A brilliant thinker and his trusted assistant sit in their drawing room, pondering a story in the newspaper, when the door opens and the subject of the article enters, begging for help. It’s a classic scene from English detective fiction, set not at 221B Baker Street, but 1 Inner Temple Lane—the home of Dr. Samuel Johnson and his biographer, James Boswell. This mystery, concerning a disputed title, a kidnapped earl, and one of the greatest fortunes in England, will be no match for Dr. Johnson.
Based on true criminal cases of the era and inspired by Boswell’s legendary Life of Johnson, the seven stories in this volume touch on witchcraft, murder, theft, and the scientific breakthroughs of the Enlightenment.
“I am lost without my Boswell,” said Sherlock Holmes—and Dr. Johnson was no different. Lillian de la Torre’s delightful stories of Boswell and Johnson show the original Watson and Holmes in action.
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THE KIDNAPP'D EARL
"Detector of crime and chicane I may be, sir; but," said Dr. Sam: Johnson in his resonant emphatick voice, "but, sir, I am no catchpoll!"
We sat at our ease over breakfast in Dr. Sam: Johnson's snug chambers in Inner Temple Lane. The apartment we sat in was equipped with furnishings that were like their proprietor, old but stout. On the plain walnut-tree table our repast was set out, to which Dr. Johnson had done full justice, having imbibed fully thirteen cups of tea. His chair pushed back, he sat now, in his plain snuff-coloured full-skirted coat, his old-fashioned square-toed shoes without buckles, his little brown scratch-wig perched exiguously above his strong-cut countenance with its look of an antient statue, replete, gently smiling.
How I rejoiced to be here, on such comfortable terms with the Great Cham of Literature! I had but recently come up to London, an eager Scots lad of twenty-two, my heart set on winning my way into the friendship of this famous man whose noble writings I so much admired; and lo! here I sat at his breakfast table!
Nay more, not a month since I had been privileged to observe in Bayfield Court the workings of his mighty intellect in an affair of triple murder locked in. To this event I now alluded.
BOSWELL: You may be no catchpoll, sir, yet you handed over the Bayfield Court murderer to the watch.
JOHNSON: Yes, sir, I did so. If murder is done, as it were, under my nose, then the killer must pay, and I will see that he is detected. The puzzle engages the intellect, the solution calls upon the ingenuity; but the killer, by his unhappy fate, touches the heart. It is no light matter.
But, sir, (he went on) I take no delight in affairs of blood. To look into deeds of violence is to look into the heart of human misery. It gives an awful solemn warning: There but for the grace of GOD goes Sam: Johnson; but it does not raise my curiosity nor afford me amusement as do lesser deeds of eccentricity and chicanery.
But most of all, sir, it is my pleasure to right wrongs. The world is full of chicanery, some of it harmless, but too much of it designed to cheat the hapless. Such chicanery I will detect and baffle if I can.
BOSWELL: Then, sir, you must feel strongly drawn to the plight of the Kidnapped Earl.
JOHNSON: Why, sir, I have seen some such catch-phrase bandied about in the publick prints, but as to its meaning I am not instructed.
BOSWELL: The Kidnapped Earl, sir, as I read by the papers, is the rightful Earl of Angleby, who was kidnapped as a boy by his wicked Uncle Richard, and shipped to the Colonies for a bond-slave, that his uncle, the next heir, might slip into the Earldom; which he has done, and enjoys it till now undisturbed. Is not that a tale of chicanery indeed?
JOHNSON: It is so, sir, but on whose part?
BOSWELL: Why, sir, wicked Uncle Richard.
JOHNSON: May be, sir. Or maybe not. There have been false claimants before now. Let the courts decide between them.
Certain people of importance arriving at this moment, no more was said of the Kidnapped Earl for that time.
It was ever thus at No. 1 Inner Temple Lane. Rarely did I have him to myself. He seemed to be considered as a kind of publick oracle, whom everybody thought they had the right to visit and consult.
Thus it fell out that one midday in June, as we sat in converse together, Frank Barber, his Jamaican black boy, announced a trio of visitors, who presented themselves thus:
"Your servant, Mr. Johnson, Dougal MacArcher, advocate, yours to command." The speaker executed a ceremonious obeisance, a wiry personage of middle stature, clad in modish gold-laced sage-coloured brocade, his green eyes alert under tawny brows, his composed countenance lent a touch of the whimsical by a definitely turned-up nose.
