Chapter 1 - The Principled Affair of the Compromised K.C. by A.J. Hall
A self-employed barrister must comply with the ‘Cab-rank rule’ and accordingly … he must in any field in which he professes to practise …
(a) accept any brief to appear before a Court in which he professes to practise;
(b) accept any instructions
(c) act for any person on whose behalf he is instructed;
and do so irrespective of
(i) the party on whose behalf he is instructed
(ii) the nature of the case and
(iii) any belief or opinion which he may have formed as to the character reputation cause conduct guilt or innocence of that person.
Bar Code of Conduct
As a lawyer, I can only say I have consistently refused to defend a blackmailer or to prosecute any poor devil who does away with his tormentor.
Sir Impey Biggs, K.C.
The liqueur brandy is undoubtedly the jewel in the crown of the Bar mess at -ssington, on the Northern circuit. Several of my professional brethren assert its charms are potent enough to soothe away even the multiple unpleasantnesses of the -ssington Assizes. The once-important market town is inconveniently situated at the end of a laborious train journey, requiring three changes, and its courts are a begrimed, mock-Palladian horror, draughty and ill-proportioned.
Even the brandy did little to lighten the mood that evening. I did my best, volunteering the story of the pawnbroker and the live duck, but the response was lukewarm, at best. I knew what the problem was. We all did. Sir Impey Biggs, half way down the long table in the private dining room of The Percy Arms, created an island of silence about him so absolute it infected all of the company. We broke up unusually early.
It came as a surprise to find Sir Impey just ahead of me at the cloakroom, retrieving his coat and bag. The Percy Arms is the only place the great London silks consider worthy of them on the rare occasion any of them accepts a brief at the -ssington Assizes. Struggling juniors like me, getting by on the meagre proceeds of an indecent exposure in the one-and-sixpenny seats of the Rialto cinema and a brace of driving-to-the-common-dangers, opt for the unpretentious Yorkshire hospitality of The Cross Guns, a seventeenth century inn on the far side of the Wool Cross. It had never occurred to me Sir Impey would be heading in the same direction. We fell into step besides one another, not speaking.
When we were on the very threshold of the inn I decided the silence was, after all, becoming rather absurd.
“You shouldn’t blame yourself,” I said. “After all, you kept the jury out for three hours. And the foreman made a very strong recommendation to mercy. Quite right, too. The murdered man was a rotten blackmailer, and the world’s better off without him. Even if there’s no appeal, your client has every hope of a Royal Pardon.”
“You think so?” Sir Impey’s mobile lips twisted. “I doubt it. Not after Counsel for the Prosecution brought my client’s letters into evidence. I thought men like that shot themselves. Isn’t His Majesty’s opinion on that point going to prove a bit of an obstacle to a Royal Pardon? Besides, now his secret’s out, what’s my poor devil of a client got to live for?”
I didn’t know Biggs at all well but there was something in the tone of his voice….
“How about a night-cap?” I suggested. For a moment I thought he was going to refuse. Then, unexpectedly, he nodded. We turned into the residents’ sitting room and I rang the bell for Mrs Longbottom, who came bustling through to take my order for two stiffish whiskies and soda.
“Good evening, gentlemen. I hadn’t expected you back so soon. I’ll make sure the girl has your beds warmed straight away.” She went to the door, shouting down the passage, “Gladys! Hot water bottles for rooms five and eight; look sharp!”
“Room eight? But isn’t that the -” I pulled myself up, abruptly.
“Haunted one?” he finished for me. Deeply mortified, I muttered something incoherent and took a long pull at the whisky.
Sir Impey smiled, sardonically. “I always have room eight, every time I stay here. Except for the first time. Then I had five, the one you’re in tonight. But that was before -” He paused.
“Before the War.”
I suspected he hadn’t intended to finish his sentence that way. I raised a questioning eye-brow and looked at him steadily, in silence. A shameless cross-examiner’s trick, intended to encourage an already rattled witness to rush to ill-considered speech to fill the void. Not something I honestly expected to work with one of the foremost K.C.s in the country. Sir Impey smiled, stretched out his hand, and rang the bell.
“Well, why not?” he said, half to himself. “No point in an early night; I’m not expecting to get much sleep, anyway.”
That I could well imagine. Losing a case rankles, however good a fight you put up. Meeting your client’s eyes after the jury returns the wrong verdict is one of the hardest things you have to do in our profession. But I’ve never defended a man on a capital charge. I have no idea how you confront a client when you’ve lost not merely their case, but their life.
