Cover image for Death of a colonial
Death of a colonial
Alexander, Bruce, 1932-2003.
Publication Information:
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, [1999]

Physical Description:
275 pages ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Central Library X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Grand Island Library X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense
Kenmore Library X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

On Order



The latest case of Sir John Fielding, a blind eighteenth-century London judge, finds Fielding and his ward Jeremy investigating the strange reappearance of a long missing nobleman shortly after his brother's execution and his connection with an American's recent suicide.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

Alexander's Sir John Fielding novels aren't as well known as Anne Perry's historical mysteries, but they should be. Set in 1770s London, the stories are cleverly plotted, rich in historical ambience, and written with flair and a keen eye for detail. This time, the blind Sir John, a skilled investigator and respected magistrate, and his teenage protege, Jeremy Proctor, are drawn into a challenging case when a man claiming to be Lawrence Paltrow, heir to a vast fortune and the family title, mysteriously reappears after being missing for nearly a decade. The man looks and acts enough like Paltrow to convince Paltrow's old acquaintances and even his mother that he's who he says he is, but Sir John senses something amiss. His brilliant deductive powers and meticulous investigative techniques unearth a cunning plot motivated by avarice, jealousy, and ambition. A mesmerizing tale certain to delight all historical-mystery lovers. --Emily Melton

Publisher's Weekly Review

Blind 18th-century magistrate Sir John Fielding, hero of Alexander's popular series of historical detective fiction (Jack, Knave and Fool, etc.), here lends his investigative skills to the mystery surrounding the claimant to the vast estate of the late Lord Laningham. Since Fielding sentenced the last heir, Arthur Paltrow, to hanging for murder, he has a personal interest in the case. As before in the series, events are filtered through the eyes of Jeremy Proctor, the orphan Fielding unofficially adopted, whose natural talent for tracing the logic of events is fostered by the magistrate. The Fielding mysteries are always notable for their sense of place and rich historical detail, but Alexander relies more than usual this go-around on his descriptive powers, capturing perfectly the sybaritic pleasures of 18th-century Bath and the ebullience of the university community at Oxford. The plot, by contrast, feels perfunctory. If the claimant is illegitimate, the estate will go to King George III, and the king's solicitor-general, Sir Patrick Spenser, has convened a secret committee to make sure that the king gets his due. The claimant, who calls himself Lawrence Paltrow and is supposedly the younger brother of Arthur Paltrow, has turned up in England after eight years in the colonies, and his mother, overlooking certain physical discrepancies, claims to recognize him. Fielding reluctantly takes on the task of disabusing the mother. Promptly after his visit, she is killedÄa death in which the circumstances recall an eight-year-old unsolved murder. What gray eminence stands behind the sequence of events in both deaths? This is a brisk and picturesque outing, but its relatively weak story line separates it from Alexander's best. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One In which Sir John reveals to me his failures * * * At the age of sixteen, in the year of 1771, I, Jeremy Proctor, could at last say that my education in the law had properly begun. Having read twice through Sir Edward Coke's Institutes of the Law of England and made copious notes, I had been judged by Sir John Fielding to be ready to begin the study and discussion of it with him. This, Sir John confided, was more or less the same process he himself had followed when he had read law with his brother, Henry. He was of the opinion that what it lacked in formality, it more than made up for in providing the scholar with a proper grasp of the principles of law. "It is essential," said he to me on more than one occasion, "that in learning to be a lawyer you must first learn to think like a lawyer."     Nor was Sir John my only teacher at the time of which I write (now some twenty-five years past). In an even more informal way I learned something, as well, from young Mr. Archibald Talley. He, though two years my senior, was only a bit further on in his reading of the law, and so we were no doubt well matched in the discussions which took place between us nearly every week. It was commonest for us to share a pew at Old Bailey and then adjourn to a coffee house nearby that we might examine together the trial or trials we had that day witnessed. In this way, each learned from the other, though what we learned was as often false as true -- usually the product of mere speculation.     Of course Sir John knew of these visits to the law courts and of their aftermath spent in discussion, and in general he approved of them. He thought it well that I should have a companion in study, though from time to time as we studied Coke, he would chide some of my more bizarre interpretations, saying, "Is that your idea, or something suggested to you by your young colleague?" Invariably this was said with a chuckle, so that I could take no offense at it. (Indeed I could take no offense at anything said to me by Sir John.)     