PREVIEW: The Duchess’s Case

Lord Denbury gave the case to Eleanor. This was only fair, in a way. There were four of them in Denbury’s service that year—there had been only two the previous year, but under Queen Philippa the purse of the Treasury had been opened more generously—and as the work to be done did not always equal the number of lawyers prepared to do it, there were sometimes polite little quarrels. Only ten days earlier, Eleanor had handed over to Henry Fairfax, not without regret, the task of preparing a memorandum on the law of wills. Henry had not exactly asked her for it, but he had made her understand it would be indefensibly selfish of her to keep it, when, after all, he had studied wills under Charles Antarat.That the memorandum was good work—the sort of work that might, with luck, attract someone’s attention, someone with the power to bestow appointments—was beside the point.

In light of which, Eleanor argued to herself, it was not really wrong of her to accept the duchess’s case. But she was still uneasy as she pushed open the door of the chamber reserved for Denbury’s lawyers.

Paulina and Thomas, their heads close together, were bent over an old book of Plumbridge’s Reports. And Henry—she allowed herself one quick glance—was trimming the nib of a pen. The colorless sunshine poured through the single high, narrow window and made a pale stripe on the flagstone floors. This particular chamber, once upon a time, had been used for storing quicklime in the days when the Kingdom of Chancon had had to repel the blue-sailed ships of Alget and the war-boats of Marevia. But no enemies had crossed the sea in two hundred years—not since Queen Margaret’s day. The chamber now held four tall desks, and several book-chests, cheaply made, and cupboards, and, on a shelf next to some dusty paper flowers, a painted prayer-image of the Lady of the Sword.

There was no fire. The generosity of her Majesty’s Treasury did not extend as far as that. As she sat at her desk, Eleanor rubbed her hands together to make the blood flow.

Paulina said, “Has he given it to you?”

Eleanor became abruptly and disconcertingly aware that they were all looking at her.

“Aye,” she said, “he has—”

“Don’t tie yourself in knots,” said Thomas. “He’s given it to you. Naturally, we’re all bitterly envious and we all despise you.” He winked at her. “You can’t blame us; it’s an interesting case, isn’t it?” Something sly came into his face. “Don’t you think it’s interesting, Henry?”

Henry set down his half-mended quill.

“Very interesting,” he said. “But I don’t envy you, poor girl, having to dig through two or three centuries’ worth of cases on criminal procedure. Good luck to you. I expect you’ll turn up an answer in half a year or so.”

He laughed at his own joke—the others did too—and so, with relief, did Eleanor. It’s all right, she thought to herself. Now that the moment was safely past, she realized she had been afraid that he would produce some reason—impossible to argue against—why she should hand it over. But it was all right. He didn’t want it.

“Denbury will want an answer sooner than that,” said Paulina. “That woman is lodging in the city. She won’t leave till he delivers the verdict.”

“What did Denbury say to you, anyway, dear girl?” said Thomas. He was polishing the silver buttons of his glove carefully on his sleeve. Of the four of them, he was the least poor. His grandfather had been a charcoal-burner, and he had no living family, but he had a remarkable talent for cards. Twice weekly, he went to a wine-shop in Devil’s Eye Ward and spent the night playing White Lady and Two-Headed Dog for stakes that frightened Eleanor. “Is he really going to allow her to fight—ah—what’s-his-name to the death?”

“If the law permits it,” said Eleanor, “he will have to.”

Two days earlier, the Duchess of Harcliff had come to the Sea Tower to bring her petition before the court. The rumors of what the duchess was going to do had penetrated into every house, wine-shop and tavern in Whitepool. Eleanor had heard them at the supper-table in her own house and had flatly declined to answer questions from the two students who lodged in the room below hers.

On the appointed day, she, Henry, Thomas, and Paulina shoved their way through the crowd of laborers, shopkeepers, and craftspeople who had crammed into the court’s immense hall to spectate. They found a place to stand in one of the galleries behind a man wearing an elaborate rabbit’s fur hat. By standing on her toes, Eleanor could peer over his shoulder. A memory stirred of when Eleanor had gone as a little girl to see puppet-shows in the yard of the Hare and Hound. Except that, before her was not a child’s entertainment, but the court’s carved throne and walls hung with tapestries in rich greens and golds—walls within which had echoed the last futile plea of Baron Arlindane against the sentence of death, and the pitiless accusations of the lawyers acting for the Countess of Shaw in her suit against her husband.