"I present my young friends: Lady Lalage Fitzcharles, the Duke's daughter of Westermark —"
The Duke's daughter dimpled and dropped a curtsey. I observed her dark curls simply dressed, her direct hazel eyes full of life and fire, her short upper lip quirked in a smile, and I longed to be a knight-errant for her.
Her knight-errant was already making his bow, a tall young man wearing his blond curls simply tied at the nape, whose far-seeing blue eyes and comely features were given distinction by a superbly high Roman nose.
"— and my friend James Ansley, who would be Earl of Angleby if right would take place."
The Kidnapped Earl! I listened with all my ears as he burst impetuously into speech.
"Knowing, Mr. Johnson, your wisdom and willingness to help, I make bold to enlist your aid."
"You shall have it, sir. Pray be seated and let me know the nature of your difficulty."
Frank set out chairs, and reluctantly withdrew. James Ansley took up his tale.
ANSLEY: In a word, my difficulty is this: Am I a bastard?
JOHNSON: Nay, sir, how can I tell? Let us have your story in order.
ANSLEY: Then thus it is. I was born at Dalmain in County Wexford, so much is certain. My father, Lord Eltham, was next heir to the old Earl of Angleby, and my mother was Moll Barfield, the Duke's daughter of Bredingham. At birth I was put out to nurse to Jiggy Landry the kitchen maid. I never knew my mother, for my father, who was a captious man, put her to the door before I came home from Jiggy.
JOHNSON: Put her to the door!
MACARCHER: For adultery, he said. Thence flow our difficulties.
ANSLEY: Well, sir, at four I was brought home from Jiggy's, and bred up in the great house. My father made much of me, bragging it about that I was his true-born son and next heir to the Earldom. I had a little hat with a feather, and a fine pony named Hannover, and lived in clover. But all too soon my fortunes changed. My father went up to Dublin, and took a mistress, who did not fancy me, and so worked upon him, that I was soon turned out of doors to fend for myself in the streets.
LADY LALAGE: Alack, inhuman father!
ANSLEY (smiling): I slept under bulks and in doorways, I cadged my scram where I could. 'Twas not a bad life for a sturdy gossoon. But then my father died, thoughtlessly as he had lived, and made no provision for me. My Uncle Richard at once seized his goods and his papers, and smoothly slipped into his estate. But it irked him to see me ragged in the streets, and hear people muttering that he had stolen my birthright, so he put his rapparees on my trail, and in short, one day they cornered me and hustled me aboard ship for America, there to be sold as a bond-slave. I was fourteen years in servitude, often running away, as often brought back to serve a lengthened term. But at last I got clear away, and made for the port. There I found His Majesty's fireship Dragon fitting for sea, and 'listed aboard her. Oh, sir, we did prodigies at the taking of the Havannah! But a shipmate knew me for old Angleby's heir, and hailed me as the new Earl. The officers took up my cause, fitted me out, obtained my discharge, and shipped me home to wrest my Earldom from my wicked uncle.
JOHNSON: One foremast hand against the world! What could you hope for?
ANSLEY: At first I was all at sea. My kinfolk would not countenance me. But by the goodness of Providence I found a friend to support me, a man of law, a man of substance, named Dougal MacArcher. Behold, sir, the best friend a man ever had!
MACARCHER (smiling): Never deserved a man more! Well, sir, we have matters in hand. We have gathered witnesses in Ireland, Jiggy Landry and the rest, who were to the fore at milady's lying-in, we have even the pandours who kidnapped the lad, to say it was done at his wicked uncle's bidding.
JOHNSON: What says wicken uncle to all this?
MACARCHER: He says the lad is only his brother's bastard by the kitchen wench, and he did him a service, forsooth, in sending him to America and thus saving him from the gallows in Dublin! BOSWELL (hotly): A mighty service truly!
MACARCHER: And meanwhile he goes about to do away with him.
JOHNSON: Do away with him!
MACARCHER: He sets on him blunderbusmen and assassins. He rides him down with his coach and six. At Newmarket race-meeting the juggernaut coachman pursues him all over the course —
JOHNSON: Pretty proceedings for an Earl, truly!
