The Wife's Tale by Christine Wells

The Wife’s Tale – Excerpt Two

Lord Kenyon, 1789

The Court of King’s Bench, Westminster Hall, seethed and roiled with a mass of bodies. Those spectators who had failed to bribe their way to a seat close to the fray surged and flowed and spilled out into the greater hall.

The stalls of booksellers and drapers that once lined the walls outside the court were long gone, but some enterprising hawkers plied their wares to the teeming throng. Nearby pie-vendors and taverns expected a brisk trade today. Voyeurism was hungry work. Thirsty work, too.

In fact, the Lord Chief Justice would not wager a groat on half the audience’s sobriety, though it was well before noon. The beery, sweaty reek of humanity offended his nostrils even from his elevated position on the bench.

He called the court to order, but at first, he could not make himself heard over the din. Gathering all the considerable power of his lungs, Lord Kenyon issued a thunderous command to the crowd to be silent or he would clear the room.

He gave the quieted assembly a long, baleful stare. Before him ranged a sea of bewigged and hatted heads—here a pair of fashionable types all powdered and patched; there a bulbous-nosed merchant with a nut brown wig and snuff-dusted lapels. Even a handful of women… One would not like to call them ladies, whatever their pedigree, for no true lady would deign to appear at such a notorious prosecution.

Sundry reporters littered the court, scribbling their impressions earnestly, the which they would later print as scandal sheets and sell to titillate the jaded public palate. The infamous caricaturist, Gillray, was also present. Lord Kenyon scowled. Even he was not safe from the sharp end of Gillray’s wit.

With an irritated twitch at the sleeve of his robes, Kenyon turned his attention to the jury. A group of right-thinking, affluent men, men of sufficient means and experience to return a verdict that was both sensible and prompt.

Given a soupçon of judicial guidance, these upstanding citizens would make the plaintiff considerably richer when he went to bed tonight than when he’d awoken this morning. Assuming the defendant was in a position to pay.

A ripple of murmurs ran through the throng, marking the late appearance of the principals in today’s drama.

Heads craned to see as both parties took their places on either side of the court room. The plaintiff, Lord Nash, was a well-looking man in a pale, ascetic way, his dress characterized by propriety rather than flair. He had an air of ineffable boredom, as if to him, the proceedings were a matter of indifference.

Lord Nash’s brother, Mr. Julian Nash, that radical rogue and reckless libertine, was the defendant in this case. His frame was larger than his brother’s, cast from a rougher mould. He was not generally held to be handsome. Yet, his dark features held a potency that drew ladies to his side.

One doubted Mr. Nash knew the meaning of the word ennui.

The crowd was permitted only the briefest glimpse of the two brothers, however. Being gentlemen and therefore entitled to a modicum of privacy, the parties sat behind curtains that hid them from prying eyes.

Cain and Abel, come to court to settle their differences. Kenyon approved the propriety of taste and judgment which led Lord Nash to wield the law as his weapon, rather than a sword.

Dueling was still the prevailing manner of deciding disputes between gentlemen over offenses against their honor. If one were cynical, one might say that an award of damages for twenty thousand pounds would be far preferable to finding oneself with a hole through one’s heart, or spitted on one’s younger brother’s blade. A handy fellow in a fight was Mr. Julian Nash—or so the gossip went. He’d honed his skills on many an irate husband, after all.

If Kenyon had anything to say about it—and in his court he had almost everything to say—Julian Nash would pay for his transgressions with his person if he could not pay with his purse.

Prison was the proper place for such a blackguard as would stoop to seduce his own brother’s virtuous young wife. The Lord Chief Justice had presided over many a trial for criminal conversation in the past decade or so. Never had he seen an instance of such calculated depravity, of fraternal betrayal, as this. Such calumny demanded the highest possible damages in reparation.

Twenty thousand pounds. It was enough to ruin a man. Yet, ten times that sum was insufficient to assuage the distress and suffering Julian Nash had caused his brother.

After another call for silence, Lord Kenyon was about to invite the plaintiff’s counsel to open the case, when a new and flagrant arrival caught his eye.

A dark-haired lady sailed into the court room. Like a proud little yacht carving the sea, she slipped through the gathering of gaping fools, the curling ostrich plume in her hat fluttering like an ensign in her wake. She stopped at a particular chair in the front row a short distance beyond the bar table.

