Over the River, by John Galsworthy

Chapter 29

Over was the shuffling of seats and papers, which marks the succession of one human drama by another, and ‘very young’ Roger said:

“We’ll go into the well of the court.”

There, with her sister and her father, Dinny sat down, bastioned from Jerry Corven by ‘very young’ Roger and his rival in the law.

“Is this,” she whispered, “the well at the bottom of which truth lies, or LIES?”

Unable to see the rising ‘body’ of the court behind her, she knew by instinct and the sense of hearing that it was filling up. The public’s unerring sense of value had scented out a fight, if not a title. The Judge, too, seemed to have smelt something, for he was shrouded in a large bandana handkerchief. Dinny gazed upward. Impressively high, and vaguely Gothic, the court seemed. Above where the Judge sat red curtains were drawn across, surprisingly beyond the reach of man. Her eyes fell to the jury filing into their two-ranked ‘box.’ The foreman fascinated her at once by his egg-shaped face and head, little hair of any sort, red cheeks, light eyes, and an expression so subtly blended between that of a codfish and a sheep that it reminded her of neither. His face recalled rather one of the two gentlemen of South Molton Street, and she felt almost sure that he was a jeweller. Three women sat at the end of the front row, no one of whom, surely, could ever have spent a night in a car. The first was stout and had the pleasant flattish face of a superior housekeeper. The second, thin, dark, and rather gaunt, was perhaps a writer. The third’s bird-like look was disguised in an obvious cold. The other eight male members of the jury tired her eyes, so diverse and difficult to place. A voice said:

“Corven versus Corven and Croom — husband’s petition,” and she gave Clare’s arm a convulsive squeeze.

“If your Lordship pleases —”

Out of the tail of her eye she could see a handsome, small-whiskered visage, winy under it’s wig.

The Judge’s face, folded and far away, as of a priest or of a tortoise, was poked forward suddenly. His gaze, knowing and impersonal, seemed taking her in, and she felt curiously small. He drew his head back, as suddenly.

The slow rich voice behind her began retailing the names and positions of the ‘parties,’ the places of their marriage and cohabitation; it paused a moment and then went on:

“In the middle of September of last year, while the petitioner was up-country in discharge of official duty, the respondent, without a word of warning, left her home and sailed for England. On board the ship was the co-respondent. It is said by the defence, I believe, that these two had not met before. I shall suggest that they had met, or at all events had had every opportunity of so meeting.”

Dinny saw her sister’s little disdainful shrug. “However that may be,” proceeded the slow voice, “there is no question that they were always together on the ship, and I shall show that towards the end of the voyage the co-respondent was seen coming out of the respondent’s stateroom.” On and on the voice drooled till it reached the words: “I will not dwell, members of the jury, on the details of the watch kept on the respondent’s and co-respondent’s movements; you will have these from the mouths of expert and reputable witnesses. Sir Gerald Corven.”

When Dinny raised her eyes he was already in the box, his face carved out of an even harder wood than she had thought. She was conscious of the resentment on her father’s face, of the Judge taking up his pen, of Clare clenching her hands on her lap; of ‘very young’ Roger’s narrowed eyes; of the foreman’s slightly opening mouth, and the third jurywoman’s smothered sneeze; conscious of the brownness in this place — it oozed brownness as if designed to dinge all that was rose, blue, silver, gold, or even green in human life.

The slow voice began its questioning, ceased its questioning; the personable owner of it closed, as it were, black wings; and a different voice behind her said:

“You thought it your duty, sir, to institute these proceedings?”

“Yes.”

“No animus?”

“None.”

“This claim for damages — not very usual, is it, nowadays among men of honour?”

“They will be settled on my wife.”

“Has your wife indicated in any way that she wishes you to support her?”

“No.”

“Would it surprise you to hear that she would not take a penny from you, whether it came from the co-respondent or not?”

Dinny saw the cat-like smile beneath the cut moustache.

“Nothing would surprise me.”

“It did not even surprise you that she left you?”

She looked round at the questioner. So this was Instone, whom Dornford had said was “very handicapped”! He seemed to her to have one of those faces, with dominant noses, that nothing could handicap.

“Yes, that did surprise me.”

“Now, why? . . . Perhaps you would translate that movement into words, sir?”

“Do wives generally leave their husbands without reason given?”

