SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER EIGHTEEN
It was November and Judge Embert Wimple, looking at a lawn sprinkled with dead leaves, was once more struck by the thought that he would have been happy to exchange the Victorian pile and acre-plus of grounds for a town house or flat. He no longer mentioned this at home, as he knew that his wife would maintain her opposition, which he considered strange, as Esmeralda Wimple had never expressed any great affection for the house and had lost interest in the garden since taking up brush and palette. It was in vain that the judge had pointed out to her that a lofty eyrie on the fringe of the city centre’s main park might offer better light than she could get in the converted bedroom she used as a studio. She had argued that the urban murk would more than counteract the gain in height offered by a top-floor apartment. She was still ahead and seemed likely to remain so.
It was probably just as well, thought Embert Wimple as he donned his thermal underwear. No doubt the transplanting of such old trees – both Wimples being well past eighty – would have a downside. Perhaps the idea was just a pipe dream, or would have been if the judge had still smoked a pipe.
On with the serious business of life. A glass of orange juice, a bowl of porridge and three cups of tea prepared the judge for another day in court. The case was Watkins versus Lewthwaite and that was all Embert Wimple knew about it, which in his view was to the good.
The plaintiff, Arthur Watkins, was represented by that old warhorse, Desmond Oddley-Staggers. The defence of Michael Lewthwaite was to be conducted by the redoubtable young Arabella Bray, whose reputation was rising with each case she handled. The judge was not inclined to waste too much time in grasping the details, which would emerge in due course. He nodded to Oddley-Staggers. “Let’s get cracking, Mr Enderby,” he smiled. “We’ll play it by ear.”
This was good news to prosecuting counsel. Such language from the bench suggested that the old boy was in high spirits. Dipping his thumbs into his waistcoat pockets, Oddley-Staggers favoured the judge with a fractional bow. “May it please Your Honour, this case is a clear-cut one. My client, Mr Watkins, was assaulted by the defendant, such that he was unable to pursue his occupation for three days. He calculates that he lost one hundred and fifty pounds in potential earnings. He also, albeit conjecturally, lost income of two hundred and fifty thousand pounds, though he is not taking action in respect of this su –”
“What?” Judge Wimple’s voice rose to a falsetto squeak, which Oddley-Staggers felt might belie his honour’s superficially good mood. “Your client is overlooking a quarter of a million pounds, in order to press his claim for less than one-thousandth of that amount? Are you serious?”
“If I may explain, Your Honour.”
“I think you had better do so.”
“Thank you. Mr Watkins is in the second-hand furniture business. From time to time he clears out houses where someone has died. In such cases it is quite common for the family of the deceased to take what they want from the home in question, then hand over the residual work to a professional. Mr Watkins was occasionally assisted by the defendant, who received payment in recognition of his labours. The incident before us took place on the twenty-second of June. The two parties were removing contents from a house in Blenheim Parade, about two miles from here. The property had almost been emptied when my client recalled that he had occasionally found oddments in the lofts of such places. He therefore investigated, finding a large cardboard box, which contained a number of nondescript items, but also a violin.”
“Oh, no,” the judge groaned.
“I hope this is not another Strad in the attic story?”
Oddley-Staggers flushed slightly. “I fear so. However, there are variations here.”
Judge Wimple flapped his hands, projecting weariness. “Please continue.”
“Thank you. All the other objects in the box were put into the removal van, but my client and the defendant deemed it wise to examine the violin. They used a torch to look through the f-holes.”
“The what?” yelped the judge, who was quite clear as to what he had just heard, but felt that feigned ignorance was in order.
“The f-holes, Your Honour. Those are the incisions in the upper face of the instrument. They resemble the lower case letter ‘f’. On shining the torch through the holes, the parties detected the letters S – t – r – a – d – i. Mr Watkins thought it appropriate to prise off the back of the violin. It was found that the name signed inside the instrument was indeed Stradivari. Moreover, following the signature there was a small circle, inside which was a capital letter ‘R’. My client immediately perceived this as evidence of the authenticity of the object. The two men became excited and regrettably the emotional turbulence resulted in a dispute as to who had first discovered what both considered significant. There was a brawl, during which the defendant picked up the instrument, minus the detached base, and struck my client on the head with it, causing the injuries which led to the inability of Mr Watkins to follow his occupation for the period mentioned earlier. For this reason, he seeks satisfaction.”
“Astounding,” bawled the judge. “How could a prize like that fall into such hands. I think we must hear from the defence. What have you to say, Ms Braithwaite?”
Not bad, thought Arabella Bray. She bowed. “May it please Your Honour, the bald facts as stated by my learned colleague may well be accurate, but they do not do justice to the matter.”
“Then perhaps you had better expand.”
“By all means. I have made extensive enquiries and I will try to omit what is unnecessary.”
“Oh, please do,” the judge interjected. “By all means bowdlerise. I doubt that I could stand the unexpurgated version.”
“Very well, Your Honour. My client, Mr Lewthwaite, was a little ahead of the plaintiff, in that he noted that what was left of the violin after the fracas had a distinct smell of tobacco. Not being sure as to when that substance was introduced into Europe, or when Stradivari lived, he took the debris for expert examination, which revealed that the resonating body and neck of the instrument had been made of cedarwood and that the fingerboard, tailpiece, scroll, pegs, pegbox and chin rest were assessed as being of common, kiln-seasoned softwood. Here, certain background details are essential.”
“Why am I not surprised?” the judge groaned. “Go on.”