It was inevitable that the two should meet -- if only, for no other reason, because young Mr. Talley had asked so often that they might. He admitted that his eagerness stemmed from a chance remark made by his uncle, Judge Benjamin Talley, to the effect that he thought Sir John the most skilled interrogator of any member of the London bar.     The nephew, Archibald, had then told me that he had asked his uncle why, if this were so, Sir John was but a magistrate.     His uncle had replied to that, "Because, you see, he has offended too many of the rich and powerful." Then did he add, shaking a finger at Archibald: "And let that be a lesson to you, young sir!"     But having knocked so often, Archibald Talley at last had the door opened to him. I first sought Sir John's permission to bring my fellow scholar to a session at Number 4 Bow Street. Then, having secured it, I invited young Talley round a week later. Together we sat through an early afternoon of pickpocketing, public drunkenness, and putative breach of contract. Thus it was, one might say, a typical sort of day in the magistrate's court of Sir John Fielding.     Young Talley was visibly unimpressed: he yawned; he dozed; he came fully awake only when Mr. Marsden, the clerk, called before Sir John one Nancy Hawken, who was charged with prostitution and who pled not guilty. And though it was she who stood accused, it was her accuser, a Mr. Pyle, who was made to answer most of the magistrate's questions. It became evident through Sir John's questioning that the situation between the two was this: Pyle had been her client -- or had, in any case, accepted Mistress Hawken's invitation to her room in Bedford Street with the intention of committing what he called "the act of prostitution." His contention was that because she had accepted his money -- it was but three shillings -- she was a prostitute. Her contention was that even though she had first taken his money -- "as any sane woman would do" -- nothing more had taken place, "due to the fact as he was incapable, owing to his drunken state, Sir John." Therefore, said she, no "act of prostitution" had taken place. If that were the case, declared Mr. Pyle to the magistrate, then she should pay him back his three shillings. Not so, said she. "A customer pays for my time and my consent, and he got both."     There was a loud roar of laughter at that from the crowd that filled the little courtroom. Young Mr. Talley joined in with all the rest. I, having mastered my natural tendency to guffaw with the crowd, waited as, predictably, Sir John beat hard upon the table at which he sat and demanded order from those present.     "And so," said the magistrate when all was quiet again, "it was when you refused to return Mr. Pyle's three shillings that he accused you of prostitution?"     "That's as it seemed to me, Sir John."     "Then let me ask you, Mr. Pyle, would you have run forth and fetched a constable if you had been given back the amount you had freely given Mistress Hawken?"     "That ain't the point," declared the accuser. "What she done was against the law, and I'm for the law, I am."     "Admirable," said the magistrate, "and let me assure you, sir, I, too, am for the law. Yet it seems to me that the validity of your accusation turns upon the definition of what you call `the act of prostitution.' According to you, it took place when she accepted your three shillings. According to her, it would have taken place only if some manner of sexual congress had taken place between you. Since, according to her, it did not, she maintains that she owes you nothing, since you were given ample opportunity to do what you had paid for. And so, Mr. Pyle, I am inclined to find in her favor. Mistress Hawken's understanding of what constitutes prostitution is much closer to what is generally accepted. And so your accusation is denied by me. Further, the three shillings in question are hers to keep."     At that, Mr. Pyle set to grumbling loudly, complaining at the unfairness of the decision -- until the magistrate silenced him with a single stroke of his gavel. Then did Sir John call out to the accused: "Mistress Hawken!"     "I am here, sir."     "And a good thing, too," said he, "since I have not yet dismissed you. I wish to congratulate you on your defense. I must remind you, however, that as Mr. Pyle has said, prostitution is against the law. You are perhaps luckier than you know that in this instance you did naught that confirmed you as engaging in prostitution -- but by your own admission you would have done if circumstances had been otherwise. In short, Mistress Hawken, if you come before me again, you may not be so fortunate. My advice to you is to find some other line of work for yourself."     She stood silent before him until, sure at last that he had finished, she raised her voice timidly in response. "I'll certain'y give that some thought, sir," said she to him.     "See that you do. You are now dismissed. And you, Mr. Pyle, if you are still about, you, too, may go."     Then, assured by Mr. Marsden that they had completed their work for the day, Sir John ended the session with another loud clap of his gavel. He rose quickly from his seat, and in a trice, he had disappeared through the door behind him which led indirectly to his chambers.     "Would you now like to meet him?" I asked young Mr. Talley beside me.     "Oh, indeed I would," said he. But then, as we moved against the crowd toward the door, he made a rather curious comment: "Had it not been for that last case he tried," said Talley, "I should probably have begged off the introduction. To tell the truth, I was quite bored by all those that preceded it. And, I must say, I was a bit disappointed in your man, Sir John. All I could do to keep awake, I fear."     I'd suspected as much, of course, for I'd seen him yawn and doze. But to speak of his "disappointment" in Sir John? Even if he had indeed experienced such, it was hardly the sort of thing one would discuss, was it? "I thought," said I in a manner rather cool, "that you had been quite eager to meet him."     "Oh, I was, and I am," said he. "I thought him quite marvelous in that last matter, the one to do with the whore. He quite took her accuser apart, did he not?"     "As you say," said I, stepping ahead to lead the way through the door to the court's "backstage" area -- the strongroom, the armory, Mr. Marsden's alcove with its files and boxes of court records, et cetera. To all of this my young colleague gave close attention. I ushered him swiftly to the room at the end of the hall. The door stood open to us. I knocked upon it, identifying myself and my companion, and Sir John bade us enter.     "Sir," said I, "may I present Archibald Talley?"     "You may, Jeremy, and pleased I am to meet your young friend." Sir John rose and offered his hand, which was taken and shaken politely by young Talley. We were then invited to seat ourselves, and the two of them began to talk.     Theirs was a pleasant conversation rather than one of true substance. The visitor praised to excess the magistrate's handling of the Nancy Hawken case. Sir John, for his part, made little of the matter, insisting that all credit was due to her. "I daresay," said he, "that formula she stated -- how did it go? -- she offers her time and consent and nothing more -- that should prove worth remembering, don't you think?" He mused silently for a moment, then added: "I think it interesting how many matters, even criminal cases, turn on questions of contract -- just as this one did." Being blind, Sir John could not then see the look of near bafflement that appeared on Talley's face. Yet correctly interpreting the lack of response from him as signifying lack of understanding, he tactfully changed the subject of their discussion.     "Benjamin Talley is your uncle, is he not?" asked Sir John. "You have begun reading law with him, have you?"     "I have, sir."     "By all reports, he is a good Chancery judge. I have heard naught against him. And there are few -- perhaps none -- of whom that can be said."     "He also has a high opinion of you, sir."     "That is always good to hear," said Sir John in a manner somewhat complacent. (He was a man who knew his own worth.) "But tell me, what is your object in reading the law -- that is to say, what plan have you for your future? Your uncle might be of assistance in procuring a judgeship for you, but that can be only much in the future. You will need courtroom experience -- as a barrister, I assume?"     "Oh, I suppose so, yes." This was said with a singular lack of enthusiasm. "But neither, really, fits into my plans as a course I wish to follow."     "Well, what, then?"     I, too, wanted to know, reader, for I had ever assumed that Archibald Talley's interest in the law was like unto my own, and to me the law had always meant the courtroom -- the drama of it, the combat. I was naturally curious regarding his plans and wondered why I myself had not before heard of them.     "I've my eye set on Parliament," said Talley in a manner most confident.     "Ah, you have, have you?" Was there something challenging in Sir John's tone? Yes, indeed there was.     "In general, my father is behind me in this, yet he insists I have some means of supporting myself in the event that I'm not successful. Oh, I quite agree that what he insists upon is the prudent course -- but reading law is, you must admit, rather a dreary business."     "Oh, it has its rewards for those of a certain turn of mind," said Sir John. "But do tell me how you plan to make your beginning in politics. Will you simply announce your interest to the world?"     "Well, the beginning should not be so terribly difficult, for Papa has promised to buy me a good, safe Tory seat just as soon as one becomes available following my majority. But after that, says he, I shall be on my own. It will be my responsibility to hold on to it ever after."     "And if you fail in that, you have always the law to fall back upon. A judgeship, perhaps? In a pinch, I suppose you might even accept an appointment as magistrate."     "Oh, I doubt that should be necessary," said Talley with a smile. "Once I've made my entry into politics, I intend to remain."     "Well, then," said Sir John, rising of a sudden from his chair, "I applaud your sense of purpose but offer a word of caution. Be not too certain of the future, for fate has a way of offering us willy-nilly that which we least expect. So was it in my life, and so it may be in your own." Then, with a nod, he added, "Pleasant as this has been, young Mr. Talley, I fear I must put an end to our chat. I have letters to dictate, and Jeremy is, as you may know, my chief scribe. In my blindness I depend upon him greatly."     "Ah, yes, of course," said Archibald Talley, fairly jumping to his feet. "You must forgive me for overstaying my leave somewhat. I was quite fascinated by our conversation. And I do thank you for allowing me to attend your magistrate's court. I found it" -- he hesitated -- "most entertaining."     "Hmm, well, thank you, I suppose. Jeremy, will you see your young friend out?"     As I did so, I found myself brooding upon that word "friend" with which Sir John had described Talley and his relation to me. My young friend? Was he truly? I was sore embarrassed by what he had said in the course of their conversation, and indeed before. He had not only denigrated Sir John's position as magistrate, he had also spoken dismissively of the law as a profession. I certainly believed and had heard from others that Sir John deserved better than what he had gotten -- yet he was no ordinary magistrate: He had made the heart of London safe, and, with the help of the constables who made up the Bow Street Runners, had kept it so; he had been knighted; his powers of investigation and interrogation were such that even Judge Benjamin Talley was made aware of them. And, well, as for belittling the law, that seemed to me pure folly, and I must tell Mr. Talley so sometime. In fact, I determined that I must discuss a good many things with him. But I knew that this was not the time. I felt it best to get him out the door as quickly as ever I could.     It was easily done. Though he blattered on as I led him to the door which led to Bow Street, he seemed to expect no response from me to anything he said, so content was he to listen to the sound of his own voice. As it happened, when we parted at the door, he wished me a simple "good day" and made his way quickly out into the street. I then hastened back to Sir John.     Tapping on the door I had left open, I called out to him that I had returned and asked if he wished now to dictate the letters. I confess that I was somewhat taken aback at the vehemence of his reply.     "Jeremy, I give neither a farthing nor a fart whether we write the letters now or later. What I want from you, lad -- and want most immediate -- is a promise from you that you will not ever again bring that ... that puffed-up, self-satisfied child of privilege into my presence again."     "Why, sir, you have it," said I. "In truth, I believe I was as pained by him as you were annoyed."     "Mind you," said he, "I do not forbid you to see the fellow. That is your affair -- though why or how you should expect to learn anything in the company of such a blockhead I cannot suppose."     "Blockhead, sir?"     "Indeed! He had no understanding of my remark regarding contracts. Surely you, Jeremy, saw what I was getting at."     "Yes, Sir John. The two of them -- Mr. Pyle and Mistress Hawken -- had entered into a contract of sorts, yet each had differing notions of the terms of the contract."     "Bravo! Put right to the point. I daresay that fellow Talley has given no thought to contracts whatever. Perhaps his uncle has not yet mentioned them to him." At which point he loosed an abrupt laugh before continuing: "Then was I unwise enough to ask about his ambitions and plans in the law -- and what did I learn? That the law is not sufficiently entertaining to hold his interest. It's politics. Ah, wouldn't it be so?"     "Who is his father that he may buy for him a seat in Parliament? I didn't know they were for sale."     "Oh, they are, right enough, and his father can pay any price. He is Lord Lammermoor. Your fellow Archibald had the bad luck to be born a second son. He will inherit nothing. His elder brother takes it all. And so Papa feels it incumbent upon him to set Archibald up in business, and the business his son has chosen is politics, which can indeed be quite lucrative. However, it is of them all one of the most insecure, and so Lord Lammermoor has insisted that his second son be educated in a profession so that he may have something to fall back upon."     "So Archibald Talley is the second son of a great lord," said I, musing.     "Yes, and that means he will be granted favor and helped along his whole life through. It is a great advantage to be even the second son of a nobleman -- as you will, I'm sure, discover in your career to come."     (Ah, reader, how I liked the sound of that!)     "But let us put such matters aside," he resumed. "Now, as I recall, I began to rant in this unholy manner when you asked politely if I wished to dictate some letters. Let us indeed do that. There is one that demands special attention."     "And what is it, sir?"     "I received an invitation from the Lord Chief Justice to serve on a commission of some sort. Since I am in his debt in the matter of Constable Cowley, I think it prudent to accept."     "Then," said I, pulling a chair up to his desk that I might sit opposite him, "let us pen it at once, and I shall deliver it this very afternoon to the manse in Bloomsbury Square."     Thus the letter was written and, as I promised, brought that day to the residence of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench. Neither Sir John nor I could reckon then what an important part that missive would play in our lives, nor that it would greatly, even fatally, affect the lives of others. It was perhaps a week later that I came to learn a bit more of this commission of which Sir John had spoken so lightly. As it happened, it was a day that started badly for me. No sooner had I returned from a morning buying trip to Covent Garden than Mr. Marsden called to me that Sir John wished to see me as soon as I had done with the groceries I had bought us. And so I hauled the packages up the stairs and put them away in those places which our young cook, Annie, had designated as proper for storage. What I had done for her upon occasion I now did as a matter of routine -- all this since her schooling had begun. Yet withal, I begrudged her naught.     