SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER FIFTEEN
All was sweetness and light chez Wimple. The judge had been vindicated in prevailing upon his wife to abandon her recently expressed ambition to indulge in the more physical arts, his comments concerning the stress involved having preceded by a few days Esmeralda’s first rheumatic twinges. Further, the Wimple chatelaine had notched up another spectacular painting success – a sale for £300 – and had concluded that if she stuck to her easel, she might well outdo Grandma Moses.
His honour was much relieved. Dinnertime conversation had been reinstated, albeit at blatant cross-purposes, as Mrs Wimple was inclined to speak of palette and brush, while the judge was disposed to dwell on white dwarfs and black holes. Discussions were therefore somewhat tangential, but that was an improvement on the earlier introspective silences. His honour had grasped that some couples take longer than others to reach accord. Since both Wimples were well over eighty, their path had been a long one, but better a late accommodation than none.
The North of England was largely fogbound and, this being October, bereft of cricket. Still, an overseas tour was coming up, so willow and leather would soon meet again. The case demanding Embert Wimple’s attention was Walker versus Walker, and the judge was hoping that it would not be one of those ghastly domestic tiffs he so detested. If the country had not gone litigation mad, people would resolve such matters themselves, wouldn’t they? Still, a case was a case and there was always a chance that one of the learned advocates might have something novel by way of presentation. His honour thought of some his recent hearings, in which apparently prosaic cases had taught him much about snooker, card playing, chess and the production of nuclear weapons.
Having arrived at court and taken account of what he thought proper, Judge Wimple noted that the eminent Rodney Melliflewes was to handle the prosecution, while the rising star Arabella Bray had charge of the defence. The litigants, Geoffrey and Neville Walker, were well-dressed men, both in their forties. Making his mind a blank – an increasingly simple process, he sometimes thought – the judge beamed at Melliflewes. “On with the motley, Mr Carruthers,” he said.
“Thank you, Your Honour. My client takes issue with his brother, the defendant, in that he – my client – has been deprived of a substantial financial benefit, to wit, the proceeds which should have accrued to him from the disposal of a rare postage stamp. The case hinges upon this.”
The judge gave a short bark of laughter, having immediately linked stamps and hinges. In common with his schoolboy contemporaries, the young Embert Wimple had been an avid stamp-collector. Now he recalled his breathless visits to the local dealer, who had consistently failed to supply him with the odd penny black in the apparently endless assortments of a hundred British and Colonial items for a shilling a packet. Then there had been the hinges. Fifty for a penny, was it?
“Your Honour is amused,” said Melliflewes.
“Indeed I am,” the judge replied. “Your humour may be unconscious, but I was thinking of the connection between stamps and hinges.” He quickly rejected a fleeting idea of expanding on his rib-tickling aside. After all, if prosecuting counsel had never been a philatelist, he would not know about the delights filling an album with picturesque items from Dahomey or Nyasaland, or the bed-sheet-sized offerings from Tannu Tuva – how did people find space for addresses on envelopes to which they had just affixed such monsters – and where was the place anyway? Ah, yes, somewhere in Russia. “Now, in what way was your client deprived of those proceeds?”
Melliflewes had indeed never been interested in stamps, so was relieved that his honour’s diversion was brief. “It was a most unfortunate incident, arising from the death of Mr Walker senior, some months ago. My client and the defendant are the only offspring of the deceased gentleman, who was a widower, my client being his elder son. In broad terms, the matter of the estate had been decided. The will decreed that, with the exception of a few minor bequests, the inheritance was to be divided equally between my client and the defendant. When it came to the house clearance, everything went smoothly until the afternoon of the sixteenth of July, when the late Mr Walker’s stamps were discovered. It emerged that he had made no disposition in that respect. He left a single album, which was largely nondescript. However, there was one item which had a page to itself. This displayed a single stamp, which was an example of a Jamaican issue, produced during World War One. There had been an omission in the printing, which had been rectified manually, a practice which was not unheard of at the time and place, but which did confer an exceptional value upon the stamps in question.”
“I see,” said the judge. “So, we are not speaking of the Mauritius twopenny whatever?”
“No Your Honour. There is no vast fortune involved, but possibly a considerable sum. Much would have depended upon the condition of the stamp.”
“You say ‘would have’ depended. What was the condition?”
“Alas, we cannot say. There was a struggle between my client and the defendant, during which the stamp was mutilated. One corner was torn away and disappeared. The rest was defaced in the skirmish, as the defendant fingered the item after handling an ink pad. My client, who like his father is also a philatelist, had once viewed the stamp and maintains that before the affray it was in excellent condition.”
“That is meaningless,” snapped the judge. “I have some experience of these matters and have no recollection of stamps being categorised as ‘excellent’. My understanding is that the grading of these items is broadly similar to that of coins, in that there are specific classifications. I have never heard of ‘excellent’ as one of them, in either field. We really must be more precise. Can you help me?”
“Sadly not, Your Honour. However, I am able to say that there is a range of values involved. In addition to the condition as such, there is the matter of whether the stamp concerned was used or unused. In this case, we are not sure, as my client cannot remember and the defendant never knew. The piece now missing might or might not have told us, but there is no prospect of its being recovered. All we can say is that the values range from about a hundred and fifty to perhaps three hundred pounds.”
“Thank you,” said the judge. “I think it is now time to hear from the defence. Ms Bracewell.”
Quite good, thought Arabella Bray, not for the first time unsure whether she was the butt of an accidental near-miss or an intentional effort.
