Edinburgh Court of Justiciary – 27 August 1788
“How ironic – the thief is the best-dressed man in the courtroom!”
The words were spoken in a lively, amused tone and Ishbel paused in her own examination of the plaintiff, William Brodie, and glanced behind her. The young man who had spoken was little older than her own eighteen years and the splendour of his own outfit made a lie of his words. Indeed, she could see beyond him the groups of upper class ladies in wide panelled dresses and gentlemen in bright colours and with powdered hair, dressed as if they were attending a ball. The slender man behind her caught her gaze and smiled disarmingly, the eyes that met hers a clear grass-green.
She hastily looked away, a slight heat rising to her cheeks, then an official announced the judges and everyone got to their feet. The five men were striking in their scarlet robes – it seemed as if everyone wanted the title of best-dressed person here. Everyone except her. Ishbel’s own gown was an old plain one – she had had the foolish idea that she would be the only member of Edinburgh society to attend the trial, not that she would have dressed any better had she suspected the truth. She had no interest in clothes and just as little in finding a husband, so she did her best to ignore society and, on the occasions Harriette dragged her to some so-called entertainment, society was equally happy to ignore her.
The judges took their seats and, with much scraping of wooden chairs over floor, everyone else in the courtroom followed suit, the earlier chatter fading away as the trial began.
“William Brodie,” one of the court officials intoned loudly, “sometime wright and cabinetmaker in Edinburgh, and George Smith, sometime grocer there, both prisoners in the Tolbooth of Edinburgh, you are indicted and accused…”
Ishbel reached into her reticule and removed a quill, new bottle of ink and several sheets of parchment. Lucy, her lady’s maid, took the ink from her, un-stoppered it and held it out. Lucy gave her a quick grateful smile then began her notes of the trial. She looked again at the prisoner and took in, for the first time, the fact that there were in fact two prisoners. Brodie was being tried alongside one of his accomplices in the attempted robbery of the General Excise Office. The other man, Smith, looked haggard and shabby next to the elegance of Brodie in his dark coat, bright waistcoat, silk breeches and powdered, dressed hair. Smith’s expression was miserable while Brodie gazed upon the man reading the charges with the calm interest of one in no way ruffled by any of these proceedings.
Ishbel scribbled down her observations about the prisoners and noted the charges against them. She glanced up to see the prisoners get to their feet, so the head judge, Lord Braxfield, could address them. When he asked if they were guilty of the crimes of which they were accused a stillness fell over the room as everyone strained to hear their responses.
“My lord, I am not guilty,” Brodie said and, as Smith echoed the words, there were some gasps from the members of the public and someone called out, “Yes, you are!”
Braxfield banged his gavel sharply on the bench, the loud noise making Ishbel spill ink over her notes. She hastily found a handkerchief and, ignoring Lucy’s slight tut at ruining the linen, she used it to soak up the excess ink. Lucy held out a hand, palm up, to take the stained cloth, expression fondly exasperated, and Ishbel grimaced and passed over the handkerchief.
By this time Lord Braxfield was swearing in the fifteen members of the jury who would decide the fate of Brodie and Smith. Braxfield’s Scottish accent was broad and his expression fierce – he was said to have been friends with Brodie’s father and she wondered how that affected him now. Did that make him more inclined to treat the son with severity or lenience? She scribbled down this question then caught a movement out of the corner of her eye and glanced round to see the smart gentleman behind her leaning forward to see what she was writing.
She ignored him with difficulty, self-conscious as she returned to her notes.
Witness after witness was called to give evidence against William Brodie – Deacon Brodie as he was more commonly known due to his former position as a Deacon of Wrights and cabinetmaker, someone who – ironically – had been admitted to people’s houses to put in stronger locks and protect them from burglars just like him. He looked eminently respectable save for the scar on his face and she wondered how he had come by the mark. The prosecution were painting him as a wretch who feigned respectability but spent his nights either gambling or, with a black mask over his face, robbing wealthy people who had trusted him with their house keys.
When another witness was proposed, a strong, melodic voice said, “My lords, I object!”