The prisoner stood alone before the throne of justice. A little way distant, Martin Redborough, one of her Majesty’s most senior lawyers, was talking with a scribe. Eleanor pointed him out to the others.

“There’s the duchess!” hissed the man in the rabbit’s-fur hat to his neighbor, a ruddy-faced woman dressed in apron and cap. In the holiday mood of the occasion, he seemed not to notice or care that he was speaking to a person who, on any other morning, would have wrapped up meat or fish at market for one of his servants to carry home. She leaned over the railing.

“Gawd above,” she said. “There’s murder on that woman’s mind. Just look at her.”

Eleanor looked. She could not help looking. The duchess was reading through some papers. Her clothes were black, and her dark hair—she had doffed her hat—had been cut short in mourning. Then a thing happened which Eleanor never forgot. At the moment Eleanor looked at her, the duchess turned—who could say why—and stared up into the gallery. It was as if she had stared directly at Eleanor. Eleanor felt her face burn. She hardly heard the court being called to order as Lord Denbury entered and seated himself upon the throne. She bowed mechanically, rose, pressed her hands together.

Lord Denbury was addressing the court. He bade them good-morning; he understood that several petitions were before him; he would first of all address the duchess’s. The duchess set down her papers.

“My lord,” she said.

“Duchess.”

“Your lordship will forgive my blunt speech,” she said. “I have no training in rhetoric. I am the sister of Lord Alfred of Harcliff. It was my brother whom that man killed.”

“That, madam, must be proved before this court,” said Lord Denbury. “That is the purpose of entering a petition for prosecution.”

“It was not entered on my behalf, my lord,” said the duchess. “It was done by friends of my brother’s. Had I been in Whitepool then, I should have prevented it.” Her voice was deep and full of the burr of Ganot Island. “All free persons in the Island, my lord,” she said, “have the right of trial by battle in a case of homicide. That is how matters of blood were settled when my father was Duke of Harcliff before me, and when his mother was Duchess of Harcliff before him. You people of this city may settle your affairs as you like. But this is my case. I ask this of your lordship. Give this man into my custody. Let me arrange a trial, so that his guilt or innocence may be decided by the sword, in the sight of God, and not by men.”

Lord Denbury repositioned his spectacles on his nose. He said, “Redborough—”

“My lord,” said Redborough, “the Statute of Queen Margaret sets out the procedure in a case of homicide. I have read it over thoroughly. It prescribes that a jury shall be summoned, and shall comprise five persons, and each of them receive a penny a day and bread and beer—”

“But it does not speak to the abrogationof any rights,” interrupted Lord Denbury. “It might have been intended, for instance, that a jury should be summoned only on the condition that the petitioner demanded a trial by jury in the first place.”

Redborough looked annoyed. “I cannot say what was intended or not intended,” he said. “But there has been, my lord, no such proceeding in Whitepool that I can remember. I doubt very much whether it would be permitted under the present laws concerning public disturbances.”

There was a little laughter from the gallery.

“There have been many such in Ganot Island,” said the duchess. “My brother was Island-born, and so am I, and so is Sir Oswin. And never before has anyone dared to interfere with our own law and custom in such a case as this. I wonder whether her Majesty intends to be the first.”

Redborough cleared his throat. Lord Denbury said, “I cannot speak for her Majesty. I can only speak for the Court of the Green Chamber, and as a lord justice of that court, it seems to me that this is simply a matter of whether Queen Margaret’s Statute eliminates any right to trial by battle. Before you speak again, duchess, I should like to hear from the prisoner: I suppose you will both admit that he is an interested party. Sir Oswin of Blyhelm, if you please—”

Sir Oswin had been made a prisoner in his own home, bail having been taken, instead of being kept in the prison at Lady-of-the-Rose as would have been done with a common criminal. His head was unshorn, his legs unfettered. But his face was bloodless: a dead man’s face.

“Have you anything to say?” said Lord Denbury.

 “No, my lord.”

“You understand that if I find in favor of her Grace of Harcliff, she will have the right to elect for trial by battle?”

“Yes, my lord.” His hands twisted compulsively. He’s afraid, Eleanor thought to herself, and was disturbed by the flash of contempt that went through her. You could hardly help being afraid. And yet—

Her eyes went to the duchess—stone-faced, resolute, austere.

