Inns of Court,
The four questers met Stanley George esquire in a medium sized conference room with a long table, leather chairs and square yards of leather bound books of case law on the shelves on the wall.
“Did you sleep well?” the barrister asked.
“Nicely,” said Hapgood.
“The Inns of Court used to have,
back in the Middle Ages, dormitories for what amounted to a law school. The buildings were built along the lines of
other colleges. There are four inns,
“Each of the inns is a
private organization, and we do not make all the details of our history public. But everyone knows that
Hapgood laughed comfortably. “We have been running into a lot of secret organizations with enormous power. It looks like we have four more.”
“Not powerful,” said
“On the other hand, if you are looking for a clique that is above the law, I dare say your own Supreme Court just about fills that bill. One would think you were protected from such things by having a written constitution. But as it turns out, your courts can declare a law ‘unconstitutional.’ In effect it means that they can strike down laws at whim.”
Hapgood rose to the challenge. “But in the absence of a constitution, you lack any code of basic rights. Your parliament can pass laws at whim.”
“Ah, but they are elected,”
“Now we do have the concept of ‘against Magna Charta.’ The Magna Charta was held, long after it was written, to establish the rights of all Englishmen. That wasn’t a bad start. It had been written by the barons to establish the rights they wanted for themselves. Unsurprisingly it is rather close to listing the rights anybody would want.
“But the Magna Charta is not the law of the land. It is certainly not amended with changing times. It rather establishes a spirit and serves as a reference. Your constitution, once your Supreme Court has decided it ‘means’ something on a given subject, is your supreme law. It can then only be changed by an enormously difficult process. One might say it takes everything short of an armed insurrection to alter something established by a bunch of old men who answer to nobody.”
“That,” said George, “Is true only in the most literal sense. The prime minister is required to keep the monarch informed of what he has done with ‘her’ government. He meets regularly with her and describes everything of consequence that has been done. And she is not above asking questions. He is obliged to answer, but he is under no compulsion to do as she directs. Indeed she does not even make suggestions. Only asks questions.”
“The power of the observer,”
“I beg your pardon?”
“On the way here we were talking about how having a respected observer changes the tone at least of what goes on.”
“On the other hand, she does
have a degree of power of her own. She
ordered her own household troops into
“But your law itself,” said Hapgood. “I imagine it is very ancient indeed.”
“Not so ancient as you might
Hapgood said, “And Common Law was the law that went back to before history, I suppose. It was the way it was always done.”
“That is the tradition. In effect, though, it was established by
“At a stretch, one might say he invented a past that was suitable for the needs of his own time. But as I say, common law no longer holds.
“In the twelfth century, the
“Any government will establish laws in an attempt to assure its own stability. Otherwise things are likely to disintegrate very badly.
“In any society, life must be livable or
things again disintegrate. But what
people think of as livable varies a great deal.
“I am sure there were those who did not like it, but it was what people expected. What they demanded. Of course over the past three centuries you have moved to the opposite pole. You have a government that is so permissive that your murder rate can be matched only in the third world. And while a child once was supposed to be disciplined, now a child can be removed from a home because the child has been spanked. In short, what is livable is very changeable. The law simply complies with what people want it to be.
“Land law was intimately
bound up with the stability of the government.
“Trial by battle was supposed
to cover anything else. If a person had
a grievance or was accused of misconduct, the matter went to the field of
honor. You Americans still take the view
that a court case is a battle.
“But as the society became richer and more complex, commercial law became an ever greater part of law. The wheels of commerce need their grease. The contract provides it.
“A contract consists of an agreement. There may be no written agreement of even a word spoken. Suppose you regularly shop at place where you have a charge account. You enter, pick up what you need, catch the eye of the proprietor and show him what you have. He nods. You now have a contract. You are free to take the object, and he is free to charge it to your account.
“There was a time when a contract had to be put into writing. Otherwise no agreement was recognized. They would right it twice on a piece of paper or parchment and cut the two copies apart along a zigzag line.”
“Yes,” said Hapgood. “An indenture. We have seen one.”
“Precisely. Now suppose you are in the business of buying and selling codfish. You can imagine how troublesome it would be if you were doing business in large quantities. And every time you delivered some fish you had to wash your hands and sort through a lot of indentures to see which one matched. You would not be delivering fresh fish.
“So in Henry’s time, and for long before and long after, there was a steady evolution of contract customs to make it more and more simple to establish a contract. And the courts, charged with the responsibility of enforcing those contracts, had to change with the times. It is one thing to look at a contract written out fairly in unambiguous Latin with a jolly great dollop of wax and a ribbon on it and a seal impressed in the wax and say, ‘Yes. This is the agreement.’ It is far more difficult to judge what has been agreed with a nod of the head. But in effect it must be done.
“And then, of course, as life becomes more complex, deals are made extending far into the future. Situations may change and one party or the other might decide the deal is no longer advantageous. There must be a way to decide what is proper in that case.
“So the courts, the law, must become ever more sophisticated to permit business to be carried on with greater volume and complexity but with the greatest convenience.”
“That may be true in
“Forgive me if I differ,” rejoined the barrister. “Remember I said that the universities taught Roman law while the Inns of Court studied English law. Now the theory of Roman law is quite different from that of English law. To the Romans, all of society was a social contract. It was a bargain everyone had struck that benefited everyone.
