Cometh the Hour by Jeffrey Archer is the penultimate book in the Clifton Chronicles where a suicide note has devastating consequences for Harry and Emma Clifton, Giles Barrington and Lady Virginia (Available February 16, 2016).
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Giles must decide if he should withdraw from politics and try to rescue Karin, the woman he loves, from behind the Iron Curtain. But is Karin truly in love with him, or is she a spy?
Lady Virginia is facing bankruptcy, and can see no way out of her financial problems, until she is introduced to the hapless Cyrus T. Grant III from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who's in England to see his horse run at Royal Ascot.
Sebastian Clifton is now the Chief Executive of Farthings Bank and a workaholic, whose personal life is thrown into disarray when he falls for Priya, a beautiful Indian girl. But her parents have already chosen the man she is going to marry. Meanwhile, Sebastian's rivals Adrian Sloane and Desmond Mellor are still plotting to bring him and his chairman Hakim Bishara down, so they can take over Farthings.
Harry Clifton remains determined to get Anatoly Babakov released from a gulag in Siberia, following the international success of his acclaimed book, Uncle Joe. But then something unexpected happens that none of them could have anticipated.
HARRY AND EMMA CLIFTON
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 onto 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, handwritten 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 favor 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 pigheaded of you, sis,” said Giles, swinging around. “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.
“Pigheaded,” repeated Giles, a decibel louder. “And I’ll bet Harry agrees with me.”
They all turned toward 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 favor.”
Virginia tore up the letter and dropped the little pieces into the wastepaper 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 favorite 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 favor, 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 onto 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.
SEBASTIAN ROSE EARLY the following morning and after reading the Financial Times and the Daily Telegraph he just couldn’t see how his mother could hope to win her libel trial.
The Telegraph pointed out to its readers that if the contents of Major Fisher’s letter remained a secret, it wouldn’t help Mrs. Clifton’s cause. The FT concentrated on the problems Barrington’s Shipping would face should its chairman lose the case and have to resign. The company’s shares had already fallen by a shilling, as many of its shareholders had clearly decided that Lady Virginia was going to be the victor. Seb felt the best his mother could hope for was a hung jury. Like everyone else, he couldn’t stop wondering what was in the letter Mr. Trelford wouldn’t allow him to read, and which side it was more likely to help. When he had phoned his mother after returning from work, she hadn’t been forthcoming on the subject. He didn’t bother to ask his father.
Sebastian turned up at the bank even earlier than usual but once he’d sat down at his desk and begun trying to work his way through the morning mail, he found he couldn’t concentrate. After his secretary Rachel had asked him several questions which remained unanswered, she gave up and suggested he go to court, and not return until the jury had delivered its verdict. He reluctantly agreed.
As his taxi drove out of the City and into Fleet Street, Seb spotted the bold headline on a Daily Mail placard and shouted “Stop!” The cabbie swung into the curb and threw on his brakes. Seb jumped out and ran across to the paperboy. He handed him fourpence and grabbed a copy of the paper. As he stood on the pavement reading the front page he felt conflicting emotions: delight for his mother, who would now surely win her case and be vindicated, and sadness for his uncle Giles, who had clearly sacrificed his political career to do what he considered the honorable thing, because Seb knew his mother would never have allowed that letter to be seen by anyone outside the family.
He climbed back into the cab and wondered, as he stared out of the window, how he would have reacted had he been faced with the same dilemma. Was the prewar generation guided by a different moral compass? He wasn’t in any doubt what his father would have done, or how angry his mother would be with Giles. His thoughts turned to Samantha, who had returned to America when he’d let her down. What would she have done in similar circumstances? If only she would give him a second chance, he wouldn’t make the same mistake again.
Seb checked his watch. Most God-fearing people in Washington would still be asleep, so he realized he couldn’t phone his daughter Jessica’s headmistress, Dr. Wolfe, to find out why she wanted to speak to him urgently. Was it just possible…?
The taxi pulled up outside the Royal Courts of Justice in the Strand. “That’ll be four and six, gov’nor,” said the cabbie, interrupting his thoughts. Seb handed him two half-crowns.
As he stepped out of the cab, the cameras immediately began to flash. The first words he could make out above the melee of hollering hacks was, “Have you read Major Fisher’s letter?”
* * *
When Mrs. Justice Lane entered court fourteen and took her place in the high-backed chair on the raised dais, she didn’t look pleased. The judge wasn’t in any doubt that although she had firmly instructed the jury not to read any newspapers while the trial was taking place, the only subject they would be discussing in the jury room that morning would be the front page of the Daily Mail. She had no idea who was responsible for leaking Major Fisher’s letter, but that didn’t stop her, like everyone else in that courtroom, from having an opinion.
Although the letter had been sent to Mr. Trelford, she was certain it couldn’t have been him. He would never involve himself in such underhand tactics. She knew some barristers who would have turned a blind eye, even condoned such behavior, but not Donald Trelford. He would rather lose a case than swim in such murky waters. She was equally confident that it couldn’t have been Lady Virginia Fenwick, because it would only have harmed her cause. Had leaking the letter assisted her, she would have been the judge’s first suspect.
Mrs. Justice Lane looked down at Mrs. Clifton, whose head was bowed. During the past week she’d come to admire the defendant and felt she would like to get to know her better once the trial was over. But that would not be possible. In fact, she would never speak to the woman again. If she were to do so, it would unquestionably be grounds for a retrial.
If the judge had to guess who had been responsible for leaking the letter, she would have placed a small wager on Sir Giles Barrington. But she never guessed, and never gambled. She only considered the evidence. However, the fact that Sir Giles was not in court that morning might have been considered as evidence, even if it was circumstantial.