“Some years ago, there was a young man in Huddersfield named Wayne Jackson. During a period of unemployment, he discovered that he had a remarkable facility for woodcarving. This led him to try his hand at violin-making. He was unable to buy the long-aged spruce, maple, sycamore and ebony woods considered the best material for such work. It so happened that he was friendly with a local tobacconist who often had, or had access to, cigar boxes. Mr Jackson used these to make the resonating bodies of violins. He steamed, laminated and bent them, in such ways as he found effective. For the remaining parts – except the strings, which were conventional – he used lengths of two-by-four pine, obtained from a local do-it-yourself store, where he also bought own-brand varnish, which he used for the finishing.”
“You are overwhelming me, Ms Grayson,” said the judge, who was thinking of his recent hearing of the soundtrack of ‘The Desert Song’. “Allow me to make a few notes.” He scribbled furiously for two minutes, then nodded to defending counsel. “You may proceed.”
“Thank you, Your Honour. Encouraged by friends, Mr Jackson acquired such a sense of vocation that he changed his family name by deed poll, thus becoming Wayne Stradivari. He was therefore able to sign his violins without any suggestion that he was deceiving anyone. It was one of these instruments that came into the possession of the parties on the occasion which concerns us.”
“I see,” said the judge. “And all this has been authenticated, has it?”
“Yes, Your Honour. I believe you will find in your papers a letter to that effect from Mr Jackson, who has now reassumed his original name and is doing well in Sydney, Australia. I was able to trace him and ask for his corroboration. He was totally sincere about his work at the time he made the instruments, but now seems to regard the matter as a folly of his youth. In summary, our contention is that the object which caused the unseemly behaviour was of little value. We further submit that the hostilities were initiated by the plaintiff, who was the first to resort to violence, when he struck my client with a photograph album, circa nineteen-thirty. As a result of the assault, Mr Lewthwaite was also unable to work for three days.”
“Thank you,” said the judge. “That concludes your presentation, does it?”
“I believe so.”
“Very well. Now, there is just one point I would like to clarify. In a case that came before me recently, I was obliged to allude to the weather, and I now feel compelled to do so again. Can anyone enlighten me as to the conditions at the time the incident occurred?”
This caused much muttering, involving the litigants and their advocates. Finally, Oddley-Staggers emerged from the cluster. “Your Honour, we are agreed that the incident took place at about three-thirty in a hot afternoon. The temperature was about thirty degrees Celsius.”
“Good,” said the judge. “That is helpful. This seems to be my purple period for supposedly old artefacts. One of my recent cases concerned a chess set of spurious provenance. Now, several interesting points have been raised here. I feel like Old King Cole, who you may remember called for his pipe and his bowl and his fiddlers three. I cannot speak for the pipe – would that I could – or for the bowl, but we seem to have the fiddle and the three men associated with it. I must say that I am at a loss to understand the plaintiff’s suggestion that he may have been deprived of a vast sum. He seems to be an experienced handler of old items and I am surprised that he was not more thoughtful on the occasion in question. Against that I have to consider that we are speaking of a time of uncomfortable heat, and such periods are said to induce wild behaviour, rather like the appearance of a full moon, which allegedly causes socially disruptive conduct. I sometimes wonder whether there is anything in the legends of lycanthropy.”
The judge took a long drink of water before continuing: “Now, as to the work of Mr Jackson, alias Stradivari, I am astonished to note that certain points seem to have been overlooked.” He peered hard at both advocates. “As far as I know, the idea of marking goods with an encircled capital letter ‘R’ is a recent one and I doubt that it was known at the time when Antonio Stradivari did his work. Further – and this is perhaps less well known – there is the question of the name itself. Many years ago, I heard that one might regard a single instrument made by Stradivari as a ‘Stradivarius’, the reasoning being that more than one might be considered in the plural as ‘Stradivarii.’ The fact is that the great workman of Cremona had the habit of signing his instruments with the Latin version of his name, which was ‘Stradivarius.’ I would have thought that anyone dealing with such items might know this.
“There is also the question of the chin rest. Here, I cannot speak with authority, but I understand that this accoutrement was not known in Stradivari’s time. Indeed, I believe that the great Paganini did not use one, though they were available while he was still performing. I accept that some may have been added to Stradivari’s violins. Incidentally, I believe that the virtuoso we so often associate with the instrument favoured the Guarneri products.”
Aware that his audience was gripped, the judge took another drink, then went on: “I will not dwell upon the use of cigar boxes and do-it-yourself pine and varnish items. In the overall context, I am mindful of the late P. T. Barnum’s comment that there is a sucker born every minute. We seem to have accounted for two of those minutes, in that both parties in this matter appear to have been deceived by the work of Mr Jackson. Clearly, the litigants here had brief aberrations which they are now retrospectively, and in my view erroneously, seeking to justify.
“I am prepared to accept that in his youthful enthusiasm, Mr Jackson, or Stradivari, was carried away, but he is not a direct party to these proceedings and in any event, he does not seem to have done anything illegal, though his moral attitude may be have been questionable. As to Mr Watson and Mr Lewthwaite, I consider their behaviour disappointing, but no more so than that of many others who appear here. I am inclined to the view that the hot weather and the prospect of sudden riches unhinged both of them. It is not within my power to order them to consider the matter closed, but I hope they will do so. In my opinion, they have both suffered enough by way of injuries and lost earnings. I have no reasonable choice but to dismiss the charge. Proceedings concluded.”
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