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Our Library => Cyril Hare - Tragedy at Law (1942) => Topic started by: Admin on April 27, 2023, 11:39:42 am



Title: 5: Lady Barber
Post by: Admin on April 27, 2023, 11:39:42 am
THE Judge had intended to travel to Southington, the next circuit town, in his own car, but in the circumstances this was clearly out of the question. The guilty vehicle was left behind in a garage at Markhampton until such time as it could be moved without offence to the law, and he and his Marshal went with the rest of the ponderous machine of justice by train. It was a tiresome journey. The progress of the Southern Circuit from county to county was still along the path that had seemed good to it since the reign of Henry II. Unfortunately, the railway speculators of the Victorian age, actuated by sordidly commercial considerations, had laid down their lines with little regard for the convenience of the judiciary. Their ideas did not soar beyond the provision of a main line between Markhampton and London, and another from London to Didbury Junction, whence a branch line meandered slowly to Southington. Their soulless, urban minds, preoccupied with the problem of moving passengers and goods to and from the capital, had never entertained the idea of anybody seriously wishing to travel direct from Markhampton to Southington. At all events, perhaps because the two towns were on different railway systems, they made it as difficult as possible. The circuit, which moved with the times, but a pace or two behind them, had discovered, during the course of the nineteenth century, that travel by rail, even along this route, was somewhat quicker than by coach, and had accepted the railwaymen’s grudging facilities. Nowadays, the Southington bus, which does the journey in an hour and a half, passes the Judge’s lodgings at Markhampton three times a day, but this development of civilization has so far escaped its official notice.

If the journey was tiresome, involving as it did two changes and a wait of forty minutes at Didbury Junction, it was at least made in comfort. A first-class carriage was reserved for the Judge and his Marshal. Another contained the Clerk of Assize, the Clerk of Indictments, and the Associate. Beamish and his myrmidons, as was only proper, travelled third class, but in equal seclusion. The luggage of the party, personal and official, absorbed the services of several porters and almost the whole of a guard’s van. The railway authorities had raised objections to reserving carriages, pleading wholly irrelevant considerations of the difficulties of wartime, but Beamish had soon put an end to them. “I just said to them,” he explained to his admiring audience, as he dealt the hands for a quiet game of nap, “if anyone was to get into the same carriage as one of His Majesty’s Judges!----!” There was no need for him to finish the sentence. Everybody present knew that such an event would be enough to blow the whole British Constitution sky-high.

---

The caravan reached its destination in the early afternoon. In the hour that remained before tea, Derek decided that he ought to write a letter home. Before starting out, he had, of course, promised his mother to tell her “all about it”; and equally of course, had failed to keep his promise. For one thing, he told himself in excuse, it wasn’t so easy to tell “all about it”. Like many other people, Mrs. Marshall imagined that business in the criminal courts was a succession of breath-taking thrills, that every case was a drama, every counsel a cross-examiner of genius “who could get anything out of you if he tried”, every speech a torrent of eloquence, every Judge a Solon. If he were to set down a day to day record of his actual experiences so far, she would be, Derek felt, extremely bored and, for she was a prudish woman, not a little disgusted. The only event of real importance that had occurred was the one which he was under an obligation not to mention. For himself, looking back on his experiences so far, he had nothing to complain of. He had learned a good deal and shed quite a number of illusions. His relations with the Judge were as friendly as could be wished, considering the disparity in their ages. At the same time, he had to admit that a prolonged tête-à-tête with him could become somewhat tiresome, and he was secretly rather disappointed that, whether because of the Chief Constable’s precautions or not, the Markhampton Assizes had ended as tamely as they had begun. He felt himself to be in need of some diversion and wondered idly whether Lady Barber, who was to join them at Southington, would supply it. Derek had reached this point in his meditations, and the letter to his mother was still not begun, when Greene stole softly into his room and announced that tea was ready downstairs and her ladyship had arrived.

