Archibald Harding slammed down the receiver. The worst of being a clerk was getting no thanks for what you did, keeping the barristers in business, only for them to shout at you for someone else's incompetence. West Sussex Constabulary claimed to have handed the burglary reports to Mr Redmond of Redmond & Sons, Mr Redmond claimed to have given it to Mr Hart currently tearing his hair out upstairs. Mr Hart claimed not to have received it. So naturally, it was all Harding's fault.
A knock at the door. Miss Finch, youngest and newest of the secretaries, burst in, breathless and wringing her hands.
"She won't go!" she announced. "She won't go until she's seen you!"
"Who won't go?"
A middle-aged lady in a large hat burst into the room. Harding looked her up and down. He didn't think he'd ever seen her before in his life, and couldn't imagine why she wanted to see him. The only people who wanted to urgently see clerks were barristers who wanted to shout at them. She was reasonably well-dressed, in a dark skirt, a blouse, short jacket and big straw hat with fake flowers, but not expensively. It was a working woman's best clothes. Stout hobnail boots, polished until they gleamed. A factory worker?
"Are you Mr Harding?" No, not a factory worker, that was a rural West Country accent. A long way from London.
"Yes, I am. Can I be of assistance?" It seemed as good a way to start a conversation as any.
"Yes, I hope you can, sir."
"Won't you sit down?" Harding looked around for a drink or something to offer. Miss Finch had fled.
"Thank you." The lady sat down. "Mr Harding, I want you to save Anne Delafontaine."
Harding bit his lip very hard to make sure he wasn't dreaming. He wasn't.
He knew who Anne Delafontaine was. He didn't think there was a literate person in the English-speaking world who didn't. The beautiful, athletic daughter-in-law of the Duke of Wessex. Twenty-five years old, suburb horse-woman, magazine star, currently awaiting trial for the murder of her husband and his mistress.
"By save her, you mean…"
"Get her off."
A thousand objections ran through Harding's head. He chose the most obvious.
"I'm not a lawyer."
"I know," replied the lady. "I can't afford a lawyer."
Harding paused to gather his wits.
"Taylor. Mrs Sarah Taylor."
"Pleased to meet you." He shook hands. "It seems that you already know my name."
"Yes. I remember it from that other trial. Ludlow. You did so well to get him off."
"But I didn't. He was convicted and I'm only the court clerk." Harding bit his lip harder. If he wasn't dreaming, perhaps he was going mad. He found the idea of being mad more reassuring than being recruited by mad women to rescue aristocrats from the gallows.
Mrs Taylor swelled triumphantly. "Someone must have broken him out of Pentonville. And who else could have done?"
"I couldn't possibly have done," said Harding, more angrily than he had intended. "The fact that you can even think I could shows you know nothing about law. And even if I could have done, I didn't."
Hurt and shock filled Mrs Taylor's eyes. "But I have no one else," she said, quietly, as if all the air had been crushed out of her.
"Mrs Taylor," he began, then paused. "Mrs Taylor." Where to begin? There were so many ways her request was impossible. "I am not a lawyer. I have no legal training. I left school when I was sixteen and worked as a clerk in a railway station in Gloucester for two years."
"But you can go places. See things. Talk to people."
"I can talk to people. But I can't force people to talk to me if they don't want to. I'm not a copper or a lawyer or anything like that. If they tell me, "fuck off"—oh, excuse my language—"go away, nosy," I have no choice but to go. And some of the things I can see, I'm not really supposed to see. Or remember what I see if I do see. There are files I'm not supposed to look in. Certain things are confidential."
"But you spend day after day locked up alone here with briefs."
"Nosying costs jobs. And worse."
"But you wouldn't get caught."
"Why don't you talk to Mrs Delafontaine's own lawyer?"
"Because he's useless. He's her second lawyer. They're all useless. They won't believe her."
"Why should I believe her?"
Mrs Taylor leant forward in her chair. "I know Anne Delafontaine. She lived down the lane from me for six years. She volunteers for my Girl Guide troop. She's… she's honest, Mr Harding, I don't know how else to put it but that. She never stole a penny, she never spread rumours she knew weren't true. If she said "I left that book of knitting patterns on the chair", then she had. She and I have charge of about twenty adolescent girls between us and they all look up to her tremendously. If she said she didn't kill her husband, she didn't."
