Interpreting the Law

“Ah yes – the law-interpreter again.” The man frowned as his daughter showed me in, and once again I regretted that my face seemed as yet unable to grow a beard. “Are you sure you’re competent to pronounce on points of law when such a valuable parcel of land is at stake?”

“I am indeed, sir. I have not only trained for three years with a master law-interpreter, I also spent two years studying under the lawgivers in Levrik themselves. I had both my previous masters’ blessing to set up on my own account locally in the summer.” I knew I was giving more information that I ought, and that it made me appear callow, but I resented his lack of confidence in my abilities. Frankly, this man, and his equally obnoxious neighbour, were getting a bargain, for I did not look old enough to charge what I was worth. Nevertheless, on this occasion I hoped to have the upper hand.

“Very well, very well. My man has shown you the parcel of land in question?” I nodded, and would have replied, but he went straight on, “You do understand that I will pay but half your fee?”

“Certainly, sir. You and your neighbour will each pay the same sum, and I will propose a just solution to your disagreement, based on my knowledge of the law and my examination on the ground.”

His daughter entered the room, a plate of little cakes in one hand and a jug of small ale in the other. He was silent until she had set them down on the table between us, poured a measure of ale into each of the two mugs already there, and left the room. “Excellent! You will agree, I am sure, that I have a good case? That the land belongs to me, based on the boundary wall continuing straight in a southerly direction? And that, once it crossed that ditch, the wall must have been robbed out?”

I had argued exactly that possibility to his neighbour earlier that day, and I had done so convincingly. Now, however, after selecting one of the little cakes, I prepared the ground for putting the opposite case. “Let us examine the circumstances dispassionately,” I began. “The disputed land lies between your farm and that of your neighbour. At the northern limit of your two holdings, there is a clear boundary wall between them. But it soon peters out, at a point where it meets a ditch that meanders from north-west towards the south-east. In the absence of a wall, there is no certain indication of where your land ends, and his begins. As you say, your claim rests on your assertion that the boundary wall must once have crossed the ditch and continued south, until it reached the road. It would certainly be possible to suggest such a history for the wall,” I said, allowing doubt to enter my tone, “Although there is no evidence on the ground for it. At no point did I see any indication of the wall continuing beyond the ditch.” I took a sip of my drink. It was surprisingly good; probably brewed in his own kitchens.

“Because it was robbed out, lad!”

I chose not to comment on this derogatory term; I hoped that my solution to his problem would force him to accept that I am, indeed, master of my profession. “But it might be considered strange that every single stone south of the ditch was taken to be used for later buildings, but not one on the northern side. And your neighbour has a counter-argument: that the ditch actually marks the course of a dried up stream. Water-courses have often been used as boundaries, and it is not inconceivable that your property would originally have been bounded by the track, the stream, and a wall built along the rest of the perimeter.” I steepled my fingers, and tried to appear to confide in him. “I’m not saying that you are wrong, mind. It could easily have been the way you say. But it might have been how your neighbour tells it. And you are not paying me to agree with you, nor to deal in might-haves or could-bes. You want me to weigh up all the possibilities, and then to decide who, on balance, ought to get the land.

“Now,” I went on, commencing my exposition, “You have already asked the local elders to resolve your dispute, and their suggestion was to divide the land in two.”

“Half the parcel is too small to be useful.” He must have known I was building my argument, and yet he interrupted me querulously. “And I’ll not see him striding over the other half, rubbing my nose in his partial victory.”

“I understand your concern. But you miss my point. The elders’ proposition tells us that they saw equal merit in your case and in your neighbour’s. In instructing me, each of you hopes that I will find a new and telling argument that will ensure you get the whole of the parcel. I must tell you that I have found no such thing. In fact, I agree with the elders, that neither of you has a more convincing claim than the other. I do, however, have a suggestion to offer you that may resolve the issue, but it is my duty first to explain what you may do next.

“If you and your neighbour both accept my judgement, we can sign an agreement today. If one of you does not accept, that person may ask another law-interpreter, or even a lawgiver, to come and examine the land and listen to your arguments. Of course, you must pay my fee, even if you do not like my findings. And if you wanted to call in someone else, you would also have to pay them. And even if you found someone who would pronounce in your favour, you would need your neighbour to accept his explanation.

“Tell me: what, in your opinion, is the value of the land in question?”

He pursed his lips; as if he had not calculated it to the last penny! “Nine silver crowns, perhaps,” he said. “Maybe ten.”

“You would spend more than that, if you chose to take the matter before a lawgiver. And with no certainty of any reward for your pains.”

“Then why don’t you tell me your solution, man? I’ll not let him get the better of me!”

I seemed to have grown up in his estimation. “That is the crux of it, is it not?” I asked, but without expecting a reply. “And that is why you are unlikely to be pleased, that I agree with your elders, that one possibility would be to split the field between you. But there is a second solution; one that avoids incurring any further costs, that would see the matter settled today, and that would ensure your neighbour had no rights over the land. Would you relinquish your own disputed ownership of it, for such an outcome?”

“If you can keep that wastrel from winning, I’d be delighted. But I’ll not just give the parcel away; it’s cost me your fees at the very least, even if you don’t count the two sheep I lost.” He looked over at me beseechingly. “Are you sure there’s no way of getting him to pay for the sheep?”

