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12: Someone has Talked

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Author Topic: 12: Someone has Talked  (Read 36 times)
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« on: April 28, 2023, 10:51:09 am »

SHEILA Bartram was tall and fair, with large, rather protuberant, grey eyes and a pale complexion which some would have classified as anaemic but which others found “interesting”. She was nineteen and was occupied in trying to qualify as a Red Cross nurse. Her father was the managing director of an important manufacturing firm and spent most of his time travelling about the country from one branch to another superintending its different Government contracts. Sheila and her mother meanwhile had been evacuated from London to the house of an aunt in the neighbourhood. All this, and a great deal more Derek learned within the first half hour of their acquaintance. He had been with difficulty induced to drive his mother over to the next village for a committee meeting which was to deal with comforts for the forces, he had been left hanging about for most of the morning and had there encountered Sheila, who was in much the same case. Before either of them knew what had happened, the morning’s boredom had become an enchantment, and Derek drove his mother home and Sheila returned to her hospital, each in a condition utterly besotted, entirely natural but completely inexplicable, to be envied or pitied by the rest of the world according to the rest of the world’s taste or experience.

That was on a Saturday. Derek was due to rejoin the Judge at the station on Monday afternoon when the circuit would resume its travels. He contrived to spend almost the whole of Sunday in Sheila’s company and the hours when he was not actually with her in meditating on her perfection and marvelling at his good fortune in meeting her. How Sheila spent the same hours can only be judged by her surprising and disastrous failure to pass her examination a few days later. On Monday, after a leave-taking as intense in its affection as if Derek had been en route for the Western Front, the lover reluctantly returned to London.

Seeing Hilda, elegant and slim, chatting to an obsequious guard at the door of the reserved carriage, Derek felt a slight but unmistakable qualm. It was a qualm which he instantly suppressed, but the memory of it lingered, and with the memory a faint sense of guilt. For in the state of mind in which he then was (if indeed his mind could be said to have anything to do with his condition) it was inevitable that the sight of Hilda, or any other woman, necessarily provoked a comparison with his adored. And the first fruits of comparison, in this instance, were something very near to disloyalty to Sheila---or rather, to the idea of Sheila which he had been occupied in building up during the last two days. He had forgotten quite how attractive Hilda was. Of course, she was a much older woman---positively elderly, in fact. There was no true comparison possible. At the same time, judged by the touchstone of Hilda’s poise and tact, her cool assurance in any surroundings, was there not something a little too naïve about Sheila, was not her delightful ingenuousness just the least bit lacking in savour?

The suspicion disappeared almost as soon as it had arisen and long before Derek’s conscious mind had acknowledged its existence. Five minutes later he would have conscientiously taken his oath that it had never been. But its passage was not after all without its effect. Deeply embedded beyond the reach of memory it remained thenceforth as a minute source of irritation, while over it the compensating forces of imagination laid layer after layer of glamorous fancy, producing in the end a pearl of inhuman perfection---an ideal Sheila, whom the flesh and blood article would in time discover to be her most dangerous competitor.


Meanwhile, the source of all this disturbance was not without troubles of her own. If to Derek’s eyes she appeared at this moment calm and serene, it was a greater tribute to her self control than he imagined. She had, indeed, spent an agitating weekend. She had returned home from her club, feeling a good deal more reassured by the placid stolidity of Mallett than she had thought fit to acknowledge at the time, only to find the Judge, just back from the Athenæum, sunk in utter dejection. A letter from his brother-in-law, in which he expressed the gloomiest views on the prospect of negotiations with Sebald-Smith’s solicitors, was open before him; but he soon made it clear that this, though serious enough, was the least of his anxieties. What really preyed upon his mind was an incident which had occurred that afternoon within the quiet precincts of the club itself. Over the tea-cups, he had been engaged in conversation by a brother Judge, Barber’s senior by several years, a man whose immense fund of learning he openly admired and whose caustic tongue he secretly feared. In the course of a few casual words, which to any third party would have conveyed nothing beyond a friendly interest in the doings of the Southern Circuit, the hapless Barber had been given quite clearly to understand that the speaker was perfectly familiar with all that had passed at Markhampton. Having instilled the poison in the mild and paternal manner for which he was famous, the torturer had callously lighted a cigar and departed, leaving behind him an infuriated and badly frightened man.