“May it please Your Honour, my client differs from the plaintiff in that he contends that he was told by Mr Walker senior that he was to receive the album in question, because the deceased gentleman wished to be even-handed with respect to his sons and had already promised to the plaintiff a painting of not inconsiderable worth, and an antique vase. It seems that the late Mr Walker considered the respective values of these two items together on the one hand and the stamp on the other as roughly comparable.”
“Did he? Well, we shall not be able to establish that now, shall we? I imagine the painting was not an old master?”
“No, Your Honour. It was a modern work by an artist from this city.”
The judge immediately set up a mental equation with his wife’s canvases, now much in demand. “Has it been appraised professionally?”
“Yes. Bearing in mind the unascertainable condition of the stamp, we thought that appropriate. This presented us with some difficulty, as the painting was already in the possession of the plaintiff. However, we were able to find an expert in the city, who is acquainted with the work of the artist concerned. The figure – albeit a provisional one – she placed upon the painting was two hundred and fifty pounds.”
“I see,” said the judge. “What about the vase?”
“We also considered that. The intrinsic value appears – at least in the context we are considering – to be fairly modest. We cannot be more precise, as we have been unable to find anyone to offer an accurate assessment. Of course, there may be a sentimental aspect which would hardly be quantifiable.”
“Very good,” said the judge. “You appear to have been most thorough, Ms Terry” – he was thinking of a schoolteacher he had associated with seventy years earlier. “Now, we are closing in upon a conclusion here, but there are certain things I would like to know. First, I need the addresses of the deceased gentleman and the two litigants. Second, I would be interested to learn whether there were, or are, mortgages or other encumbrances in respect of any of the properties concerned, assuming that all three are in the owner-occupier category, which I suspect is likely. Third, I would like to know the value of the rest of the inheritance, excluding the house. Perhaps you would enlighten me? If not, we shall adjourn to make enquiries.”
This deft swerve caused a general scrum, no-one but Judge Wimple himself being quite clear as to what he was thinking. Having had experience of the judge’s readiness to delve into detail, both counsels, while fearing the worst, knew better than to temporise. Finally, Melliflewes emerged. “Your Honour, all parties involved live, or lived, in this city. The deceased resided at number seventeen, Oakmill Chase, my client lives at number thirty-five, Beechwood Avenue and the defendant has an apartment in Riverside Mews, close to the city centre. As to encumbrances, there were none concerning the property of Mr Walker, senior. The only other charges involved are that my client has a mortgage of just under five thousand pounds and the defendant one of almost seven thousand pounds. As to the rest of the estate, there was only furniture and the usual household effects, plus financial investments. The furniture and other minor effects were sold for seven hundred pounds. The investments amounted to almost eighteen thousand pounds.
“Thank you,” said the judge. “I am much obliged. Now, if there are no further observations and if both parties are prepared to accept my decision, we can proceed.”
There was nothing to add and neither party had any objections, so Judge Wimple doffed his half-glasses and gave his steeliest glare to all concerned. “I am pained,” he said. “Pained and disappointed. I have said before from this very seat that I thought I had heard everything. Perhaps this will be a lesson to me to avoid premature conclusions. You may wonder why I asked for details of the properties and encumbrances in respect of the deceased gentleman and the litigants, and the rest of the estate.”
If that was a question, it elicited nothing but the blandest of expressions from the two counsels and looks of bafflement from their principals. However, the judge was in his stride, so any element of query was rhetorical. He ploughed on. “I will tell you. My knowledge of the highways and byways of this city is quite extensive and takes in the three addresses concerned. The deceased gentleman lived in Oakmill Chase, where I am quite sure that all the properties are worth far more than is the average dwelling hereabouts. Both plaintiff and defendant own properties of values not much less than that of the one they inherited.”
Both Melliflewes and Bray could see where the judge was headed. He took a drink of water and continued: “So, in addition to their existing wealth in terms of equity in property – which in both cases must be substantial – both parties here inherited real estate worth more than half the total value of their own dwellings, plus a half-share of the furniture and other effects, and half of their father’s investment capital. Yet it seems they conducted themselves like bellicose drunkards because of a postage stamp which cannot have had a value of more than three hundred pounds.”
Now even the adversaries got the point. The judge toyed with his glasses for a moment, then went on: “Normally, it is no part of my duties in a case of this kind to probe into the circumstances of the litigants. However, I hope that it is now realised why I felt it necessary to do so on this occasion. That two men of such apparent affluence should, after becoming even more prosperous, behave in this way almost beggars belief. Now, we do not know what the late Mr Walker had in mind regarding his stamp album. We have only the opinions of the contestants here, and as I have already noted, they behaved like a pair of savages over a comparative triviality. Therefore, we can hardly expect them to be objective.”
Melliflewes and Bray were now staring hard at their shoes, while both plaintiff and defendant were looking round as though contemplating a swift exit, all of which pleased Judge Wimple, who delivered the inevitable verdict: “There is no counter-charge from the defence and the prosecution’s allegation cannot be sustained. I have no authority to enforce what I have in mind, but if I had, I would recommend that the plaintiff, having acquired a painting and a vase, both apparently of some value, might feel it appropriate to hand over one or other of those items to the defendant as a peace offering. When I encounter this kind of thing, I am troubled by the thought that there are people starving in this world. The parties must of course do as they see fit, but the charge is disgus . . . er . . . dismissed. Proceedings concluded.”
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