---

Lady Barber was small, dark, streamlined, and good-looking. She talked a good deal, in clipped, commanding tones, and was obviously accustomed to saying what she thought and to having what she said attended to. Without being aggressively smart, she contrived to make the tall, shambling figure beside her look even shabbier than usual. Derek judged her to be about twenty years younger than her husband. He was, in fact, about eight years out in his guess, but more experienced men than he might well have made the same mistake. She greeted him in a brisk, friendly manner, which just escaped being patronizing.

“How do you do, Mr. Marshall? No, I’m not going to make the obvious joke. I dislike obvious jokes and I am sure you have heard that one quite enough already. Let’s have some tea at once. I’m chilled to the bone by that wretched train. You must pour out, please! Marshals always do, you know. Milk and two lumps for me, please, even if it is wartime. Now tell me, how are you enjoying this comic existence?”

Derek declared that he was enjoying it very much, and by the time that he had finished his second cup of tea was fairly convinced that he was going to enjoy it a good deal more, so long as the circuit was enlivened by Lady Barber’s society. He experienced the slightly exhilarating feeling that in her hands the stately but somewhat lethargic tempo of life in Judge’s lodgings would be accelerated into something brisker. She was not a particularly witty woman, nor, to Derek’s mind at least, a particularly attractive one; it was simply that she had an immense fund of vitality which stimulated everybody with whom she came into contact to put his best foot foremost in thought or conversation, whether attraction or repulsion was the governing impulse. Derek reflected, after she had left the drawing-room, that he had talked more during the last half-hour than he had done during the whole of the last week; and further that he had talked with unexampled intelligence and wit. It was only later that he realized that he had given himself, his deeds, thoughts and aspirations, completely away under the spell of Lady Barber’s practised “drawing out”. He had, in fact, been very skilfully, relentlessly cross-examined, and without in the least realizing what was going on. Like many other ingenuous people, he prided himself on being reserved and even a trifle secretive, and the discovery was somewhat painful. Remembering his mother’s belief in the capacity of cross-examiners to get “anything out of you if they tried”, he told himself, somewhat ruefully, that her ladyship would certainly have made a very good lawyer. This opinion, as it happened, he shared with a number of other people---of whom Lady Barber was certainly one.

Lady Barber’s husband (it was curious how easily the embodied majesty of the law shrank in her society to “Lady Barber’s husband”) appeared to enjoy her presence at the lodgings as much as did his Marshal, though in a different way. At tea, he sunned himself in the light of her radiance, chuckled at her sallies, and thoroughly relished the spectacle of the young man being put through his paces. At the same time, a closer observer than Derek might have observed that behind his enjoyment lurked a certain apprehension. It would be a gross slander to say that he was afraid of his wife. Rather, he was extremely reluctant to find himself in opposition to her, and if anything had occurred which was likely to cause her annoyance he was in the habit of going to considerable lengths to prevent her knowing it. Experience had told him that as a matter of fact she sooner or later got to know anything of any importance, but at least he did all he could to postpone and so to mitigate the hour of reckoning. It followed that he had said nothing as yet about the accident to his car at Markhampton, and he still hoped against all reason to be able to avoid doing so.

The blow fell sooner than he expected. He had just finished dressing for dinner when his wife came into his room, a packet of letters in her hand.

“These came for you this morning,” she said. “I wish you could persuade people to send all your correspondence to the Courts. It is such a nuisance having to forward them when you are away. They don’t look particularly interesting.”

They did not. Two were obviously circulars, and the rest typewritten envelopes which presumably contained bills. Barber looked at them casually, turning them over in his hand. He had to make one of those minute decisions on which important consequences sometimes depend---whether to stuff them into his pocket or to deal with them at once. He glanced at the clock. There were still five minutes to go before dinner. He decided to open them there and then. By an irony which the Judge, a lover of Hardy, would have appreciated in other circumstances the clock subsequently turned out to be five minutes slow.