“Not unless the reason is too obvious to require statement. Was that the case?”

“No.”

“What should you say, then, was the reason? You are the person best able to form an opinion.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Who then?”

“My wife herself.”

“Still you must have some suspicion. Would you mind saying what it was?”

“I should.”

“Now, sir, you are on your oath. Did you or did you not ill-treat your wife in anyway?”

“I admit one incident which I regret and for which I have apologised.”

“What was that incident?”

Dinny, sitting taut between her father and her sister, feeling in her whole being the vibration of their pride and her own, heard the slow rich voice strike in behind her.

“My Lord, I submit that my friend is not entitled to ask that question.”

“My Lord —”

“I must stop you, Mr. Instone.”

“I bow to your Lordship’s ruling. . . . Are you a hot-tempered man, sir?”

“No.”

“There would be a certain deliberation about your actions, at all times?”

“I hope so.”

“Even when those actions were not — shall we say — benevolent?”

“Yes.”

“I see; and I am sure the jury also does. Now, sir, let me take you to another point. You suggest that your wife and Mr. Croom had met in Ceylon?”

“I have no idea whether they had or not.”

“Have you any personal knowledge that they did?”

“No.”

“We have been told by my friend that he will bring evidence to show that they had met —”

The slow rich voice interposed:

“That they had had opportunity of meeting.”

“We will take it at that. Were you aware, sir, that they had enjoyed such opportunity?”

“I was not.”

“Had you ever seen or heard of Mr. Croom in Ceylon?”

“No.”

“When did you first know of the existence of this gentleman?”

“I saw him in London in November last, coming out of a house where my wife was staying, and I asked her his name.”

“Did she make any concealment of it?”

“None.”

“Is that the only time you have seen this gentleman?”

“Yes.”

“What made you pitch on him as a possible means of securing a divorce from your wife?”

“I object to that way of putting it.”

“Very well. What drew your attention to this gentleman as a possible co-respondent?”

“What I heard on the ship by which I returned from Port Said to Ceylon in November. It was the same ship as that in which my wife and the co-respondent came to England.”

“And what DID you hear?”

“That they were always together.”

“Not unusual on board ship, is it?”

“In reason — no.”

“Even in your own experience?”

“Perhaps not.”

“What else, if anything, did you hear to make you so suspicious?”

“A stewardess told me that she had seen him coming out of my wife’s stateroom.”

“At what time of day or night was that?”

“Shortly before dinner.”

“You have travelled by sea a good deal, I suppose, in the course of your professional duties?”

“A great deal.”

“And have you noticed that people frequently go to each other’s staterooms?”

“Yes, quite a lot.”

“Does it always arouse your suspicions?”

“No.”

“May I go further and suggest that it never did before?”

“You may not.”

“Are you naturally a suspicious man?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Not what would be called jealous?”

“I should say not.”

“Your wife is a good deal younger than yourself?”

“Seventeen years.”

“Still, you are not so old as to be unable to appreciate the fact that young men and women in these days treat each other with very little ceremony and consciousness of sex?”

“If you want my age, I am forty-one.”

“Practically post-war.”

“I was through the war.”

“Then you know that much which before the war might have been regarded as suspicious has long lost that character?”

“I know that things are all very free and easy.”

“Thank you. Had you ever, before she left you, had occasion to be suspicious of your wife?”

Dinny looked up.

“Never.”

“But this little incident of his coming out of her cabin was enough to cause you to have her watched?”

“That, and the fact that they were always together on the ship, and my having seen him coming out of the house in London.”

“When you were in London you told her that she must come back to you or take the consequences?”

“I don’t think I used those words.”

“What words did you use?”

“I think I said she had the misfortune to be my wife, and that she couldn’t be a perpetual grass widow.”

“Not a very elegant expression, was it?”

“Perhaps not.”

“You were, in fact, eager to seize on anybody or anything to free yourself?”

“No, I was eager for her to come back.”

“In spite of your suspicions?”

“I had no suspicions in London.”

“I suggest that you had ill-treated her, and wished to be free of an association that hurt your pride.”

The slow rich voice said:

“My Lord, I object.”

“My Lord, the petitioner having admitted —”

“Yes, but most husbands, Mr. Instone, have done something for which they have been glad to apologise.”

“As your Lordship pleases. . . . In any case, you gave instructions to have your wife watched. When exactly did you do that?”