Mrs Longbottom arrived. With a quiet word, Sir Impey persuaded her to leave us the decanter and soda siphon. As our landlady’s rotund form vanished through the door, he leaned forward, steepled those elegant hands, and began.
“You won’t remember Pettifer,” he said. “For years, he acted as general factotum to the courts here. He must have had some sort of formal title, but by the time I arrived on circuit he was just Pettifer: ‘Leave it to Pettifer’ or ‘Pettifer will fix it’ if we were being formal. He was one of those smooth blighters, who looked as if he did himself well – not stout, you understand, but well-covered – with very neatly cut silver-grey hair. In his spare time he grew roses and prize marrows.”
I nodded, visualising the type. “And what did you leave to him?”
Sir Impey winced. “More than we should. With the benefit of hindsight. Applications made just a little out of time – documents which didn’t quite comply with the rules – getting the judge to find time for your ex parte on a crowded Friday schedule – it became known that you only had to throw yourself on Pettifer’s mercy, cross his palm with silver, and somehow he would find a way out of your difficulties. Of course, our clerks and the solicitors had the most to do with him, so I’m not sure if any of us realised quite how many pies he managed to insert his fingers into.”
The edge to Sir Impey’s voice became more pronounced. “Ours being an adversarial system, once you start bending the rules in favour of one party, you bend them against the other. And – while nothing was ever put so crudely – one sensed Pettifer could arrange that directly, if one’s scruples could stand it. Oh, nothing sensational, nothing obvious and certainly nothing provable. But members of this circuit started to see Pettifer as our ancestors no doubt saw the old heathen gods, back when Christianity was just starting to take hold. We didn’t necessarily believe he had power to create or destroy, but we made sure to keep him propitiated, all the same.”
The gas light burnt low. Guests of The Cross Guns complain perpetually about the gas pressure, but nothing ever seems to be done. Doubtless the old inn’s persistent gloom contributes to the ghostly rumours. Sir Impey leaned forward to poke the fire, his aquiline face a Cubist composition of planes, hollows and angles in the flickering light.
“Back in those days, I always stayed at The Percy Arms. My clerk insisted. He said it didn’t matter how junior a man was; if he wanted solicitors to think he was first-class, he needed to stay at a first-class place.”
Perhaps my career would have profited from similar advice in my formative years. Fortunately, the gloom concealed my expression. In any event, Sir Impey seemed to be speaking more to himself than to me, his eyes remote, turned inwards.
“The summer of 1911 was the hottest I can ever remember. And – the most wonderful, too.” The timbre of his voice changed. “That year, for – particular reasons – I defied my clerk’s advice, and booked myself a room at The Cross Guns.”
Even if I hadn’t been professionally accustomed to decoding a story from scraps of evidence, “particular reasons” could have only one meaning in this context. A love affair, and a clandestine one, at that. Still, it surprised me. Despite his vast income and matinée-idol looks, I’d never heard of Sir Impey being romantically linked to any woman. Indeed, apart from his twin passions for the law and breeding prize canaries, he had the reputation of being a cold fish, presenting an impenetrable marble shield against the world of the emotions.
“The Percy Arms can be a bit of a zoo, especially during Assize,” I prompted, as the ensuing silence threatened to become excessively prolonged.
Sir Impey’s smile broke through like the sudden flash of sunlight after rain, up on the high moors.
“Indeed it can. Every man one knows – to say nothing of those one would rather one didn’t – rushing endlessly in and out of the place. No-one’s business private for a second. This place - proved everything I’d hoped for. The only other member of the Bar staying here was Johnston; a thoroughly decent, quiet chap, who’d done a science Tripos and practised mostly on the civil side, mainly for the big insurance companies. I’d seen him bring off a very pretty piece of cross-examination at York the previous year, demolishing some fat Bradford mill-owner whose warehouse happened to burn down a week before the Bank was due to foreclose. We didn’t interfere with each other. He spent the evenings holed up with his text-books and was usually gone before I surfaced in the mornings.”
Sir Impey refilled our glasses. “Johnston occupied room eight,” he added.
We must have been the only people still awake in the old inn; the creaks of the seventeenth-century timbers settling for the night and the crackling of the fire were the only audible sounds.
“Go on,” I said.
“As you know, this is the final town on the Northern circuit. I’d brought my rods and leased a cottage in the Dales. As soon as the Assize closed, I’d told my clerk I planned to play truant from chambers for a few days, making inroads into your Yorkshire trout.”