"I'm not sure that running a Girl Guide troop washes all traces of deceit and dishonesty from ones character. There are hundreds of people in this country who have never stolen a ha'penny from petty cash, but wouldn't hesitate to stand up in court with their hand on the Bible and lie themselves blue in the face. Do you think that in eighty-three years Baden-Powell himself never said anything he didn't think was true?"
Mrs Taylor trembled at hearing this slander. "I'm sure he never…"
"Mrs Taylor," said Harding, loudly and firmly. "I'm not a lawyer. I don't have the time or the skill or the legal permission to do anything to help your case."
"Mr Harding," said Mrs Taylor. "You may only be a young man-"
Harding was slightly offended by this. He was twenty-six.
"-but have you never met anyone you trust absolutely? Whose word you'd take over anything?"
Harding hesitated. Because he had met just such a person. Jimmy Smith from Sunday school. They hadn't been friends. He hadn't liked him particularly. He had found him dull, stupid, shy and altogether too interested in bird watching and not interested enough in playing Cowboys and Indians. But when Jimmy Smith said something was so, it was so.
"Yes, I have."
"Well, I trust Mrs Delafontaine."
Harding sighed. "Let me think about this, for a moment." He untangled the whirl of his brain for information about the Delafontaine case. "It was at a country house, wasn't it?"
"Yes. General Webb's country house. Caerlarvel."
"Yes. A month ago now, isn't it?"
"Quite a few military top brass had gone to discuss ships or something."
"Oh, yes, that's right, these new aircraft carriers. Routine meeting. Very dull. Young Delafontaine was taken as a kind of dogsbody to his commanding officer—what was he called, Driscoll?"
"Yes. Patrick Driscoll." Mrs Taylor seemed to have memorised the entire case.
"They spent the weekend. On Saturday night, all the top brass have toddled off to their comfy beds. The only people awake were Delafontaine and Webb's secretary, Miss Florence Webb."
"Also various servants," Mrs Taylor reminded him.
"Ah, yes, the servants are important. They saw her coming and going."
"At a quarter to midnight, Mrs Delafontaine waltzes in, stabs Miss Webb, and waltzes out, like Cinderella, as midnight strikes. She hitch-hikes to Dover and was found in the ladies' of a Channel ferry five minutes before departure."
"Thank you, yes. The only issue in dispute," (he was quite proud of that phrase, it sounded very legal) "is whether at the same time as stabbing Miss Webb she stabbed her husband".
"She didn't," said Mrs Taylor, flatly.
"Well, we'll see." And Harding realised that with that phrase he had committed himself to doing everything in his limited power to help Mrs Anne Delafontaine. He wondered how many laws he was going to break and whether he'd end up in Strangeways or Pentonville.
"Thank you, Mr Harding. You're a true gentleman and I'll be forever grateful." Mrs Taylor smiled at him with quiet dignity.
"I can't promise success."
"No one can promise success in anything in life, Mr Harding."
"True." Harding sighed. "You do realise, don't you, that having admitted to killing Miss Webb, she'll probably be hanged anyway? I can't help but see that it's a minor issue whether she's hanged for one murder or two."
"Maybe from a practical point of view, but I'm thinking of Magna Carta. To no man will we refuse justice."
"I'm thinking, rather more prosaically, of public safety."
Mrs Taylor frowned, puzzled.
"If she didn't kill him, someone else did."
"I hadn't thought of that," said Mrs Taylor quietly. "I know it sounds silly, but you know what I mean."
"I know exactly what you mean." Harding realised he was famished. "What do say we discuss this further over lunch?"
"Lunch would be lovely. I'll just collect Linn. I left her in the hotel unpacking."
The name was familiar. He had heard it in connection with Anne Delafontaine before. "She's a friend, isn't she?"
"Yes, she was her bridesmaid. Linn Harris."
So that was why the name was familiar. The gossip press. "But it wasn't…"
"It was Linn Lawson then. She got married last month."
