THE MAGISTRATE Mr Sharp recommended had died last week and his office lay vacant for now. Hobson’s choice ruled instead, which meant their case was put to the first who’d condescended to see them. Justice Leadbeater’s office in Chancery Lane was a large and echoing place, oak panelled and hung with sketches of anatomy. He was a great admirer of Mr Hunter, the JP said, and enjoyed watching vivisections from the public gallery at Guy’s. He also had a sense of humour few could understand but ignored at their peril.
He sat bewigged behind a large heavy desk piled high with paper and parchment. There was chaos among the order, he maintained, not the reverse as his clerk was fond of saying. His clerk was a pinch-faced man in his late twenties with a stoop so pronounced he looked to have no spine. The magistrate on the other hand was fatter than Toby Philpot, his face a bag of ruddy flesh punctured by brown sparkling eyes and a ravenous-looking mouth. One ear was larger than the other and gave him more trouble than it was worth; he was thinking of asking Mr Hunter to remove it in return for a good dinner of cow’s udder, roasted parsnips and a generous sprinkling of black pepper. All this before they’d got a word in edgeways about the help only he could give.
‘Let me get this straight as a dog’s hind leg,’ he said, fiddling with his troublesome ear, ‘you wish me to compel Lord Pemberton to set this slave girl free? You ask me to make him part with his property that for all you know he may have paid for out of his own pocket? You tell me you’re honourable people?’
‘Indeed, upon my soul,’ said Joe, ‘all three of us are precisely that. My father is Sir George Cooper …’
‘Oh yes, the Sugar King himself, a fine gentleman so I hear. A man of means and mode. Upon my soul, I do declare. The two men are friends, are they not? Why not apply to your father and let him sort this out? Gent to gent, so to speak.’
‘They are no longer friends, sir,’ said Joe, going on to tell of their fall out, how the bad-blood business of the marriage match had turned their relations sour. There was more too, which he didn’t enumerate – how Sir George’s present plight was unlikely to win him any battles. But the JP had a point: Olu was still his property in law; he had a right to claim her – at law – but that would take time, a long time, if what they knew of the law was correct. Someone in the meantime must secure the status quo; ensure Olu was safe pending official hearing.
‘No longer friends,’ mused the Justice, eyeing them as they stood before him in a line. ‘When great men are no longer friends some would say the wind is in the wrong direction. Is the wind in the wrong direction?’
‘It blows from the north, sir,’ said Robert in all innocence. ‘It blows cold and it brings snow. They say in the country the roads are impassable.’
‘Your father lives in the north, does he not Miss Cooper?’ said the Justice, feeding his small mouth with shelled almonds. ‘Is this slave an issue between them?’ he asked. ‘He holds her to spite him perhaps? If so, I wonder if it might not come to law.’
‘It may come to that in time,’ said Joe, ‘but time we don’t have.’
‘Yes, I see your point. All the same, pity it’s Lord Pemberton,’ said Leadbeater, crunching harder, ‘though His Lordship is a man who likes a joke. I also like a joke, which makes me a jocular magistrate – a contradiction in terms you might say. But what of it? What would life be like without jokes?’
‘What indeed, sir,’ Nell answered cagily. She knew all about Lord Pemberton’s jokes, and had more cause than most to dislike them. She recalled what he’d said about making Olu his own. Had she taken in jest what she ought to have taken gravely?
‘What would you say if I shared some jokes with you now? What if I said my propensity to help was in proportion to your degree of genuine laughter?’
‘I’d say that was most unusual, sir – but fair,’ said Joe, playing the game as well as he could.
‘Is that the consensus among you?’ They told him it was. ‘Then you won’t mind if I invite my clerk to make up the numbers? His laughter is loud, and when added to yours will make quite a clamour. One to annoy those miserable attorneys in the office next door. And if the weather is bad, what better way to combat it than with good old fashioned fun? Now, what shall I begin with? Do you know, I’ve come over all serious of a sudden.’ He was holding the small bell which he used to summon his clerk. ‘I feel sad, tearful, not at all jolly.’ He threw in another nut to see if that might help. He crunched it quickly and swallowed with an audible gulp. ‘Dear, dear, the wind is definitely from the north today, as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow, the weathercocks would say if they could speak. And if they could do so and predict the weather, perhaps they could predict other things – such as when this war with the Americans will end. It’s a dirty war and it will end like all dirty wars with the signing of a Peace of Shit.’ This was their cue to laugh, so they laughed and he rang his bell with instant result. ‘Ah, Magill! come and join us, good to see you’ve climbed down from your stool. I got him the highest one I could find, higher than in any office in the whole of London, and he being so small, it’s quite a spectacle to see him perched up there, perking at his books, looking every inch like a victim of Vlad the Impaler. Interesting background, Mister Magill’s,’ he said, staring at Nell significantly. ‘He looks all white but his father was black. How do you make that out?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Then think about it. You should, but I can’t think why – can you? I don’t want you to answer now, I want you to look at Mister Magill. He hates me deep down but on the surface he’s oh so tender. I wonder what that makes him? Affectionhate?’
It was another joke, and they all laughed, Mr Magill the heartiest. ‘Good, not bad at all,’ said the Justice, applauding their efforts. ‘You make me feel like the clown I so much want to be.’
‘Your are a clown Mister Leadbeater,’ said his clerk fawningly.
‘But am I crude enough?’ the other asked with a hopeful look. ‘True humour is always crude. We are all men here but one. Only the women can judge true crudeness. I like them but I don’t lick them. I wish I did because I’d lick them well. As for me, I’ve never been well licked by women or men. Or dogs either for that matter.’ His clerk was laughing dutifully, so they laughed again too.