By the end of summer Assizes, during a famous heat-wave, the Dales rivers would have been running low and sluggish. He couldn’t have expected great sport from his holiday – at least, not out of doors. I wondered why the unknown lady in the case hadn’t managed to contrive a better cover story. In my personal and professional experience, the female of the species is infinitely more adept at subterfuge than the male.
Sir Impey’s pale hand sketched an elegant, airy gesture. “Like all Assizes, they kept the best till last. Good old Charlie Fortescue was due to lead me in the most sensational case to trouble these parts for at least half a century. Murder, with a dash of sex scandal thrown in for good measure. The county was in an uproar. Vast sums changed hands, reputedly, for the chance of a seat in the public gallery. I don’t doubt Pettifer made a very good thing out of it.”
It’s a shocking reflection on human nature, but, as we’d just experienced, nothing lends a carnival touch to an Assize like the prospect of a capital sentence. In the old days they’d organised bear baiting and cock-fights for Assize time, just to add to the atmosphere.
“Our client - Josiah Hepworth – was the head slaughterman for Halliwells pork butchers. Hard-working, teetotal, worked the organ bellows for Messiah every Christmas at the Wesleyan chapel –“
“I’d have been tempted to convict him on the spot,” I observed.
Sir Impey’s lips quirked. “Trust me, that factor was much to the fore in shaping our jury challenges. I rejected one publican out of hand, together with another potential juror who arrived with the Pink ‘Un sticking out of his jacket pocket. To add to our difficulties, we had a sympathetic victim – Mrs Halliwell, the second wife of the firm’s proprietor, a lady of kittenish charm and unspotted reputation – who’d somehow managed to fetch up strangled on her way home from choir practice at the very same Wesleyan chapel. While fending off my client’s ‘beastly advances’, according to the prosecution. We didn’t even have the luxury of an alibi, our client resolutely having declined to confide to his legal advisors what he’d been up to between locking up the organ loft at the chapel and arriving home – hatless, dishevelled and agitated, according to his landlady – past midnight that evening. Preparing his defence and – other matters – kept me pretty busy during my stay, as you can imagine.”
He hesitated for a moment, and then added, very levelly, “We didn’t have the easiest time. Especially when we began to suspect Pettifer’s interest might have been engaged by the other side. Papers going astray – missing exhibits - authorities sent up from London not being delivered to Fortescue’s rooms – little things, but they added up to someone putting a fat butcher’s thumb down on the scales of justice and our client getting short measure. Fortescue took it very personally. It was the last year he practised, before getting his call up to the Bench. I think already he began to see himself as the personification of the King’s justice. He called the Clerk of Assize in for a confab and I gather things were said. Certainly the Hepworth camp was in bad odour with Pettifer afterwards.”
Sir Impey took a sip of whisky, and continued.
“The weather didn’t help anyone’s temper. The temperature soared above 70 degrees on the first day of the Assizes and kept on rising. The night before Hepworth’s trial was the worst; sweaty and airless as if we were building up to a thunderstorm. Fortescue and I dined together at The Percy Arms. He wanted to work on his opening speech, so I left shortly after the meal. He had a trick of ordering a big pot of strong tea and a jug of hot water whenever he needed to work late. When he’d used up all the water and only cold, stewed dregs were left in the tea-pot, he’d declare himself satisfied with his preparation. The tea-tray arrived as I was leaving. I recall making some comment about not understanding how he could bear to drink hot tea on a night like that and him replying it was tea that built the Empire.
“As luck would have it, I ran into Pettifer on the first floor landing. He was never out of The Percy Arms at Assize time. His first reaction on recognising me was a scowl. A second later, his expression changed. He smiled and said, very softly, ‘I’ll be seeing you tomorrow, sir’ and went off down the stairs ahead of me, whistling.”
My brow creased in a frown. “But surely, if he were a court official –“
Sir Impey nodded. “Quite so. Nothing needed to be remarked on; of course we were likely to see each other next day. But – hot as it was that night – his tone sent a shiver down my spine. And there was one other thing I noticed, which didn’t seem to have any significance at the time.”
“What?” I asked, as if the question had being conjured from my lips.
“There was a tiny corner of blue and white paper sticking out of his trousers’ back pocket.”
He left me to mull over that inconsequential fact and moved seamlessly on to the next part of his story.
