Rumpole and the Angel of Death (7 page)

‘I think,' I told him, ‘that it would be a very bad idea indeed. I'm sure Philly wouldn't like it, and I'd have to start charging for defending you.'

‘Rumpole' – Claude was thoughtful – ‘do you know why everyone went off me in that peculiar way?'

‘Not really.'

But Claude had his own solution. ‘It never ceases to amaze me,' the poor old darling said, ‘how jealous everyone is of success.'

Six months later I saw a production of
Much Ado About Nothing
in Worsfield gaol with Bob Weaver as Dogberry. I enjoyed it very much indeed.

Rumpole and the Way through the Woods

There are times, I have to admit, when even the glowing flame of Rumpole sinks to a mere flicker. It had been a bad day. I had finished a case before old Gravestone, a long slog against a hostile judge, an officer in charge of the case who seemed to regard the truth as an inconvenient obstacle to the smooth and efficient running of the Criminal Investigation Department, and a client whose unendurable cockiness and self-regard rapidly lost all hearts in the Jury. It had been a hard slog which would have seemed as nothing if it had ended in an acquittal. It had not been so rewarded and, when I said goodbye to my client in the cells, carefully failing to remind him that he might be away for a long time, he said, ‘What's the matter with you, Mr Rumpole? Losing your touch, are you? They was saying in the Scrubs, isn't it about time you hung up the old wig and took retirement?' Every bone in my body seemed to ache as I stumbled into Pommeroy's where the Château Thames Embankment tasted more than ever of mildew and Claude Erskine-Brown cornered me in order to describe, at interminable length, the triumph he had enjoyed in a rent application. Leaving for home early, I had to stand up in the tube all the way back. Returning to the world from the bowels of Gloucester Road station, I struggled towards Froxbury Mansions with the faltering determination of a dying Bedouin crawling towards an oasis. All I wanted was my armchair beside the gas fire, a better bottle of the very ordinary claret, and a little peace in which to watch other people in trouble on the television. It was not to be.

When I entered the living-room the lights were off and I heard the sound of heavy and laboured breathing. My first thought was that She had fallen asleep by the gas fire, but I could hear the clatter of saucepans from the kitchen. I sniffed the air and received the usual whiff of furniture polish and cabbage being boiled into submission. But, added to this brew, was a not particularly exotic perfume, acrid and pervasive, which might, if bottled extravagantly, have been marketed as wet dog. Then the heavy breathing turned into the sort of dark and distant rumble which precedes the arrival of an Underground train. I snapped on the light and there it was: long legged, overweight and sprawled in my armchair. It was awake now, staring at me with wide-open, moist black eyes. I put out a hand to shift the intruder and the sound of the approaching train increased in volume until it became a snarl, and the animal revealed sharp and unexpectedly white pointed teeth. ‘Hilda,' I called for help from a usually reliable source, ‘there's a stray dog in the living-room.'

‘That's not a stray dog. That's Sir Lancelot.' I turned round and She was standing in the doorway, looking with disapproval not at the trespasser but at me.

‘What on earth do you mean, Sir Lancelot?'

‘That's your name, isn't it, darling?' She approached the animal with a broad smile. ‘Although sometimes we call you Lance for short, don't we?' To these eager questions the dog returned no answer at all, although it did, I was relieved to see, put away its teeth.

‘Whatever its name is, shall we call the police?'

‘Why?'

‘To have it removed.'

‘Have you
removed
, Sir Lancelot? What a silly husband I've got, haven't I?' In this, the dog and my wife seemed to be of the same mind. It settled itself into my chair and she tickled it, in a familiar fashion, under the chin.

‘Better be careful. It's got a nasty snarl.'

‘He only snarls if you do something to annoy him. Was Rumpole doing something to annoy you, Lance?'

‘I was trying to budge it off my chair,' I told her quickly, before the dog could get a word in.

‘You like Rumpole's chair, don't you, Lance? You feel at home there, don't you, darling?' I was starting to feel left out of the conversation until she said, ‘I think we might make that his chair, don't you, Rumpole? Just until he settles in.'

‘Settles in? What do you mean, settles in? What's this, a home of rest for stray animals?'

