SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWENTY
As Bad As Gold
It was early December and apart from the absence of cricket, life was pleasant. With regard to Christmas, Judge Embert Wimple was a ‘bah, humbug’ man. However, this was in a way an agreeable time of year, mainly because the gardening enthusiasts were still quiet. For several blessed weeks, the judge had not heard the sound of lawnmowers or hedge-trimmers. Had it not been for the bodily ravages inflicted by winter, the cost of keeping warm and the rest period in the only game that mattered, his honour would have been happy to experience this season the year round.
The judge’s internal conflict remained intense. On the one hand there was his ironclad sense of professional duty, on the other his growing awareness of the fact that the sand was running out with respect to his endeavours in the field of physics, which he was increasingly inclined to think of in terms of metaphysics. One lifetime just wasn’t enough and Embert Wimple was sustained only by his recent conversion to the notion that he would be able to return to the earthly plane, if he so wished. What he did not achieve on this occasion, he would attend to the next time round, finally becoming a fully rounded character. That was comforting.
In the meantime, one had to deal with one’s contemporaries, in the judge’s case, the more wayward ones. From what little he had heard of the matter – which had been reported in the local newspaper – Embert Wimple was vaguely aware that today’s affair was out of the ordinary. That was good. His honour’s palate was somewhat jaded, so as far as he was concerned, the stranger the better.
The plaintiff, Kevin McGee, was represented by good old Jeremy Turnpenny and the defendant, Norman Stott by the ebullient young Cedric Thistle. It seemed that Stott had made some sort of promise which he had failed to honour. Good enough for a start.
Having made a show of studying his papers, the judge switched on his most beatific smile as he addressed Turnpenny. “Perhaps you would get us going, Mr Turncoat.”
Bowing even lower than usual, prosecuting counsel began: “May it please Your Honour, the position here is that my client rendered to the defendant a service for which payment was promised and was not made. I will elucidate.”
“Oh, I do hope so,” said the judge. “Please discourse.”
“Thank you. The defendant, Mr Stott, had been having difficulties with his neighbours in general and with one – a Mr Illingworth – in particular. Mr Stott and this Mr Illingworth had been at cross-purposes for some time, owing to Mr Illingworth’s habit of parking his car in front of Mr Stott’s house, notwithstanding the fact that Mr Illingworth had his own garage, drive and road frontage, which he persistently failed to use for the obvious purpose. Mr Stott finally tired of remonstrating with Mr Illingworth and of trying to involve the authorities. He decided to employ more direct methods and in doing so, sought the assistance of my client – the two men are regular patrons of the same public house.”
“One moment,” said the judge. “I must make a note.” In fact, he was using the time he gained to observe the plaintiff, a very large man with a forward-hunched stance and fixed scowl which combined to give him a somewhat intimidating appearance. “Continue.”
“Thank you. Mr Stott told my client that he – Mr Stott – would give his all to be free from the presence of Mr Illingworth. Taking the defendant’s words literally, my client offered to intercede in whatever way seemed likely to produce the desired result.”
“My goodness,” said the judge. “Are you saying that Mr Stott employed an enforcer to put the frighteners on Mr Illingworth?” The judge had been reading a series of gangster stories.
Turnpenny bowed again. “It might be so construed, Your Honour, though my client had in mind reasonable argument and had no intention of using force. However, that is not the issue here. What is important is that the defendant promised a large reward to my client, in return for Mr McGee’s presumed nominal service in merely being present when Mr Illingworth next transgressed proper behaviour.”
The judge nodded. “I see. What was the nature of this reward?”
“My client was conducted to the defendant’s cellar, where he was shown a cube of what Mr Stott claimed to be pure gold. The item in question was of one foot per side, therefore a cubic foot in volume. It was in a casing of what the defendant said was bullet-proof glass. Mr Stott told my client that if he – Mr McGee – would discourage the troublesome neighbour, this gold would be his. Now, my client does not pretend to be an intellectual luminary. He was tempted by the offer and agreed to conceal himself in Mr Stott’s garden and to step in should Mr Illingworth again flout convention.”
