Edward Kane and the Parlour Maid Murderer, part two: That receptacle of disappointment reminded him of a tiny, empty coffin...
In the second of four extracts from Ross Macfarlane’s new novel set in Victorian Edinburgh, Edward Kane, Advocate, and his man Mr Horse are badly in need of a case…
Footsteps away stood St Giles’ Church and at the rear of that ancient site of worship was Parliament House, home of the Supreme Courts of Scotland. Kane made his way through the festive crowds, walked along the covered porticos in Parliament Square and entered Parliament House. It had been some 150 years since the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh had extinguished itself to re-emerge, phoenix-like inside the greater body of the Westminster Parliament in London.
It had left behind the old Parliament building that still bore its name, housing the Scottish Supreme Courts and the Faculty of Advocates Library. The great Parliament Hall was busy today. The Supreme Court lawyers, the Advocates, were dressed for court in grey horsehair wigs and black gowns. They walked in pairs up and down that great hall: opponents on different sides of the case persuading and haggling with each other.
As Kane looked at those earnest promenading figures, he heard snatches of the business at hand: ‘Five thousand Guineas – and expenses, of course...’ ‘I fail to see how the Pursuer can consider himself infeft....’ ‘Failure of consideration is clear...’Kane stood at a fireplace and looked up at the magnificent Great Window. Intense sunshine glittered through the thousands of pieces of brightly-coloured glass and lent the hall a dreamlike quality. He had known this place all his life. As a child, Parliament Hall had served both as a courtroom and as a public market.
Kane remembered visiting when, at the age of eight, hand-in-hand with his mother, she bought him his first pair of ice skates in one of the many booths there. When they had got home, Kane had entered his father’s study and asked his father whether or not it was usual that in a single location, a judge should be sitting in one corner and a cobbler in the other.
His father, until that point lost in a book, had puffed on his tobacco for a moment and then replied: ‘That Justice should be dispensed in a public place is a noble and immemorial practice that has its seeds in the Forum of Ancient Rome. And that Forum where justice was first administered gave to the English language the word ‘forensic’ - a word that means ‘of the courts’, but it retains the odour of the common marketplace.
'I fear that the two meanings have been interlinked ever since that time. I hope, my son, that in your life to come, you will only ever require the services of the cobbler and never that of the Advocate. In my experience, the former will attempt to keep the shoes on your feet, while the latter will invariably oversee the removal of the shirt from your back.’And with a satisfied puff of the pipe, his father resumed his reading.Kane smiled. ‘Ah, father, father’.
He walked out and into the main corridor, where a long row of small wooden boxes were lined against the wall. Each box had affixed a small brass plaque bearing the name of the Advocate to whom the box belonged. Advocates were a curious breed of lawyer. If you wanted an Advocate to do something for you, you drop the paperwork into the box and - whether they care for it or not - they are obliged to do it.
Kane looked into the box. Empty. Again. That receptacle of disappointment reminded him of a tiny, empty coffin. No work today. No work yesterday. The remedy today - as most days - would be coffee.
The Advocates Reading Room had all the appearance of the elite; but something of an unemployed elite. Counsel of all ages and ranks mingled, chattered and regaled their brethren with their latest forensic triumphs and disasters. Advocates lounged in easy chairs or at tables, some reading newspapers, some puffing on their pipes of tobacco.Kane sat, cup and saucer on his lap, finishing his coffee. His friend, Collins, listened attentively: ‘I fear, my friend, that my larder will soon be as empty as my box. My apprehension is that, should some intrepid solicitor venture to place a set of instructions in my box, then I may mistake them for a leg of mutton and consume them whole.’The friends laughed. Collins adjusted the arms of his horn-rimmed glasses: ‘My dear Edward. Patience and fortitude! The readiness is all. For my own part, my condition was indistinguishable from your own and then...’ he looked upwards and fluttered his fingers towards the ceiling ‘...like manna from heaven, the variation of a complex Deed of Trust found its way from another table to my own. And now the Collins household dines this evening - and dines well. Are there no crumbs from the Master’s table?’
Collins was referring to any work that would be handed down from one senior Advocate to a more junior one. Advocates in training spent nine months - without pay - ‘devilling’ with a qualified Advocate, learning the culture and practice of the profession.
Tomorrow: The Devil is in the detail