‘But we mustn’t forget why these good people are here,’ said the magistrate, holding up his hand peremptorily. ‘This fall-out as you term it, between your father and his Lordship. No chance of a make-up I suppose? A Lord’s bowels move in mysterious ways. What if Sir George pissed in a goblet and took it up to him in bed? What if he said, handing it over, here you are, my old friend, I’ve brought you a piss offering?’
Better to be on the safe side, Nell led the laughter a fourth time, which almost matched the clerk’s. This time the JP laughed too, outdoing them all and wiping his eyes with his pocket handkerchief. ‘Well that felt good I must say, it’s warmed my cockles, wherever they are. Probably down Billingsgate – go and fetch them Magill and be quick about it! You can get my goat while you’re at it, you’ll find that being slaughtered at Smithfield. And fetch me some liver while you’re there, it reminds me of what I rarely get – a woman’s – guess the word and you’ll have your writ.’
‘Quim,’ Nell said, and he grinned with pleasure.
‘Quim, fanny – a cunt by any other name is a cunt, as the great bard himself might have said if he’d had my sense of humour.’ Nell had lost hers long ago and he knew he’d gone too far. ‘But you’ll have your writ, I say, even though it rhymes with …’
‘Shit,’ said Robert, and while the clerk scurried out laughing, the JP smiled and said they were home and dry.
‘All right, you’ve passed my little test. Take this,’ he said, scratching a note with his quill, ‘and present it to his Lordship.’ He folded the paper twice, melted the bright red wax with the candle and sealed it neatly in the centre. ‘It’s serious in tone, no hint of joking, and it says what you want it to say: stand and deliver, sit down and surrender, swing from the chandeliers if you have to, but let her go. Mustn’t waste time beating about the bush, not when there’s a bird to be found in it – a black bird by the name of Olu. You get the drift. And he’ll get my drift likewise because he knows me – no hard feelings, I’ll tell him later over brandy and nuts.’
‘What if he refuses?’ asked Joe.
‘He won’t. He can’t. Not even great men are above the law. Now if you’ll excuse me, you’ve had quite enough of my time already. I’m getting too tender-hearted in my old age. On the other hand…’ – and here he broke wind and sighed with relief – ‘… perhaps I’m tender-farted. And as the gaoler said as he farted on the prisoner’s food – the condemned man ate a farty breakfast.’
‘Come on,’ said Joe, ‘I’ve had enough of this.’
‘Well that’s gratitude I must say,’ said the Justice as they turned to leave. ‘Wait, wait! Where are you going?’
‘To Lord Pemberton’s,’ said Joe, flapping the writ in the air.
‘No good, not worth the paper it’s written on,’ said the Justice, his bag face shuddering as he shook his head. ‘Not even good enough for wiping a man’s arse. Certainly not my arse. I prefer parchment myself, it gets the thick off like nothing else – now that’s wiped the smile off your face. He’ll not be there to receive it,’ he said, secretly relieved they were sure. ‘You see the house is all shut up and empty – apart from your girl of course, if that’s where she is.’
‘No buts, there’s too many in English law and I don’t mean butts for jokes. I mean rebutters, surrebutters – just ask next door, they make a living out of them. Messrs and Cornwell and Dance, Attorneys-at-Law.’
‘That name sounds familiar,’ Nell said, turning it over in her mind.
The fat man rolled his eyes, and his cheeks and neck rolled with them. ‘All names do to somebody. Stands to reason I expect.’
‘Mister Vine, my father’s attorney – Cornwell and Dance act as his London agents.’
‘Well such as he, a country attorney, will have no need to set foot in the capital, not with the likes of them to see to his affairs. Slippery characters, ardent pettifoggers and more besides. I can’t prove anything of course, they’re a clever pair, don’t commit much to paper, certainly not parchment,’ he said, shuffling uncomfortably on his seat. ‘They have friends in high places and there’s none to speak out against them. To lay an information at their door is to lay one at the Devil’s himself. Which brings us back to Lord Pemberton – you know it all seems to me like one big family.’
‘Cornwell and Dance are his Lordship’s attorneys too?’ Nell had guessed accurately.
‘When he’s in London yes.’
‘And when he’s in Yorkshire?’
‘Ah, sis,’ said Joe, ‘I was meaning to tell you about that but it didn’t seem important. There’s been a change by all accounts. Lord Pemberton has swapped his man.’
‘Vine!’ she declared as the fog (or some of it) began to lift.
‘What’s going on here?’ asked a frustrated Joe. ‘Why does Pemberton want Olu and why is Mister Vine involved? There’s more to this than meets the eye.’
‘You can’t take on the whole world,’ said Mr Leadbeater, more serious now.
‘No, but we can go home and take on Vine,’ Nell answered. ‘Where there’s a snake afoot only one solution presents itself – you must cut off the reptile’s head.’
At the mention of violence, Joe looked suddenly pale. ‘You think the three of us can handle this alone?’
‘Four of us,’ Nell replied abruptly, ‘four of us will handle it, and the fourth will feel like forty. I am taking Olu with us.’
‘You’ll never take her and stay within the law,’ said Mr Leadbeater. ‘My hands are tied I’m afraid,’ for which they read secretly pleased. ‘His Lordship has every law in the land on his side. And she’s an unclaimed runaway, his property in all but name. No court would ever contest his claiming her as a windfall. And yes, while there’s the Mansfield Judgement to stop him shipping her out against her will, he’ll have her bound as servant and beat the law that way. Legally, my dear, you don’t stand a chance.’
Legally he was right, but Nell wasn’t thinking legally: her aim was to steal Olu from under his Lordship’s nose.
My new novel, Pride Before a Fall Through Time, was published 30 November 2016. tinyurl.com/gtd8jc6