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6: Civil Action

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« on: April 27, 2023, 12:24:20 pm »

SOUTHINGTON assizes took their normal course. The formalities of the opening day were, with a few local variations, the formalities of Markhampton. Derek, who already felt himself to be an old hand at the game, performed his part in the ceremonies with what he felt to be the proper blend of dignity and detachment. The presence of Lady Barber made little or no difference to the proceedings, he observed. She kept herself well in the background and so far as the spectators were concerned was merely an inconspicuous black-clothed figure in a back pew at the church or in a remote corner of the bench. On the second day of the assize, indeed, she did not even appear in court. Crime, she declared, bored her. She had read the depositions and there was nothing in any of the cases of the faintest legal interest. On the other hand, in the civil list that came after there were several actions which she intended to follow. One in particular, which raised for decision for the first time an obscure question of construction in a new Act of Parliament, promised to be fascinating. Hearing her utter this opinion in decided tones at dinner on the second evening in lodgings, Derek understood how the nickname “Father William” came to be attached to the Judge.

Hilda Barber, in fact, was that rare being, a woman with a real talent for law. She had been, she told Derek, called to the Bar, but had never practised. The latter statement was true in the sense that like many other women barristers she had never succeeded in acquiring a practice. Without any exceptional influence behind her she had been unable to overcome the prejudice which has kept the Bar an essentially masculine profession. But for two years she had haunted the Temple, listened to every case of importance---as distinct from cases of mere notoriety---and studied assiduously in the library of her Inn. During this period she read as a pupil in the chambers of William Barber, then at the height of his practice as a junior. It was not long after her term of pupilage expired that Barber celebrated a double event by taking silk and marrying within the same month. It was currently rumoured that both of these important steps had been taken on the initiative of the lady. Certainly, from the professional point of view, he had no cause to regret either of them.

After her marriage, Hilda Barber was seen no more in the Temple. The snowy wig and still glossy gown were put away, monuments to unrealized ambition. Thenceforward she devoted herself to the twin objects of fostering her husband’s career and spending gracefully his steadily increasing earnings. It would be hard to say in which she was the more successful. She brought to Barber the social contacts which he had hitherto lacked and which he needed to put the seal upon his professional reputation. Solicitors who had fought shy of the learned Miss Hilda Matthewson, barrister at law, competed for invitations to the cocktail parties and dinners given by the smart Mrs. Barber. The evening papers which carried in one column the account of a speech by the “eminent K.C.” in the fashionable cause of the day, were sure to report in another that his wife had been prominent at a first night or charity ball, in a dress which would probably be more faithfully described than her husband’s argument; and each piece of publicity reacted favourably on the other.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that because she was now in a position to exercise her social talents to the full, her interest in the law had in any way diminished. Where other women in like case would have taken to charity or politics as an outlet for their superfluous energies, she remained faithful to jurisprudence. The amount of work that she did for Barber behind the scenes as a “devil” was unsuspected by anyone, except perhaps his clerk, but it was undoubtedly considerable. Barber was a man of a mental calibre that would inevitably have carried him to the bench sooner or later, but his wife was probably justified in her belief that her assistance had shortened the period by several years, while at the same time making it possible for him to cope with an enormous pressure of work which would otherwise have overwhelmed him.

Hilda was not unnaturally pleased when Barber K.C. was in due course transformed into Mr. Justice Barber. The elevation, however, was not without its drawbacks. Particularly, she discovered, as many have done before her, that a judicial salary is a poor substitute for the income of a leader in the first flight of his profession. It was agreeable to be announced at parties as “Lady Barber”, but slightly less so to be compelled to greet her hostess in a frock that had already done duty for half a season. The change had another consequence which she had not foreseen, indeed, it is probable that she never became fully aware of it. Judges, if they do not exactly live in the fierce white light that beats upon a throne, are public figures, and within a limited circle there is very little about their lives that fails to become public property sooner or later. Hence it came about that whereas nobody was ever aware how much Barber K.C.’s opinions owed to the criticism and counsel of his wife, it was not long before quite a number of initiates were saying among themselves that Barber J.’s reserved judgments were written by her ladyship. On one occasion, when one of these was the subject of an appeal, the sotto voce question of one Lord Justice to his brother, “Is this one of Hilda’s?” had unluckily reached some quick ears in counsels’ seats. Fortunately for her peace of mind, this episode was not reported to her. She had learned, however, of her husband’s nickname and magnanimously professed to be mildly amused at it. So far as the public at large was concerned, however, she continued to remain well in the background and, except that she was perhaps a shade too decorative, played the role of Judge’s wife to perfection.


