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8: On to Wimblingham

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Author Topic: 8: On to Wimblingham  (Read 66 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 04:19:07 am »

“SO all it amounts to is this,” said the Judge placidly as he drank his tea that evening. “Somebody has chosen to play a rather ill-natured practical joke on me. Somebody else has written me a couple of abusive anonymous letters. Yet a third somebody who---who may be taken to have a grudge against me---is at large. There is not the slightest reason to suspect that any of these three facts are in any way connected. None of them, either separately or taken together, need cause the slightest alarm. I don’t propose to take any notice of them.”

“I think you are wrong, William,” said his wife firmly.

“My dear, I have thought this matter over very carefully since Flack’s exposition this morning---I know you are inclined to belittle him, but he is a sound person and I believe he knows what he is talking about---I have, I say, thought it over carefully----”

“I could see that you were thinking about something on the bench this afternoon,” said Hilda tartly, “and I wondered what it was. But so far as I am concerned it is not a matter of thinking. I know that all these things are not mere coincidences. It is no good arguing about it. My instinct tells me----”

“Instinct!” The Judge threw up his hands in polite mockery.

“Instinct,” she repeated firmly. “I feel instinctively that from the very beginning of this circuit there has been an atmosphere of danger threatening you, and I think we ought to do something to combat it.”

“It’s very difficult to combat an atmosphere, I should think,” Barber answered. “My own instinct, if that is the right word, leads me to precisely the opposite conclusion. I believe that the circuit from now on will be perfectly peaceful and normal---unless, of course, these air attacks people talk about so much do develop, which I don’t believe they will. Marshal, another cup of tea, if you please.”

Derek poured out the cup, and took the occasion to suggest that the question might be left open for a little longer.

“We are going to Wimblingham to-morrow,” he said. “So far, there has been a suspicious incident at each of two places. If anything happens at a third, then I think we can be fairly sure that it’s not a coincidence.”

The Judge was loud in his approval of the suggestion.

“By all means let us suspend judgment,” he said. “And if I rejoin you after Wimblingham safe and sound we shall hope that this spell of ill luck---as I regard it---is broken.”

“Very well,” said Hilda. “But there is no question of rejoining you. I am coming on with you to Wimblingham.”

Barber showed an astonishment which Derek did not at first understand.

“You are coming to Wimblingham?” he said. “Surely you are not serious, Hilda. Surely you know that no judge’s wife ever comes there.”

“I am coming to Wimblingham,” she repeated. “And to every other town on the circuit. I feel that it is my duty to look after you.”

“I am flattered at your concern for my safety,” said her husband, “but I don’t think you realize what you are letting yourself in for. The Lodgings there are really----”

“The Lodgings are lousy,” said her ladyship tersely. “That is notorious. None the less, I prefer to put up with a little discomfort to taking any risks where your safety is concerned.”

Barber shrugged his shoulders.

“Very well,” he said, “since you insist. But don’t say you haven’t been warned. Mercifully, we shall only be there for a very short time. Feeling as I do that there is nothing whatever behind these different occurrences, I am only sorry that you should disarrange your plans for nothing.”

“There are no plans to disarrange. It isn’t as if there were any entertaining in London worth speaking of just now. I had intended to go to see Michael again, but that can wait. Which reminds me, I have had a letter from him, which I must discuss with you some time.”

The hint was too broad to be disregarded, and Derek tactfully left the room shortly afterwards.

Hilda followed the Marshal’s progress out of the room with her eyes, and as soon as he had gone produced a letter from her bag.

“Michael has heard from Sebald-Smith’s people,” she said.

“Yes?”

“He’s asking for fifteen thousand pounds.”

“Fifteen thousand!” The Judge started so violently that he almost fell from his chair. “But this is preposterous!”

“Obviously. The argument is, apparently, that he is maimed for life, and that his career as a pianist is at an end. Of course, Sebald’s fees of recent years have been----”

“I dare say. But fifteen thousand----!”

“I shall write to Michael, of course, and tell him that it is out of all reason. He wants to know what counter offer we should suggest.”

Barber rubbed the top of his head in perplexity.

“It’s a very difficult situation,” he said.

“I know it is, but saying so doesn’t take us much further.” Then, as he remained in a dejected silence, she went on impatiently, “After all, William, you must have often had to advise clients in cases like this. Try and think of it as a case brought to you for an opinion. What would you advise?”

