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Anna Jane Vardill

Extracts from a Lawyer’s Portfolio

To the Editor of the European Magazine


My name is Peregrine Philowhim, formerly known to you as a member of the Brotherhood of Bioscribes, or Eunomian Society, assembled in search of the law of happiness. When the last meeting was called in their “Hermitage,” only the Chaplain, the Lawyer, the Philosopher, and myself, their humble historian, appeared at the septagon table. Our philosopher, now in the frost of his seventieth winter, looked sorrowfully at the vacant seats, and said, “If melancholy thoughts deserved encouragement, I might say this fraternity represents the state of man himself—our poetical enthusiast, our gay and busy philanthropist, our reasoning physician, and even our pleasant trifler, have forsaken us.—Thus the romance of our imagination, the sweetness of our social affections, our mental activity, and at last our tastes for the world’s trifles, abandon us in succession; and we all take refuge in vague chimeras, or perhaps, like me, in contemptuous indifference.

Perceiving, as I thought, a malicious hint levelled at my scheming propensity, I answered, “Certainly our Brotherhood, when complete, represented the seven ages, and our systems were nearly such as they usually produce. In the first age, we hope and love all things; in the second, we seek the greatest good; in the third, the least evil. The fourth age tempts a man to subdue or amend the world; the fifth learns to endure, the sixth to shun, and the last to forget it.”

“And if,” interposed our Chaplain, “the spirit of hope and benevolence is the spirit of the happiest age, how highly you have praised that religion which allows us to hope and love all things to the last! Let us keep or recall our aptitude to love and be beloved, and we shall preserve the most precious privilege of youth.”

“We have thermometers and chronometers,” I continued, laughing;—“why should not we contrive a Biometer of pocket-size, in which the seven degrees of hope, pleasure, prudence, ambition, spleen, misanthropy, and selfishness, might be expressed: and by considering every day at what point he found himself, a man might ascertain the ascent or descent of his mind’s electric fluid, and measure the true spirit of life.”

“Practicable enough,” said Counsellor Lumiere, “but every one of us has a Biometer, as you call it, in his own conscience, if he dared consult it. It is true, however, that our comforts and our virtues rise or fall very much according to our esteem for our fellow-creatures, and we never are so ready to be vicious as when we find no good in them. Therefore I love to hoard every feeling or remembrance, every reason or example, which keeps me in good-humour with my brethren; and I know if I can always persuade myself to think well of them, I need not take much trouble to be on good terms with myself.”

Our sage Brother De Grey replied—“And after all, it is a very consoling consideration that there is nothing new!—neither follies, wisdom, nor pleasure. It is consoling, I mean, because, though our imaginations lead us only to nearly the same kind of fooleries in all ages, our better faculties appear to have been always equal to their task. The amusements of man have often been ridiculous and unfixed, but his sense of truth and justice is immutable.”

“Let it be deemed no opposition to your inference, brother,” rejoined the advocate, “if I suggest that the frequent failures of human judgment, when most solemnly and deliberately exercised, should tend to abate that self-sufficience and that spleenful estimate of others which brings us to the lowest point of our friend Philowhim’s Biometer. Let us ascribe more to erring judgment and less to criminal motives, if we wish to view our fellow-creatures kindly: and since we have no better employment, let the secretary of our institution select a few of the numerous facts which have baffled human discernment. We honour the Director of events when we acknowledge how often they are unravelled without and beyond the aid of our best faculties.”

I opened the lawyer's portfolio, and found a bundle of cases distinguished by a band of floss silk, instead of the usual ominous red tape. The first that presented itself, in alphabetical order, was endorsed “An Assignment.”

