Read The Pupil Online

Authors: Caro Fraser

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

The Pupil

The Pupil

CARO FRASER

For Michael Fitzgerald

Sir Basil Bunting, QC, was the head of chambers at 5 Caper Court, London, one of the most prestigious and successful sets of private and commercial litigation chambers in London. He was an elegant old man, with a serene countenance and a dignified manner. His white hair was crisp and thick, brushed well back from his high forehead; his shoes were well polished, his suits immaculately cut; his fountain pen, its old gold beautifully faded with the use of years, was always full of ink; his pocket handkerchief, thrust with careless arrogance into his breast pocket, was thick and white and large; his eye, as it rested with satisfaction upon the things in his life, was calm and majestic. To shake Sir Basil’s hand, its skin silkily translucent with age, was a dry and pleasant affair – but brisk, very brisk.

For Sir Basil, QC, was a great man. The very sight of him inspired confidence in his clients, those powerful businessmen and multinational corporations whose own
reputations and substance echoed Sir Basil’s respectable worth. When Sir Basil rose to address a court on behalf of those clients, the calm assurance of his manner and grave modulation of his voice encouraged everyone, including the judge, to believe that truth and justice were on his side. The fees he commanded were legendary.

Part of Sir Basil’s greatness lay in the fact that he seemed a remote, solitary figure. Not reclusive by any means – quite the opposite; a debonair and sparkling conversationalist at cocktail and dinner parties, a popular speaker with a fund of fresh legal anecdotes, much in demand at the Annual Convention of the Shipping Bar and at Arbitrators’ dinners. But he was unmarried and seemed, therefore, to the outside world to be a man without a personal life.

He had been born shortly after the First World War, the eldest of three children. Law had been his calling from a very early age, as, indeed, his father had intended it should be; for Basil was destined, in his father’s ambitions at least, to succeed him as head of chambers at 5 Caper Court. There had been a brief flirtation with an army career, but ill-health had put paid to this, and he had reluctantly laid down his arms and resumed his practice at the Bar shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. This proved to be a fortunate occurrence, from Basil’s point of view, for while the war carried off most of Basil’s contemporaries at the Bar to fight for King and Country, Basil remained snugly ensconced in the Temple, performing a little fire-watching from time to time, with the field clear for him to establish a practice which put him far ahead of those contemporaries when they returned from active service.

And so, his reputation already golden before he had reached his thirtieth birthday, the path to the top had seemed open and without obstacle. The dignified contemporaries of his father were already tottering into dotage and disuse – those, that is, who had not taken their seat upon the Bench to live out a useful old age in the years of their declining faculties – and when Basil’s father, Sir Hector ‘Bunny’ Bunting, announced his retirement, the vote of chambers had gone unanimously in favour of adopting Basil as their head at the tender age of forty-four.

But, despite so much rapid success at so young an age, Basil had not found happiness beyond the long and absorbing hours spent in chambers. Perhaps the fact that he had not served during the war lent a strangeness to his contact with other men of his age, for he was aloof and uneasy in their company. He had grown accustomed to the somewhat ponderous and proper manners of the assortment of relics and oddballs that had remained at the Bar during the war years, and had himself assumed an arrogant and unsettled air that rendered him unattractive to men and women alike. As a young man, he was lonely and unsought, and spent most of his time pursuing his flourishing practice and nurturing the talents of new tenants in chambers.

Among his family, however, Basil was cherished and respected. Many of his happiest days were spent with his two sisters and their children, and if he harboured any regret concerning his single condition, it was that he had no son to succeed him at 5 Caper Court. He had, however, a nephew, Edward, the son of his sister, Cora, and her
husband, Frederick Choke, and on him Sir Basil’s hopes were pinned.

Frederick Choke was a wealthy businessman whose success had enabled him, at a relatively early age, to retire to the countryside of Surrey and to the peace and seclusion of sixty thousand acres of farmland, whose management absorbed and delighted him as business never had. His wife, Cora, ran her social life with an industry and vigour that consumed all her energies and resources, and no one paid great heed to Edward, their son and heir, until, emerging at the end of a public school career of startling mediocrity, he presented them with the problem of his future. What Edward Should Do became a family topic, debated by parents, aunts, uncles and godparents regularly at mealtimes. It was not long, however, until it occurred to Frederick Choke that his brother-in-law, Basil, undoubtedly owed him a debt of gratitude. It had, after all, been Frederick who secured for Basil that opportune appointment as head of the Government Board of Enquiry into the Thanet Nuclear Disaster, whereby Basil had earned his knighthood. Sir Basil should find a place for Edward at 5 Caper Court.