The Judge shook his head mournfully.

“It’s no good,” he groaned. “There has never been a case like this---never!”

“Every litigant thinks that about his own troubles. I’ve often heard you say so.”

“And that is perfectly true. But this case is different. After all, Hilda, I am a High Court Judge.”

“I’ve heard you say, too,” she went on, pursuing her own line of thought, “that nobody is competent to advise in his own case. Why shouldn’t you get advice---from one of the other judges, for instance?”

“No, no!” Barber almost shouted. “Don’t you understand, Hilda, that if once this matter becomes known I am lost? That is why this wretched pianist has me at his mercy. He knows that I can’t possibly afford to fight the claim, and he can fix the damages at any figure he pleases. The long and the short of it is that if he can’t be got to see reason, we are ruined.”

“Then he must be made to see reason,” Hilda answered. She tried hard to imagine how Sebastian Sebald-Smith would react to the present situation. She had known him well enough once, but had never had to consider him as a prospective litigant. For an artist, she believed him to be a reasonable man, and that was something. Then her mind went to Sally Parsons, that most unreasonable woman, and her heart misgave her. But she went on bravely, “Obviously this is only a bargaining figure. Even Sebald-Smith’s earnings must be comparatively small during the war. Suppose we can beat him down to five thousand—a year’s income——”

“Two years at least, with taxation at its present level, and it is certain to go higher.”

“Well, two years if you like. We could arrange payment by instalments and”---her voice faltered---“live very simply. . . .”

The Judge shook his head.

“You don’t appreciate the position, Hilda,” he said. “The moment that anything of this becomes public property, I shall be forced to resign. There will be no question of two years’ income or one. Sebald-Smith has only to issue a writ to make my position intolerable. And,” he added, “I have not earned my pension by ten years.”

“They gave Battersby a pension, though he had only been on the bench four years,” Hilda remarked.

“That was a different case. Battersby resigned merely because his health broke down.”

“Why shouldn’t you resign for ill health too? After all, you had some nasty colds last winter and I’m sure Dr. Fairmile would say anything if I asked him to.”

“Really, Hilda! Have you no conscience?”

“Of course not, where this is concerned. And I shan’t allow you to have one either. William, I think I have found the solution. I shall write to Fairmile to-morrow. It will be a hideous strain trying to live on the pension, but it will be better than nothing, and after a decent interval to get better I dare say you could get some war work, or sit as Chairman of Commissions and things. Once you are safely resigned we can bargain with Sebald-Smith on more or less equal terms. If he does get a judgment against you, he can’t attach the pension, can he? I must look it up when I get home.”

At this point Hilda became aware that her husband had been saying something several times over, which she had been too engrossed in her theme to attend to. As she paused to take breath he seized the opportunity to repeat it yet again.

“Stop!” said the Judge. “Stop, stop, stop!

“What is the matter?”

“The matter is that your scheme is hopelessly unpractical, besides being flagrantly dishonest. Even if Fairmile were prepared to jeopardize his professional reputation by assisting in such a fraud, I am quite certain that the Treasury would not sanction the payment of a pension that had not been earned at such a time as this. It would immediately put everyone on inquiry. There would be questions asked in the House.” Never having been a Member of Parliament, Barber was nervously sensitive to questions asked in the House. “And in any case,” he added, “you may take it that I could not possibly be a party to such a scheme.”

“Really,” said Hilda, “you are most depressing. I cannot understand you, William. You make light of all these determined attempts on your life, but when it is a question of money you collapse entirely.”

“That is because I see things in their proper perspective,” the Judge replied. “I do not believe that there have been any attempts on my life, determined or otherwise. But this is serious, and I confess that I am perturbed at it---gravely perturbed.”

And he gloomily went upstairs to dress for dinner.

---

Derek wondered why, when that evening he happened to mention to Greene that Lady Barber was coming to Wimblingham, the latter greeted the news with such obvious disfavour. He said nothing, it was true---it was hardly to be expected that he would---but his look was eloquent of disapproval, in which seemed blended a quite personal distress at the prospect. To probe the matter further, he tested the reactions of Savage to the same question, and found that normally gloomy individual positively sepulchral when the subject was touched upon. Beamish, however, without being approached, brought enlightenment. Rather to Derek’s embarrassment Beamish had elected to make something of a confidant of the Marshal. He seemed to regard him in the nature of a go-between, through whom his views could at need be discreetly conveyed to higher authority, and nothing that Derek could say or do could persuade him that he was not prepared to take his side in any domestic row that might be going. On this particular evening he buttonholed Derek when he was on his way to bed, drew him into the comfortable little sitting-room which he occupied on the ground floor, and settled down to a chat.

