London, 1904

Yusuf Ali, on furlough from the India Civil Service, now called to the bar in London, dressed and made his way on foot to Hutchinson and Sons. After years of passing judgment on mundane matters in the villages near Saharanpur, he was eager to prove what he could do. His last case in India – why, the court amounted to a charpoy dragged out of the chaukadar’s bungalow and set in the dusty village square, his audience a crowd of kneeling peasants who chewed paan and spat liberally. Each of the appellants had bought off several witnesses, and as he had patiently listened, the witnesses in their turbans and dhotis had seemed like silkworm cocoons, and the lies they spun as gossamer-light as the finest katin silk.

All behind him now.To summon statute and precedent, to orate, to get to the pith, the arguable meat of the matter, and be acknowledged as a fellow sophisticate before the Court, to litigate. He could hardly wait.

He arrived at Hutchinson and Sons, queued behind the other young lawyers. McNulty, the senior clerk, wearing a banker’s visor, scampered from one end to the other of a long table, checking the grey boxes, tying them with ribbons: the briefs. He enjoyed making the young rafes wait. His assistant, young Tommy Grey, sorted papers beside him with his fingerless mitts – the two had been working since the cold dawn.

When they got to Yusuf, he imagined that a moue of rare mirth passed between the two.

‘Here ye be. Best of blooming luck, guv’nor,’ said Tommy.

Yusuf repaired to the library where his counterparts in their black court-robes were busily reading their briefs and scrawling notes on foolscap, or reaching for a volume where there might be a helpful precedent. 

Yusuf’s brief disappointed him. The Marquis of Netherthorpe intended to sue Lord Northcliffe, publisher of several scurrilous newspapers, for libel. Tit-bits had reported that the Marquis was charged with frequenting a common bawdyhouse. There was a charge sheet, and a photograph of the receipt for the fine. It fell to Yusuf to tell the Marquis that Hutchinson and Sons declined to represent him. Why, it was a task for a solicitor — or a clerk. He brought the brief back to McNulty, who wryly watched him approach.

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