I should be grateful to those sheep, for his original suit for compensation for the two that had escaped when his neighbour left a gate open had led to him seeking me out, and in turn to other work, culminating in the present far more profitable assignment. And even more important, they had allowed me to meet this lumbering fool’s daughter. My best friend and only confidante was right to tease me, to point out that I was in no position to hanker after a wealthy landowner’s daughter, but I could not help returning whenever he summoned me, hoping for a glimpse of her. And I knew I was good at my work; one day, when I had more work than I could cope with, and was training my own assistant; when I had land of my own, and a house big enough for a family; when I had income to spare for the niceties that a woman born into the class I aspired to would expect: well, when that time came, I would return, not summoned to interpret the law for him, but to call on him as a guest, and to ask for his daughter. Sometimes, I feared that she would surely be spoken for long before I could attain such a position. But most of the time, the thought of her spurred me on, and today I hoped to achieve one of the targets that I had set myself. I hurriedly returned my attention to those blessed sheep; it would not do to give this conversation less than my very best. “As I explained last month,” I therefore said with all the patience I could muster, “The gate belonged to your neighbour. He had every right to leave it open. That your sheep were grazing on the disputed parcel of land, and that there was no boundary wall between it and his field, are not his fault. It was your duty to see that they were safely contained.”

“But the boundary wall was robbed out! Probably by him – or by his father.” His heart was not in these complaints, and I remained silent, judging that his curiosity would overcome his querulousness. I was right. “Very well, very well. What is your suggestion?”

I took a draught of my ale, selected a second cake, and decided to keep him waiting a little longer, to build up his interest in my solution. “These cakes really are very good,” I said. “You must have an excellent cook.”

“Why keep a cook, when my daughter has little else to do with her time, but to keep house for me? It’s a shame she’s so quarrelsome; I’ll never get her off my hands! Still, at least she’s a reasonable housekeeper, and I’ve a son to inherit the farm. Come on, man; don’t keep me waiting!”

I stifled the retort that rose to my lips, and made myself speak mildly. “My proposition is this: that you sell me your interest in the disputed land for two silver crowns.” I could see his objection rising hot in his throat, and knew that if he voiced it, he would never back down. I raised my hand with all the authority I could muster. “Let me finish. If you do this, you will save the extensive delays and onerous expense involved in bringing a lawgiver to pronounce on your dispute. You will have my assurance that I shall take care of your neighbour’s claim. You will therefore never have to suffer the slight of seeing him enjoying any part of that land. Furthermore, although my holding would be small, it would lie between your farm and his, and would therefore protect you from any retaliation or future intrusion.”

“But two silver crowns! The land is worth far more!”

“Not to you, not unless you can prove that it belongs to you. And attempting to do that will cost you dear. Besides, he will not get it; that is surely worth more than mere silver.”

He rose from his chair, and strode about the room. “Two silver crowns!” he exclaimed, shaking his head.

I waited until he was about to reject my offer, and then added smoothly, “Of course, If I were to become a party to such a transaction, I would be unable to charge for advising you. So you would also save my fee.”

I had timed that offer to perfection; he stopped pacing, and nodded. “Very well,” he said, “I accept!”

“Excellent! I have two silver crowns right here, and a bill of sale. We’ll need a witness, and someone other than myself to read the document to you.” I wanted the deal safely done, before he could change his mind.

“My daughter can read it. I’ll get her, and one of the farmhands as a witness.” He marched out to the kitchen, barked out an order, and his footsteps clumped off out to the yard.

The girl came into the room, and sat opposite me. “My father wants me to read something to him,” she said. “May I see it now, so that I can work out any difficult words?”

I passed it to her, and watched her lips silently moving as she went through it. I had known that she was attractive – handsome, rather than pretty – and an excellent conversationalist, from previous visits when her father had left her to keep me company. From his words earlier, I had today learned that she was also strong-minded enough to stand up to her father; an excellent cook; and used to running a house. Now I saw that she was educated as well. I wanted her all the more. All her fine qualities should have taken her even further out of my reach, but I had also found out that her father did not value her so highly. I was now a landowner, too – or I would be, as soon as her father’s signed bill of sale joined that of his neighbour in my document pouch – and, if he really felt that she was unmarriageable, might I not dare to aim so high?

“Arka,” I said quickly, before my courage could fail me, “May I ask your father if I can marry you?”

Her eyes widened, but she recovered quickly from her surprise. “You may, Farren, if you wish,” she replied. “But I’d rather you asked me. And then I could tell you that, yes, I’ll marry you. And that I’m old enough not to need his permission, although I’d prefer to have his blessing.”

I would have kissed her, hugged her, or danced about the room, but we heard the heavy tread of two men in boots entering the house. She put her finger to her lips to enjoin me to keep our agreement secret, and I nodded; it would be better not to sidetrack her father from the land sale until that was completed.

As she read the contract to him, while the cowman (I judged his profession purely from his smell) waited awkwardly behind them, I smiled to myself. I had no wish to become a farmer, and the parcel of land I was acquiring was in any case far too small to constitute a farm. But owning land would increase my standing locally, making it easier to gain further commissions in spite of my youth, and once there was a house upon it, I would be able to sell it for a tidy profit. Becoming a landowner had been the full extent of my ambitions for the day; I had had to borrow one of the four crowns it had cost me from my friend Ronil, so I could never have afforded to pay full value for even the smallest plot of land. But now that accomplishment was altogether eclipsed by gaining the consent to marriage of the only girl I had ever found so attractive. So here I was, set fair to be a man of property, married to a woman of character whom I could grow to love, and with a promising career in a well-respected profession, all before I reached the age of twenty. Not bad, for the son of a jobbing builder!