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20: Touch and Go

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Author Topic: 20: Touch and Go  (Read 58 times)
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« on: April 29, 2023, 08:09:08 am »

ABOUT two months later, Derek Marshall was walking eastwards along the south side of the Strand. He was just opposite the Law Courts when he noticed Pettigrew crossing the road towards him, accompanied by his clerk. Pettigrew waved to him to stop and a moment later reached the pavement at his side.

It was the first time that they had met since the end of the autumn circuit, and each looked at the other as though to see how he had fared in an interval that was nearly as long as their previous acquaintance had been. Pettigrew was pleased by what he saw. Derek looked older, more assured. There were unfamiliar lines about his face that seemed to tell of long hours of hard work, but at the same time he looked decidedly happier than he had been dancing attendance on the Shaver. Derek, on his side, noticed that Pettigrew was looking extremely pleased with himself. There was a jauntiness in his gait which was matched by the demeanour of his clerk, who was grinning broadly beneath the burden of a large bundle of papers and half a dozen calf-bound books.

“Well,” he said after they had exchanged greetings, “and what are you up to now? To what fields have you carried your idealism?”

“I’ve got a job,” said Derek proudly.

“So much I gathered from your almost aggressive air of importance. What is it? Obviously you must be adorning some Ministry or other. I always knew that you were born to write ingenious little minutes on official files.”

“I’m in the Ministry of Contracts,” Derek explained.

“I breathe again. For a moment, I was afraid you were going to say the Ministry of Information. And what are you doing just at this moment?”

Derek explained that he had come out for lunch.

“The office is just round the corner,” he said. “And as I don’t know this part very well, I thought I would go and try the----”

He named an establishment which journalists are fond of referring to in print as “a celebrated hostelry” but which in practice they are careful to avoid.

“That place!” said Pettigrew in horror. “My dear fellow, it is obvious that you don’t know this part of London. It’s bogus, completely bogus! Even the Americans had begun to tumble to it before the war. No, I can’t allow that. You must celebrate the new job by lunching with me.”

“It’s very kind of you,” Derek began, “but----”

“I won’t listen to any objections. Do you always have to have hospitality forced on you in this way? Besides, this will be a double celebration. I too have my little triumphs, ephemeral though they be. This morning”, he said proudly, as he led the way beneath an ancient brick archway, “I’ve been upsetting Hilda.”

“Upsetting Hilda?”

“Precisely. In the Court of Appeal. Don’t tell me you have forgotten the great cause at Southington Assizes? Between you and me and this gatepost---which, by the way, is not Christopher Wren’s, as the guide-books will tell you, but James Gibb’s---Hilda’s judgment, as rendered by Father William, was perfectly sound, but I contrived to persuade their lordships otherwise. Here we are.”

Derek had never been in the Temple before. He gaped like any tourist at the mellow, placid Courts, ghost-haunted by the illustrious dead, which next year were to vanish into ugly heaps of charred timber and brickdust. After a lunch eaten beneath the famous carved rafters of Outer Temple Hall, he fell in with Pettigrew’s suggestion of a digestive stroll twice round the as yet inviolate garden, which sloped down towards the river. The charm of his surroundings, his congenial company and the excellent meal combined to loosen his tongue, and before they had completed their first circuit he had confided to Pettigrew the reason why, apart from his new-found employment, he found life particularly good at the moment.

Pettigrew was ideally sympathetic.

“Engaged!” he exclaimed. “Engaged, as well as employed! You certainly don’t do things by halves. My congratulations! You must tell me all about her.”

This Derek, in halting tones but with suitable enthusiasm, proceeded to do.

“Splendid, splendid!” Pettigrew ejaculated at intervals as the portrait, admittedly imperfect, of a she-seraph gradually unfolded itself. “Splendid! All the same----” he stopped abruptly and looked narrowly at his companion. “I may be wrong, but you don’t look to me quite as cock-a-hoop as in the circumstances you should. Care sits upon that brow. Are the minutes at the Ministry really as troublesome as all that? Or can it be that there is a snag somewhere?”

Derek, at once annoyed at having given himself away and relieved at being able to share his anxieties, admitted that in truth a snag existed.

“It’s nothing to do with Sheila, really,” he hastened to explain. “It’s her father. You see, he’s in rather bad trouble. With the police.”

Pettigrew clicked his tongue sympathetically.

“That sort of thing doesn’t make matters easier with one’s own family,” he observed.

“No, of course not. Though Mother’s been awfully good about it. Anyhow, it’s not anything dishonest, or really bad like that. But he knocked a man down with his car----”

“Well, well! Even judges have been known to do that, as we know.”

“Yes. But this is worse in a way, because now the wretched man has died, and they are going to prosecute him for manslaughter.”