“I see,” said the judge. “You mean that your client agreed to, as it were, lurk in the shrubbery and confront Mr Illingworth if circumstances so indicated?”
“Perhaps a lurid view of the matter, Your Honour, but essentially correct.”
“Very well. What then?”
“Developments occurred quickly. On the second night of my client’s vigil – the eighth of August – Mr Illingworth returned home late and parked his car. The vehicle blocked about two feet of Mr Stott’s drive. Mr McGee emerged from the rear of the property and spoke to Mr Illingworth, who instantly became violent. There was a brief fracas.”
It would have been brief, thought the judge, once again eyeing the formidable McGee. “I suspect that Mr Illingworth was the loser?”
“Yes, Your Honour. However, once again, that is not relevant here. The crucial point is that Mr Illingworth was persuaded to behave more responsibly. Here, perhaps a little background information would be helpful.”
“I feared as much,” the judge replied. “Please be concise.”
“I will try. Our enquiries elicited the information that Mr Illingworth was one of several people in the neighbourhood who had fallen foul of the defendant. Mr Stott had acquired a reputation for taking issue with those around him. If necessary, we could produce parties who would confirm this.”
Turnpenny took a deep breath and was about to plough on, when the judge put up a hand. “I think that will do for the moment, Mr Turnpike. Before I lose track, I would like to hear from the defence. His eyes swung to Cedric Thistle. ”Let us hear from you, Mr Birtwistle.”
“Thank you, Your Honour. Happily, there is no danger of the thread being lost by our presentation, which is simplicity itself. My client did have some difficulties, which he is convinced arose from the fact that someone in the neighbourhood took a dislike to him and spread the word. Mr Illingworth was the main cul –”
“Just a moment,” the judge said. “How many others did Mr Stott have trouble with, and to which authorities did he turn for resolution of his problems?”
Thistle was prepared. “There were, at various times, six parties other than Mr Illingworth. On three occasions, my client asked the police to help, twice he consulted the environmental health office direct, without involving the police, and once he invoked both services.”
“Poor fellow,” the judge put in. “I am reminded of Job and his plague of boils. Go on.”
“Mr Stott considered these six cases as relatively trivial. Mr Illingworth was different, in that he had been a persistent offender ever since my client moved into his present house.”
Thistle didn’t need the glare from his client. As soon as his words were out, he realised that he had handed the judge a cat-o-nine-tails. His honour promptly seized it. “And how long has he lived there?”
“Ah . . . fifteen months, Your Honour.”
“I see. He seems to have become embroiled with his neighbours rather rapidly.”
Thistle, being a quick thinker, was regaining his composure. “My client is a quiet, retiring gentleman and has perhaps somewhat exacting standards in the matter of neighbourly behaviour. For this reason, he has never given those around him any cause for complaint. However, he was driven to despair by what he saw as a conspiracy against him. Now, as to his connection with the plaintiff, the two men did discuss my client’s problems in the public house mentioned earlier. This is where we begin to depart from the version given by the prosecution. As far as my client was concerned, the conversation was initially jocular, rather in the nature of a certain monarch wondering ‘who would rid him of this turbulent priest’.”
Having had the spat between Henry II and St Thomas Becket drilled into him at school, the judge liked this and was pleased to note that details of the affair had not been lost upon at least one of his juniors. He smiled, waving Thistle to continue.”
“Possibly there was an alcoholic factor – we shall never know. However, the litigants found themselves in my client’s cellar. Mr Stott showed the golden cube to the plaintiff, but he never represented it as solid gold. In fact, it was an artefact produced to amuse the Stotts’ children. It was basically a large biscuit tin of the kind displayed by retailers who sell the confections loose. The tin had been filled with soil and covered by thick cardboard to raise the dimensions to an object of one cubic foot, which had then been coated with gold-leaf paint. The verisimilitude was remarkable. As to the glass case, this was a discarded domestic aquarium. My client never offered the cube to the plaintiff, but merely suggested that it was an indication of his substance. We must be truthful here by admitting that Mr Stott may have given the impression that the plaintiff would derive some benefit from helping him.”