Ishbel looked up and saw a slender back of Mr Erskine, Brodie’s solicitor, who had risen to his feet and spoken. She recognised him from various balls and formal dinners that he had attended with his brothers, the Earl of Buchan and Baron Erskine. Mr Erskine’s objection was overruled and Ishbel caught a look of anger on the faces of Brodie and Smith as they turned their heads to watch a witness walk forward and take the stand. It was the first strong emotion Brodie had shown all day so she moved her gaze with interest to the rough-looking man who was giving his oath to speak the truth.
“That is the one who betrayed Brodie and had them all arrested.” The quiet, well-spoken words came once again from the gentleman behind her but she did not turn to see whom he addressed.
Another male voice replied: “Who is he?”
“An accomplice in the robberies.”
They fell silent as the man began to give his evidence, the information detailed and damning. Ishbel looked to see how Brodie and Smith were reacting and saw that Brodie had regained his composure, his bearing almost regal as he looked at the witness. She could not see Smith’s expression, her view of him only revealing the back of a plain coat and greasy-looking hair. He had been incarcerated for some months while Brodie had been on the run – fleeing to Amsterdam – and prison life had clearly not been easy for Smith.
Another accomplice of Brodie’s was called to give evidence against him and Erskine’s objection was once more overruled.
“Politics,” commented the gentleman behind Ishbel. “The Tories will never let the Whigs win here.”
Ishbel looked with a fresh gaze upon the people in front of her, realising for the first time that, from the political standing of those she recognised, the judges and those prosecuting the prisoners were indeed Tories while those defending the prisoners were members of the more liberal Whig party. That explained some of the tensions she had not before understood and anger rose in her at the thought that two men, whose lives were at stake, might in part be victims of political machinations that should have no place in a trial.
It was late evening before the case for the prosecution was concluded and Ishbel, not knowing how trials were conducted, expected it to end for the day and be resumed tomorrow. Instead Mr Erskine stood up and began his defence case for Brodie.
“It’s getting late, Miss,” Lucy whispered to her.
Ishbel agreed and glanced round, noting that the courtroom was less full than it had been earlier, a dozen or so people never having returned after the earlier adjournment for dinner. Still, she could not go now and miss important details. It would surely not go on for too much longer.
“Take the sedan chair back to the house,” she whispered to Lucy, “then send it back to wait for me.”
“Certainly not, Miss. If you are staying then so am I.”
Ishbel opened her mouth to argue further then took in Lucy’s pursed mouth and slight frown and gave in, glad she would not be on her own later, although it would hardly have been the first time she had made her way to her cousin’s home alone late at night. She took her maid’s free hand – the one not holding the ink bottle – and squeezed it.
Mr Erskine called a striking, dark-haired woman by the name of Jean Watt to the stand and she gave evidence – in a convincing tone – that Mr Brodie had been with her and their children for the entire night when the Excise Office robbery had taken place. Their children? Mr Brodie was unmarried.
Gasps and muttered comments went around the courtroom as the listeners absorbed this shocking information then Ishbel heard a woman’s voice – high-pitched and distressed. People’s heads turned and Ishbel tried to catch sight of who was speaking, seeing a middle-aged woman at the same time as the loud knocking of Lord Braxfield’s gavel sounded.
“Who is that?” a man behind her asked. Not her gen – not the gentleman who had smiled at her earlier, she corrected herself, but the one he had presumably been addressing his comments to.
“I have no idea but the poor woman looks distressed.” That was his voice – aristocratic but gentle – and the concern in his tone warmed her to him.
She glanced back at the middle-aged woman who had a hand over her mouth as if to choke back a further outcry. A younger woman – her daughter perhaps given their similarity of features – put an arm round her and spoke in what looked like an urgent manner.
After a minute they settled down and Ishbel focused on the witnesses – Jean Watt, then her young son and maid – who all swore Mr Brodie had been with them when the robbery was occurring. She lost track of time as she wrote down her impressions of what was said and by whom.
She was smothering a yawn when a young man stood up and began to speak. From his words on his client’s behalf, he was clearly one of the people defending George Smith, the second prisoner, but she had not caught his name.
The lawyer referred to the testimonies of the two accomplices of Brodie and Smith, saying to the jury in a loud, lively manner that caught everyone’s attention, “Gentlemen, you have heard a variety of objections stated to the admissibility of their evidence – all of which have been overruled by the court. But, notwithstanding the judgements of their Lordships, I must adhere to these objections and maintain that they ought not to have been admitted as witnesses. I think a great deal of most improper evidence has been received in this case for the Crown.”