“Someone has talked!” Barber groaned, as he recounted this to his wife. “After all our precautions, someone has talked!”

“Well, that seems obvious,” said Hilda, rapidly making up her mind that an air of brisk efficiency on her part would be the best antidote to her husband’s collapsed condition. “After all, that was to be expected, wasn’t it? Things like this are certain to get round sooner or later.”

“Who could it have been?” Barber went on. “I could have sworn that that boy was reliable. And Pettigrew went out of his way to insist on his anxiety to keep the thing quiet. . . . Of course, the police officer was very young and inexperienced, but still. . . . You don’t think Pettigrew could have let me down, do you, Hilda? After all, we are such old friends. . . .”

Hilda’s lips tightened.

“No,” she said. “I don’t think he would have let you down. In my opinion since the affair has come out, it doesn’t seem to me to matter in the least who was responsible for it. But if it is of any interest to you, William, I should have thought the answer was fairly obvious.”

The Judge looked at her in surprise.

“You seem entirely to have forgotten that there are two parties to an accident,” she said impatiently. “And of the two, it is the person who is knocked over and his friends who are the most likely to do the talking. Sally Parsons has a pretty large acquaintance and I have no doubt that she has let them all know about it.”

Barber threw up his hands in despair.

“It will be all over the Temple by now,” he moaned. “All over the Temple!”

“William! You must really pull yourself together! If it is all over the Temple, what substantial difference is it going to make? You can be quite certain that if this can be settled without an action, it will never get into the papers, and that is the only thing that matters. Really, you are behaving like a child!”

Under her chiding, Barber recovered some of his dignity.

“There are things that matter quite as much to a man in my position as an open accusation in the newspapers,” he said. “Don’t you understand, Hilda, what an intolerable situation it will be for me, with this thing a subject of common gossip among my brother judges? How far it has gone yet I don’t know, but at any moment now I may have the Lord Chief Justice sending for me and suggesting----”

“Suggesting what?”

“Suggesting that I should resign.”

“Resign?” said Hilda in spirited tones. “Nonsense! He can’t make you resign. Nobody can. Nothing can.”

“Except a resolution by both Houses of Parliament.”

“Well, there you are.”

But the Judge refused to be comforted.

“I could never face that,” he said. “It would only want a question in the House to make my position untenable. And not only myself, but the whole judiciary would suffer. . . .”

He shuddered at the prospect.

“All that this amounts to,” said Hilda crisply, “is that we have got to settle Sebald-Smith’s action, and we knew that already. Once that is out of the way, neither the Lord Chief Justice nor anybody else will want to rake up any scandal. And people’s memories are very short for this kind of thing, as you know yourself---particularly now they have the war to think about. Let me have a look at Michael’s letter.”

The letter was certainly not calculated to give any comfort. The injured man’s solicitors, it reported, were not showing any signs of abating their demands. A letter from them demanding an early reply was enclosed. A consultation had been held between medical men nominated by both sides, and the report submitted by the doctor who had examined the patient on the Judge’s behalf was, if anything, worse than had been feared. Besides the amputation of the little finger, there was present damage to the muscles of the hand which would for the time being seriously restrict its use and might prove permanent. In any event, remedial treatment would be prolonged and expensive. An opinion from a distinguished musician had reinforced the plaintiff’s contention that the absence of one finger would almost certainly reduce his earning powers as a pianist to zero. There was more to the same effect. The letter concluded by asking for instructions.

Hilda put down the letter with a sinking heart. She stood up and smoked a cigarette half through before coming to a decision. Then she said:

“I think I shall have to go and see him.”

“Perhaps that would be best,” her husband replied. “But in view of his letter I am afraid that there is little more that he can do for us.”

“Who? Michael? I didn’t mean him, though I shall probably see him in any case. I mean to go and see Sebald-Smith.”

“Hilda! You are not serious?”

“Of course I am serious.”

“But it is out of the question. You---you can’t do a thing like that.”

“Why not?”

