SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWELVE
Could anything be better? Late August, with the last test match coming up and the weather set fair, domestic affairs running smoothly and to cap it all, an impending case involving a local cricket captain, a magician and a theatre. It was almost too good to be true. Judge Embert Wimple tried to put things in order of priority. In the final analysis, there could be no doubt. Over half a century of matrimonial bonds – albeit with the inevitable discords that arise between people of strong character – must come first. Having consigned to dreamland his idea of getting a city-centre penthouse flat, his honour was resigned to spending his remaining years – or as he often thought, days – in the outer reaches of the city.
After flirting with muscular activity – first sculpting, then pottery – Esmeralda Wimple had opted to stick to her painting, while the judge had finally decided to reject the blandishments of his colleagues and plunge into full retirement in the not too distant future. After all, there was much to do that had been neglected and if a man had avoided senility, he had a duty to indulge an enquiring nature. And what was senility anyway? Malcolm Conley had something to say about that. What was it now? Ah, yes: “They tell you that you’ll lose your mind when you get older. What they don’t tell you is that you won’t miss it much.”
When Judge Wimple’s thoughts regressed through the decades, they spent little time on the annoying interventions of wars and other social disruptions. His honour’s main regret about World War Two was that Don Bradman and Len Hutton had been denied some of their best years at the batting crease, while the egg-shaped spinners of Hedley Verity might have entranced the cognoscenti for longer than they had. And in more recent times, what about the test careers of those two great South African batsmen, Pollock and Richards, and that country’s demon bowlers – another Pollock in there somewhere. All wrecked by politics. It was too sad.
As to the present, the judge knew that his case today was Horner versus The Great Tomaso. This presented a moral dilemma. Embert Wimple knew nothing of the defendant, other than that he was a professional conjuror. The problem lay with the plaintiff, in that the judge was aware that Alan Horner was a leading local cricketer. His honour had wondered whether he should recuse himself, on grounds of possible partisanship. Then he had got to wondering about this ‘recuse’ matter. He had heard that American judges occasionally used the term on – as he understood it – the ground that they might be considered less than totally impartial. On consulting his dictionary, Judge Wimple could not find the word, so rebuked himself for having failed to include in his library a copy of Noah Webster’s compendious American counterpart. The omission was regrettable, but a man had to row with the oars he had. And anyway, Embert Wimple was not personally acquainted with Horner, so felt that he could officiate with a clear conscience.
The plaintiff was represented by the up-and-coming Cedric Thistle, the defence by the ageing Douglas Latimer, back in harness after a battle with nervous debility. Relations between the two barristers were far from cordial, so it seemed likely that sparks would fly. After checking that all was in order, the judge glanced at the litigants. He was familiar with the tall, lithe figure of the plaintiff, whom he had seen performing on more than one local cricket field. Being not only team captain, but also opening batsman and opening bowler – his father was club president – Alan Horner was a well-known man in the city. The defendant was a slim fellow of middling height, with a swarthy complexion, a tiny, pointed black beard and a waxed moustache. He looked, the judge thought, perfectly suited to his trade. His honour nodded at Cedric Thistle. “Let’s get the ball rolling, Mr Pestle,” he said briskly.
Prosecuting counsel was by now familiar with the judge’s little ways and was a no-nonsense man, not the type to be derailed by a slight misnomer. “May it please Your Honour, the incident we are addressing took place in the variety theatre in the city centre here at about eight-thirty p.m. on the ninth of April. This was one of those special evenings when attendance is by invitation only, those present being in period dress to recreate an atmosphere of a hundred or more years ago. As a part of his performance, the defendant requested a helper from the stalls, to assist him with a trick. My client came forward.”
“One moment,” said the judge. “Mr Horner was therefore a willing party, was he?”
“In a way, Your Honour.”
“I think you had better explain.”
“Of course. The defendant is said to possess certain hypnotic powers. He tends to fix his eyes upon a member of the audience, causing the person concerned to be . . . er . . . induced to co-operate, willingly or not.”
“Remarkable,” said the judge. “If only I could do the same at home. Go on.”
“Thank you. My client was asked to take part in a trick in which a handkerchief was apparently damaged, then returned intact to the helper. This time, there was some error and the object was mutilated. This annoyed my client, who exchanged words with the defendant. There was a tussle, which we contend is not material to the case. What matters is that my client lost a valued possession and he seeks compensation.”
The judge peered over his half-glasses. “So we are all here on account of a handkerchief, are we?”
“It was no ordinary handkerchief, Your Honour, but rather a family heirloom, on show only because the event was an unusual one. The item was passed down to my client by his father, who received it from his father, who was presented with it by a member of the Russian aristocracy, shortly before World War One. The handkerchief was one of a set of six – the others disappeared long ago – given to Grigori Rasputin by Empress Alexandra in 1900. They were of fine silk and the empress had had them monogrammed with the initials of Mr Rasputin. Each was of considerable historical value and therefore the only remaining one was correspondingly more so.”
“I see,” said the judge. “Now, with regard to the handkerchief, anyone might make a claim of this kind. Was there a genuine provenance involved?”
“Not as such, Your Honour. However, the item was assessed by a local antiquary who put a figure of five hundred pounds on it.”
“Do we have any written evidence of this?”
“Sadly, we do not. The expert concerned has been away for some months, inspecting artefacts in a remote part of Cambodia. It is no easy matter to contact him. Naturally, my client would have sought a second opinion, but as the item concerned was not only ruined during the incident, but was then lost in the ensuing confusion, this proved impossible. We are thus left with the valuation I mentioned.”
