Best Kept Secret - By Jeffrey Archer

BIG BEN STRUCK four times.

Although the Lord Chancellor was exhausted, and drained from what had taken place that night, enough adrenalin was still pumping through his body to ensure that he was quite unable to sleep. He had assured their lordships that he would deliver a ruling in the case of Barrington versus Clifton as to which of the young men should inherit the ancient title and the family’s vast estates.

Once again he considered the facts, because he believed that the facts, and only the facts, should determine his final judgment.

When he’d begun his pupillage some forty years before, his pupilmaster had advised him to dismiss all personal feelings, sentiment or bias when it came to making a judgment on either your client or the case before you. The law was not a profession for the faint-hearted or the romantic, he stressed. However, after abiding by this mantra for four decades, the Lord Chancellor had to admit he’d never come across a case that was so finely balanced. He only wished F.E. Smith was still alive, so he could seek his advice.

On the one hand . . . how he hated those clichéd words. On the one hand, Harry Clifton had been born three weeks before his closest friend, Giles Barrington: fact. On the other hand, Giles Barrington was unquestionably the legitimate son of Sir Hugo Barrington and his lawfully wedded wife, Elizabeth: fact. But that didn’t make him Sir Hugo’s first born, and that was the relevant point of the will.

On the one hand, Maisie Tancock gave birth to Harry on the 28th day of the ninth month after she’d admitted having a dalliance with Sir Hugo Barrington while they were on a works outing to Weston-super-Mare. Fact. On the other hand, Maisie Tancock was married to Arthur Clifton when Harry was born, and the birth certificate stated unequivocally that Arthur was the father of the child. Fact.

On the one hand . . . the Lord Chancellor’s thoughts returned to what had taken place in the chamber after the House had finally divided and the members had cast their votes as to whether Giles Barrington or Harry Clifton should inherit the title and all that therein is. He recalled the Chief Whip’s exact words when he announced the result to a packed House.

‘Contents to the right, two hundred and seventy-three votes. Non-contents to the left, two hundred and seventy-three votes.’

Uproar had broken out on the red benches. He accepted that the tied vote had left him with the unenviable task of having to decide who should inherit the Barrington family title, the renowned shipping line, as well as property, land and valuables. If only so much hadn’t rested on his decision when it came to the future of these two young men. Should he be influenced by the fact that Giles Barrington wished to inherit the title and Harry Clifton didn’t? No, he should not. As Lord Preston had pointed out in his persuasive speech from the opposition benches, that would create a bad precedent, even if it was convenient.

On the other hand, if he did come down in favour of Harry . . . he finally dozed off, only to be woken by a gentle tap on the door at the unusually late hour of seven o’clock. He groaned, and his eyes remained closed while he counted the chimes of Big Ben. Only three hours before he had to deliver his verdict, and he still hadn’t made up his mind.

The Lord Chancellor groaned a second time as he placed his feet on the floor, put on his slippers and padded across to the bathroom. Even as he sat in the bath he continued to wrestle with the problem.

Fact. Harry Clifton and Giles Barrington were both colour blind, as was Sir Hugo. Fact. Colour blindness can only be inherited through the female line, so it was nothing more than a coincidence, and should be dismissed as such.

He got out of the bath, dried himself and pulled on a dressing gown. He then slipped out of the bedroom and walked down the thickly carpeted corridor until he reached his study.

The Lord Chancellor picked up a fountain pen and wrote the names ‘Barrington’ and ‘Clifton’ on the top line of the page, under which he began to write the pros and cons of each man’s case. By the time he’d covered three pages in his neat copperplate hand, Big Ben had struck eight times. But still he was none the wiser.

He put