Then at last to Sir John, who awaited me in his chambers. Somewhat abstracted was he, evidently deep in thought, so that he failed at first to perceive my polite tapping upon his open door. There was indeed nothing wrong with his hearing, but there were times when he did concentrate so upon his thoughts that he became quite oblivious of all else. And so I knocked loud upon the door, knuckle against wood, and called his name.     "Ah, Jeremy," said he, "come in, lad, come in. I've an idea -- oh, call it an exercise -- that may interest you."     "Oh? And what is that, sir?"     "To make it quite clear, I shall need you to locate a particular file of cases for me."     "And where might it be?"     "Well, in truth, lad, I've no idea at all. I simply tell Mr. Marsden to put the files away, and he does it. If you ask him where he has it stored, I'm sure he can tell you."     "Certainly, Sir John, but what shall I look for? What title has been put to it?"     He put two fingers to his chin and rubbed it reflectively as he considered the matter I had put before him. At last he declared, "Now, that is a good question. We can't very well find it if we know not what title he has put to it, can we?" Frowning, he lapsed once more into silence. Then said he, "I have it! Just tell him we are looking for the red file. That should be all he needs to know. There was a very good reason for calling it the red file, which I shall reveal to you when you have found it."     "Very good, sir. I'll be back with it as quick as ever I can."     So saying, I left in quest of Mr. Marsden, curious what might be in this mysterious file, and eager to know to what use Sir John would put it. I found the court clerk not in his alcove, where I first looked, but standing on the doorstep to Number 4 Bow Street, puffing away at his morning pipe. When I told him my purpose in seeking him out, he began to shake his head slowly, a look of deep concentration upon his face.     "The red file, is it?" said he.     "Yes," said I, "do you remember it, sir?"     "Oh, I recalls it right well. It's just I can't bring to mind when it was I put it away. Y'see, the when of it would tell me the where of it."     I nodded my understanding as he knocked ash and a wad of spent tobacco into the palm of his hand and allowed it to drop down onto the walkway. "Let's go along inside," said he. "P'rhaps I can advise you what boxes to look in."     "Well, if you would not mind, sir, I'm sure it would be a great help."     But it was not. We returned together to his alcove -- a scrivener's table surrounded on three sides by sturdy boxes filled with files -- where he stood looking at each one thoughtfully. He designated three that I might try, each marked with dates many years before. I had bare begun on the first of them, when a thought occurred to me. "Mr. Marsden," said I, "is the file truly red, or has it simply a mark upon it?"     "Oh, well, I'm not quite sure. But it seems to me, now that I think back upon it, that I had an artist's brush for makin' signs and some red ink, and I just painted a great red stripe across the top of the file. Sir John asked me to mark it in some such way."     "Did he say why he wished it so?"     "Oh, he did, but his reason now escapes me."     "And the title of the file?"     "That also."     So there was naught to do but look for a great stripe of red along the top. That indeed should have made it easy to locate, and might have were it not for the disorder of the individual files. Papers -- notes and foolscap pages -- seemed to have burst higgledy-piggledy from each one, obscuring those behind it. It would take a great effort and much time to put them all in order. Mr. Marsden's court session notes were accurate and complete, yet he was rather careless of how he disposed of them when done. Now, I thought, if I were Sir John's clerk ... (I often had such exaggerated notions of how I could set the world to right.)     The red file was not to be found in the first three boxes designated by Mr. Marsden, nor in the next three, nor in any of them piled round in his alcove. When I had been through them all, he shook his head sympathetically and suggested that since it was near noon, and the day's session of his magistrate's court would soon begin, I might wish to carry my search to the file boxes kept in Sir John's chambers; in that way, I would cause no bother and make no disturbance.     That is what I did, yet with no greater success than I had earlier had. These files seemed to be in better order, yet in contrast the boxes were dustier and more numerous. As a result, it took at least as long to examine these as the rest in the clerk's alcove. Indeed, it must have taken well over an hour, for just as I opened the last box, Sir John entered the room and halted just inside the door.     "Jeremy?" he said. "Is that you?"     "It is, Sir John, and I've still not found the red file."     "Hmmm ... well ... it must be somewhere about."     As he took his customary position in the chair behind his desk, I continued my search. I saw no red stripe. There was no such file. I came to doubt its very existence. Had I been sent upon a fool's errand? I could not believe that Sir John would intentionally put me on the track of an object he knew could not be found. Yet perhaps it had long ago disappeared without his knowledge. It might have been borrowed by the Lord Chief Justice. Not knowing its contents, I could not say who else might have taken it away, but of course there might be a great many.     "There," said I to Sir John, "I've been through every box in Mr. Marsden's alcove, and every file here in this room, and I can tell you in all truth, Sir John, the red file simply is nowhere to be found."     "Hmm ... looked both places, have you? All those files?"     "Yes, sir, and the last I examined in this box was dated 1764."     "Well, if they go back so far in time as all that, you may as well look in the cellar."     "In the cellar, sir?" My heart was sinking.     "Ah, indeed," said he. "The records of the Bow Street Court back to its beginnings are kept below. If it's not here, then it must be there. It stands to reason, don't you think?"     "As you say, Sir John." (With a sigh, reader, with a sigh.)     "Ask Mr. Marsden to take you down there. He'll acquaint you with the order in which the records have been stored. Surely you'll find it there."     With that, I turned smartly and started from the room.     "And Jeremy?"     "Yes, Sir John?"     "Do be sure to bring with you a sufficiency of candles. There are many files stored there, and Mr. Marsden tells me that it is as dark as pitch in the cellar, even in the daytime."     I sighed. "Yes, sir."     It was, as described, dark as pitch. As Mr. Marsden led the way down the stairs, candle in hand, he seemed to move through the surrounding blackness with some slight difficulty, as if it were a substance so heavy, so thick, as to be almost palpable. And so it was as I followed him: The darkness pressed in upon me.     "Mind your step here at the bottom," said he. "There's a bit of a bump down where the brick floor leaves off and the dirt bottom begins."     I did as he admonished, feeling my way carefully with my toe, discovering a drop that I reckoned at no more than an inch or so. Still, it would have been sufficient to send me sprawling had I come upon it unwarned and lost my balance.     "Give me two of that handful of candles you've got, and I'll stick 'em up here in the holders on the wall and light them," said he.     We managed the exchange without difficulty, and he did as he said he would do. The light of three candles pushed back the darkness somewhat and made the cellar seem more commonplace and far less threatening. There were, it is true, boxes piled upon boxes all along the wall, indeed more than I had examined thus far up above. It looked to be a daunting piece of work.     "These go back to the beginning of the Bow Street Court, do they not?" I asked. "Back to the time when Henry Fielding was magistrate."     "That'd be right, Jeremy."     "Were you his clerk, as well?"     "Not I," said he. "I followed a fellow named Brogden. He'd been clerk as long as anyone could remember -- back to Henry Fielding's time, anyways." He stood silent for a moment, hesitating. Then he added: "Well, I'll leave you, Jeremy. I must write my accounts of today's session. As you can see, the boxes are marked by year -- usually about two boxes per calendar year. The farther you go back in time, the deeper into the cellar you go."     "I understand."     He then left me with a nod and a good-luck wish and, ascending the stairs, he deprived me of a fraction of the light by which I had viewed the cellar. Should I light another candle? Probably unnecessary. Even as a child I had had no fear of the dark. Yet this place, dank and a bit mysterious, was not merely dark; it seemed somehow threatening, more like a dungeon than a cellar. From deep within it came the sound of water dripping, and from somewhere nearer I heard the scurrying of little feet. Rats, they were, and I quite disliked the filthy little creatures then as much as I do now. I wondered if they had ever kept prisoners down here. Perhaps a discreet inquiry to Mr. Marsden ... Ah, well, I had put matters off quite long enough. I must resume my search for that ever-elusive red file. I dragged down the first box, which was marked with the year 1764, and began my way through it.     I found the red file in the next box, one that bore the date 1763. "What title did Mr. Marsden put upon the file?" Sir John asked of me.     In responding, I held up the file, which as I had been told was marked with a wide stripe across the top, then read to him the legend printed in bold black letters upon the red. "It says, `Unresolved,' sir. I confess I looked inside and found three separate cases, one from 1756, another from 1759, and the last from 1763, the year under which it was filed."     "Yes, I had Mr. Marsden gather the three together in a single file. He generously called these cases `unresolved,' whereas I referred to them as my `failures.'"     "`Failures,' Sir John?"     "Aye, Jeremy, failures. And that was why I encouraged our worthy clerk to decorate the file in some manner with red, which is universally recognized as the hue of embarrassment. In other words, lad, these were the cases that left me red-faced and full of shame."     This was altogether a surprise to me. I knew not what to make of this confession of failure -- or more, failure in triplicate. Among the magistrate's many virtues, neither I nor others would have rated humility high. Though never arrogant or excessively proud, he nevertheless felt himself the equal of any man, aristocrat or noble, and superior to most. Yet as I gazed at him across the desk there in the simple room he called his chambers, it seemed to me that for him now to call attention to his mistakes, his "failures," was but final proof of his great confidence in himself. Only a man who believes profoundly in his own worth will undertake to criticize himself.     "I thought, Jeremy, you might benefit from my mistakes."     "Oh? In what way, sir?"     "I should think it reasonably evident, if not obvious," said he in a somewhat peevish manner. "If you were to read through them one by one, I believe you might put your finger, so to speak, upon the place -- or perhaps places -- where I went wrong in my investigation. In each case, I believe, my failure can be attributed to mistakes in interrogation -- though in the earliest instance bad medical advice certainly played a part."     "But," said I, "would I be able to grasp the background, the circumstances, of these cases from these notes?" I glanced through them and saw, as I suspected, that there were oddments of every sort mixed together -- scraps of paper, letters, interrogation records, and in two instances full accounts of coroners' inquests. What was I to make of such a hodgepodge?     "Well ... I had thought so," said he, "though perhaps not. Perhaps I should give you something on the order of a sketch of each one ... the details ... the context." And that, reader, he then proceeded to do.     The first case taken up by Sir John in this manner was the earliest. In 1756 (only a year after my birth) a chemist of Tavistock Street fell ill. His wife summoned a physician, who diagnosed his difficulty as acute indigestion and prescribed a common powder to ease his upset. Yet the problem continued into the next day and the next. He did then rally somewhat and throw off the symptoms of this lingering discomfort. On the fourth day he was back behind the counter of his shop, serving his customers; whereas earlier he had been forced to remain behind a curtain, whispering instructions to his wife. That night he fell ill again in the same way; the doctor was summoned again and was present when the chemist expired. Sir John -- then simply John Fielding -- suspected poisoning, but the attending physician assured him this was quite unlikely: Though there were many poisons in the chemist's stock, the wife (now widow) was a simple country girl, recently married, who could not even read labels on the bottles, much less know the power of the potions they contained. Thomas Cox, then coroner, held an inquest into the death of the chemist, and his jury found "death by natural causes." The widow sold the shop and returned to her home, a village in Hampshire. For a time, and a brief time it was, she lived with her mother; but then she remarried, taking as her new spouse one near her age with whom she had grown up. There were rumors in the village.     "And so," said I to Sir John, "you suspected her still."     "I did indeed."     "Why, then?"     "Because she was young, pretty, and half the age of her husband, the chemist. As I later discovered, though it was true she had no letters and no knowledge of chemistry, it was also true that her mother was a midwife and an herb healer with a great store of knowledge regarding natural medicines and natural poisons."     "How did you learn this?"     "From the magistrate who served her part of Hampshire. I at last took it upon myself to write a letter to him inquiring what had become of her, something we would not hesitate to do today. Yet then I had simply delayed too long to make a proper case against her. I attribute my ill-handling to my inexperience. And inexperience was to blame for my next failure, as well."     The next tale told by Sir John concerned the death of a young maidservant from one of London's great houses. Notification had come to him from another of the servants that she had been buried in a most irregular manner -- at night, it was, and outside the gates of any churchyard or cemetery. The master of the house, a duke, had had an eye for the girl, and the duchess had been called out of London to her parents on the night in question. So it was that about midnight or sometime thereafter the servants were wakened by a great bellow from the master. He had, he said, just discovered the body of the serving girl at the foot of the stairs. She was dead, her neck broken, fully clothed but disheveled. It was obvious, said he, that she had lost her balance and tumbled head over heels down the stairs and broken her neck as she went. What was she doing upstairs, after all? Up to no good, you can be sure, declared her employer and proceeded to "find" a gold ring belonging to the duchess in the apron pocket of the corpse. He ordered that she be prepared for burial that very night, for a thief who had died in the course of her crime did not deserve Christian burial. It was done as he had told them: She was buried in a winding sheet in the garden at the rear of the mansion. When Sir John heard of this sad event, it was two days after it had taken place. Nevertheless he insisted, over the strong objections of the duke, that the body be disinterred. There could be no disputing the cause of death: Her spine was truly broken at the base of her skull. Still and all, the circumstances were sufficiently questionable that the magistrate interrogated the duke closely and repeatedly. The duke's friends visited Sir John and suggested that he was not showing proper respect for the fellow. Pressure was brought to bear. In the end, when the coroner's jury returned a verdict of "death by misadventure," Sir John pushed the matter no further. He did, however, insist that the maidservant be given a proper Christian burial and that the duke pay the cost.     "And you believe," said I when Sir John had finished relating the facts of the case, "that this nobleman ... this duke ... had pushed the woman down the stairs?"     "Nothing as specific as that," said Sir John. "I believed, let us say, that the master of the house was in some way responsible for her death. Whether in forcing his will upon her he snapped her neck, or, in pursuing her, he made her run for the stairs, where she took her fatal tumble, or just what the precise circumstances were, well, I cannot say. Yet I was certain then, just as I am now, that directly or indirectly he was responsible."     "And the gold ring in her apron pocket?"     "Oh, that !" Sir John said with a deprecating shrug. "There was not sufficient reason to believe that she herself had put it in her pocket. All the servants gave her a good character, and even the duchess was puzzled and said that the maidservant had many opportunities to steal far more valuable pieces."     "But I take it there was no way to prove your case. No physical evidence? No testimony against him?"     He sighed. "No, nothing at all. I might have broken him down had I kept at him long enough. On the other hand, I might not have. In any case, after the coroner's inquest there seemed little to do but accept `death by misadventure' as the final word on the matter. But I believe, Jeremy, that if you will read through the notes on the interrogation taken by the former clerk, Mr. Brogden, you will find one, and perhaps two places in which I was provided with an opening which I failed to use. In other words, I made a mistake -- perhaps two."     I nodded soberly at that. "Yes, sir," said I, "if it is there, I shall find it."     "I'm confident that you will." He paused then, as if organizing matters in his head or summoning up some important detail. It was only after a few moments spent thus that he did resume. "The last of these failures of mine offers no such specific mistake or oversight -- at least I, in repeated reconsiderations, have been able to find none. However, there remains with me a certain unease about the resolution of the case. But let me tell you of it --"     Two men from the North American colonies registered at the Globe and Anchor, the largest and most respectable hostelry in the Strand. Though they arrived together and clearly knew each other, they asked for separate rooms and neither voiced any objection or disappointment when the hostelry was unable to provide them on the same floor. They sometimes took their dinners together at the hostelry's chophouse and seemed to get on well enough -- except for their last meal together there. At that one they quarreled, the larger and rougher of the two raising his voice often in anger, and the younger and more refined of them hissing his responses in vexed whispers. Sometime during the night that followed, the second of them evidently committed suicide, for he was found next morning by the maid, hanged by the neck. Except for the quarrel, there was naught to cast suspicion upon the surviving colonial -- and he even denied that a quarrel had taken place. Though there was no note left, the suicide seemed genuine; there were no marks upon the body, nothing to indicate that he had been knocked unconscious before being hanged. Perhaps more important, the porter on that floor, who had a good view of the hanged man's room, gave testimony that he had polished boots and shoes all night and would surely have noticed if there had been a visitor to the room in question; he swore there had been none. There was thus nothing to be proven against the survivor, though Sir John was extremely suspicious of the man. The colonial gentleman claimed to know the other fellow hardly at all, having met him only on shipboard. His story held up through Sir John's repeated interrogations and, as well, against the milder questioning of the coroner, Sir Thomas Cox. The coroner's jury returned a verdict of "death by suicide" shortly afterward.     "You are free, Jeremy, to find my mistakes in this case, and I shall accept them with head bowed low. In my opinion, however, mine are sins of omission here. Should I have been more aggressive with my questions? What question did I not ask that I should have asked? That sort of thing."     I was about to make some suitably humble reply to the effect that I thought it extremely unlikely that I should find any sort of fault with him, when of a sudden he rose swiftly from his chair and announced his fear that as we talked it had grown late. "Have you some idea of the time, lad?"     I gave it a moment's thought. "I should think it about three by the clock, or perhaps a little earlier."     "If you're correct," said he, "then we've no time to spare. In any case, you must go quickly and do a wash-up and then change into your best. We ought not be late."     "But where are we going, sir?"     "Why, to the Lord Chief Justice's residence. Did I not tell you?"     Hesitating, I said, "No, sir, I think not."     "You'll recall taking a letter in which I accepted a position on the Laningham commission? Well, I received word in return inviting me to the first meeting of said commission today at four."     By this time I was near out the door. "I'll not be long, sir."     "Very good, Jeremy, but take with you the red file. I think it will prove a diversion from Sir Edward Coke -- a bit of real life, something of the here and now."     "As you say, Sir John." Copyright © 1999 Bruce Alexander. All rights reserved.

Google Preview