“So we’re leaving Southington to-morrow, Marshal,” he began. “I dessay you’ll not be sorry to go either. I can’t say I care much for the place myself, for all the Under Sheriff is quite a decent gentleman. But things haven’t been too easy on the domestic side here, as you are aware. And I was looking forward to a little peace and quiet at Wimblingham.”

Derek said nothing. Beamish smoked a pipe in short angry puffs for a moment or two. Obviously he was nursing a grievance, and presently it burst out.

“And now her ladyship’s coming to Wimblingham!” he exclaimed. “Well, I wish her joy of it, Marshal, that is all—I wish her joy of it. Do you know, sir, that no judge’s lady has stayed at Wimblingham since nineteen nought twelve? Except Lady Fosbery, and she, of course, doesn’t count.”

Derek was torn between a desire to find out why Mr. Justice Fosbery’s wife did not count and a feeling that it was time that he attempted the difficult task of putting Beamish in his place. Pride won by a short head.

“Really, Beamish,” he said, “you can hardly expect me to discuss Lady Barber’s decision with you.”

“I am not discussing her ladyship,” Beamish answered with some hauteur. “I am discussing the Lodgings at Wimblingham. And that’s a matter that concerns us all, as you will discover to your cost. What I say is, it’s not fair to the Marshal or the Judge’s Clerk, let alone the domestic staff, for a judge’s lady to foist herself on those Lodgings.”

“I understand that they are very uncomfortable,” said Derek, “but I still don’t see why----”

“You heard her ladyship say that they were lousy,” Beamish interrupted, “and we will let that word pass for want of a better. That’s not the point---at least not the whole of the point, if you follow me. What you don’t realize, Mr. Marshall, is this: there are only two decent bedrooms in those Lodgings, and one just passable.”

And then the whole mystery was made plain, and with it Beamish’s grievance, Savage’s gloom, and Greene’s mute despair. In a bachelor establishment, which had become the normal rule at Wimblingham, the larger of the two decent bedrooms was naturally appropriated to the use of the Judge. His Marshal occupied the other. The Clerk, next in the hierarchy, took the one which Beamish described as passable. The butler and marshal’s man made shift in the least unattractive of the remaining rooms. Now, with the advent of a lady who would have to be accommodated in one of the two best rooms, the rest of the household would be compelled to take a step down. Derek would oust Beamish from the second-class room, Beamish in turn would have to put up with what had been barely good enough for Savage, and finally Greene would be expelled by Savage to seek some nameless dog-kennel beneath the rafters, untenanted since nineteen nought twelve. Such are the penalties involved in departing from precedent in any matter affecting the administration of justice.

The Fosbery case, Derek also learned, did not in any way impair the chain of authority which was now to be so rashly broken. The simple reason was that this affectionate couple, though well-stricken in years, had never abandoned the habit of sharing the same bed. Lady Fosbery’s presence, therefore, made no difference to the billeting arrangements.

“Of course, they’re old-fashioned,” Beamish commented. “He doesn’t even ask for a dressing-room of his own. Why, they tell me. . . .”

He launched into details of a surprisingly intimate character. Derek, somewhat against his will, was so enthralled by these that he quite forgot for the time a question that had been puzzling him ever since Beamish began his exposition.

He remembered it again just as he was getting into bed. How did Beamish know that Lady Barber had called the Lodgings “lousy”?