Derek was quick to observe that Lady Barber’s submissiveness in public did not extend to her private life. She soon took charge of the domestic arrangements in the Lodgings, harried Mrs. Square in a manner to which that autocratic lady was utterly unaccustomed, criticized Greene for lack of proper attention to the Marshal’s top hat, trod the submissive Savage under her feet, and had more than one passage at arms with Beamish himself. Dislike between her ladyship and the clerk was mutual. Beamish had not served the Judge prior to his appointment. Barber’s former clerk had, much to his master’s annoyance, declined to follow him to the bench, preferring to continue to take his chance in the Temple. The new Judge had therefore to content himself with the best man he could find at short notice. Unfortunately his choice had not commended itself to Hilda, and during the period that had since elapsed she had succeeded in making her opinion only too plain.

So far as the Judge was concerned, the element of discord so introduced into his surroundings did not seem to affect him greatly. He turned a blind eye to the upheaval among his staff and firmly refused to allow Beamish to be discussed at all. Obviously, this was a sore subject of long standing on which he had wisely taken a decision and he was not to be moved from it. Apart from this, relations with his wife since his confession on the first evening at Southington were perfectly harmonious. Any reforms which she might think fit to enforce in the household were directed to increasing his comfort rather than her own, and he obviously enjoyed to the full the little attentions which she lavished upon him. The consequence was that Derek found the atmosphere of the Lodgings once more warm and friendly, besides a good deal more lively than it had been before her arrival.

Hilda galvanized the Judge into giving several dinner parties at Southington. These were merely official affairs, at which such dignitaries as the High Sheriff, the Mayor and the local County Court Judge attended with their wives, discussed local affairs and departed punctually at a quarter past ten. But they served, if nothing else, to demonstrate Hilda’s admirable tact. She would manage her party with discretion, never allow the conversation to degenerate to the mere maundering of the average official gathering, and at the same time subdued her own brilliance to the level of the company. More to her taste, however, were the lunches to which the Judge invited from time to time the members of the bar engaged in the criminal cases. She was at her best with the young men. Derek observed with rueful amusement others undergoing the same process of drawing-out that he had endured. He noticed also that neither to them nor to their elders did she admit to the faintest knowledge of their trade. On one occasion she sat without moving a muscle while a very young man, holding his first brief, laboriously explained for her benefit an elementary point of procedure---and incidentally explained it wrongly.

The criminal business at Southington drew to a close and the time fixed for the hearing in which Hilda had taken such interest drew near. On the day before, she went to London. Her purpose in going, she told her husband, was to see her solicitor brother about the Sebald-Smith affair. On her return that evening, she said no more than that she had had a useful day. The Judge, to whom any reference to the Markhampton affair was acutely distasteful, asked no questions and the subject dropped. At dinner that evening, she referred once more to the case that was to be heard next day.

“I see by the pleadings that Frank Pettigrew is appearing for the defendant,” she remarked. “We’ll ask him to dinner. It will be a change to have somebody entertaining as a guest.”

“My dear,” objected Barber heavily, “I have already had Pettigrew to lunch at Markhampton. I deprecate showing favouritism among the Bar, except in very special cases, and, frankly, I do not think this is one of them.”

Her ladyship pouted.

“I want to see Frank,” she said. “He amuses me, and I haven’t set eyes on him for ages.”

“That does not altogether surprise me,” retorted the Judge. “And I must say that I do not think it would be in the very best of taste----”

“My dear William, if you are going to set up as an arbiter of taste----” she began in a tone of mockery which caused him hastily to shift his ground.