MACARCHER: But we have baffled him, and still shall do. Our cause is on the calendar this very Trinity term, and I doubt not we shall strip the black Earl of his ill-gotten honours!
JOHNSON: I congratulate you, sir. It hardly appears you have need of my counsel.
MACARCHER: Why, sir, I do not think we do. But James has taken a foolish notion —
ANSLEY: How, foolish? Here am I, a rough foremast hand —
MACARCHER: Nay, dear boy, under my tutelage you are taking a nice polish — polite literature, the play, the sights of the town —
ANSLEY: I say a rough foremast hand. And yet I have won my heart's desire, Lady Lalage has consented to be mine. (The girl reached him a white hand, and he took it gently.) Now this cannot be, that the bastard of a serving-wench shall sully the line of the noble Dukes of Westermark. Unless I can know for certain that I am no bastard, I cannot do this thing. I will drop my suit and bid my lady farewell, and go back to the sea.
LADY LALAGE: No, James! I will not be dropped!
ANSLEY: I will go back to the sea. Well, Mr. Johnson, what do you say? Can you help me to certainty?
JOHNSON: Sir, I will be plain with you. Your story may be true. But were I to set up for the heir to an Earldom, I would invent just such a tale, a romantick story of trepanning and servitude and heroism before the Havannah and attempts at assassination —
ANSLEY (stiffly): It is true, sir.
JOHNSON: Then the court will so decide. My counsel is this, sir, that you await the issue before you take to the sea.
LADY LALAGE: James, I beg you —
MACARCHER: James, you cannot thus reduce all my effort and expense to a cypher —
BOSWELL: Do, sir, be perswaded —
ANSLEY: I will wait.
MACARCHER: Brave boy!
ANSLEY: Three days.
On the evening following our conference with the Kidnapped Earl, my learned companion carried me across the Thames to Vauxhall Gardens, whither all the fashionable world was wont to resort in summer to hear the nightingale sing. Part of a plan (I wondered) to give this rustical Scot "a fine polish" such as Mr. MacArcher was giving his rough sailor? Or just the nostalgia for nightingales that comes over Londoners in June?
I leaned the more to the former theory when in the modish throng I glimpsed none other than Dougal MacArcher himself with his sailor in tow, clearly in process of polishing.
Whether for polish or pleasure, we were in gallant frame as we enjoyed the gardens, Johnson ponderous in his mighty wig of state fresh-powdered, I with my bloom-coloured coat setting off, as I fancied, my neat frame and alert countenance. We strolled in the verdant allees, admired Roubiliac's statue of Handel while listening to his musick, took a syllabub, heard the nightingales sing, and came away by moonlight well pleased with our entertainment.
It was our intent on this bright moonlit night to stroll down to the river and so go home by water. But barely had we turned a corner, when the air was rent with the clash of steel and the oaths of combatants.
"An affair of honour!" I cried eagerly.
"Say rather a general brawl," said Johnson, pausing to observe the melee.
By the bright moonlight I made out two paladins fighting back to back, set upon by a quartet of ill-looking rapparees. The shorter paladin was a nimble and deft swordsman. His tall ally used his sword like a cutlass, swinging and slashing in wild sweeps. I looked again, and saw that the cutlass-wielder was able seaman James Ansley, and the duellist was Dougal MacArcher.
While I was still staring, my intrepid friend had taken in the situation, and with instant resolution had gripped his stout oaken stick and waded into the fray. I drew my sword to second him, but there was no need, for in less time than it takes to tell it, the embattled scholar had laid about the four rapparees with his mighty stick, cracking the crown of one of them, sending flying the weapon of the second, knocking the breath out of the third, and collaring the fourth as his comrades took to their heels.
"What's the meaning of this, fellow?" he demanded, shaking his captive as a mastiff might shake a rat.
"Unhand me, old poot!" shrilled his victim, "or it will be the worse for you, for I am the Earl's man!"
"What Earl? Of Angleby perhaps?"
"He. So look to it, old square-toes, and don't put your nose in his fist!"
"And where is the noble Earl? Nearby, no doubt?"
"Yonder he sits in his coach."
"Be off with you!" cried his captor, propelling him none too gently in the opposite direction.
Shaking off the thanks of our friends, he strode directly to where a coach stood against a clump of trees.
"A word with you, my Lord."