By the time he had finished this indictment everyone in the courtroom was wide awake and Ishbel peered round the tall gentleman in front of her, trying to see the reactions of the five judges. She had little time to wait, several of the scarlet-robed men objecting to the negative assessment of their handling of the trial.
The defence lawyer was only just beginning. He called one of the accomplices who had given evidence against Smith and Brodie a villain, saying that, having been convicted of a crime in England, “how dare he come here to be received as a witness in this case?”
The main prosecution lawyer glared at his colleague and said, “He has, as I have shown you, received His Majesty’s free pardon.”
“Yes, I see, but, gentlemen of the jury, I ask you on your oaths, can His Majesty make a tainted scoundrel an honest man?”
Ishbel was startled into laughter at this and a burst of appreciative applause for the lawyer sounded from around her. She wished she knew his name. He then got into a heated argument with Lord Braxfield about whether or not the jury should listen to the judges’ opinions of the case. When Lord Braxfield, whose accent grew broader the angrier he got, attempted to move the case forward and call upon Brodie’s defence lawyer, Smith’s lawyer actually shook his fist in the air, exclaiming, “Hang my client if you dare, my lord, without hearing me in his defence!”
Ishbel breathed in sharply at this and, as another burst of applause sounded from the thoroughly entertained watchers, she looked to see how the judges would respond. Lord Braxfield had a murderous look in his eyes but allowed himself to be talked into adjourning the case so the judges could decide how to proceed.
Everyone got to their feet as the judges stood and, as one, marched out of the courtroom.
“Well, you were quite right, MacPherson,” one of the men behind her said, difficult to hear in the roar of noise from everyone talking at once. “This was far more entertaining than an appointment with my tailor and an evening at the tavern.”
She had a name for the green-eyed gentleman now: Mr MacPherson. He said, “Good lord, it is nearly three in the morning.”
At these words Ishbel could not help giving a yawn. She hoped Harriette and Lord Huntly would not be concerned at her absence. No, she remembered. They had been due to attend a ball at the Assembly Rooms tonight and would, no doubt, not yet be home themselves.
Beside her, Lucy rubbed her eyes and Ishbel felt a stab of guilt at having kept up like this. Lucy worked long enough hours and had a sufficiently difficult life – most of the money she made going to help her parents and siblings – that she should not have had to be here on Ishbel’s whim.
“Tomorrow – once we get home today, that is – you must take the full day and night off to catch up on your sleep,” she said.
“That’s not necessary, Miss.”
“Yes, it is,” Ishbel insisted.
Lucy took in her mistress’s resolute expression and said, “Thanks then, that’ll be nice. Just as long as you get some rest too and don’t instantly run off to the university.”
Ishbel – who had been intending to do exactly that – made a non-committal sound. She glanced down and, with horror, realised that tiredness had made her forget all about her writing. She had not recorded anything for probably more than an hour. She hastily lifted her quill and, ignoring the sigh beside her, recommenced scribbling. It made no difference that no one but her would ever be likely to read her account – it needed to be accurate and complete.
She had barely got started when the judges returned, looking calmer than when they had left. The case moved forward with the brash lawyer finishing his impassioned defence of George Smith and Mr Erskine standing up to give a brief but well-spoken conclusion to his own defence of William Brodie. Lord Buxfield then gave the view of the judges, which was that both prisoners were guilty, and the case was adjourned for the jury to make their own decision.
“Oh, no,” Lucy complained as the judges left the courtroom, “I thought it was over. What should we do now?”
Ishbel tried to shake the fog of exhaustion and make her mind function with any degree of clarity. “We will go home,” she said, “and I will send one of the footmen to wait and send for me to hear the verdict. Your duties are now entirely over.”
“Yes, Miss.” Lucy smiled in her usual amiable way and they got wearily to their feet and headed outside, with the rest of the crowd, to find Lord Huntly’s sedan. It was only when they were seated in it on the way back to her cousin’s grand house that Ishbel remembered the green-eyed gentleman – Mr MacPherson – who had sat behind her. She would no doubt never see him again and found herself regretting that fact.