THE JURY WAS OUT.
The judge had asked the seven men and five women to make one final effort to reach a verdict. Mrs Justice Lane instructed them to return the following morning. She was beginning to think a hung jury was the most likely outcome. The moment she stood up, everyone in the well of the court rose and bowed. The judge returned the compliment, but it wasn’t until she had left the court that a babble of chatter erupted.
‘Would you be kind enough to accompany me back to my chambers, Mrs Clifton,’ said Donald Trelford, ‘so we can discuss the contents of Major Fisher’s letter, and whether they should be made public.’
Emma nodded. ‘I’d like my husband and brother to join us, if that’s possible, as I know Sebastian has to get back to work.’
‘Of course,’ said Trelford, who gathered up his papers and, without another word, led them out of the courtroom and down the wide marble staircase to the ground floor. As they stepped out on to the Strand, a pack of baying journalists, accompanied by flashing cameras, once again surrounded them, and dogged their steps as they made their way slowly across to the QC’s chambers.
They were finally left alone once they’d arrived at Lincoln’s Inn, an ancient square full of neat-looking town houses that were in fact chambers occupied by barristers and their clerks. Mr Trelford led them up a creaky wooden staircase to the top floor of No.11, passing rows of names printed neatly in black on the snow-white walls.
When Emma entered Mr Trelford’s office, she was surprised to see how small it was, but then there are no large offices in Lincoln’s Inn, even if you are the head of chambers.
Once they were all seated, Mr Trelford looked across at the woman who sat opposite him. Mrs Clifton appeared calm and composed, even stoical, which was rare for someone who was facing the possibility of defeat and humiliation, unless . . . He unlocked the top drawer of his desk, extracted a file and handed copies of Major Fisher’s letter to Mr and Mrs Clifton and Sir Giles Barrington. The original remained locked in his safe, although he was in no doubt that Lady Virginia had somehow got hold of the copy he had with him in court.
Once they had all read the letter, hand-written on House of Commons paper, Trelford said firmly, ‘If you will allow me to present this as evidence in open court, Mrs Clifton, I am confident we can win the case.’
‘That is out of the question,’ said Emma, handing her copy back to Trelford. ‘I could never allow that,’ she added with the dignity of a woman who knew that the decision might not only destroy her but also hand victory to her adversary.
‘Will you at least allow your husband and Sir Giles to offer their opinion?’
Giles didn’t wait for Emma’s permission. ‘Of course it must be seen by the jury, because once it has, they’ll come down unanimously in your favour and, more importantly, Virginia will never be able to show her face in public again.’
‘Possibly,’ said Emma calmly, ‘but at the same time, you would have to withdraw your candidacy for the by-election, and this time the Prime Minister won’t be offering you a seat in the House of Lords as compensation. And you can be sure of one thing,’ she added. ‘Your ex-wife will consider destroying your political career a far greater prize than defeating me. No, Mr Trelford,’ she continued, not looking at her brother, ‘this letter will remain a family secret, and we will all have to live with the consequences.’
‘That’s pig-headed of you, sis,’ said Giles, swinging round. ‘Perhaps I don’t want to spend the rest of my life feeling responsible for you losing the case and having to stand down as chairman of Barrington’s. And don’t forget, you’ll also have to pay Virginia’s legal costs, not to mention whatever compensation the jury decide to award her.’
‘It’s a price worth paying,’ said Emma.
‘Pig-headed,’ repeated Giles, a decibel louder. ‘And I’ll bet Harry agrees with me.’
They all turned towards Harry, who didn’t need to read the letter a second time, as he could have repeated it word for word. However, he was torn between wishing to support his oldest friend and not wanting his wife to lose her libel case. What John Buchan once described as being ‘between a rock and a hard place’.
‘It’s not my decision to make,’ said Harry. ‘But if it were my future that was hanging by a thread, I’d want Fisher’s letter to be read out in court.’
‘Two to one,’ said Giles.
‘My future isn’t hanging by a thread,’ said Emma. ‘And you’re right, my darling, the final decision is mine.’ Without another word, she rose from her place, shook hands with her counsel and said, ‘Thank you, Mr Trelford. We’ll see you in court tomorrow morning, when the jury will decide our fate.’
Trelford bowed, and waited for the door to close behind them before he murmured to himself, ‘She should have been christened Portia.’
‘How did you get hold of this?’ asked Sir Edward.
Virginia smiled. Sir Edward had taught her that when facing cross-examination, if an answer doesn’t help your cause, you should say nothing.