“Besides,” he went on, “it would be against my principles to entertain counsel on one side of a case only. Even if the arguments are concluded by to-morrow evening, as seems probable, the objection still stands.”

“Then that is simple,” said Hilda in decided tones. “We will ask them both. Flack is for the plaintiff, isn’t he? He is quite presentable. Then we shall be able to make up a four of bridge---you play, I suppose, Mr. Marshall?”

Derek, a somewhat embarrassed auditor of the discussion, admitted that he did.

“. . . And then we shan’t bother you with our chatter. I’ve brought down some new library books for you which you will like. That’s settled then.”

And settled it was.


The action which had been so much canvassed in lodgings, proved, to Derek’s mind at least, one of unexampled dullness. In a court completely empty save for officials and reporters, Flack, an earnest middle-aged man with a particularly ugly voice, occupied the whole morning with his opening. This consisted, so far as Derek could see, in repeating in various tones of emphasis, the words of a section of an Act of Parliament which appeared to have been composed by an illiterate with a talent for obscurity, and reading passages from judgments in other cases on other Acts which seemed to have no bearing on the matter whatever. At the conclusion of his performance, he called two formal witnesses whom Pettigrew declined to cross-examine, remarking that he was relying on a pure point of law.

What had reduced the Marshal almost to tears of boredom, had, however, apparently stimulated Lady Barber to an ecstasy. She returned with the others to lunch in the highest spirits. Indeed, she reminded Derek of nothing so much as a young girl during the entr’acte of an exciting mystery play. Presently it was revealed that part of her pleasure, at least, was due to the fact that she had, or at all events thought she had, solved the mystery.

“Flack doesn’t know his job,” she announced at lunch. “He hasn’t cited the only case which bears on the matter at all.”

The Judge looked up from his plate with interest.

“Indeed?” he asked. “What case do you mean?”

“Simpkinson and the Haltwhistle Urban District Council,” replied her ladyship with her mouth full. “It’s reported in 1918 Appeal Cases, and it’s----”

“My dear Hilda, I know the case perfectly well. It is merely one of the line of cases on the emergency legislation of the last war. How it can help me to determine the construction of this statute I cannot imagine.”

“Then you don’t know the case perfectly well. It lays down a general principle which is dead in point here. The Lord Chancellor makes it quite plain.”

Barber, who was listening to his wife’s remarks with evident respect, permitted himself a dry laugh.

“I suppose you were getting some assistance from your brother yesterday,” he remarked.

Hilda flushed.

“Certainly not!” she exclaimed. “Michael is hopeless at case law, though he’s got a good enough brain. He’s much too busy making wills for old ladies and helping his clients to dodge their income-tax. I simply asked him to give me the run of his library while I was in his office. I knew there was a decision that helped somewhere and it was just a matter of ferreting it out.”

“I am very much obliged to you, Hilda,” said the Judge. “I shall look the case up when I get back to London and see if it bears out what you say.”

“You needn’t bother to do that. Frank has got it with him. I was looking at the Reports on his desk this morning. He won’t cite it unless you make him because it’s clean against him. But there it is.”

“It would be most improper for counsel, knowing that there is a reported case bearing on the matter in hand, not to bring it to the notice of the Court, whether it is in his favour or not,” pronounced his lordship pompously.

“Oh, well, I only meant that I shouldn’t if I was in his shoes,” replied Hilda airily.

After that the conversation became merely technical and so continued until the end of the meal.

After lunch, a curious little incident occurred which, though apparently insignificant, was to have important consequences. The Judge had a passion for sweet things. After every meal he invariably ate three or four chocolates or caramels with all the gusto of a schoolboy, and a regular supply of these delicacies was a feature of the economy of the lodgings. On this particular occasion, after lunch, Savage produced a full box of chocolates with the name of a famous London firm upon the lid.

The Judge’s eyes sparkled.

“Bechamel’s!” he exclaimed. “This is a pleasant surprise! Where do these come from, Savage?”

“They arrived by this morning’s post, my Lord.”

“Indeed? Hilda, I perceive that your business in London yesterday was not entirely concerned with legal research. This was a very kind thought on your part, my dear.”