The judge laced his fingers. “I understand. But the plaintiff did not benefit? He intervened as promised, after which no payment was made to him?”
“That is so, Your Honour. My client was willing to recompense Mr McGee, but there was some dispute about the cube. Relations between the parties became strained and they are no longer on speaking terms. Also, matters in the neighbourhood deteriorated to the point at which my client placed his house on the market for sale. The neighbour, Mr Illingworth, did the same and the two have been alternately reducing their offer prices in their efforts to depart the area.”
“Dear me,” said the judge. “A sort of pre-emptive gazundering, is it?
“One might say so, Your Honour.”
“Enough for the moment, Mr Purcell,” said the judge. “I would like to clarify something with the prosecution.” He switched to Turnpenny. “Mr Pennyworth, I would like to know a little more about the proposed payment to your client. I mean, how was he to take delivery?”
Turnpenny had not thought of this one and was obliged to consult his client before replying: “Your Honour, the suggestion made by the defendant was that, since there was no other egress from the cellar, two men should carry the golden cube up the steps to the living room and out into the garden, after which it was to be conveyed to my client’s home by taxi, as neither party owns a car.”
“Thank you,’ said the judge. “If you have both finished, I think I have grasped the essentials.”
Both counsels indicated their exhaustion as his honour, whose mind had been intermittently elsewhere, added to his notes the relativistic formula for the increasing mass of accelerating objects. He removed his half-glasses and swept his eyes over the parties. “I am by turns surprised and disappointed,” he said. “First, I do not approve of vigilante activity, however nobly intentioned, so in this respect I am bound to say that the defendant’s decision to engage the plaintiff was totally improper. Further, I do not accept alcohol as a mitigating factor.”
Having poked the defence in the eye, he changed tack. “With regard to the plaintiff, I must say that if there were a world record for gullibility, he would be a contender. I have noted Mr Stott’s address, which is in a street of very small semi-detached houses. Now, it seems strange to me that Mr McGee accepted that Mr Stott possessed a cubic foot of gold. First, I doubt that such an item exists. Second, though I do not have the current values of precious metals before me, I am sure that that quantity of gold would be worth millions of pounds. It is understandable that a man should keep his wealth in highly tangible form, and I am assuming here that there are no restrictions with regard to private gold holdings. However, I am bound to wonder why Mr McGee’s suspicions were not aroused when he found a vast fortune in Mr Stott’s cellar. I feel he might have asked himself why the defendant chose to live in circumstances so repugnant to him, while sitting upon such riches. I might be more inclined to accept Mr Stott’s version of events had he been, with the exception of his troubles with Mr Illingworth, blissfully happy in his accommodation.”
Counsels realised that the net was closing. The judge continued: “I am further surprised to hear of the apparently profound ignorance of both parties with regard the properties of gold, considering that this was such an important point.” Here, he shot his most contemptuous look at both advocates, then did a calculation on his papers before proceeding: “If I remember correctly, a cubic foot of gold weighs about twelve hundred pounds, and we are told that two men were to haul it up from the cellar and out into the garden, then put it into a taxi. How? I do not believe that Mr McGee’s musculature, though obviously considerable, would have been up to the job of lifting even a quarter of the weight involved. As to Mr Stott, the idea of his doing so defies my imagination. There was no mention of pulleys or rollers, and even if such aids had been available I question whether the house would have been strong enough to support their use. There would also have been the problems of transferring the cube into the taxi, and that vehicle’s load-bearing capability.”
With a final disdainful look at his audience, the judge concluded: “I am not called upon here to castigate the defendant, blameworthy though his methods may have been. I have to consider the plaintiff’s charge. In my opinion, Mr McGee is a simpleton who was overcome by desire and was putty in the hands of Mr Stott. Possibly he has some moral argument, but as he was overstepping our current mores, he has no legal redress. The charge is dismissed and I hope that neither party will darken my court-step again. Proceedings concluded.”
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