Sir Edward didn’t smile. ‘If the judge were to allow Mr Trelford to present this as evidence,’ he said, waving the letter, ‘I would no longer be confident that we will win the case. In fact I’m certain we’d lose.’
‘Mrs Clifton will never allow it to be presented as evidence,’ said Virginia confidently.
‘How can you be sure?’
‘Her brother intends to fight the by-election in Bristol Docklands caused by Major Fisher’s death. If this letter were to be made public, he’d have to withdraw. It would end his political career.’
Lawyers are meant to have opinions on everything, except their clients. Not in this case. Sir Edward knew exactly how he felt about Lady Virginia, and it didn’t bear repeating, in or out of court.
‘If you’re right, Lady Virginia,’ said the elderly QC, ‘and they don’t offer the letter as evidence, the jury will assume it’s because it doesn’t assist Mrs Clifton’s cause. That would undoubtedly tip the balance in your favour.’
Virginia tore up the letter and dropped the little pieces into the waste-paper basket. ‘I agree with you, Sir Edward.’
Once again, Desmond Mellor had booked a small conference room in an unfashionable hotel, where no one would recognize them.
‘Lady Virginia is the odds-on favourite to win a two-horse race,’ said Mellor from his place at the head of the table. ‘It seems Alex Fisher ended up doing something worthwhile for a change.’
‘Fisher’s timing couldn’t have been better,’ said Adrian Sloane. ‘But we’ll still need to have everything in place if there’s to be a smooth takeover of Barrington’s Shipping.’
‘Couldn’t agree with you more,’ said Mellor, ‘which is why I’ve already drafted a press statement that I want you to release as soon as the verdict has been announced.’
‘But all that could change if Mrs Clifton allows Fisher’s letter to be read out in court.’
‘I can assure you,’ said Mellor, ‘that letter will never see the light of day.’
‘You know what’s in that letter, don’t you?’ said Jim Knowles.
‘Let’s just say I’m confident that Mrs Clifton will not want the jury to see it. Which will only convince them that our beloved chairman has something to hide. Then they will surely come down in Lady Virginia’s favour, and that will be an end of the matter.’
‘As they’re likely to reach a verdict some time tomorrow,’ said Knowles, ‘I’ve called an emergency board meeting for Monday morning at ten o’clock. There will only be two items on the agenda. The first will be to accept Mrs Clifton’s resignation, followed by the appointment of Desmond as chairman of the new company.’
‘And my first decision as chairman will be to appoint Jim as my deputy.’ Sloane frowned. ‘Then I’ll ask Adrian to join the board, which will leave the City and the shareholders in no doubt that Barrington’s is under new management.’
‘Once the other board members have read this,’ said Knowles, waving the press statement as if it were an order paper, ‘it shouldn’t be long before the admiral and his cronies decide they have no choice but to hand in their resignations.’
‘Which I will reluctantly accept,’ said Mellor, before adding, ‘with a heavy heart.’
‘I’m not convinced Sebastian Clifton will fall in with our plans quite that easily,’ said Sloane. ‘If he decides to remain on the board, it might not be quite the smooth transition you have in mind, Desmond.’
‘I can’t imagine Clifton will want to be a director of the Mellor Shipping Company after his mother has been publicly humiliated by Lady Virginia, not only in court, but in every national newspaper.’
‘You must know what’s in that letter,’ repeated Knowles.
Giles made no attempt to change his sister’s mind, because he realized it would be pointless.
Among Emma’s many qualities was a fierce loyalty to her family, her friends, and any cause she believed in. But the other side of that coin was a stubbornness that sometimes allowed her personal feelings to override her common sense, even if her decision could result in losing the libel case, and even having to resign as chairman of Barrington’s. Giles knew, because he could be just as obstinate. It must be a family trait, he decided. Harry, on the other hand, was far more pragmatic. He would have weighed up the options and considered the alternatives long before he came to a decision. However, Giles suspected Harry was torn between supporting his wife and loyalty to his oldest friend.
As the three of them stepped back out on to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, the first gas lights were being lit by the lamplighter.
‘I’ll see you both back at the house for dinner,’ said Giles. ‘I’ve got a couple of errands to run. And by the way, sis, thank you.’
Harry hailed a taxi, and he and his wife climbed into the back. Giles didn’t move until the cab had turned the corner and was out of sight. He then headed off at a brisk pace in the direction of Fleet Street.