‘Mister Balme?’ I enquired. Would that the strange old man framed by the doorway, his sunken eyes devoid of lustre, had indeed been he!
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