He opened one letter and then another, scanning them hurriedly and dropping them into the waste-paper basket. Her ladyship meanwhile made use of his looking-glass to remove some imperceptible blemish in her make-up. He opened the third letter, just as the gong sounded from below. Unfortunately, at the same moment his wife looked up from her labours and caught sight of his expression in the glass.

“What is the matter?” she asked, turning round sharply.

“Nothing, dear, nothing,” said the unhappy man in unconvincing tones.

“Nothing? You looked quite upset. Who is your letter from?”

“Oh, nobody in particular. And I’m not upset,” he hastened to add. “You always will jump to conclusions, Hilda. I was only puzzled by a name that seems familiar, and I can’t place it, that is all.”

“What name?”

“Not one that you would know, I expect. It’s a curious one---Sebald-Smith.”

“Sebald-Smith? My dear, I’m not a complete Philistine. Of course I know the name. He’s about the best-known pianist alive, I should think.”

“A pianist? Dear me!” For all his efforts at self-control the Judge’s dismay was manifest.

“What on earth is all this about?” said her ladyship pettishly and with a superbly graceful movement was across the room and had removed the letter from her husband’s nerveless fingers before he was even aware of what had happened.

She read:

My Lord,
We are acting on behalf of Mr. Sebastian Sebald-Smith, who as your lordship will be aware, was injured on the evening of the 12th instant as the result of being knocked down by your lordship’s motor-car in Market Place, Markhampton. Our instructions are that the accident was caused solely by the negligence of the driver of the vehicle in question. While we are unable at the moment of writing to make any estimate of the full extent of our client’s injuries, it appears clear that he has suffered, among others, a serious damage to the knuckle-joint of one finger which may entail its amputation---a matter which, to a person in our client’s position is, of course, one of grave consequence. We should be glad to know the name of your lordship’s Insurance Company as soon as possible, and meanwhile must formally put on record our client’s intention of claiming damage in respect of his injuries.
Your lordship’s obedient servants
Faraday, Fothergill, Crisp & Co.


Lady Barber was some time in commenting on the letter. It was as if she were debating what attitude to take up towards her husband’s latest misdemeanour. When she spoke, it was evident that she had decided upon that of one more in sorrow than in anger.

“Really, William, you are incorrigible!” she said. “You were driving the car, I suppose?”

“Yes, I was.”

“And I suppose you were entirely to blame?”

“Well, as to that----”

“Of course you were!” she interrupted impatiently. “I’ve told you often enough that you are not fit to drive at night. It really is lamentable for anybody in your position. Thank Heaven, your name hasn’t got into the papers about it. I saw a paragraph to say that Sebald-Smith had been knocked down by a car, but of course I never associated it with you. You never go to concerts, I know, but this escapade of yours is going to make a nasty hole in the musical life of London, whenever that revives again. Sebald-Smith! He’s the sort of man who insures his hands for thousands of pounds.”

At this reference to insurance the Judge winced.

“Don’t you think we had better discuss this after dinner?” he said.

“I don’t see that there is anything to discuss,” said his wife, sweeping out of the room in front of him, with glorious disregard of circuit convention.

---

Derek, who had come down to dinner eager to resume the sparkling conversation that he had enjoyed so much at tea, had to confess himself by the end of the evening somewhat disappointed. The fault, so far as he could see, lay with the Judge. Not only had he nothing to say for himself, but his silence succeeded in throwing a gloom over the whole table. Her ladyship, indeed, seemed to be as vivacious as usual. If anything, her colour was a trifle higher, her eyes even brighter than before. But on this occasion her talkativeness seemed to be the result of a deliberate effort and not the delightfully natural ebullience that had so charmed him. Moreover, he observed that she was making no attempt to draw her husband into the conversation. She addressed herself exclusively to the Marshal and for much of the time appeared to be talking at random, with her mind elsewhere. Once or twice he suspected her of talking at the silent figure on the other side of the table. Altogether it was an uncomfortable meal. Derek, oppressed with the uneasy feeling that something was “up”, found himself relapsing into tongue-tied awkwardness, and was thoroughly glad when Savage placed the port on the table and Lady Barber left the room.