“When I reached The Cross Guns Johnston was just going out, late as it was. Even odder, given the temperature, he had a coat over his arm – a light aquascutum or something of that sort. He obviously wasn’t best pleased to have his movements observed; his greeting came out pretty curt. Still, I’m not one to pry into another man’s business – not without a brief fee entailed. I wished him goodnight, and if it hadn’t been for what followed I daresay I’d have never given it another moment’s thought.”
It occurred to me there had been a good deal of nocturnal activity in –ssington on that baking July night twenty years ago. Sir Impey’s next words revealed I hadn’t heard the half of it.
“I sat down to prepare my cross-examination notes. While I’ve some dim recollection of the market clock striking midnight, I can’t really say how much later it was when the messenger came.”
“From The Percy Arms. They’d had to call a doctor to Fortescue. Acute gastritis. Bless him, he was an advocate through and through. Even though he must have been in absolutely horrible pain, he’d insisted on sending for me and our instructing solicitors even before he let them call for the doctor. And, what’s more, weak as he was, he managed to insist that Hepworth’s chances would be far better if we brought his case on at Assize now, with me leading, rather than adjourn to next term, when local attitudes would doubtless have hardened against our client. The butcher’s thumb again, of course.”
He grimaced. “It was an odd way to get my first chance to lead in a murder trial, but man proposes and God disposes. Of course, it took me a good while to sort things out –calming down my instructing solicitors and seeing Fortescue made as comfortable as possible, gathering together his notes and seeing how I could rework them into my own opening. As a result, it was well past six in the morning when I walked back to my room at The Cross Guns. The maid was already up and working. In fact, she was engaged in one of those distasteful but necessary tasks well-run hostelries ensure happen before any right-thinking guest is around to witness them. In short, she was taking down the old fly-papers – encrusted with last night’s crop of victims – and replacing them with new ones, fresh from the packet.”
He paused; his silence was redolent with meaning. I cudgelled my wits as to the significance of this trivial, rather disgusting detail. Then I thought I had it.
“What colour was the packet?”
Sir Impey nodded, gravely. “Blue and white. Very good. Bearing a helpful label from the manufacturer, warning one to wash one’s hands before handling food or drink after touching fly-papers, given they were treated with an arsenical preparation. I didn’t make that particular connection on the spot. Though, to do myself justice, I had a good many other things on my mind at the time.”
I gulped. There’s a large leap from petty interference with correspondence and court files – damaging as it is, especially with a man’s life at stake – to poisoning a K.C. Even though Charles Fortescue had clearly survived the experience. He’d only retired from the Court of Appeal in ’25, laden with honours and goodwill.
“What – happened next?”
“Next?” Sir Impey’s voice changed. I saw his elegant hands had clenched into fists where they rested on the low table before the fire.
“When I reached my room I saw a bulky envelope lying on the threshold, only bearing my name and the word “Private” in thick black ink. It had not been there when I left my room some time after midnight. It could only have been delivered by one of my fellow guests or the inn servants. And inside - I found a letter I myself had written, the previous day. Somehow, someone must have intercepted it before it reached its destination.”
He caught my questioning look, and spread his hands in a sweeping gesture. “It could hardly have been more incriminating. Not only did it confirm arrangements for – an assignation – it did far more. Names, dates, reminiscences – even, Lord help us, a quotation from Catullus. Even for a man in love, I’d managed to achieve a level of imbecility unparalleled in my professional experience. And damn near wrecked two lives in the process.”
His voice rang with bitter self-loathing. As a lawyer, one learns when an application for Further and Better Particulars will be rejected at the first hurdle. Whoever she’d been, I’d not find out from Sir Impey. That long-ago passion would rest forever entombed behind his marble façade.
“Was there – anything else?”
He nodded. “A note, scribbled on a scrap of paper. I saw this on his table and made him give to me. It isn’t too late for you, thank God! The brute will never make another suffer, as I have suffered. Give me your prayers, if you can. J.”
“I recognised Johnston’s writing. In another second I was hammering on the door of room eight. He didn’t answer, of course. The handle wouldn’t turn. I leaned down to peer through the keyhole, but it was dark. Suspecting he’d left the key in the other side, I took a propelling pencil from my pocket and jabbed it into the hole. The pencil tip caught in something and held fast. He’d stuffed the keyhole with putty. It was nearly set, but not quite. A bit of desperate pushing with the pencil shoved it through. As soon as I’d cleared the keyhole, the smell flooded out from the room.”