“But I never ordered them,” said Lady Barber in surprise. “I was never near the West End all day. They must have been sent by mistake.”

“A very intelligent mistake, then. They’re the kind that I always have for Christmas---with lemon centres, which you will improvidently bite, while I more delicately suck. You must try one, Marshal.”

Hilda interposed.

“Not now,” she said primly. “If somebody has sent us a box of Bechamel chocolates, they must be kept for this evening. A box like that gives a touch of distinction to any dinner---and goodness knows Mrs. Square’s dinners need it.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you have against Mrs. Square’s cooking,” said the Judge mildly. “But in any case, there will be plenty left for this evening if we have one or two now.”

“Certainly not,” said Hilda firmly. “Nothing looks more mesquin than a half eaten box of chocolates handed round after dinner. If you can give them a fresh box of Bechamels, your guests will feel that you have really taken some trouble for their sake, and that’s half the secret of entertaining.”

Derek made bold to say:

“Even if the trouble is not really of your taking, Lady Barber?”

Hilda flashed a brilliant smile at him. She was delighted to find that the young man could stand up to her.

“Especially if it is not of your taking,” she said. “The effect is the only thing that matters. But in this case, I am taking considerable trouble---the trouble of persuading my husband to abstain. Put the lid back on the box, William, and tie the ribbon on again. Have one of these caramels instead.”

The Judge meekly did as he was told, and shortly afterwards the party returned to Court.

Derek found the afternoon’s sitting a good deal less boring than the morning had been, although nothing could have made the arid subject an interesting one. Pettigrew had a natural gift for a turn of phrase that served to make any argument attractive and even contrived to extract some humour out of the forbidding subject. Barber, whatever his failings, possessed the great, if negative, merit of not being a talkative judge. He sat quite silently and suffered Pettigrew to develop his theme without interference for three quarters of an hour, making an occasional note in the large book in front of him. He showed no sign of appreciating Pettigrew’s little jokes, but it is always possible that these were also recorded in the notebook.

By the end of that time, even Pettigrew had become thoroughly dull. Having made his main submission with lucidity and force, he was as a matter of duty, referring to the authorities cited by his opponent and disposing of the contentions which had been founded on them. Then, with an apology for what he feared might be a waste of the time of the Court, he proceeded to quote one or two further cases which might possibly be of assistance. Presently, with an ill-disguised yawn:

“I ought perhaps to refer your Lordship to Simpkinson and the Haltwhistle Urban District Council,” he remarked, “though perhaps your Lordship may not think it carries the matter any further.”

Barber’s face showed no trace of interest as he wrote down the name and reference of the case in his book. His wife, on the other hand, drew in her breath sharply and clenched her gloved hands in excitement. It may have been fancy, but Derek thought that Pettigrew’s eyes glanced in her direction at the tiny sound. Then he began to read.

Simpkinson and the Haltwhistle Urban District Council seemed to Derek exactly like all the other many cases that had been cited that day, only perhaps slightly more incomprehensible. He was just beginning to wonder what on earth all the bother had been about when the Judge opened his eyes, which up to that time had been half closed, and remarked:

“That passage you have just read seems to be against you, Mr. Pettigrew.”

“My lord, I don’t think so,” Pettigrew said easily. “I don’t think the Lord Chancellor was purporting to lay down a general rule here, and your lordship will see from what he says a little further on----”

“Very well. Go on, Mr. Pettigrew.”

Pettigrew finished reading the Lord Chancellor’s observations, and then put the book down.

“I don’t know if the case is really of very much assistance to your lordship one way or the other,” he said. “But as it seemed to be in pari materia to some of those cited by my friend, I thought I was bound to bring it to your lordship’s attention.”

“Quite,” said the Judge drily. “Will you hand me the report, please?”