"All right. I'll just… get my briefcase. You wait in the hall."
Mrs Taylor nodded and left.
What Harding actually did, when he had gathered his breath and his wits, was pour himself a double whiskey and down it.
Hart stuck his head round the door. "By the way, Harding. I found those reports under the Shooting Times. Don't bother looking for them." Harding had, in fact, forgotten all about them. He collected his briefcase, shoved a wadge of paper into it and met Mrs Taylor in the hall.
As they shared a cab from Lincoln's Inn to the hotel near Euston, Harding found out a little more about Mrs Taylor. A widow with no children, she devoted time she had spare from her work, as supervisor of a dairy on the hills above Helston, to her Girl Guide troop, which was her pride and joy. Anne Delafontaine, separated from her soldier husband for months at a stretch, had welcomed something to keep her occupied and was Mrs Taylor's most dedicated and talented subordinate. In fact, she had shown herself invaluable to the troop, and Mrs Taylor was really at a loss for to do without her.
"Had she lived in the village since her marriage?"
"Yes. It's a small place, just north of Helston. They lived in a disused caravan. They had great fun patching it up and it was really just lovely. The way the gutter press talk, you'd have thought they lived in a pig-sty."
The hotel was small and quiet, cheap but very respectable, popular with ladies travelling alone.
Mrs Harris, a pretty young woman about Mrs Delafontaine's age, was greatly relieved to see Harding. She had crinkles around her mouth as if she were used to smiling, but now her face was set with grief and anxiety.
"Mr Harding! You came! I'm so glad!" She nearly hugged him.
"I'm glad to be of help I can be, Mrs Harris, but I can't promise to be very helpful."
"I'm just glad someone believes us."
Over lunch, in a smart restaurant which Harding often patronised when he had to use Euston—both ladies looked round admiringly at the comfort of the place—Harding took pen and paper out of his briefcase and made notes of all the established facts. Both ladies looked very impressed by this, so Harding felt sure he was doing something right at least.
"The husband, what was he called? Edgar?"
"Edward," said Mrs Harris. "The Honourable Mr Edward Delafontaine."
"Mr Edward Delafontaine. He was, well, to put it bluntly, having an affair with this Florence Webb?"
"She got an anonymous letter. Anne did." Tears filled Mrs Harris' eyes. "She never told me. I'd have calmed her down. Talked her out of it. But she just wired from Truro station."
"There was a photograph," said Mrs Taylor. "Really, I think it's disgusting of Mr Delafontaine. I don't approve of murder, but I don't approve of adultery either."
"I have a copy of the photograph." Mrs Harris pulled it out of her handbag. "Here."
The grainy image depicted Edward Delafontaine and Miss Florence Webb in an act of intimacy.
"It's not a very good photo," said Harding.
"It's aesthetic qualities are irrelevant," said Mrs Taylor rather coldly.
"I'm just saying it's lousy quality. Of course, I quite understand why it upset Mrs Delafontaine. Do you mind if I keep this?"
"Oh no, I really brought it along to give to you."
"Thank you." Harding put it in his bag and continued with his questions. "They'd been married, what, six years?"
"Yes." Mrs Harris dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief. "They always seemed so happy together. And then out of the blue…"
"You were shocked, then?"
"Yes, of course!"
"You were at the wedding, weren't you?"
"Yes. I was the bridesmaid."
"A Gretna wedding, wasn't it?"
"Dumfries, actually. We got a night train, the four of us."
"Will was there, too. William Delafontaine, I mean. Lord Hapscle. God, Anne looked so lovely in white. I'd never seen her so happy. Brides glow, you know." Mrs Harris could no longer hold back the tears.
Mrs Taylor put her arm round her shoulder and tried to shield her from the curious eyes of the other diners.
"I'm sorry to distress you, Mrs Harris," said Harding. "But if I'm going to help you at all, I need to know about the case."
"I understand." Mrs Taylor controlled herself and wiped her eyes. "I'll answer all your questions. It's good of you to help."