During one of the long vacations in the last century, a young man in an ordinary hunting-dress, with a single dog by his side, was stopped in his stroll through an obscure glen by a very singular object. The sides of this glen were so steep and lofty, that they hardly admitted light enough to discover the course of a stream, more noisy than deep, which ran among broken rocks under natural arches. A narrow unfrequented road led into the depths of the valley, where a grey horse was quietly grazing, and at a little distance a man in black sat on one of the stones in the middle of the brook in a composed and meditative attitude. A position so extraordinary attracted the sportsman’s attention, and he enquired, in a courteous accent, if the place afforded good sport for an angler. The solitary student raised his hat, and replied, in a peculiar tone of gravity, “Sir, I am discriminating.”—His observer hazarded a remark on the inconvenience of his seat, for the water was now flowing rather above the stones, but the man in black answered, “You are mistaken, sir!—any place is fit for discrimination—If you were a lawyer, sir, you would know, that on all occasions it is fitting and necessary to discriminate—If you are a trustee, and the estate is charged with debts—let the creditors wait:—if you have an executorship, and the legatees are clamorous, keep the funds while you discriminate—for a few years. Vow the business in question is an assignment—Certain heritors in this country have assigned, granted, deponed, and made over sundry lands, teinds, tenements, and annual rents, to a certain person for the benefit of certain aforesaids: and now, sir, auld Mahoun is in it if this person cannot keep this estate himself all his life, provided he takes a man of business into keeping too, and discriminates properly.”—“Pardon me,” said the young sportsman, laughing, “if I think the most interesting point just now is how to discriminate properly between a wet coat and a dry one—and I have not the honour of knowing the person you call Auld Mahoun.”—“If that bag which you carry was a bag of briefs,” replied the gentleman in the brook, “I flatter myself you would be very well acquainted with him. In South Britain, sir, his usual cognomine is Nicholas or Harry senior, and, as old Bishop Latimer truly said, he is the best lawyer of us all, for he never misses his business.”

Though the young stranger could not determine whether his new acquaintance was influenced by wine or insanity, there was something so ridiculously contrasted in the gravity of his discourse and the seat he had chosen, that he thought the sport of shooting well exchanged for this scene. Perceiving his attentive air, the black gentleman resumed his oration: “In the church of St. Benignas, at Dijon, is the statue of a queen with one resembling a goose’s; and one of my merry clients, sir, wrote under it—‘this is the Law’—but as three such statues may be found in France, the jest might be extended to other professions.”—“Sir,” answered the youth, bowing, “when a client jests, his lawyer must be an honourable one.”—“Very true, young gentleman, a merry client is a rarity: but heirs and executors never joke so well with lawyers as with physicians, because mistakes are above ground, and a physician’s are under it—Sir, you look as if you thought mine were likely to be under water, but this brook is a copy of my bill in chancery—always running—running—running on; and I am where I chuse to be, among troubled——.”—Before he could articulate the word, he fell from his seat into the water, and remained motionless.

The stranger stood aghast at this tragical conclusion of the farce, and made fruitless attempts to raise the body, which cramp or spasms had distorted. He succeeded, however, in drawing it out of the stream whose chillness had probably occasioned the disaster; and perceiving the grey horse saddled and bridled as if it had belonged to this unfortunate man, he mounted him, and leaving his dog to guard the body, rode to the town of K——, about two miles distant, to seek assistance. It was still a very early hour in the morning, and the master of an obscure inn, with two or three labourers, rose to accompany him back. Much time was lost by their hesitation, and when they reached Glencraig, the stranger’s body was gone, and the dog lay dead beside the brook. Grief and astonishment were the young man’s only feelings, but his companions viewed and questioned him with evident suspicion. The brook ran rapidly through the glen, deepening and growing broader till it reached the bay near K. where the small river Dee joins the western sea. One of the spectators followed its course, and discovered a pocket-book floating, and not yet entirely moistened. Its contents had probably been rifled, as it now contained only the rough draft of an assignment, in which blanks were left for dates and the names of persons and places. There was much agitation in the youth’s features when he saw this document, and his seeming anxiety to keep it in his own possession increased the wary Scotch innkeeper’s suspicions. He conveyed him instantly to the Provost of K. whose questions were answered with obvious confusion and incoherence. His name, he said, was Evan M’Querie, and his place of abode a small farm on the neighbouring coast, which he had tenanted a few weeks. He could not, or would not, give any references for his character; and the steward of the nobleman whose land be held, only knew that he came from England, and had paid a half-year’s rent in advance. If he was acquainted with more, he did not venture to communicate it, and a most suspicious obscurity gathered round Evan. The ambiguity and reserve of his statements respecting his family and former life, his sullenness and ill-concealed anxiety, justified the prejudice which rose against him. He imputed the stains on his apparel to the sport he had pursued on that fatal morning, but bills of large amount on the Bank of Scotland were found upon him, and the lost stranger’s pocket-book had in its inner recess a pencilled list of bills, whose dates and value appeared to have been hastily effaced. And a silver penknife which tallied with the dog’s mortal wound, was found in Glencraig, with the initials E. M.—Evan professed that his house had been robbed a few nights before by two of the privileged mendicants still frequent in Scotland, and begged the magistrate to observe, that the collar of his dog had been stolen since he left it near the brook. But this excuse would have availed little, had not the most rigorous search been insufficient to recover the body; and the stranger’s death being thus rendered uncertain, the suspected prisoner was released after a long delay, but not without whispered hints of bribery, which pursued him to the obscure dwelling where he lived with only one servant in abhorred solitude.