“For instance, suppose you and I meet on a field of battle in war. I am trying my best to kill you, but you are better. You are winning, and it appears probable that you will be able to kill me. You now have the choice of whether to kill me or not. The most convenient thing for the moment is for you to finish me off and go about your business. But let us say that I surrender. I lay down my weapon and beg for your mercy. And let us say that, at no little risk to yourself, you accept my surrender.
“So far, both of us are
better off. I have escaped almost
certain death, but you have avoided at least some risk of death. Since mine is the greater gain, I am deeply
in your debt. So you make me your
slave. I am better off than dead, and
you are better off still. In that sense,
the enforceable institution of slavery has saved a life, probably mine. To the
“Needless to say, that is not the modern way. But it was done then and was quite consistent with their idea of how people dealt with each other. It was the social bargain.
“English Common Law, of
course, was based on a different theory.
That theory was, ‘If we have always done it this way, it must be right.’ And yet despite a profound difference in the
theory of law, the same evolution of contract law occurred in
“But it is not what we
see. Getting away from contracts, for a
moment, consider a case in which I have cursed you. I went to my room and muttered spells and
burned herbs. You spied on me and saw
what I was about. So you take me into
court for having injured you. In a
modern court, that would be a cause of mirth.
But there are societies today where people are being murdered for
suspected witchcraft at a rate that is higher even than the overall murder rate
in parts of the
“But that’s nonsense,” said
“Not upon you or me,” said
“I am not saying that there is no answer. I am saying that just because people are very poor does not mean they have no problems that are very complex. The same is true of contract law.”
“You have been very kind to
meet with us,” said Hapgood. “And we much appreciate your time. I have one other question, and I doubt it will
be of interest, but the fact is that we are interested in
“I had not thought about it,”
“In a manner of speaking a piece of money can be thought of as a contract. Coins were once made of precious metal. They had intrinsic value. Of course governments would debase their currency by issuing the precious metal alloyed with a cheap one. But it was understood that it was still supposed to represent the value of the pure metal. Then paper money was introduced. At first it was a contract between the holder and the government. The government agreed to redeem the paper for metal money on demand.
“Paper money does not last so long as metal, so it was no savings, but it made business simpler. By now neither the metal money nor paper has substantial intrinsic value, but one might still consider it a contract. The government undertakes to maintain the value of the currency irrespective of what the price of gold might be. They have been doing it fairly well in recent years.
“A contract is any bargain. If I agree to repair your roof in return for a basket of tomatoes, that is a contract. But almost universally now, a contract is an exchange of some good or service for money. Again it makes life a lot simpler.
“Most of the coins at the time were very old. They varied a great deal, and to make matters worse, many people were engaged in counterfeiting and in shaving bits off the edges of coins. Shave enough coins and one had enough gold to counterfeit a new one. And the process of making coins was far more expensive for the government than it had any business being.
“By the time he was through,
he had created a currency that was so sound that it formed the basis of the
enormous growth of the British economy over the next century. In fact I should think it would be fair to
say that he was instrumental in the creation of the international market
place. It was not many years after his
death when international commerce became a world wide phenomenon for the first
“That’s ironic,” said Hapgood. “The idea
we are pursuing implies that globalization carries an inherent risk of
“His as much as anyone’s,” said the barrister. “But world wide disasters are not my field. My own disasters are far more modest.
“If you are interested in the
first contracts, I would suggest you drop around and visit
They thanked him and left the
conference room. They deposited their
bags with the porter and decided to walk to the
The Inns of Court fronted on
a large square. As the party skirted the
They went up steps that could have belonged to any Victorian fine city home and entered a hallway where they left their cloaks and collected a brochure. After a few yards, the hallway opened into the study, the gemstone of the museum.
Soan had been a successful architect, and his hobby had
been making alterations in his home and collecting decorations for it. It was the time when the excavations of
Although much of the art had vanished while on public display, there was much that remained, including a stone sarcophagus from the time of the pharaohs in a case in a lower hall. There were stone architectural ornaments, portraits, landscapes and detailed studies of Italian palaces lying in ruins. One nook he had dubbed the “Mad Monk’s Den” had stone masks of grotesque appearance.
The architectural genius of Soan showed in his capacity to arrange things in three dimensions, so that one floor of the house might give a strategic perspective on the floor below. There were paintings mounted on doors that could be opened to reveal another collection of paintings on doors behind, which could be opened to reveal yet more.
But the study, with parlor en suite, was the largest space. Upon the south wall hung a huge picture of Soan himself, dressed in formal black, looking thin and possibly consumptive as he reclined in his chair, his languid head resting on a still, limp hand. There was a subtle air of neglect about his person embodied both in his careless pose and his ill fitting wig. There was a softness in his eyes that bespoke not ill health but a dreamy melancholy of long duration.
Following the gaze of Soan brought the viewer’s gaze to the object of his
reverie, a portrait on the opposite wall.
It was of a young woman, also in recline but with an
energy about her body that seemed ready for happy exertion. Her good nutrition and muscle tone were in
contrast with that of her admirer. She
was dressed in filmy white fabric that opened coyly at her bosom to reveal a
pink nipple. Her eyes had the eagerness
of the fairy in the painting they had seen in
Above the shelves of leather bound books were ornamented arches of dark wood. Behind them the walls were mirrored to give the illusion of space beyond, giving the impression that all was within the room rather than on the walls. At the same level, there were a number of white plaster busts.
“It looks like something from
“Or the other way around,”
This museum was already open to the public at the time
“This would be the chamber in
the poem, ‘The Raven’,” said
“Who?” asked Ivan.
“It must have really struck
“And what was that?” asked
“Beats me,” said Hapgood.
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