The Judge drank three glasses of port. As he filled each glass, he looked towards Derek and made as though he were about to say something of importance. Each time, he balked at the fence and ended by making some trivial observation about the work of the forthcoming assize. Finally, as though surrendering to the inevitable, he threw his napkin on the table, observed, “Well, I suppose we had better join my wife,” and made for the door.

In the drawing-room, the atmosphere was even more oppressive than at table. There were long periods of silence, broken only by the vicious click of her ladyship’s knitting needles. She appeared to be sulky, and her husband to be nervously awaiting something to happen. For all his inexperience, it was not difficult for Derek to guess what that something was. He was waiting to be alone with his wife, and he was not looking forward with any pleasure to the experience. Derek took the hint, though he would have been hard put to it to say exactly how the hint had been conveyed. Pleading the necessity of writing his long-promised letter home, he left the drawing-room as early as he could with decency.

As the door closed behind him, Lady Barber looked up from her knitting and remarked:

“That’s a nice boy. Was he with you in the car the other night?”

“Yes, he was,” said the Judge, snatching eagerly at the opportunity thus presented to him. “And while we are on that subject, there were one or two matters I wanted to discuss with you, Hilda.”

“If he was with you, and knows all about it,” went on her ladyship, still pursuing her own line of thought, “I don’t see why you had to send him out of the room beforehand.”

“I did nothing of the sort, so far as I am aware.”

“My dear, I never saw anything done more blatantly in my life. However, that’s your affair and not mine. As I said before dinner, I don’t see that there is anything to discuss about this business. Goodness knows, I’m the last person to wish to make a mountain out of this rather unfortunate little molehill.”

The Judge remained silent, and she went on:

“If you give me the letter, I’ll deal with it for you. There’s no earthly reason why you should bother yourself about it, and you know how unpractical you always are about your own affairs. You’ve sent in your claim to the insurance people, I suppose? It’s the Empyrean, isn’t it?”

Still silence.

“Isn’t it?”

The Judge cleared his throat.

“That”, he croaked, “was the matter I wanted to discuss with you.”

Nobody could say that Lady Barber was not quick in the uptake. She laid down her knitting, opened her fine eyes very wide, and sat up straight in her armchair.

William!” she said in an ominously quiet voice, “are you trying to tell me that you are not insured at all?”

“I---I’m afraid that that is the fact, Hilda.”

There was a silence during which it was only too apparent that Lady Barber was several times on the point of saying something and thought better of it each time. Finally she rose to her feet, moved to the fireplace, took a cigarette from the mantelpiece, lighted it, and stood for a moment or two with her back to her husband, looking down into the fire. When she turned round he had begun to speak but she took no notice.

“Have you considered,” she asked, “exactly what this is likely to mean to you---to us?”

“Naturally,” said the Judge in a somewhat peevish tone, “I have considered the matter in all its aspects. But I must admit that what you told me before dinner does put rather a different complexion on the case. I mean, the fact that this fellow is a pianist.”

“Sebald-Smith!” exclaimed her ladyship, allowing her feelings to break through her self-control for the first time. “Why if you must run somebody down with a motor-car you should go and select Sebald-Smith, of all people----”

“It is unfortunate,” Barber admitted. “It has---quite frankly---rather upset my calculations as to how---that is----”

“It means that he will want about ten times as much in the way of damages as any ordinary person would,” his wife cut in.

“Precisely. I am afraid his demands for an injured finger may be somewhat exorbitant.”

Neither spoke for a time, and then Lady Barber said, somewhat pointlessly:

“I cannot understand how you came to be so foolish, William!”