“Very well,” said Lord Denbury. “Redborough—”

 “I really do not think,” said Redborough, “that your lordship can give serious consideration to this—to her Grace’s proposal. It is entirely irregular.”

“I have only this to say,” said her Grace of Harcliff. “You may, it is likely enough, succeed in overcoming all my complaints, and in carrying this thing off—though I do not understand how the old law, the unwritten law, can be overturned with the stroke of a pen. I think that is as irregular a thing as I ever heard of. You will never persuade any of us in Ganot Island that the question of guilt in a matter of homicide can be decided otherwise than by battle.”

Lord Denbury nodded politely.

“Well,” he said, “unless anyone has any very original argument to offer, I think I have heard enough. Duchess, I suppose you have brought your servants with you.”

“Yes, my lord. Two-and-twenty of my household are in the city this morning.”

“I cannot charge you formally to keep the peace: that is within the jurisdiction of the city magistrates. But I should not be pleased, madam, to hear that any person in your service had come before the lower court. I advise you to do nothing adventurous.”

Eleanor had not expected that. Did he really think that the duchess might—what? Send her servants to abduct the prisoner and try to force him to fight? But it didn’t matter. The duchess bowed.

“You have my word, my lord,” she said, “that you shall hear nothing more of us until you have reached your decision.”

When Eleanor and Henry had joined Lord Denbury’s office, they had arrived by coincidence on the same day—Eleanor from Ladychapel, Henry from the chambers of Charles Antarat in Hawk’s Rest—and had been shown together around the Sea Tower. Henry was cheerful, but Eleanor was disturbed by the small, dark chamber, filled with a damp unwholesome smell, into which Thomas ushered them. At the moment that he shut the door, she had had a horrible feeling of being shut in a tomb. Later, she was a little surprised at herself. It was, after all, quite as respectable a position as she had any right to expect.

Her mother was Lady Thomasine Marjoy; her sister was Lady Jane Marjoy, of her Majesty’s household. As a girl, Eleanor had been a page in the household of Sir Richard Royden, and had learned to read and play the harp and shoot with bow and arrow; meanwhile Jane, twelve years older, obtained for herself knighthood, a husband, and a place at court. Eleanor heard that her sister was invited to Castle Florifell and the hunting-lodge at Winterwill, and one summer when Eleanor was thirteen, Sir Richard took her to the town of Mistmere to see Lady Jane ride in the lists—all gleaming mail, mounted on a white gelding with scarlet trappings.

“A year or two, girl, and you’ll ride at her side,” said Sir Richard.

Lady Thomasine Marjoy, however, was not a rich woman. To provide Lady Jane with two good horses and a servant, to enter her in tournaments and pay for her clothes and armor, required bitter, grinding economy. And after Eleanor there were Robert and Blanche and Margaret, all of whom had to be educated and clothed to such a standard as would not disgrace the House of Marjoy. “We can’t afford for you to become a knight,” her mother said, on Eleanor’s fourteenth birthday, “and you can’t count on a decent marriage: you aren’t a beauty. You had better find yourself a place in a lawyer’s chambers, or else become a priest.”

Sir Richard had always been kind to her. He arranged for her to attend Harrill College in Whitepool, and when she was seventeen, he found her a place in the office of the Magistrate of Ladychapel. After two and a half years, the magistrate fell ill, and as a kind of deathbed charity, recommended Eleanor to Lord Denbury, who was a friend of his.

Thus began her existence as an officer of the Green Chamber: an existence of cheap food and rented rooms, centered around the hope of climbing higher—of receiving a case that would enable her to produce work so brilliant, so meticulous, that Denbury or the Lady Chief Justice might be moved to recommend her to the chambers of a respectable lawyer, or for a posting as a deputy magistrate in a decent town.

Perhaps the duchess’s case—

“It is,” said Lord Denbury to Eleanor, when they met again, “an interesting problem.”

They were sitting in the small chamber, with its broad hearth and comfortable furnishings, which Denbury had claimed for himself—evicting a junior member of the bench in the process—on discovering that it was the warmest in the Sea Tower. Eleanor had brought him some books, and he had asked her to stay and drink a cup of wine with him.