Sir Basil had accepted the suggestion with alacrity. His dynastic sense was fired by the notion that, although he had no son, his own nephew might one day don the mantle of responsibility at 5 Caper Court. Cora Choke was both invigorated and relieved by the prospect of her son adopting a sufficiently noteworthy profession to enable her to brag about it at bridge, and Frederick regarded the matter as entirely settled as soon as the idea first entered his head. There was, of course, the problem of whether or
not Edward would take kindly to the idea, but the bucolic Edward seemed both surprised and grateful that anyone should take the trouble to think of him, and acceded graciously. He had heard chaps vaguely talking about going to the Bar, and as it seemed to be one of those places where one might reasonably go, he didn’t mind if he went.

And so Edward secured a place, on the strength of his A-levels in history, economics and English (these had struck his careers master, who regarded Edward as ‘difficult to place’, as a good, broad career base) at Cambridge, where he did not distinguish himself in any way, and emerged with a dubious lower second in law at the end of three years. The first steps on the road to Caper Court had been taken.

So it was that, at the end of the long vacation in the year in which Edward had taken his final Bar examinations (passing them at the second attempt), he was about to take up his pupillage, that arduous, year-long apprenticeship of researching and book-carrying, under the tutelary authority of Jeremy Vane, one of the fast-ascending stars in the legal galaxy.

In the fortnight before Edward’s arrival, Sir Basil was sitting in his room in chambers contemplating a variety of letters spread out before him on the polished surface of his desk. After consideration, he drew several into a pile and placed them dismissively on one side of the desk. The remaining three he arranged in a row before him, cleared his throat lightly, and fell to their re-perusal. As he read, a gentle knock sounded at his door and a tall, gaunt man of forty or so, dark and slender to the point of painful thinness, came in.

‘Michael,’ said Sir Basil, casting a cold but courteous glance over the top of his spectacles, ‘thank you for sparing these few minutes. How is your case before the Lord Chancellor coming along?’

‘Slowly,’ replied the thin man with a smile, settling himself in one of the various handsome chairs that stood around Sir Basil’s desk, vacant reminders of the important persons who generally sat there in conference. Michael Gibbon was a quiet, thoughtful man with a mild sense of humour; as a lawyer, he was painstaking and exacting. He was not altogether fond of his head of chambers, but tried to treat him with respect and cordiality. For his own part, Sir Basil found Michael’s abstracted manner and slightly ill-kempt appearance profoundly irritating. However, since Michael achieved regular, quiet success in his practice, Sir Basil treated him with forbearance and only occasional impatience.

Sir Basil sat back in his chair.

‘Now,’ he said, ‘we must discuss the tiresome matter of the pupil quota. Quite why the Bar Council thinks it necessary to tell us how many pupils we are to take in a year, I cannot think. Still, there it is. Apart from my nephew, Edward, whom you know, we must select another. I suppose they have their uses, fetching and carrying, that sort of thing.’

‘They do also serve a function eventually – as members of chambers, I mean,’ said Michael, the faintest of smiles lighting his face.

‘Naturally,’ replied Sir Basil testily. ‘But we do not take more than one tenant every two or three years, and it is
my hope that Edward will be joining us at the end of his pupillage. Any other young man that we take will have to look for a place elsewhere, once his year as a pupil is up. His value to us is necessarily limited. As he is to be your pupil, whoever he may be, you may feel it something of a waste of your time. Were it up to me, we should take on no more pupils than we can usefully employ.’

‘I imagine I’ll find a pupil rather an asset,’ said Michael. ‘And might it not be better to take the view that he stands at least as good a chance as Edward of getting a tenancy here? After all, accusations of nepotism, that sort of thing …?’

Michael knew that he was treading on thin ice with this last remark, but somehow he could not resist needling his head of chambers. On this occasion, Sir Basil had to bite back a reproving remark to the effect that the choice of the next tenant lay with him. It was, after all, technically a matter which concerned everyone in chambers.