I returned, about the close of the eighteenth century, from a long absence in the West Indies, and found myself charged with some professional duties which required my presence in Scotland. One of these duties was to ascertain the truth of some mysterious rumours respecting a wreck said to have happened on the western coast; and my visit to a nobleman in that neighbourhood enabled me to begin enquiries. He informed me, that Evan M’Querie had purchased from him the land he formerly tenanted, and was considered wealthy, though his mode of life was sordid and laborious. Part of his wealth was generally ascribed to the mysterious affair of Glencraig, and part to the wreck of a small trading vessel on the coast which his estate bordered. Advertisements in provincial papers had offered large rewards for a certain trunk supposed to contain the jewels and purse of a young English heiress, who had sailed in that unfortunate vessel to join the unknown adventurer she had married clandestinely. The crew and passengers had perished; but Evan M’Querie, who was supposed to visit the coast nightly at that period in expectation of contraband consignments, had probably found the chest among less valuable articles which the waves had thrown on shore. Very soon after, he became proprietor instead of farmer; and strange rumours were whispered of the cautious and deep solitude he seemed to seek. The event of the wreck had long since ceased to be a subject of conversation, and no enquiries had been pursued; therefore the elder neighbours surmised that the Laird M’Querie had begun to relax in his precautions, as his female servant had been seen at kirk and market in remnants of yellow lace and silk gloves, which were deemed a part of the spoils found in the lost bridal chest. My curiosity was excited by these details, and my friendly host supplied me with a pretext to visit the suspected man in his own mansion. It stood at the foot of an unshapely hill, half encircled by a rude plantation of dwarf firs in a hollow, sloping towards the rocky cove celebrated in the legends of shipwrecks. The swampy and neglected grass-plat before the door, fenced on one side by an irregular peat-stack, and on the other by a half-ruined tenement for poultry, indicated the squalid habits of its master. He opened the door himself, fearing perhaps to trust a stranger with the decrepit female who officiated as his only domestic; and finding that I came on manorial business from his neighbour, be conducted me into a room fit for the residence of a man who hated because he feared his fellow-creatures. Evan now appeared in more than his fortieth year; and though his person was grown broad and robust, his height was greatly diminished by the constant stoop of his head and the contraction of his chest. The dark brown acquired by labour in the sun and wind, could not entirely cover a greenish sallowness in his complexion, and his thick black hair was streaked with grey. Shunned by his few neighbours, he had adopted the clownish dress and hoarse accent of his dependents; and a kind of scornful fierceness mingled with the anxiety which I could perceive in his eyes when he viewed me askance. My dog, who had followed me reluctantly into this gloomy house, after scenting the wooden pannels of its owner’s close bed, and looking wistfully at the oat-cakes and fish hung over the smoked ingle, couched himself with great caution on the hearth. The Laird glanced at his collar, and asked leave to examine its inscription—“Nec deficit alter,”—“That, as you may perceive by the initials,” said I, “is not the motto of my family; and if it was changed into “Neck deficit halter,” it would be more appropriate, perhaps, to the real owner.”—The blue gloom of Evan’s eyes threatened lightning at this speech, but I had considered my purpose and pursued it.—“My business in Scotland is to enquire if any traces have been preserved of the wreck which occurred here more than sixteen years since. The daughter of a Northumbrian baronet is supposed to have perished on this coast, and her father before his death assigned his estates to me in trust for her benefit, and for his distant relatives in the event of her decease without offspring. A provision is also allotted to her husband if he survives her: but it seems most probable that he shared her fate in the foundered sloop. I am authorized to give an ample recompense to any one who can trace or restore the chest which accompanied her.”—The Laird’s complexion changed, and his agitation strongly resembled guilt.—“Mr. M’Querie.” I continued, in a stern tone, “this silver knife is Ellen Maxwell’s—perhaps you found it among the relics of the wreck?”—He grew paler, but his eye became more intrepid, and he seemed collecting his strength for a desperate effort—“This,” said he, after a long pause, “is another result of the cruel prejudice against me. That knife was mine long before the wreck, and was in the bands of a magistrate on an occasion even more melancholy. I am innocent of both the crimes imputed to me.”—This ready consciousness of suspicion implied more than innocence, and I again offered a premium for the surrender of the jewels, adding that I saw the chest itself under the pannels of his bed. He rose, and advanced towards me with a startling suddenness—“Though you have entered my house to disturb my reputation, you will not find it so easy to disturb my property. Chance threw that chest into my hands, and I keep it by the right of a husband: Ellen Maxwell was my wife.”

