Edward Kane and The Letters of Comfort, Chapter 3: A Very Mixed Bag in the Box

Parliament House. The Reading Room of the Faculty of Advocates, where Counsel of all ages and ranks (and the odd judge) mingled (and to this day, mingle), as they chatted and drank coffee together, variously delighted after a famous victory or deflated following an ignominious defeat.

Edward Kane and The Letters of Comfort, Chapter 3: A Very Mixed Bag in the Box.  Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane
Edward Kane and The Letters of Comfort, Chapter 3: A Very Mixed Bag in the Box. Illustration: Lesley-Anne Barnes Macfarlane

Cozy, but dark now at this time of year. The Faculty Servants lit the silver candelabra and placed them on the tables.

Kane’s friend, Collins, Advocate, his horse-hair wig resting on the table, polished his thick horn-rimmed glasses with a small square of silk. He smiled as he spoke: ‘Well, my friend, today we are witnessing that rare event in the life of Edward Kane, Advocate. Too much work in the work box! This must be a first for you.’

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Kane laughed: ‘Collins, my dear friend, no quantity of sows’ ears can compensate for the absence of a single silk purse. It’s a very mixed bag in that box. On the one hand, a young wife who is not sure if the husband who has returned from India after five years is, in fact, the husband who left and – on the other – a crazed Russian determined to prove that he has murdered Scotland’s most illustrious architect.’

Collins got up from his chair: ‘Well, my friend remember – a fee is a fee.’ He finished his coffee and placed his cup and saucer on the table: ‘Just make sure that you are paid in pounds sterling, Edward – and not in roubles…’

*****

‘The man was clearly…clearly…an imposter!’

Odd, thought Edward Kane. ‘Imposter’. You don’t hear a word spoken for years and years and then – twice in the course of a week.

Kane looked at his papers. ’I take it, Mr Lermontov, that you are referring to the late George Meikle Kemp?

‘The man I killed. That so-called ‘architect’, yes.’

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Kane looked over at his client. Short, red-faced Mikhail Lermontov, spoke though his thick Russian accent.

The young Advocate had studied the papers, but the lack of a certain answer bothered him. He decided to ask without ceremony: ‘So, why now?’

‘Why now?’

‘George Kemp died in March 1844, sir. It is now December in the Year of Our Lord 1852. You claimed to have murdered him. Why make such a confession some eight years after the event?’

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‘You know the scoundrel’s history?’

‘I know that he was a man of humble beginnings and no formal training who bested his betters in open competition – including yourself…’

Lermontov closed his eyes and shook his head. He reached down into a leather bag and produced a large, rolled-up scroll. At first, Kane thought that it was a strip of rolled-up wallpaper, but then the Russian began to make a clearing on the desk and unroll the item. With the aid of some books and ashtrays, he secured the four corners of the scroll, revealing the contents of the entire picture. Lermontov stood back to admire the drawing before him. The faded print, that appeared to be in Dutch, declared: ‘Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, mrt45’.

The Russian eyed Kane and smirked: ‘Clear now, sir?’

‘Not in the least, Mr Lermontov. It looks like a set of plans. Plans for the Scott Monument. Therefore – unless I am much mistaken – the work of the late George Meikle Kemp…’

The face of the Russian turned crimson: ‘You ARE mistaken, sir, you ARE mistaken…’. He pointed down to the drawing: ‘Read it! Read it! This is The Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. Five hundred years old. You see – Kemp – your celebrated George Meikle Kemp, sir – stole the whole design…’

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Kane looked up: ‘But what is that to you, sir?’

‘The world must know the truth. For I am dying…’

*****

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Back in the cramped rented rooms of the Old Town, Mr Horse covered his mouth to stifle the laugh: ‘So the Russian bloke decides to kill the Scottish bloke because the Scottish bloke has nicked the drawing of a building what belongs to a Belgian bloke? You couldn’t make it up, sir. Here’s the question: what is it all about, really?’

Kane sat sipping his tea: ‘As far as I can gather, Mr Horse, two things: our Russian friend is not long for this world. Apparently, the doctors have given him four months to live and he wishes to clear his conscience.’

Horse gave a low whistle. Kane continued: ‘Lermontov says that he went to see Kemp about the theft of the idea, but matters got out of hand – they had a fight and our Mr Lermontov ended up dumping Kemp into the Union Canal. Also, Lermontov feels bitterly the unfairness of the situation. He was one of those who submitted a design for the Scott Monument. His design was rejected in favour of Kemp’s winning entry. He wants the world to know that Kemp essentially stole the winning design from an old church in Belgium.’

‘I never heard the like, sir. But there’s the most important question.’

The Advocate looked up: ‘Yes?’

‘When are you getting paid, Mr K?’

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Tomorrow: Dead Letter