‘Lance isn't a stray. Didn't I tell you? I meant to tell you. Sir Lancelot is Dodo Mackintosh's knight in shining armour. Aren't you, darling?' Darling was, of course, the dog.

‘You mean he's come up from Cornwall?' I looked at the hound with new respect. Perhaps he was one of those animals they make films about, that set off on their own to travel vast distances. ‘Hadn't we better ring Dodo to come and fetch him?'

‘Don't be silly, Rumpole.' Hilda had put on one of her heroically patient voices. ‘Dodo brought Lancelot up here this afternoon. She left him on her way to the airport.'

‘And what time's she getting back from the airport? I suppose I can wait until after supper to sit in my chair.'

‘She's going to Brittany to stay with Pegsy Throng who was jolly good at dancing and used to be at school with us. Of course, she couldn't take Sir Lancelot because of the quarantine business.'

‘And how long is Pegsy Throng entertaining Dodo?' I could feel my heart sinking.

‘Just the three weeks, Rumpole. Not long enough, really. Dodo did ask if I thought you'd mind and I told her, of course not, Lance will be company for both of us. Come and have supper now, and after that you can take him out on the lead to do his little bit of business. It'll be a chance for you two to get to know each other.'

Sleep was postponed that night as I stood in the rain beside a lamp-post with the intruder. Sir Lancelot leapt to the extent of his lead, as though determined to choke himself, wrenching my arm almost out of its socket, as he barked savagely at every passing dog. Looking down at him, I decided that I never saw a hound I hated more, and yet it was Sir Lancelot that brought me a case which was one of the most curious and sensational of my career.

‘What on earth are we doing here, Hilda?' Here was a stretch of countryside, blurred by a sifting March rain so, looking towards the horizon, it was hard to tell at which precise point the soggy earth became the sodden sky.

‘Breathe in the country air, Rumpole. Besides which, Sir Lancelot couldn't spend all his time cooped up in a flat. He had to have a couple of days' breather in the Cotswolds. It'll do you both good.'

‘Couldn't Sir Lancelot have gone for a run in the Cotswolds on his own?'

‘Try not to be silly, Rumpole.'

The dog was behaving in an eccentric manner, making wild forays into the undergrowth as though it had found something to chase and, ending up with nothing, it came trotting back to the path quite unconscious of its own stupidity. It was, I thought, an animal with absolutely no sense of humour.

‘Why on earth does your friend Dodo Mackintosh call that gloomy hound Sir Lancelot?'

‘After Sir Lancelot of the Lake, of course. One of the knights of the Table Round. Dodo's got a very romantic nature. Come along, Lance.
There's
a good boy. Enjoying your run in the country, are you?'

‘Lance,' I told her firmly, ‘or, rather,
Launce
is the chap who had a dog called Crab in
Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Crab got under the duke's table with some “gentlemanlike dogs” and after “a pissing while” a terrible smell emerged. Launce took responsibility for it and was whipped.'

‘Do be quiet, Rumpole! You always look for the seamy side of everything.' At which point, Lance, in another senseless burst of energy, leapt a stile and started chasing sheep.

‘Can't you keep that dog under control?' The voice came from a man in a cap, crossing the field towards us, with a golden labrador trotting in an obedient manner at his side. Hilda and I, having climbed the stile and called Lance, with increasing hopelessness, were set out on a course towards him.

‘I'm afraid we can't,' I apologized from a distance. ‘The animal won't listen to reason.'

‘What did you say its name was?'

‘Sir Lancelot,' Hilda boasted.

‘Of the Lake. To give him his full title,' I added, trying to make the best of our lamentable attachment.

‘Sir Lancelot! Here, boy!' the man in the cap called in a commanding tone and gave a piercing whistle. Whereupon Dodo's dog stood still, shook itself, came to its senses and, much to the relief of the sheep, joined our group. At which, the man in the cap turned, looked me in the face for the first time and said, ‘By God, it's Horace Rumpole!'

‘Rollo Eyles!'

‘And this is your good lady?”

I resisted the temptation to say, ‘No, it's my wife.' Rollo was telling Hilda about our roots in history. He had been the Prosecution junior in the Penge Bungalow affair, arguably the classic murder of our time and undoubtedly the greatest moment of triumph in the Rumpole career.