This unexpected confession deranged all the gravity of my professional face, and I shook him cordially by the hand, with a smile which, I suppose, recalled the youthful expression of my features. He gave a cry of transport, and embraced me. It was not easy for me to recover voice enough to tell him, that when my stupor of intoxication and epilepsy had induced him to leave me in Glencraig, I had been found by two vagrant beggars, who probably destroyed the dog before they robbed me. I recovered my senses in sufficient time to see them hastening down the glen; but having no recollection of the place where my horse had been left, or of any thing that had passed before my trance, I made haste to reach the town of K. where I found the vessel in which my passage to Liverpool was secured on the point of sailing. Her boat received me before I entered the town, and I left Great Britain for the West Indies without leisure or inclination to enquire after the robbers, and without any memorial of the adventure except the collar of the faithful dog who had died in my defence. “You see,” concluded I, “my old habit of discriminating remains; and as your father-in-law died lately without revoking his assignment, it will enable me to shew my gratitude for the hazard you incurred in Glencraig, which I never knew till to-day: and to prove that a lawyer may love justice, though he may be found sometimes among troubled waters.”

Evan M’Querie soon furnished me with documents sufficient to certify his marriage with the lady I have named. He had hired the small farm house of Glencraig for her reception when he came incognito to Scotland, and her untimely death on the coast where she had hoped to meet him, added to the disgraceful prejudice raised against him, occasioned the deep seclusion to which he retired. He emerged from it with a retrieved name and an ample competence, which atoned for undeserved sufferings, and proved the fallibility of circumstantial evidence.

For myself, I must confess, that on the eventful morning which began this narrative, my imagination was bewildered by the splendid profits derivable from the assignment. My narrow escape from death arrested and chastised my wandering thoughts with a force which would have been doubly awful had I then discovered that I owed it to the man whose property I was tempted to infringe. Since that period, though the law has guarded the instrument called an assignment with infinite formalities and precautions, I have never considered it in the course of my professional career, without wishing that such a warning may befall every man who executes or receives a deed of trust.


(To be continued)

The European Magazine, Vol. 72, December 1817, pp. 489-493