Guilt stabbed Harding at how little he would really be able to help. Was he offering these women false hope? But he couldn't walk away now he'd started. "You've been friends with Mrs Delafontaine for a long time, haven't you?"
"For as long as I can remember."
"Who was she before she was married?"
"She hadn't any family. Her maiden name was Fenly. She lived with a few farmers in Yorkshire. They hadn't any money. Then she got a job as a servant at a big farm, then she got a job as a skivvy at a stud farm—she was always good with horses. It was at a horse fair that she met him."
"And you lived in Yorkshire, too?"
"Yes. In the same village. Well, the stud farm was a bit further out from the village, about a mile away."
"And after they met? At this horse fair?"
"They were courting. She got a job at the race track in Ascot to be near him at Sandhurst. His parents got mad and they eloped."
"Set up home in Cornwall?" Harding had no particular aim with these questions. He was just trying to get the situation clear in his head. Newspapers were so vague about these things. They were big on the scandal and sensation, less good on the facts.
Among the newspaper titbits which he had already established were downright wrong were that Mrs Delafontaine was Scottish, that she was from Birmingham and that she was an Irish immigrant from Liverpool, and that they had met at Ascot, at the Grand National, at a grouse shoot in the Highlands and at a hunt ball. On the other hand, there was no shortage of Mrs Delafontaine on a horse, Mr and Mrs Delafontaine with their arms round each other, Mrs Delafontaine looking beautiful, praise of her clothes and criticism of her ancestry. The headline in this morning's Times—normally such a sedate paper!—was "Her Wicked, Wicked Ways…". Mrs Delafontaine's "ravishing blue eyes" had "hypnotised even Kent County Constabulary to pity" and a young P.C. Hopkins was quoted as saying "poor lady had a bit of rough luck, really". The author asked how much longer this "angel-faced viper" would "go on protesting her innocence".
"Edward—Mr Delafontaine—was travelling around with the army," explained Mrs Harris. "And whenever he had leave, he went down to see her in Cornwall. I had a shop job in Falmouth. My parents didn't like me moving so far away, and knowing Anne was nearby kept them happy."
"I'd have thought Delafontaine would make more money in the army."
"Oh, they kicked him out of Sandhurst when they found out about his secret wife. But he got a lot of promotions. He's very good. A leuitenant now."
"Do you still live in Falmouth?"
"Yes. Tom's away at sea." Mrs Harris teared up again. "A merchantman called Daisy. We were only married a month. Anne… Anne was my bridesmaid. She was so happy…. I wish you could have seen her happy. Everyone thinks of her as just a murderer. It feels like another life."
Harding felt sick at the injustice of it. It was unfair, the way life changed so suddenly. Just when everything seemed to be going so well. At a loss for something to say, he offered Mrs Harris handkerchiefs until she composed herself, then continued.
"This telegram from Truro station? Did she mention her intentions?"
"No!" said Mrs Harris, indignantly. "Or I would have told the police! She only said she had a photo showing what a lying swine Edward was."
"Then you don't…?"
"I don't condone murder! Even of nasty little tarts."
"But you're still on her side?"
"Of course I am! Even a murderess shouldn't be convicted of another murder she didn't do!"
Harding felt helpless. He didn't think he'd learned anything useful. "I don't suppose you have any ideas of your own?" he asked desperately.
"Maybe it had to do with the boats," said Mrs Harris. "Perhaps the Bolshies want to get hold of them. Or the Germans. They're getting all lively again. This here Naval Agreement was a mistake if you ask me."
Mrs Taylor looked doubtful. "I can't imagine either Mr Stalin or Mr Hitler would find hull rust prevention techniques on our aircraft carriers so passionately interesting as all that."
Harding couldn't either. "Well, thank you for your help, ladies. Would you be able to stay in London in case I need you for anything?"
"Yes," said Mrs Taylor. "Of course. We wouldn't dream of missing the trial."
How much must that cost? thought Harding. To stay in London through the trial? Was this Mrs Taylor's life's savings?
Harding insisted, despite the ladies' protestations, on paying for the lunch and a cab to their hotel. Then he got back in the cab, to their teary gratitude, back to Lincoln's Inn.