“When I got back to Ceylon.”

“Immediately?”

“Almost.”

“That did not show great eagerness to have her back, did it?”

“My view was entirely changed by what I was told on the ship.”

“On the ship. Not very nice, was it, listening to gossip about your wife?”

“No, but she had refused to come back, and I had to make up my mind.”

“Within two months of her leaving your house?”

“More than two months.”

“Well, not three. I suggest, you know, that you practically forced her to leave you; and then took the earliest opportunity open to you to ensure that she shouldn’t come back?”

“No.”

“So you say. Very well! These enquiry agents you employed — had you seen them before you left England to return to Ceylon?”

“No.”

“Will you swear that?”

“Yes.”

“How did you come to hit upon them?”

“I left it to my solicitors.”

“Oh! then you had seen your solicitors before you left?”

“Yes.”

“In spite of your having no suspicions?”

“A man going so far away naturally sees his solicitors before he starts.”

“You saw them in relation to your wife?”

“And other matters.”

“What did you say to them about your wife?”

Again Dinny looked up. In her was growing the distaste of one seeing even an opponent badgered.

“I think I simply said that she was staying behind with her people.”

“Only that?”

“I probably said that things were difficult.”

“Only that?”

“I remember saying: ‘I don’t quite know what’s going to happen.’”

“Will you swear you did not say: ‘I may be wanting you to have her watched’?”

“I will.”

“Will you swear that you said nothing which conveyed to them the idea that you had a divorce in your mind?”

“I can’t tell you what was conveyed to them by what I said.”

“Don’t quibble, sir. Was the word divorce mentioned?”

“I don’t remember it.”

“You don’t remember it? Did you or did you not leave them with the impression that you might be wanting to take proceedings?”

“I don’t know. I told them that things were difficult.”

“So you have said before. That is not an answer to my question.”

Dinny saw the Judge’s head poked forward.

“The petitioner has said, Mr. Instone, that he does not know the impression left on his lawyers’ minds. What are you driving at?”

“My Lord, the essence of my case — and I am glad to have this opportunity of stating it succinctly — is that from the moment the petitioner had acted in such a way — whatever it was — as caused his wife to leave him, he was determined to divorce her, and ready to snatch at anything that came along to secure that divorce.”

“Well, you can call his solicitor.”

“My Lord!”

Those simple words were like a shrug of the shoulders put into sound.

“Well, go on!”

With a sigh of relief Dinny caught the sound of finality in the voice of the ‘handicapped’ Instone.

“You wish to suggest to the jury that although you instituted these proceedings on the first and only gossip you heard, and although you added a claim for damages against a man you have never spoken to — that in spite of all this you are a forbearing and judicious husband, whose only desire was that his wife should come back to him?”

Her eyes went for the last time to the face up there, more hidden by its mask than ever.

“I wish to suggest nothing to the jury.”

“Very well!”

There was a rustling of silk behind her.

“My Lord,” the slow, rich voice intoned, “since my friend has made so much of the point, I will call the petitioner’s solicitor.”

‘Very young’ Roger, leaning across, said:

“Dornford wants you all to lunch with him . . .”

Dinny could eat practically nothing, afflicted by a sort of nausea. Though more alarmed and distraught during Hubert’s case, and at the inquest on Ferse, she had not felt like this. It was her first experience of the virulence inherent in the conduct of actions between private individuals. The continual suggestion that the opponent was mean, malicious and untruthful, which underlay every cross-examining question, had affected her nerves.

On their way back to the court, Dornford said:

“I know what you’re feeling. But remember, it’s a sort of game; both sides play according to the same rules, and the Judge is there to discount exaggeration. When I try to see how it could be worked otherwise, I can’t.”

“It makes one feel nothing’s ever quite clean.”

“I wonder if anything ever is.”

“The Cheshire cat’s grin did fade at last,” she murmured.

“It never does in the Law Courts, Dinny. They should have it graven over the doors.”

Whether owing to that short conversation, or because she was getting used to it, she did not feel so sick during the afternoon session, devoted to examination and cross-examination of the stewardess and enquiry agents. At four o’clock the petitioner’s case was closed, and ‘very young’ Roger cocked his eye at her, as who should say: “The Court will now rise, and I shall be able to take snuff.”

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37