She was glad of the hearth that afternoon. It was a wretchedly wet autumn: the rain was slopping against the painted window-shutters. Lord Denbury held his cup in an age-spotted hand and sipped from it.

“And he is one of them,” he went on. “He is Island-born. And he does not want to do it. You could see it in his face that morning.”

“He might have objected when you asked him,” said Eleanor.

“I expect he was afraid to,” said Denbury. “If I should find against the duchess, and later on a jury should acquit him, it would be known in Ganot Island that he had refused to fight. It would be as disgraceful a thing as if he had sworn a false oath. He could never go home.”

She remembered his warning to the duchess. “Do you think—”

“What is it?”

“Do you think,” she said, “that if he is acquitted, she will try to arrange to fight him—even so?”

“I don’t know.” Lord Denbury considered. “I daresay she will obey the law,” he said. “It would be murder, after all.”

They drank their wine.

“I wrote to him after the duchess’s hearing,” said Lord Denbury. Eleanor was speechless. “I suppose you will think I should not have done that, but I was curious about him. I wished to have his explanation of how he came to run Lord Alfred through in the middle of Groat Street. He answered my letter yesterday. He is not a person who inspires admiration, or even ordinary pity. He seems totally without remorse.”

“But why—?”

“There is some grudge between the families over which of them may properly include the heron crest of the old barons of Blyhelm in their arms,” said Denbury. “Sir Oswin came to Whitepool to seek a position at the palace—though he won no success there—and then Lord Alfred came to the College last year. Well, it is very remarkable that in a city of a hundred thousand people, they should happen to encounter each other—but they did. Sir Oswin admits that he insulted Lord Alfred, but he insists Lord Alfred was the first to draw steel. He acted in self-defense.” Denbury gave a delicate shrug of his shoulders. “Of course, the jury must decide that—if you tell me I may summon one.”

Eleanor smiled as she knew he meant her to do.

“I have always thought,” he went on, “that some trouble would come out of Ganot Island. They are like half-wild cats there. They are perfectly amiable so long as they are left alone to do as they please, but they will draw blood if interfered with.”

The conquest of Ganot Island was, in fact, within his own long memory. As a boy, he would have known it only as a name, a lonely, insignificant province in the vast possessions of the Empress of Alget, enjoying a kind of independence because it was not worth the trouble of bringing to heel. As a man her own age, he would have seen King Edward’s armies embark from Whitepool on the hundred and fifty ships—and return triumphant at the summer’s end, having won the Island for his Majesty, along with the bitter resentment of the Islanders, already suspecting that their new sovereign might be disinclined to allow them their old freedoms.

“They will never give up their manorial courts in favor of magistrates,” said Denbury. “In a matter of blood, of course, they are in theory obliged to have resort to her Majesty’s court, but they get around that. They arrange amongst themselves for a trial by battle, and then you will not find a single person to testify that it was homicide rather than an accident. And her Majesty is obliged to turn a blind eye: there would be open rebellion if she tried to intervene.” He dabbed at his lips with a silk handkerchief. “May I fill your cup again?”

“Thank you; just a little.”

He filled his own as well and replaced the decanter on the table. “Her Majesty has taken an interest in this matter,” he said. “She has sent me a note about it. You will be able to guess what verdict she would prefer. You see, I am not the only one who is behaving badly,” he added, with a dry little laugh. Eleanor could not imagine what had shown on her face. “However, if she wished to tell her judges what to do, she should have appointed someone else.”

“But if her Majesty should dismiss you—”

“I will go home,” —his home was in the town of Tumbleford— “and sleep late in the mornings, and enjoy good suppers in the evenings. I am eighty-two years old, Eleanor, and when one is eighty-two, the possibility of being dismissed from one’s office loses a good deal of its power to terrify. I have wondered sometimes why I go on letting myself be awoken before dawn in order to spend the day listening to people quarrel in front of me.” He coughed. The tower’s chimneys were not reliable, and the room was beginning to be smoky. “Will you open the shutters a little, Eleanor, before you go?” he said.

She did so. The window looked out over the dark shapes of houses and streets, made indistinct by mist and rain. In the distance was the old palace of Lady Anne Cardine, long since given over to the Keeper of her Majesty’s Seal—and below it, the place of execution. Eleanor gazed out for a long moment. Then she saw the rain spattering on the floor, and pulled the shutters half-closed again, so that it would not stain Denbury’s carpets.


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