He took the volume in his hands, turned over the leaves, and read aloud the passage to which he had already referred. With this as his text, he proceeded to expound. He analysed it, compared it with other passages in the same judgment, linked it up with other cases already cited in argument before him, referred it to principles laid down in authorities and text-books. He made of this apparently harmless and casual paragraph a deadly instrument which, inserted delicately into the structure of Pettigrew’s argument, split the defendant’s case wide open. It was a brilliant performance, all the more so considering that he had had only the merest hint to go upon. What rather detracted from its merit was the obvious relish with which it was done, and the quite unnecessary brutality with which the fallacies involved in Pettigrew’s submission were exposed. Barber made it only too plain that in his view counsel for the defendants had been not only wrong in law, but grossly ignorant of his trade. Needless to say, not a single discourteous word passed his lips, but the implication was there, none the less.

Pettigrew took his defeat with resignation, with apparent good humour even. He put up some semblance of a fight, but he knew when he was beaten, and it was not his habit to prolong the agony in hopeless cases. In this, perhaps, he was unwise. Clients are human, and derive much consolation from “a good fight”, however vain. Not a little of his lack of success was due to his mistaken belief that other people would be as reasonable as he was himself. Accordingly, a few moments after the Judge’s intervention he concluded his address, sat down, and listened to the Shaver, without calling upon Flack to reply, deliver judgement for the plaintiff.

Beneath his mask of courteous indifference, however, Pettigrew was sick with anger. He did not mind losing a case---that was all in the day’s work---but he felt strongly about the manner in which he had been treated. The point on which he had failed was an obscure one, and anybody might have been forgiven for failing to appreciate it. In point of fact, his opponent, Flack, though no fool, had overlooked it entirely, while he, Pettigrew, had known of it and advised his clients that their chances of success were small upon that very ground. But would they be likely to remember that, in the face of Father William’s attitude? Much more likely that they would recollect that he had lost their case and that Flack’s clients had succeeded and arrange their future business accordingly. Quite probably, they would blame him for having done his duty in citing the fatal authority which would otherwise never have been brought to the attention of the Court at all. Then he recollected the slight sound that had come from the bench at the mention of the name of the case, and he began to realize how it was that the Judge had been lying in wait for him, his arguments already furnished, his poisoned arrows tipped and barbed. His sense of humour came to his rescue and he laughed aloud. Even the fact that he had probably lost a client that afternoon could not blunt his appreciation of the ludicrousness of the position. And he began to look forward to his dinner in lodgings that evening more than he had thought possible.


The party, in fact, might be accounted a success. There were no other guests at dinner and Hilda permitted herself a professional hostess’s wail at the lopsidedness of her table. But this, in the event, hardly proved a drawback. The Judge and Flack had been pupils in chambers together and had many reminiscences in common which the rest could not share. Hilda contentedly allowed them to develop a duologue of their own, while she and Pettigrew talked with each other. But she knew her business far too well to leave Derek in the cold. Indeed, with Pettigrew’s co-operation, she succeeded in making him feel at times that he was the focal point of the conversation. He was commiserated with on the absence of a suitable partner at table, rallied for his inattention to the important legal discussion that had taken place that day, and was made to feel thoroughly sheepish when Pettigrew appealed to him to verify a quotation from the Book of Judges---“or hadn’t you time to get so far to-day?” he blandly asked. At other times, as the meal proceeded, he began to feel almost in the position of a chaperon, listening to a colloquy rich with overtones of intimacy which he could apprehend but could not share. It was obvious to him that the couple knew each other well---too well, perhaps, for either to be entirely comfortable in the presence of the other, but he was puzzled to determine the precise relationship between them. They were able to speak to some extent in shorthand. Allusions, half expressed, were taken up and answered in terms equally cryptic to the outsider. It seemed as if their minds were attuned together, so that the ordinary laborious process of explanations was unnecessary. But beneath it all the listener was conscious of a latent sense of hostility and wariness on either side. Their talk was a fencing bout between friends, in which neither desired to hurt the other---but there were no buttons on the foils.

In an oblique indirect fashion, Pettigrew let it be known that he attributed to Hilda his downfall in Court that afternoon. Derek observed that on this occasion she made no secret of her special knowledge. Indeed, she described in some detail the process of reasoning by which she had been led to seek out this particular point of law, and gave an entertaining enough account of her researches in the dusty volumes at her brother’s office.

“His managing clerk thought it all most improper,” she said. “Clients who look for their own law are not encouraged.”