“Bad luck---very bad luck. But I shouldn’t let it worry you too much. There’s many a slip, you know. Any lawyer will tell you that the percentage of convictions for motor manslaughter is lower than for any other offence. Besides, juries in wartime don’t consider human life quite so important as in times of peace. And who shall blame them? Still, it’s an unfortunate business, and you have my sympathy. Which reminds me,” he went on, as though anxious to change the subject, “have you been approached to give evidence in the Markhampton affair?”

“Yes,” said Derek. “I had a letter from some people called Faraday something or other. I told them I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”

“A mistake. You’ll only be subpœnaed. Do as I did and give an identical statement to both sides. But mind you, the action won’t ever come into Court. It’ll have to be settled, pro bono publico.”

Derek flushed angrily.

“It’s all wrong,” he muttered.

“What is?”

“That Sheila’s father should be prosecuted, and that man get off scot free, just because----”

“My dear chap, we had all this out before, you remember! Don’t let your ideals run away with you, or Heaven knows what contracts you’ll be sanctioning at the Ministry. Besides, don’t forget this sort of thing cuts both ways. I shouldn’t mind betting that the Shaver is going through a worse time at this moment than your father-in-law elect. Let that comfort you. There are rumours floating round the Temple that---- But we’ll talk about that another time. I can see that you’re champing to get back to your files. And I ought to be in my Chambers. After this morning’s miracle, anything might happen. Even a new client calling with a brief wouldn’t surprise me.”

---

Pettigrew was right. The anxieties of an ordinary man expecting a charge even of a serious nature in the criminal courts probably seldom reach such acuteness as those with which Barber awaited the prospect of a civil action for negligence. The action indeed was not yet started. By one means or another, Hilda, to whom in his misery he had virtually surrendered the conduct of the affair, had so far succeeded in postponing the evil day. By proposal and counter-proposal, by every device of delay and temporization, she and her brother contrived to keep the matter hanging on from month to month. It was certainly a fine delaying action, fought out with skill and tenacity, but it could be no more than a delaying action. He knew only too well that the struggle could end in only one of two ways---either in a resounding scandal in the Courts, or in a settlement that would completely ruin him.

Since his return from circuit, the sequence of threats and misadventures which had followed him had abruptly ceased. Always indifferent to personal danger, he positively regretted the placidity of his life. Possibly it was with this in mind that he firmly insisted on the withdrawal of the two Scotland Yard men who for the first few weeks of the new term ostentatiously dogged his footsteps to and from the Law Courts. It made no difference. Nobody, it appeared, thought it worth while to threaten his life any more, and he continued, unhappy and unmolested, to carry out his judicial duties in a mood that grew ever more embittered and morose.

During this period, as the hard winter began to give place to the lovely, agonizing spring of 1940, he became acutely aware that by now his misfortune had become more and more generally known. Since his memorable encounter with his brother judge in the Athenæum, nothing whatever had been said in his hearing which remotely hinted at the affair, but with nerves made more sensitive than usual by unhappiness he could feel the knowledge of it ever present. He was conscious of embarrassment among his fellow Benchers at the Inn when he joined them at the High Table at lunch. He felt certain that the very ushers in his court looked at him in a peculiar way. His new clerk---and he had experienced unexpected difficulty in replacing Beamish---seemed to show less than the proper respect due to him, as though he knew that he had taken service on a sinking ship. And from time to time, as he made his way about the Temple, he had caught sight of Beamish himself, no doubt haunting the precincts in search of a job, and at the same time busily engaged in spreading the poison of gossip among his former associates.

Gossip, however widespread, takes some time to permeate to official quarters. Or possibly it may be that those who move in official quarters prefer not to notice gossip until it has been confirmed by discreet inquiry. For whatever cause, it was not until the last week of the law sittings that Barber knew that his fall from grace had passed beyond the stage of gossip to become a matter of concern to persons of high importance. He had long been aware that this was bound to occur sooner or later, but this did not in any way lessen the shock when a very exalted Judicial Personage sought him out and tactfully broached the question of his resignation.

The Personage was extremely considerate about it. He did his best to soften the blow. He referred several times to Barber’s health, which, indeed, had distinctly deteriorated under the strain to which he had been subjected during the past few months. At the same time, he made his meaning only too clear. A man in Barber’s position could not continue to be a judge. If this unhappy affair could be settled quickly and finally, well and good. The scandal might still be hushed up and forgotten before public confidence in the administration of justice was hopelessly shaken. But if an action should be commenced, or the matter allowed to leak into the press---well, the Personage could not answer for the consequences. On the whole, the Personage, who seemed surprisingly well informed, thought the chances of an immediate settlement very remote. Would not the best solution be to resign now, before the rot had time to spread further? Surely Barber must see that in the interests of the Bench as a whole, indeed of the whole fabric of British Justice. . . .