“Why, to begin with, you know as well as I do that when matters have passed into the hands of legal advisers it is most improper for a party to the case to go behind their backs and----”

“I don’t care what the proprieties are. Something must be done and this seems to me the only thing to do. And if you insist upon technicalities, I am not a party to the case.”

“Hilda, I implore you to think twice about what you are doing. An intervention of this kind can do no good---may, indeed, do irreparable harm. What do you imagine would be the reaction of a complete stranger----”

“He’s not a complete stranger.”

“I grant you that he has been to this house once or twice though I personally was unaware of the fact, but for all practical purposes he is a stranger.”

“I used to know Sebald-Smith pretty well,” said Hilda slowly. “In fact, at one time, very well indeed.”

The Judge looked at her in surprise, a shocked suspicion dawning in his face.

“Oh, no! Not as well as all that!” Hilda protested with a laugh, and kissed the top of his head. Then she sat down on a footstool beside his arm-chair and said coaxingly, “So we can consider that settled, shall we?”

“If you go,” the Judge protested feebly, “it is entirely without my sanction.”

“And you can repudiate me if necessary. Very well, that will have to do. Now the next point to settle is, what terms can we offer him?”

From this point on the tone of the discussion degenerated, as the tone of discussions is apt to do when money becomes their subject. From a consideration of the Judge’s present financial position it passed to the grisly subject of possible economies in the future. Hilda was unexpectedly resigned on this point where her personal expenditure was concerned, though pertinacious in what her husband thought unreasonable demands as to his own. But the colloquy became positively acrimonious, and Hilda increasingly vocal, when it drifted, as it did inevitably, to the utterly sterile region of the past. What had become of the huge fees which he had earned in his last years at the Bar, when income-tax and surtax were less than they were to-day, and as nothing compared with what they might be to-morrow? Hilda, her nerves unstrung by an agitating afternoon, lost her usual self-control when she found old accusations of extravagance being raked up afresh. Instead of letting these pass, she began angrily to justify the cost of frocks worn out years ago and dinners long since digested. She became first indignant, then shrill in her self-defence. Every penny that she had spent had been to his honour and glory, had assisted in the furtherance of his career to which she had devoted---her astonished ears heard herself uttering the cliché---the best years of her life. Had it not been for her wise outlay, as he very well knew, he would never have been in the position he was now, a position which his criminal carelessness had put in jeopardy. And if it came to extravagance---Here it was Barber’s turn to repel an attack which, truth to say, was not very well-founded, for his own tastes had always been simple enough.

The injustice of it stung him to make some retorts which were in their turn wholly unjustified and brought the sorry scene to a climax with Hilda in floods of angry tears, the Judge stammering apologies and the original subject of debate wholly forgotten.

By next morning, peace had been restored, but the problem from which the dispute had developed was no nearer solution. If Sebald-Smith did not abate his demands, Barber was financially a ruined man. If the demands could not be met, and an action resulted, he was ruined not only financially but professionally. The only hope appeared to be that the plaintiff, or his advisers, would realize in time that it was not to his interest to push matters to extremities and that a judge of the High Court, drawing his salary and paying a reasonable sum by instalments, was a better debtor than a broken man without income or prospects. And, as Barber eventually agreed with reluctance, a direct approach by Hilda was perhaps the best chance of inducing him to see reason.

Hilda put her plan into execution without delay; but she met with a check at once. Sebald-Smith, she had ascertained, was staying at his country cottage, and she put a telephone call through that day. But she did not speak to Sebald-Smith. The voice that answered the call was the voice of Sally Parsons, and Hilda put down the receiver at once without disclosing who she was. Not for anything would she speak to, or risk a meeting with, that woman. The memory of certain social snubs which she had had occasion to administer to her came clearly to her mind---and she could be perfectly certain that Sally Parsons had not forgotten them either. The thought made her shiver slightly. If the attitude of Sebald-Smith, as reflected in his solicitor’s letters, was a vindictive one, was her influence the cause? But all was not lost. If she could but get at him alone, she might displace that influence long enough to snatch a victory. His cottage was close to Rampleford, the next town on the circuit, and Sally Parsons could never bear the country for more than a day or two at a time. She would surely be able to find an opportunity to slip over there---that is, if it were safe to leave the Judge unprotected. . . .