“Quite rightly. The proper place to look for law is in barrister’s chambers, and on payment of a suitable fee. I expect he was wondering how he could make the service he was doing you into an appropriate item on the bill of costs. By the way, you didn’t go up to your brother’s office simply to find a case to floor me with, I hope?”

She shook her head.

“M’m. It was the Markhampton affair, I suppose?”

“You were in the car, too, weren’t you?”

“Yes. Unfortunately I was.”

“Do you know that it was Sebald-Smith?”

The Sebald-Smith?” Pettigrew pursed his lips for a soundless whistle. “This is likely to be a nuisance. . . . His little finger may well prove thicker than another man’s loins. First Book of Kings, Marshal---you’ll hardly have time to reach that before the end of the circuit. Unless you skip the genealogies, of course. Personally, I always find them most entertaining, but I fancy I am in a minority in that respect. Haven’t I met him at your house, by the way?”

“Possibly. I rather lost touch with him since my marriage, but I fancy someone brought him to a cocktail party once.”

“No doubt. Sally Parsons is an old friend of yours, isn’t she?”

“I haven’t seen anything of her for some time,” said Hilda in a manner that indicated that the friendship was decidedly a thing of the past. “Was she----?”

“She is,” said Pettigrew firmly. “After much striving she has reached a position where you could hardly ask her to a party without receiving Sebald as well, and vice versa. A dull relationship, one would have thought---all the tedium of marriage without its respectability, but it appeals to some temperaments, and Sally, as you are no doubt aware, has several.”

“Disgusting!” said her ladyship. “And to think that she and I----”

“Much better not think of it. It is a sordid subject, and I don’t know how I came to introduce it. Moreover, we are shocking the Marshal. To return to the matter we were discussing, I’m afraid this may be rather serious.”

He looked round the table.

“I know,” she said, answering his unspoken thought. “We oughtn’t to be giving dinner-parties with this sort of thing hanging over us, ought we? And this is the fourth I’ve had this assize. It’s time I turned over a new leaf.”

“Economy is the very devil when you’re not used to it,” he said. “I should hate to see you starting.”

“I started the day William became a judge.”

Pettigrew made a wry little face.

“I meant---economy,” he said drily, “after all, even Becky Sharp didn’t ask for more than a judge’s salary. Do you read Thackeray, Marshal?”

“Yes,” said Derek, and wished immediately that he had had the assurance to say “Of course”.

“But values have changed since then, haven’t they?” he added. “Not to mention taxation.”

“And ‘even Becky Sharp’ was not fair, Frank,” her ladyship murmured.

“You are both right. They have and it was not. I spoke at random, as usual. At all events, I am relieved to find that you have decided to postpone economizing for to-night. This, for example!”

He indicated the other side of the round table, where Savage was ceremoniously handing to the Judge the still virgin box of Bechamel chocolates.

“Not an extravagance of mine,” Hilda protested. “A gift from an unknown admirer.”

The Judge, with a sigh of pleasure long-deferred, popped one of the round little sweetmeats into his mouth and began to suck vigorously. Savage moved round the table to Hilda, who also took one. The two elder men refused. Derek was just stretching his hand out to help himself from the box when there was a sudden disturbance at his side.

“Stop!” screamed Lady Barber at the top of her voice. “There’s something---something wrong with these----”

In her hand was one half of the chocolate, its hard core bitten clean through by her even, powerful teeth. The other half lay on the table before her, where she had spat it out. She had risen from her seat, and stood there for a moment, very pale, her free hand clutching her throat, while the four men sat gaping at her in motionless astonishment. Before anyone could move, she had leapt, rather than run, round the table to where her husband was sitting, inserted her finger into his mouth, like a nurse whose charge has swallowed an inedible toy, and neatly fished out the chocolate from between his jaws.

The Judge was the first to break the silence.

“My dear Hilda,” he said, contemplating the diminished brown sphere on his plate, “you need hardly have done that. I should have spat it out in any case.”

Hilda said nothing. She grabbed the glass of water which Pettigrew had ready for her, drank it off, collapsed on the nearest chair and burst abruptly into tears.


There was, after all, no bridge after dinner that night.

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