Three Debts Paid
Daniel answered the swift, light tap on his office door. He knew it was Impney, the chief clerk at the fford Croft and Gibson chambers. Daniel had been here for three years now, and it was all familiar.
Impney came in and closed the door behind him. He was a middle-aged man with immaculate appearance and manners. “There is a gentleman to see you, Mr. Pitt. His name is Professor Nicholas Wolford. I believe modern European history is his subject. He says he knew you at Cambridge, sir?” There was doubt in his voice.
Daniel had studied law, or else he would not have been here, in this excellent position. The firm of fford Croft and Gibson did not employ anyone without both a first-class degree from a reputable university and a personal recommendation.
Daniel did not have to think for more than a moment or two: he remembered Wolford clearly. The man was striking in appearance, moody in nature, a fine scholar, and beyond that, a brilliant teacher. For Daniel, he had made history seem more alive and urgent, more compelling, than any current affairs. Modern history was considered to have begun about the year 1500, and Wolford was interested in all of it, but he was especially passionate about the French Revolution. The 1789 one, before the uprisings all over Europe—with the exception of Britain—fifty years later. In the France of 1848, it was a revolution born and then crushed.
Impney was waiting patiently.
“Yes, yes, I remember him,” Daniel answered. “What does he want?”
“He has a case that I believe he wishes you to take, sir. A matter arising from an instance of . . . plagiarism.” He said the word as if it were the name of some obscene minor disease.
“Someone has plagiarized his work?” Daniel was not surprised. Wolford’s style was unique and, in its own way, brilliant.
“No, sir. I believe the matter is somewhat more complicated than that,” Impney answered. “It concerns a new book he has written. Something to do with the French Revolution. He wishes you to represent him. But I believe there is more.”
“Really?” Daniel was startled. “What do you mean by more?”
Impney’s face was impassive. “I am not certain, sir, but Professor Wolford is very clear that he wishes you on the case. He says an old friend recommended you, an Inspector Ian Frobisher, whom he says you know.”
Daniel was surprised. He had not thought of Ian for so long. They had been to the same prep school together and then both gone up to Cambridge, Daniel to study law and Ian to read modern history. After graduation, their paths had gone in different ways. As for Wolford, he remembered the man only from the single year he had taken modern history. “Well, you had better send him in, if you please?” he requested.
“Yes, sir.” Impney withdrew.
A few moments later, Nicholas Wolford strode through the door and closed it behind him. He was exactly as Daniel remembered, but then it had been only five years since Daniel had last seen him. Wolford still had his magnificent mane of black hair, now touched with silver at the temples and forming a bright streak at the front. He retained those strong features: a wide mouth and dark brown eyes, almost black. He was of average height, but he appeared taller.
Daniel rose to his feet, more from habit than courtesy. He held out his hand. “How are you, sir?”
“I’m well,” Wolford replied, “but angry.” He spoke with the same strong, precise voice he had used in his lectures as he related fascinating and terrifying stories to the roomful of students—true stories that made the days of yesterday seem far more alive than today. Daniel knew that many of Wolford’s students found his lectures life-changing, opening up their eyes to the past. Wolford had a devoted following among his ex-students, many of whom stayed in touch for years after they left Cambridge.
Daniel indicated the chair on the other side of the desk. “Please, sit down and tell me the salient points. Details can come later.”
“The salient point is that the man accused me of having copied his work,” Wolford said between gritted teeth. “But the actual charge I am facing is one of assault,” he added, before sitting down and leaning his elbows on the desk.
His manner irritated Daniel. It was too close, too familiar, but he could see the rage building inside Wolford. He remembered the man more and more clearly as the moments slipped by, and he believed in his sincerity.
Wolford’s arrogance had always been as clear as his passion for the drama of the past. Daniel could not imagine him borrowing words from anyone else, much less stealing by imitation. He listened intently, memories flooding back of the classroom, the hush of enraptured silence as everyone was caught up in Wolford’s stories.
Wolford laid out the specific passages that formed the body of the plagiarism accusation. “He used exactly the same words as I did to describe Charlotte Corday,” he said angrily. He was speaking of one of the heroines of the Revolution who had gone to Paris specifically to murder Jean-Paul Marat in his bath. Of course, she died on the guillotine. “ ‘She was tall and she walked with a grace that verged on arrogance,’ ” Wolford recited from memory. “ ‘Her features were not beautiful, but she had a clear and radiant complexion. Not surprising. She was a country girl. And she had beautiful hair.’ ” His hand clenched into a fist on the desktop. “Exactly what I had written. But I got it from the words of those who were there, who saw her as close as I am to you! And I can prove it.”
“So can we presume that you and your accuser have got it from a common source?” Daniel asked, realizing that there was no point in asking about the physical assault Wolford was charged with until he knew the whole story.
Wolford’s black eyebrows rose. “I can see you’ve not forgotten everything I taught you! Of course we got it from a common source.” His fist on the desk opened and clenched. “Except the bit about her complexion. But then, we all know she came from the country, so it is a reasonable deduction. I did not copy that oaf!”
“What is the oaf’s name?” Daniel asked. “I had better know.”
Daniel wrote it down. He had not heard of the man. “Young?” he asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“It seems rather a juvenile thing to do,” Daniel replied. “To copy someone else—possibly someone whose work you admire—and then, when you think you are going to be caught, blame them before they can blame you. Since you are charged with assault, I presume you hit him?”
“Yes,” Wolford said.
“Before he struck you?”
Wolford smiled. It changed his face completely, taking years off his age. “Yes,” he replied. “He tried, but he missed. I’m wondering if anyone put him up to it. His editor, maybe?”
“Any reason to suspect his editor?” Daniel asked.
“Yes. Slimy little toad. Looking for publicity for Tolliver’s book. A nice, juicy case, true or false, would make the newspapers. Especially with the added titillation of violence. That was stupid of me. Now he can trade on my name in the worst possible way.” He drew his brows together in a frown. “Some men will do anything for money—and perhaps do even more for a few weeks of fame.” The contempt in his voice burned like acid.
“It’s a high risk,” Daniel pointed out. “Your style, your choice of words, are unique. If Tolliver is copying you, it might well be apparent to anyone who studies the subject.”
“Hardly the general public!” Wolford snapped. “Passion, injustice, violence, slaughter, and betrayal are the stuff of great drama! The more so if it is based on truth! Think, man. What would Shakespeare have written if he had not plundered history to draw his inspiration? A few comedies, perhaps.” He shrugged his shoulders dismissively. “Fairies. Mistaken identity. Love stories of mere infatuation. But the great dramas, the giants among all the works of literature, were drawn from history, true or false. Hamlet, Macbeth, Caesar, Lear, Richard III, Titus Andronicus.” His voice shook with emotion. “What would Shakespeare have made of Charles I and Cromwell? The immovable king and the irresistible puritan! How I would love to have seen his art reimagine the trial of the king, which was in fact as much a trial of Cromwell. Think of it, Pitt! What a work that would have been. Any trial is a test of the judge, as much as of the accused . . .”
He stopped, staring at Daniel with brilliant eyes, as if he could see the drama playing out in real life, contained within the bounds of the room they were in.