A face came scowling out of the window into the moonlight, dusky yellow of hue, thin and deeply furrowed with down-turning lines, dark bushy brows scowling over little snapping black eyes — no wonder Dougal MacArcher had called him the Black Earl!
"What's the meaning of this," he snarled, "that you interfere with my servants in the performance of their duties?"
"Pray say, my Lord," rejoined Johnson calmly, "whether you consider one of their duties to be assassinating your nephew?"
At this the Black Earl fell a-cursing: "A rogue, a bastard, a scoundrel! An imposter, my brother's by-blow, that seeks to rob his own kinsman!"
"If he is indeed your brother's by-blow, my Lord," replied Johnson, "and not the true Earl, the law will soon discover it. You need not set assassins on him. I must warn you, sir, by these violent proceedings you betray yourself, that you know your cause is bad."
"No man's cause is bad," sneered the Black Earl, "who has ten thousand pounds a year."
"Of another man's money."
"What's that to you?" snapped the Earl. "I warn you, old fustylugs, take your thick nose out of my business, or 'twill be the worse for you. Who do you think you are, to bandy words with an Earl?"
"I am Sam: Johnson."
"Save us, the lexicographer! Will you word me to death? I defy words, and be d-mned to you!"
"Then have deeds. Be sure, my Lord, I will do my best endeavour to see that James Ansley is enabled to prove his legitimacy!"
"Bah! I'll parley no longer. Drive on, coachman!"
The juggernaut coachman snapped his whip, and the equipage started with a jerk so reckless I barely stepped back in time.
During this colloquy, the rest of our party had been busy setting themselves to rights, sheathing their weapons, staunching a superficial scratch or two — but not too busy to take in every word spoken. James Ansley was jubilant.
"Now, sir," he cried, "you know my uncle. Am I a bastard?"
"I have sworn to prove that you are not," said Johnson drily. "You must assist me. Pray come to Inner Temple Lane in the morning betimes, and bring all your papers —"
"Alack, sir, we have no papers. All are in the hands of the Black Earl."
"Bring what you can, but come. You too, Mr. Boswell."
With this, by common consent we began to escort our friends to the river, and so made our way home by water with no further incident.
Life at Inner Temple Lane began unwontedly early the next day. The tea things were cleared when the Ansley party presented themselves, Lady Lalage among them.
"I grieved so, Mr. Johnson," said she, "that by reason of other concerns I could not be with James to hear the nightingale sing, and I grieve the more now I know what passed, for my presence might have prevented it."
"You might have come to harm, milady, for the Black Earl's bully-huffs respect neither man, woman nor beast. But we'll be up with them yet! Come, gentlemen, your papers."
It was a thin sheaf that Mr. MacArcher proffered, laying them out on the walnut-tree table one after one, with a commentary.
"The affidavit of Jiggy Landry that James Ansley, her nursing, is Milady Eltham's son. Her cousin Paddy, that he was the groom sent gallop-ping for the midwife. Her sister Biddy, that she was the scullery maid that fetched hot water, and saw the babe born of Lady Eltham with her own eyes ..."
Johnson shook his head.
"Alack, sirs, what odds that the whole Landry connection will not lie to make their kinsman an Earl? Where is the midwife?"
"Not found, sir."
"Lady Eltham's physician?"
"Long since dead."
"The clergyman who christened the heir?"
"Dead too. 'Tis over twenty-five years ago."
"The parish register, then?"
"Nothing in it, 'twas but ill kept."
"We must find better evidence, sir," said Dr. Johnson, frowning.
"Come, a family resemblance? Does James Ansley resemble his father?"
"His father is dead this twenty years," said Mr. MacArcher.
"There's no hope there," said James Ansley with a smile. "My father and my uncle were two of a kind, little, black and loud; and you will not say I resemble my uncle?"
"Heaven forfend!" cried Lady Lalage.
"Then, sir, your mother?"
"Folks that knew her have thought to see a resemblance; but she is gone, how to prove it?"
"Come, my friends," said Dr. Johnson, rising decisively, "let us go."
"To call upon your mother's kin."
Excerpted from "The Exploits of Dr. Sam Johnson, Detector"
Copyright © 1987 Lillian de la Torre.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
The Kidnapp'd Earl,
The Westcombe Witch,
The Banquo Trap,
The Spirit of the '76,
The Virtuosi Venus,
The Aerostatick Globe,
About the Author,