“Very well,” the judge said. “Now I think we should hear what the defence has to say. He turned his gaze to Latimer. “Your turn, Mr Lansbury.”
Defending counsel had spent many years bowing and scraping before judges, and now considered himself beyond such obeisances. He remained resolutely erect, if a little twitchy. “May it please Your Honour, the prosecution has said everything except what is important. Clearly, my learned friend feels that what is lacking in substance may be made up by loquacity. There is no argument about the summoning of the plaintiff from the audience, nor is there any denying that my client’s trick failed. As a matter of interest it was, at least up to that point, his only error in many years of practice.”
The judge held up his hands. “Do you mean that he has had further troubles since then?”
“Unfortunately that is so, Your Honour. The artistic temperament is a delicate one. The experience that concerns us unnerved my client to the extent that he has had other difficulties which have twice led to affrays. Indeed, he has only just recovered after being attacked by a Bulgarian wrestler.”
“Most regrettable. Now, just as a matter of interest, what happens if your client summons a helper who does not have a handkerchief?”
“Tomaso provides one and insists that it be inspected not only by the helper, but also by another member of the audience.”
“Thank you. Please continue.”
“The Great Tomaso admits that he defaced the handkerchief. However, he tried to pacify the plaintiff, who became inordinately aggressive and, after a short altercation, punched my client. The blow, discomfiting enough in itself, caused complications. Your Honour may be aware that a small orchestra performs in the theatre concerned.”
“Yes, I am. Proceed.”
“There is very little space between the musicians, once they have taken their places. The plaintiff’s punch spun my client one hundred and eighty degrees and flung him head-first into the orchestra pit. Among the players is a cymbalist, who uses his instruments to heighten the effect when a performance reaches a climax.”
“I know what you mean,” said the judge, who had spent a few evenings at the theatre. “Continue.”
“When the musician saw my client hurtling towards him, he thought only trying to avert an accident. As he had no room to move, he instinctively attempted to form a barrier in front of himself by clapping together his cymbals, but was not quite successful because my client’s head came between them.”
“Oh, dear,” said the judge. “So we almost had Tomaso puree?”
“Very droll. Your Honour’s remark captures the essence of what was a deeply disturbing experience for my client. I would also mention that it was the same, though in lesser degree, for the musician. As it happens, the gentleman concerned is stoutly built. My client broke through the instruments and his head thudded into the cymbalist’s midriff. The man was severely winded, but when things calmed down, he realised that his rotundity had probably prevented even greater misfortune all round. Had my client collided with the cymbal-player’s immediately adjacent colleague on his left, who was a very slender man, the consequences would undoubtedly have been far more serious. As it was, Tomaso suffered acute physical and mental distress. His hearing was impaired for some time. In spite of this, and of the fact that he could have made counter-charges, he appears here at his own expense, which is not inconsiderable, as he is currently working in Hamburg and will miss at least two performances. He is an Italian and is not fully conversant with the ways of British justice. Nevertheless, he wishes to comply with them, not least because he has hopes of appearing among us again.”
“I understand,” said the judge. “Having been unseated here, he wishes to re-mount the proverbial horse. This must be difficult for a man who, albeit in the most positive sense, lives by his wits.”
Latimer bowed. “It is. Furthermore, though the incident that concerns us has been detrimental to my client’s career, he bears no malice toward the plaintiff, but merely seeks to do what is right.”
“Very commendable,” said the judge. “Now, I think most of what is relevant has been said, but there is one small point.” He turned his gaze to Thistle. “Mr Griswold,” he said, tearing off a piece of his notepad. “I would be obliged if your client could replicate on this paper the Rasputin monogram on the lost handkerchief. There is no need for great artistry. The best he can do will suffice.”
The utterly bemused Thistle went into a huddle with Horner, who produced what the judge wanted.
Embert Wimple stared at the result, his eyebrows rising, then slapped his hands on the bench. “Excellent,” he said. “Now, if you have no more to say, I believe we can come to a conclusion. Gentlemen?”
There were no further observations. The judge sighed and removed his glasses. “Unlike some cases I hear,” he said, “this is fairly simple. I am surprised that neither counsel” – he glared at both – “appears to have noticed that the empress Alexandra must have been accustomed to using the Cyrillic alphabet, in which some letters are similar to Roman ones in appearance and pronunciation, while others look similar, but are pronounced differently and still others bear no graphic resemblance to their Roman counterparts. Now, unless my memory fails me, the Cyrillic capital ‘G’ is rather like the Roman ‘T’, with the left-hand side of the cross-stroke omitted, while the Cyrillic capital “P” corresponds with the Roman ‘R’. It would seem reasonable to assume that the empress had the handkerchiefs monogrammed in the Russian way, yet Mr Horner has given us his version, which is unmistakably Roman.”
Here, the judge paused, to allow his comments to be absorbed before continuing: “The conclusion must be either that the plaintiff innocently accepted the tales of his forebears, or that the truth was known all along. I am inclined to believe that Mr Horner took the ancestral story as valid. However, that gave him no right to assault the defendant. If we were all to resort to violence at the slightest provocation, we would spend much of our lives brawling. Surely we have reached something better than that. I am also conscious of the fact that The Great Tomaso, while perhaps well-known and generally successful in other parts of the world, must have had a chastening experience here. On the whole, I think that, having encountered both injury and a career reverse, he has suffered enough and I do not intend to add to his tribulations by upholding the charge. As to the plaintiff, he is a cricket captain. I hope I need not say more. Proceedings concluded.”
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