The Judge wisely said nothing, and her ladyship, realizing perhaps that her remark was rather beneath her usual level, tried again.

“I suppose the accident was your fault?” she said. “You couldn’t plead contributory negligence, by any chance?”

“My dear Hilda, we need hardly consider that aspect of the case. In my position, I can’t afford to fight it. That is obvious. I shall have to settle on the best terms I can.”

“But, William, this may ruin us!”

“We should be very much more thoroughly ruined if by reason of this matter being litigated I had to resign my appointment.”

“Resign!”

“Well, Hilda, we must face facts.”

There was another rather bleak silence before Lady Barber spoke again.

“William, just how much money have you in the world, apart from your salary?” she asked.

“My dear, we went into that subject very fully only a month or two ago.”

“I know we did, but then it was only a question of paying a few wretched bills of mine. This is serious.”

The Judge unexpectedly uttered a loud, creaking laugh.

“You imagined that I was painting things blacker than they really were for your benefit, I suppose,” he said. “That in fact I had a few thousands tucked away which I had never told you about?”

“Of course,” replied her ladyship simply. “It seemed only common sense.”

“Common sense or not, I was perfectly honest with you. The position is now exactly as I explained it to you then---as, indeed, I have explained it at intervals throughout our married life. For many years past we have been spending practically every penny I have earned.” There was a slight emphasis on the contrasted pronouns which was not lost on his hearer. “Apart from my modest insurance policy there is nothing to fall back on. Apart from my still more modest pension---if I am permitted to earn it---there is nothing to look forward to. If anything were to happen to me----”

“Thank you, I have heard that bit before,” said Lady Barber hastily. “The question is, where are you going to find the ten thousand pounds or so which Sebald-Smith will certainly expect for his finger?”

The Judge gulped. At the worst, he had not envisaged such a sum as this. It was on the tip of his tongue to remind his wife that she knew less about awarding damages than he did, but he remembered in time that she certainly knew a great deal more than he about the earning capacities of pianists.

“We shall have to cut down our scale of expenditure very drastically, I am afraid,” he said.

Her ladyship looked at her elegant reflection in the glass over the mantelpiece and made a face. “It’s a grim prospect,” she remarked. Then, pulling herself together, she went on in a crisp, practical manner: “Well! Faraday’s letter will have to be answered, I suppose, and it had better be done professionally. Shall I write to Michael and ask him to do it on your behalf? You will want him to act for you, I suppose?”

“I suppose so,” said the Judge without enthusiasm. He did not greatly care for his brother-in-law, but he was unquestionably a competent solicitor.

“I shall tell him just to acknowledge the letter formally, and then when I can find time I’ll go up to London and explain the whole thing to him,” she went on. “The longer we can keep Sebald-Smith hanging about, the better. People like him haven’t any staying-power. After a month or two he’ll be much more reasonable in his ideas than he is now, I’m sure. Besides”---she smiled a delightful unexpected smile---“it will give us time to start saving.”

---

Shortly afterwards Judge and Lady went to bed, both in somewhat better temper than had seemed probable half an hour before. Hilda’s active mind, though fully aware of the extent of the disaster that loomed over them, was almost happy in the prospect of employment in urgent practical affairs. As for the Judge, he was conscious of the relief which he always felt whenever, as so often happened, he allowed some personal problem of his own to be taken into his wife’s competent hands. He felt too the virtuous pleasure which comes from confession, now that he had made a clean breast of his escapade. This latter feeling, however, was not unalloyed. It occurred to him, as he made his way upstairs, that so far he had said nothing to his wife about the threatening letters which had reached him at Markhampton. With the unquenchable optimism that always marked his behaviour in these matters, he decided that he would save trouble by saying nothing to her about the question. Barber’s habit of concealing things from his wife was as instinctive as that of the dog who hides bones under a sofa cushion, and about as effective.