The lady addressed the chair’s burly occupant without a hint of hesitancy. “My good man, I paid for that seat.”

She did not seem to raise her voice, yet her words carried throughout the stilled court room.
The brawny fellow scrambled up, full of apologies, bowing low and palming the coin she held out in compensation for the loss of his vantage point.

With a brisk nod, the lady took his place. Clasping her hands in her lap, she lowered her gaze demurely. As if she had not, by her mere presence, added fuel to a scandal that would keep the Grub Street presses running hot for weeks to come.

Lord Kenyon, his shock giving way to incredulity, found his voice. “My lady! Lady Nash, what can you mean by this?”

Her broad hat brim dipped and curled rakishly, cavalier-style, to shade her features. When she rose in her place and lifted her chin to address him, a shaft of light from the window high above struck her face, and her beauty burst upon him.

He’d seen likenesses of her in sketches, in the Romney portrait at the Royal Academy, and most recently in lewd cartoons in print shop windows.

They had not done her justice. There was an aura about her that could not be captured even by the finest artist. Whether it lay in the decided elegance of her movements, the candid clarity of her expression or the vitality of her presence, he knew not.

Beneath that hat, lush ringlets of deepest ebony rioted in ordered profusion. A heart-shaped face, flawless skin, eyes so intensely blue they seemed to glow beneath those finely arched black brows. Lips that brought to mind every sonnet about lips ever written. Cherry-ripe…

Before he could recover from his stupefaction, she answered him. “My lord, is it not permitted for any citizen to watch these proceedings?”

Dragging his mind back to the matter at hand, Kenyon leaned forward and pressed his palms down on the blotter before him.

“That is quite beside the point. The wife concerned in a prosecution for criminal conversation does not appear at the trial. It is unheard of.”

He glanced toward the back of the court, where her husband, Lord Nash, sat silent. Whatever reaction he might have to his wife’s unwelcome intrusion was concealed by muslin hangings. “The damage to your reputation, ma’am…”

Her voice silvered with gentle mockery. “My lord, the damage was done when my husband barred me from my house and my children and served his odious writ on his brother. He has already ruined me, despite my innocence, and regardless of the outcome of this case. To add insult to injury, I may not even defend my reputation by joining as party to the action. The least I deserve is to confront my accusers by my presence, if not through my attorney.”

Mr. Garrow, counsel for the plaintiff, was on his feet. “My lord, I object. This is wholly improper. My client’s lady wife has no standing in this matter and cannot be called as witness. She may not sneak in her testimony by the back door.”

Ignoring the interjection, Lady Nash addressed the Chief Justice. “I would not have spoken at all had not your lordship desired me to explain my presence.”

“My lord, this is most irregular.” Garrow sent a furious glance sideways at his colleague, who lounged at the other end of the bar table.

Mr. Erskine, for the defendant, rubbed the side of his large nose and read his brief and affected deafness. Had the wily advocate planned this? Or was Lady Nash off on some mad frolic of her own?

It wasn’t merely irregular, as Garrow said. It was an outrage to decency. The lady would be obliged to watch, and be watched in turn, as every sordid detail of her affair with her brother-in-law was extracted from witnesses, picked over, highlighted and debated by counsel. From love letters and trysts to overheard moans of passion and stained linens, all would be laid bare.

And yet, there was that proud set to her shoulders, the fine, determined line of her jaw…

“Be seated, ma’am,” Lord Kenyon told her heavily. “And hold your tongue. As Mr. Garrow pointed out, this is not a forum for you to argue your case, nor to air whatever grievances you might have.”

She raised her hand as if taking the oath. “I shall be as silent as the grave, my lord.”

“Be sure that you are,” he said. “If your presence further disrupts the proceedings, I shall order you to leave forthwith.”

“Yes, my lord.”

He stared at her with a suspicious ferocity that had made many a perjuring witness shake in his shoes. The lady bowed her head, but the gesture did not fool him into believing her cowed. He knew a petty urge to eject her from the court on the grounds of sheer effrontery.

With a sour taste in his mouth, Lord Kenyon addressed counsel. “Mr. Garrow, you may proceed.”

Read Excerpt One

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