Until they heard my first devastating cross-examination of the police surgeon, legal hacks in the Penge Bungalow case treated me as an inexperienced white-wig who shouldn't be allowed out on a careless driving. A notable exception was young Rollo Eyles, the Prosecution junior, then a jovial, school- boyish young man, born, like me, without any feelings of reverence. He was a mimic, and we would meet after Court in Pommeroy's to drown our anxiety, and Rollo would do his impressions of the Judge, the prosecuting silk and the dry, charnel-house voice of Professor Ackerman, master of the morgues. In the middle of his legal career Rollo inherited an estate, and a good deal of money, from an uncle, and left the busy world of the Old Bailey for, it appeared, these damp fields where he was a farmer, Master of Foxhounds and Chairman of the Bench.

For a while he wrote to me at Christmas, letters in neat handwriting, full of jokes. After a while, I forgot to answer them and our friendship waned. Now he said, ‘Why don't you come up to the house and we'll all have a strong drink.' Rollo Eyles always had a sensible solution to the most desperate case. Sir Lancelot, realizing he had met a man he couldn't trifle with, came and joined us with unusual docility.

It was over a large whisky in front of a log fire that I told Rollo where we were staying. Our hotel was a plastic and concrete nightmare of a building conveniently situated for the trading estate outside the nearest town. It had all the joys of piped music in the coffee shop, towels in a thinness contest with the lavatory paper, and waitresses who'd undergone lengthy training in the art of not allowing their eyes to be caught. It was the only place we could find where we were allowed, after slipping a bribe larger than the legal aid fee for a guilty plea to the hall porter, to secretly have Sir Lancelot in the bathroom. There, he was due to spend a restless night on a couple of wafer-thin blankets. Having heard this sad story, Rollo offered us dinner and a bed for the night; Lancelot could be kennelled with the gentlemanlike dogs. Our host said he was looking forward to hearing the latest gossip from the Old Bailey and, in return, we could have the pleasure of seeing the hunt move off from his front drive before we went back to London.

The rain had stopped during the night and the March morning was cold and sunny. Sir Lancelot was shivering with excitement, as if delightedly aware that something, at some time, was going to be killed; although I doubted if, during his peaceful cohabitation with Dodo Mackintosh in Lamorna Cove, he had ever met foxhunters before. However, he leapt into the air, pirouetted at the end of his lead, barked at the horses and did his best to give the impression that he was entirely used to the country sports of gentlemanlike dogs. So there I was, eating small slices of pork pie and drinking port which tasted, on that crisp morning, delicious. Hilda, wearing an old mac and a tweed hat which she'd apparently bought for just such an occasion, was doing her best to look as though, if her horse hadn't gone lame or suffered some such technical fault, she'd've been up and mounted among our dinner companions of the night before.

I looked up with my mouth full of pork pie to join in Hilda's smiles at these new acquaintances who had merged with the children on ponies, the overweight farmers, the smart garage owners and the followers on foot. Rollo was there, sitting in the saddle as though it was his favourite armchair, talking to a whipper-in, or hunt servant, or whatever the red-coated officials may be called. Mrs Rollo – Dorothea – was there, the relic of a great beauty, still slim and upright, her calm face cracked with lines like the earth on a dried-up river bed, her auburn hair streaked with grey, bundled into a hairnet and covered with a peaked velvet cap. I also recognized Tricia Fothergill, who had clung on to the childish way she mispronounced her name, together with the good looks of an attractive child, into her thirties. She was involved in a lengthy divorce and had, during dinner, bombarded me with questions about family law for which I had no ready answer. And there, raising his glass of port to me from the immense height of a yellow-eyed horse, sitting with his legs stuck out like wings, was the old fellow who had been introduced to us as Johnny Logan and who knew the most intimate details of the private lives of all sporting persons living in the Cotswolds. Rollo Eyles, in the absence of any interesting anecdotes from the Central Criminal Court, clearly relied on him for entertaining gossip. ‘Roll 'em in the aisles, that's what I call him,' Logan whispered to me at dinner. ‘Our host's extremely attractive to women. Of course, he'll never leave Dorothea.'

Now, at the meet in front of Wayleave Manor, Logan said, ‘Seen our charming visitors at the end of the drive? You might go and have a look at them, Horace. They're the antis.'

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