Nothing could be higher testimony to the power of local government in England than the accommodation provided for His Majesty’s Judges in the county town of Wimbleshire. In the Lodgings there, as in all similar establishments on the circuit, a book was provided in which each visiting judge inscribed his name and was invited to add such comments as to him seemed fit upon the hospitality afforded. For upwards of thirty years judges had availed themselves of the invitation, and without exception their comments had been to the same effect. Ranging from querulous protest through bitter sarcasm to straightforward abuse, the entries made an interesting contribution to the literature of ill temper. Yet, throughout thirty years the county authorities of Wimbleshire, through sheer British determination, had succeeded in resisting the clamant demands of their exalted guests. In the spirit which had inspired the Wimbleshire Fencibles to stand fast against the Old Guard in their squares at Waterloo, they had withstood the massed assault of almost the entire strength of the King’s Bench Division of the Supreme Court of Judicature. In 1938, however, their resistance seemed at an end. Authority launched its ultimate irresistible attack, and the fiat went forth that unless new accommodation for His Majesty’s Judges was made available, Wimblingham should cease to be an assize town. Its ancient rank and dignity should be taken away and transferred to its hated rival, the upstart borough of Podchester. Sullenly, the County Councillors prepared to surrender. After one long last glorious debate in the Council Chamber they accepted the enemy’s terms. At enormous cost a site was bought and cleared, plans were prepared by the most expensive architect who could be found, and already the foundations of the new building had been laid when, for the second time in history, the Prussians arrived upon the stricken field and the tide of battle turned once more. For the duration of the war, at least, the Lodging’s book of Wimblingham was saved for a few more pages of vituperation.

That the authorities of Wimbleshire had been able to carry out their successful defence so long was largely due to the fact that the Lodgings did not constitute a separate building but formed part of a large block which held also the Council Chamber itself and the Court in which the Assizes were held. It was a picturesque pile. Resting on foundations reputed to be Roman, and with stonework in its walls that was unquestionably Norman, it had been remodelled and patched by different hands to suit the tastes and needs of succeeding generations until, in the late seventeenth century, somebody, whom local tradition firmly but incorrectly declared to be Wren, masked the congeries of buildings with the charming façade which now fronts the central square of the town. After that beyond the provision of a little early Victorian plumbing, no further structural alterations were ever made, and behind the orderly Renaissance screen a labyrinth of passages and staircases gave access to offices, chambers, and halls, amongst them the suite of rooms which had been the subject of so many indignant memoranda.

Derek prided himself on being able to rough it when necessary, but he gave a gasp of dismay when Greene opened the door of his room and with mute eloquence displayed what lay beyond. It was a gaunt, cold apartment, far too high for its size. It was illuminated by a dormer window out of which Derek, by standing on his toes, was just able to verify the fact that the metallic clamour which filled the room proceeded from the municipal tram terminus immediately beneath. The ceiling showed ominous stains of damp and the sagging wire mattress of the bed uttered a tired protesting creak when Derek incautiously tried it with his hand. Remembering that this was the room that Beamish had described as “passable”, he shivered as he thought of the descending degrees of discomfort to which the staff would be subjected.

Leaving the room, Derek duly fell down the two steps outside the door into the dark corridor beyond. He recovered himself and picked his way down three or four further steps into a broader passage, out of which the main rooms of the lodgings opened. This passage apparently served other uses as well. The first door that he tried led him straight into the public gallery of the Court, the second into what had once been the Grand Jury room and was now apparently a depository for babies’ respirators. Finally, guided by the sound of voices, he reached the drawing-room. Here, in a decor that had changed little since it was originally ordered in the year of the Great Exhibition, he found Lady Barber, in surprisingly high spirits.

“Isn’t this too exquisitely foul?” she said. “William and I have been trying to concoct something really stinging to put in the book. I’m sure there are rats in my room. I feel that I’m the bravest woman in England, venturing where no judge’s wife has ever dared before.”

“Except Lady Fosbery,” said Derek. He repeated the gist of what Beamish had told him and was rewarded with a burst of laughter in which the Judge, who looked depressed and out of sorts, joined rather grudgingly.

“Divine!” said Hilda. “I shall dine out on that story for months---I mean, I should if there were any dinner-parties left to go to. Talking of dinners, I don’t know what sort of food we shall get here. Mrs. Square says that the kitchen range is completely beyond control. Thank Heaven, the calendar here is very short, with no civil work, so a couple of nights will see us through. I expect you’ll be glad of a day or two’s rest from your duties before the next assize, won’t you, Mr. Marshall? It’s a mercy that next to nobody seems to commit any crimes in Wimbleshire.”

“It is a singular thing,” observed Barber, “but I have often observed that this county is comparatively free from serious crime.”

The event was to prove that there were exceptions to this rule.

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