“Smell?” Horrid possibilities rushed through my mind; it had been a very hot night, after all. Sir Impey nodded up towards the mantle, its flame now a mere nub, glowing very blue.
How he ran for the inn staff, how they broke down the door (too late, of course), how he gave some brief, uninformative statement to the police (omitting to mention the envelope discovered on his threshold) – these were all a blur. His first clear memory was of standing up in court, about to open for the defence in the matter of R. v. Hepworth.
In any other circumstances I’d have been fascinated to hear a full account of that famous trial from counsel for the defence. It isn’t every day a Methodist minister breaks down under cross-examination, confesses to an adulterous affair with a member of his congregation, and implicates the proprietor of a prosperous chain of North Riding pork butchers in a particularly messy crime passionel. However, I knew about the sensational acquittal of the defendant in R. v. Hepworth ; I wanted to hear the other story.
“What about Pettifer?”
“The human mind’s a funny thing.” There was an odd break – almost a tremor - in Sir Impey’s voice. “That day, had you mentioned Pettifer while I was in court, I should most probably have said, ‘Who?’ My entire world had shrunk to the courtroom. Nothing and no-one mattered, except what I needed to do to ensure Hepworth left there a free man.”
Sir Impey raised his head, looking me straight in the eye for the first time. “Of course, when we adjourned for the evening, I finally heard for the news the courts had been buzzing with all day. The fire engine had been called out that morning to a bungalow on the Northallerton Road. Given the heatwave, everything was tinder dry, of course. Once the fire took hold there was very little they could do. I gather there wasn’t much left of the house by the time they’d put the fire out. Or of the body they found in the smoking ruins.”
“Did they – were there any ideas about how the fire started?”
Sir Impey’s tone was utterly uninflected. “When his dentist finally confirmed that the deceased was Pettifer, and the police had taken their chance to take a look around, the favourite theory was that he must have had some sort of seizure that evening. Apparently, while sitting down to enjoy an after dinner cigar. A cigar end, dropped accidentally among the cushions of an upholstered arm-chair, will cause exactly that pattern of burning, according to the experts in such things. The Coroner’s jury brought in ‘Death by Misadventure’. I never heard anyone complain.”
References to experts in arson jogged my memory. “And Johnston?”
“Ah. That.” He glanced up, as if he could see through the seventeenth century beams and plasterwork of the ceiling to the bedroom floor above. “Although they found no note –“
“But, surely – “
One decisive gesture from those eloquent hands, and I fell silent.
“Although,” Sir Impey repeated, “they found no note, I’m afraid the Coroner’s jury could not escape the necessity of bringing in a verdict of suicide there. Without the putty in the keyhole, perhaps they might have done something to salve his reputation. Though, to do the jury justice, they fought very hard against the inevitable. Even given the evidence from his Bank, which showed he was in serious financial straits. Over the previous two years, a series of bank transfers and withdrawals to ‘Cash’ had so depleted his finances, he was barely able to maintain the appearance of a gentlemen. The members of his London chambers speculated endlessly as to whether it was a secret passion for gambling or an exigeant mistress who bore responsibility for his catastrophic end.”
He allowed me to digest that for a moment and added, very quietly, “Pettifer’s will was proved at £20,000. Quite a talent for saving, wouldn’t you say, out of an official salary of £250?”
He finished his whisky and rose to go. I looked up at him.
“One last thing, Biggs. I was speaking to Isaacson earlier today -”
“The Judge’s Marshall? Nice boy. He ought to do well. What did he have to say?”
“Well – he happened to mention the Attorney-General had been hoping to secure you for the prosecution today, and been told you weren’t available for the –ssington Assizes. I gather it caused something of a stir when they learned you’d be engaged for the defence.”
Sir Impey’s smile lent a peculiar charm to his expression. “How frightfully indiscreet of old Wrinching. I shall have to have a quiet word, next time I see him at the Club. Can’t have the Attorney-General spreading slander that I’m playing fast and loose with the cab-rank rule. Who steals my purse steals trash, but he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed… Please put Isaacson’s mind at rest, should you get a chance. When the brief for the prosecution arrived I was, indeed, already booked to appear on a commercial arbitration. But my clients settled it, leaving a gap in my diary I could, fortunately, fill with the defence. My clerk can confirm it. Anyway, I must be going to bed. I have a consultation with my instructing solicitors at ten tomorrow morning. There were one or two very suggestive parts in the summing up, which might give us a chance at an appeal.”
He left me to the whisky decanter and the dying fire.