‘Let us not concern ourselves with that at this stage.’ He drew the three letters towards him. ‘Now, of the six that you have interviewed, only the letters of three strike me as being in any way suitable. I feel we should choose from among these – Cross, Letchworth and Peters.’

‘What about Mr Ramisamola? I thought him most promising.’

Sir Basil sighed. Michael seemed determined to make this a trying afternoon. ‘I hardly think,’ he said, ‘that chambers is quite ready for a coloured – ah – element. Do you?’

Michael said he supposed not. Still, one didn’t want to appear racially prejudiced, even if one was, he observed, by now thoroughly enjoying himself.

‘No one beyond these four walls is likely to hear of our decision in that regard,’ replied Sir Basil waspishly, realising too late that this made him sound both bigoted and underhand. ‘I have not included Mr Ramisamola, in any event, because his background is not quite suitable.’

‘Well,’ said Michael, ‘of those three you mentioned, I rather liked Cross and Peters. Letchworth was a bit stodgy, as I recall. Cross is the one with the scholarship, I think – maybe it would be rather a waste of his year if he’s not likely to get a tenancy here.’

‘A year spent at 5 Caper Court could hardly be called a waste of any young man’s time. Don’t you think?’ Sir Basil’s eyebrows rose a shade.

‘No, but—’ Michael began, sensing the contradiction.

‘Cross seems to be an exceptional scholar – a first from Bristol, I see; Pembury Prize for Jurisprudence; Jeffers Memorial Scholarship.’

‘I liked him,’ observed Michael. ‘I suspect there’s not much money at home, hence all the scholarships. It’s a difficult year to get through, without support.’

‘What about Peters?’ Sir Basil scanned the letters again and glanced up.

‘Oh, very able. On the whole, I think I preferred Cross.’

‘Well, as he is to be your pupil, your preference is what counts. Perhaps you could see to answering all these?’ He swept the letters towards Michael. ‘Now,’ he said, glancing at his wristwatch, ‘I think it may be time for a little sherry.’

Michael would far rather have been on his way to El Vino’s, but it was one of the penalties of a late-afternoon conference with the old man that one had to partake of his
sherry. Not so much the sherry that anyone minded, but the business of making friendly conversation with Sir Basil sometimes seemed a bit of a strain.

It was with a light heart and a sense of relief, therefore, that Michael clattered downstairs at six o’clock, just in time to catch one of the typists before she left.

‘Joyce, would you mind …? Just a very short letter. I want to get it out tonight, if I can.’ Joyce, with one sleeve of her coat already pulled on, gave a wry smile, took her coat off, and switched on her typewriter.

‘Seeing as it’s you,’ she said, and sat poised over the keyboard, waiting for Michael to start.

‘To Anthony Cross, 24 Croft Road, East Dulwich. Dear Mr Cross, I am pleased to inform you that, after careful consideration, we have decided to accept your application for pupillage at 5 Caper Court. Perhaps you would be kind enough to telephone me at chambers to discuss a suitable date for you to start, although I would hope that next Monday would not be too early. I look forward to hearing from you, etcetera.’

‘New blood, eh, Mr Gibbon?’ Joyce rattled out the envelope and handed the letter to Michael.

‘New blood, indeed, Joyce. I hope you will be kind to him as only you and Violet know how.’ Joyce laughed with all the conceit and vigour of the worldly-wise twenty-four-year-old.

‘Long as he’s not too cocky, we’ll be just lovely to him.’ She pulled on her coat. ‘Just like we are to you.’

‘Ha,’ said Michael, fiddling with the franking machine. ‘Goodnight, Joyce.’

At six-fifteen, Michael stepped out into the lovely late-summer air and headed through Caper Court and up King’s Bench Walk towards El Vino’s. He was looking forward to having a pupil; it would take some of the weight off his shoulders, even if it did mean explaining everything as they went along and checking all his work. It might be amusing, too. Michael thought, with a faint conceit, that he would make rather a good sort of pupilmaster. As for Sir Basil’s nephew, God help him with Jeremy Vane. A most unattractive prospect, being the pupil of one of the Bar’s most arrogant personalities. Small chance of the boy learning anything. But the evening and life generally were far too good to worry about Edward Choke.

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