The hapless Shaver found himself pleading desperately for a reprieve. He could not resign now, in the middle of the legal year. To do so, he argued, would almost amount to a public confession of misconduct. It would provoke the very scandal which everyone was so anxious to avoid. Besides, he still had hopes of meeting his opponents half-way---indeed, he was sure that the matter would be settled amicably at quite an early date. In any case, he must have time to consider. . . .

The Personage continued to be considerate. He had, he protested, no desire to exercise any undue pressure on Barber. “Indeed,” he pointed out, “constitutionally I have no power to do so. At the same time. . . .” It boiled down to this. Subject to no writ being issued, when the position would obviously become immediately untenable, Barber might remain at his post until the end of the summer term. Unless by that time the Sebald-Smith affair was dead and buried beyond all chance of revival, then his resignation would be expected during the vacation following.

“They can’t make you resign!” Hilda’s defiant words came back to him as he made his way homewards. Couldn’t they? Perhaps not, if you were as tough and indomitable as Hilda. Not for the first time, as he dragged his weary feet up the steps of his house and let himself in at the front door, he wished he had her vitality, her indifference to anything but her own ambitions and well-being. In his heart he knew that they could. Of what avail were the constitutional safeguards, the Bill of Rights, the cherished inviolability of his position, against them, whose weapons were the irresistible pressure of public opinion, the unwritten laws by which he and his predecessors were governed and which they transgressed at their peril?

He ate a solitary dinner, wrapped in dejection which only increased as the evening wore on. Hilda, as it happened, was away for the night. She had gone down to the country to attend the wedding of her brother’s daughter, and at the same time, he suspected, to discuss with him once more plans for the appeasement of the implacable adversary. The house seemed cold and silent. Barber drank two glasses of port, looked at the decanter and decided that one more glass would about empty it and that it was not worth while preserving such a small quantity. He found that he had underestimated the remaining contents of the decanter by more than one half, but he finished it all the same. The effect of the drink was only to depress him still further. When it was finished, he sat long, staring into the mouldering embers in the grate, thinking of his future. What future was there for an ex-High Court Judge, retired under a cloud? When Sebald-Smith had taken his pound of flesh, how was he to live? The Personage had made it perfectly plain that at the present juncture it would be out of the question to ask the Treasury to sanction the payment of a pension after only five years’ service. Perhaps it would have been different if he had been popular, like poor old Battersby, and not merely a good judge. And he had been a good judge, he told himself in angry defiance, ten times as capable as Battersby had ever been. Nobody could deny that. And now, just because of a ridiculous accident that might happen to anybody, the whole of his career was to be shattered, and he could starve for all that anyone cared. The hypocrites! he thought angrily, apostrophizing the whole legal system, from the Personage down to the lowliest clerks in the Temple.

The spurt of anger died down, to be succeeded by a mood of yet deeper depression. “This is the end,” he told himself, over and over again. “This is the end.” He sat on over the remains of the fire, no longer thinking but simply enduring, his mind a blank to everything except the fact that his world had collapsed about him. And then, quite suddenly, he knew what he had to do.

---

At the last moment Hilda decided not to stay the night away after all. Subsequently she declared that it was her instinct which told her that she should be at home. Nobody could ever disprove this assertion, naturally, but it is possible to suppose that in this case instinct was reinforced by her strong dislike for one of the relations who had also been asked to stay and who had been given the best spare bedroom. Whatever the cause, she left her brother’s house immediately after dinner and caught the last train to London. She had some difficulty in finding a taxi at the station, and did not finally reach home until nearly midnight. To her surprise, the electric light was still burning in the drawing-room. Going in, she found her husband unconscious in his arm-chair. An empty glass was on the floor beside him and on a table near by were two letters in his handwriting. One was addressed to Hilda herself, the other to the coroner.

The doctor whom, after maddening delay, she was finally successful in summoning declared subsequently that without question Hilda’s promptitude and presence of mind alone saved her husband’s life. By the time that he arrived on the scene, everything that an unskilled person, fortified only by recollections of the First Aid Manual, could do had been done. It was touch and go. For half an hour she worked desperately at artificial respiration and was almost at the point of physical collapse when signs of life flickered back. Even in the reaction that followed the knowledge that victory had been gained she did not lose her head. Pale but calm, she assisted the doctor with all the steadiness of a professional nurse, and when all was over had sufficient control of herself to tell him a coherent and plausible story of how the affair must have occurred. Her husband, it appeared, had been sleeping badly. He had formed the habit of taking sleeping draughts. His shortsightedness had led him on more than one occasion to misread the directions on bottles of medicine. Obviously on this occasion he had taken an overdose by accident. Did not the doctor agree?

The doctor, more impressed than ever, agreed wholeheartedly. None the less, before he visited his convalescent patient next morning, he thought it his duty to report the matter at the local police station. He was an elderly practitioner, called out of retirement to take the place of younger men on war service, but he had his wits about him. And he had noticed out of the tail of his eye the letter to the coroner which Hilda had left on the drawing-room table.

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