The recollection of the other dark and more mysterious danger that threatened them returned with added force for having been temporarily forgotten. She threw it off with an effort, and went back to the telephone. This time she spoke to her brother’s office and made an appointment to see him on Monday morning.


Michael was younger than his sister, though he looked several years older. Like her, he was short and dark, but unlike her, he had allowed himself to run to fat. He had a subtle, intelligent mind and was capable of great charm and tact, which he knew how to vary from time to time with brutal frankness. On this occasion, he chose to be frank.

“Your worthy husband is on a spot, Hilda,” he said. “They’ve got us by the short hairs and they know it.”

“You needn’t show quite so much relish about it,” his sister complained. “Even if you don’t like William.”

Michael let the remark pass without comment.

“Something has got to be done, you know,” he said. “People are beginning to gossip already.”

“I know.”

“Well, what does he propose to do about it?”

“I propose to go and have a talk to Sebald-Smith,” Hilda replied, with a slight emphasis on the pronoun.

“The direct approach, eh? I expect that shocks him a bit, but I’m not sure it’s not the best thing to do. When will that be?”

“In the next few days. I hope.”

“There’s not much time to lose. Meanwhile, this last letter of theirs has to be answered. Otherwise they are quite capable of issuing a writ straight away.”

“I’ve thought of that,” said Hilda. “I think the best thing to do will be simply to tell them that the Judge is on circuit and that you will communicate with them as soon as you can get instructions.”

“Well, let’s hope that will keep them quiet for a bit. Luckily they’re a fairly sleepy firm and may not tumble to the fact that he’s had some days off in which he could have given all the instructions he liked. In fact, it’s damned lucky for us that they aren’t really wide awake. If I’d been handling this case for the other side, I’d have dropped a few hints into the ear of the Markhampton Police.”


“Why? I’d have only had to suggest that they were suppressing proceedings for an undoubted breach of the law and they’d have been compelled to prosecute. That would have turned the screw with a vengeance. Mind you, they may do it yet. There’s always a risk.”

“Let me see,” said Hilda. “Under the Act, proceedings for dangerous driving have to be begun within fourteen days, unless there is a warning at the time that they are being contemplated---and in this case there wasn’t. So we’re safe so far as that goes, anyway. It is still open to them to prosecute for driving an uninsured car, though. They have six months for that, and more in some circumstances.”

Michael grinned.

“Good old Hilda,” he said. “You always were the best lawyer of any of us. I’d quite forgotten that, and I should have had to look it up to make sure, anyway. But I’ll accept it from you.”

“I think you can,” said Hilda primly. “Limitation of actions was always a subject that interested me and I made particular study of it.”

“You would. What an inhuman brute you always were, Hilda.”

“I don’t see that there is anything inhuman about being a lawyer.”

“There is---for a woman, at all events. Tell me, was that what you married William for---so as to become a successful lawyer by proxy?”

“Are you always as rude as that to your clients, Michael?”

“Good Lord! Of course not!”

“Well, I am consulting you as a solicitor at this moment, and that’s not a question I should expect my solicitor to ask unless I was wanting a divorce, which I am not.”

“You win,” said Michael good humouredly. “Well, I’ll do my best for you, and for William. I’ll send a letter on the lines you suggest, and meanwhile you will let me know if you have any luck with Sebald-Smith. God bless you.”


Hilda caught Derek’s eye as he advanced along the platform and waved to him with a smile. Her black eye was by now completely cured, or at all events masked under an efficient make-up. She was looking as carefree and sure of herself as a woman of good looks and assured position has a right to be. A moment later, Derek climbed into the carriage and was greeted with a handshake that was the least trifle more warm than politeness demanded---sufficiently so to remind him of the friendly conspiracy that had been sealed between them, and no more. Five minutes later, the plain clothes man on the platform turned upon his heel as the train steamed out, bearing the strangely assorted group of human beings who composed the Judge’s party, and with them a yet stranger medley of hopes and fears, ambitions and anxieties.

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