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David Dickinson

Death Called to the Bar


There was a tremendous crash right up against the wall. One carriage, maybe two, had turned on its side and fallen to the ground. Horses were screaming in pain as they too were pulled down by the harness to street level. Then came the swearing. Lord Francis Powerscourt did not think it would be possible for one man’s voice to penetrate through the thick walls of Chelsea Old Church, but it was. The words the coachman was speaking were not suitable for any morning of the week, let alone a morning of such importance in the Powerscourt family calendar. And there was worse. A different voice, presumably that of the other coachman, rang out in the midday air in language that was if anything even riper than the cursing of the first fellow. Powerscourt realized that he would not be able to give precise meanings to many of these words. They were new to him. He looked down at his two children, hoping they would not ask him what the words meant afterwards. He looked round at the congregation and saw one or two of the men smiling quietly to themselves and one or two of the maiden aunts covering their ears with their hands, scandalized expressions on their faces. The fog had claimed another victim, one more road accident to add to all the others earlier that day. All morning it had swirled round London, filling in the gaps between the people and the buildings, enveloping them in its clammy embrace. There had been accidents like the one outside the church all over the capital. In the West End the omnibuses had given up the unequal struggle and waited in their depots for the air to clear. On the Thames and in the docks the captains steered their boats very slowly, making frequent use of their hooters and sirens to warn oncoming traffic of their passage. The noises echoed round the city like trumpet notes, reports and instructions to soldiers in battles fought far away.

Still the shouting went on. The canon of the church, who had at first been overwhelmed by the racket outside his walls, suddenly inserted another hymn into the service.

‘Hymn three hundred and sixty-five,’ he said in his loudest voice, sending a meaningful glance to his organist to take note of the change in plan. ‘The Old Hundredth. All people that on earth do dwell.’ There were five verses of that, the canon thought to himself; with any luck the noise outside would have finished by the end.

‘The Lord ye know is God indeed,

Without our aid he did us make. . .’

Lord Francis Powerscourt was an investigator. He had made his reputation in Army Intelligence in India and consolidated it by solving a number of murders in England. He was a little short of six feet tall with unruly black curls and bright blue eyes that inspected the world with detachment and irony.

Powerscourt turned round for another surreptitious inspection of the congregation. He had already conducted his own audit of those present. Anything less than fifty of his wife Lady Lucy’s relations on parade and her family would regard the event as a catastrophic failure. Seventy-five might be regarded as a break-even point, a pretty poor show really, but not a total disgrace to the family name. Score a century and the event could be described in future histories of Lady Lucy’s tribe as a modest success. A hundred and thirty-one, which was Powerscourt’s estimate of the turn-out today, would be a matter for mild congratulation. A hundred and fifty, mind you, would have been better. The hymn was drawing to a close.

‘From men and from the angel host

Be praise and glory evermore.’

It was with something of a shock that Powerscourt realized as the canon was leading them back past the congregation towards the font near the entrance to the church that his numbers were wrong. Not a hundred and thirty-one at all, but a hundred and thirty-three. He had momentarily forgotten why they had all braved the fog this February morning. For they were all there for the christening of the two newest additions to the tribe, the twins, his twins, the latest and youngest members of the Powerscourt family. Lady Lucy had given birth before Christmas, and, as Powerscourt said to himself, if her own children, however tiny, weren’t to be counted as members of the tribe, then who the hell was?

Just over a mile away, the fog, distributing its favours equally across various sectors of the city, had nearly made Queen’s Inn disappear. It was right on the River Thames between Westminster and the City of London – both as rich in legal pickings over the centuries as they were now – and the water seemed to give the swirling white-grey mist an extra depth. A determined student of architecture might have been able to discern a handsome set of eighteenth-century buildings with tall sash windows, and, presumably, grass growing in the courtyards, though any such growth would have been hard to spot unless you were virtually on top of it.

Queen’s Inn was the smallest and youngest of London’s Inns of Court, training ground and stomping ground for the city’s barristers and High Court judges and Masters of the Rolls. It did not have the fabulous history of the Inner and Middle Temple with Knights Templar adorning their pedigree way back in the mists of legal history. Nor did it have the splendour of the Temple Gardens, frequently celebrated in verse, truly one of the most delightful places in London on a summer’s day with the grass and the flowers running down to the Thames. Queen’s could almost match the austere elegance of Lincoln’s Inn’s New Square or the gardens of Gray’s Inn. It did not claim superiority over the other four Inns. It just claimed to be slightly different. Slightly more worldly, with close links to some of the richer and grander colleges of Oxford and Cambridge. Slightly richer than the others through a complicated system of internal finance. Slightly more likely to tolerate eccentrics, Queen’s people would say, proud of the strange dress and sometimes stranger methods of transport adopted by some of its more flamboyant barristers.

And on this day Queen’s Inn was preparing for a feast. A feast in memory of one of its more distinguished sons, one Theophilus Grattan Whitelock, one-time bencher, or senior member, of Queen’s, a man twice passed over for the post of Lord Chancellor, a distinguished judge who sentenced so many people to be transported to the colonies that the cynics said he should have a ship on the route named after him. HMS Whitelock, direct to Botany Bay. He had been born, the man Whitelock, on this day, 28th February, so he missed a leap year birthday by a single day. The feast he endowed in his memory took place on this day, irrespective of which day of the week the 28th happened to fall on. Whitelock had consulted three expert legal draftsmen before finalizing the clause which stipulated that if, at any point in the future, carping clergymen or interfering bishops should prevent his feast taking place on the Sabbath, then the bequest would be cancelled in perpetuity. So generous was the bequest and so splendid the food and wine the Inn was able to provide that the members of Queen’s Inn would have defied the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, or both, if they dared to protest.

Even as early as midday the preparations were well under way. Queen’s had been blessed for many years with a Senior Steward known to all and sundry as Joseph. Few, if any, knew his surname. Some of the younger students claimed Joseph himself had forgotten it. But he had a genius for efficient organization and over the years had developed a remarkable system of alliances and understandings with some of London’s finest grocers and butchers and wine merchants so that he could always command the best at very modest prices. Cynics, and what community of lawyers does not have a good supply of those, claimed that the whole edifice was based on back-handers and would, one day, collapse to general disgrace and a long prison sentence for Joseph. Or, the most cynical would add at this point, transportation for him in memory of Theophilus Grattan Whitelock. One more for Botany Bay. Direct.