The judge turned her attention to Sir Edward Makepeace, who never gave anything away. The eminent silk had conducted his brief quite brilliantly and his eloquent advocacy had undoubtedly assisted Lady Virginia’s case. But that was before Mr. Trelford had brought Major Fisher’s letter to the court’s attention. The judge understood why neither Emma Clifton nor Lady Virginia would want the letter to be disclosed in open court, although she was sure Mr. Trelford would have pressed his client to allow him to enter it in evidence. After all, he represented Mrs. Clifton, not her brother. Mrs. Justice Lane assumed it wouldn’t be long before the jury returned and delivered their verdict.
* * *
When Giles phoned his constituency headquarters in Bristol that morning, he and his agent Griff Haskins didn’t need to hold a long conversation. Having read the front page of the Mail, Griff reluctantly accepted that Giles would have to withdraw his name as the Labour candidate for the forthcoming by-election in Bristol Docklands.
“It’s typical Fisher,” said Giles. “Full of half-truths, exaggeration and innuendo.”
“That doesn’t surprise me,” said Griff. “But can you prove it before polling day? Because one thing’s for certain, the Tories’ eve-of-poll message will be Fisher’s letter, and they’ll push it through every letterbox in the constituency.”
“We’d do the same, given half a chance,” admitted Giles.
“But if you could prove it was a pack of lies…” said Griff, refusing to give up.
“I don’t have time to do that, and even if I did, I’m not sure anyone would believe me. Dead men’s words are so much more powerful than those of the living.”
“Then there’s only one thing left for us to do,” said Griff. “Let’s go on a bender and drown our sorrows.”
“I did that last night,” admitted Giles. “And God knows what else.”
“Once we’ve chosen a new candidate,” said Griff, quickly slipping back into election mode, “I’d like you to brief him or her, because whoever we pick will need your support and, more important, your experience.”
“That might not turn out to be an advantage in the circumstances,” Giles suggested.
“Stop being so pathetic,” said Griff. “I’ve got a feeling we won’t get rid of you quite that easily. The Labour Party is in your blood. And wasn’t it Harold Wilson who said a week is a long time in politics?”
* * *
When the inconspicuous door swung open, everyone in the courtroom stopped talking and turned to watch as the bailiff stood aside to allow the seven men and five women to enter the court and take their places in the jury box.
The judge waited for them to settle before she leaned forward and asked the foreman, “Have you been able to reach a verdict?”
The foreman rose slowly from his place, adjusted his spectacles, looked up at the judge and said, “Yes, we have, my lady.”
“And is your decision unanimous?”
“It is, my lady.”
“Have you found in favor of the plaintiff, Lady Virginia Fenwick, or the defendant, Mrs. Emma Clifton?”
“We have found in favor of the defendant,” said the foreman, who, having completed his task, sat back down.
Sebastian leapt to his feet and was about to cheer when he noticed that both his mother and the judge were scowling at him. He quickly resumed his seat and looked across at his father, who winked at him.
On the other side of the court sat a woman who was glaring at the jury, unable to hide her displeasure, while her counsel sat impassively with his arms folded. Once Sir Edward had read the front page of the Daily Mail that morning, he’d realized that his client had no chance of winning the case. He could have demanded a retrial, but in truth Sir Edward wouldn’t have advised his client to put herself through a second trial with the odds tipped so heavily against her.
* * *
Giles sat alone at the breakfast table at his home in Smith Square, his usual routine abandoned. No bowl of cornflakes, no orange juice, no boiled egg, no Times, no Guardian, just a copy of theDaily Mail laid out on the table in front of him.
12th November 1970
Dear Mr. Trelford,
You will be curious to know why I have chosen to write to you, and not Sir Edward Makepeace. The answer is, quite simply, I have no doubt that both of you will act in the best interests of your clients.
Allow me to begin with Sir Edward’s client, Lady Virginia Fenwick, and her fatuous claim that I was nothing more than her professional advisor, who always worked at arm’s length. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have never known a client who was more hands-on, and when it came to the buying and selling of Barrington’s shares, she only had one purpose in mind, namely to destroy the company, whatever the cost, along with the reputation of its chairman, Mrs. Clifton.
A few days before the trial was due to open, Lady Virginia offered me a substantial sum of money to claim that she had given me carte blanche to act on her behalf, in order to leave the jury with the impression that she didn’t really understand how the stock market worked. Let me assure you that in reply to Lady Virginia’s question to Mrs. Clifton at the AGM, “Is it true that one of your directors sold his vast shareholding in an attempt to bring the company down?” the fact is, that is exactly what Lady Virginia herself did on no fewer than three occasions, and she nearly succeeded in bringing Barrington’s down. I cannot go to my grave with that injustice on my conscience.
However, there is another injustice that is equally unpalatable, and that I am also unable to ignore. My death will cause a by-election in the constituency of Bristol Docklands, and I know that the Labour Party will consider re-selecting the former Member of Parliament, Sir Giles Barrington, as its candidate. But, like Lady Virginia, Sir Giles is hiding a secret he does not wish to share, even with his own family.
When Sir Giles recently visited East Berlin as a representative of Her Majesty’s Government, he had what he later described in a press statement as a one-night stand with a Miss Karin Pengelly, his official interpreter. Later, he gave this as the reason his wife had left him. Although this was Sir Giles’s second divorce on the grounds of adultery, I do not consider that that alone should be sufficient reason for a man to withdraw from public life. But in this case, his callous treatment of the lady in question makes it impossible for me to remain silent.
Having spoken to Miss Pengelly’s father, I know for a fact that his daughter has written to Sir Giles on several occasions to let him know that not only did she lose her job as a result of their liaison, but she is now pregnant with his child. Despite this, Sir Giles has not even paid Miss Pengelly the courtesy of replying to her letters, or showing the slightest concern for her predicament. She does not complain. However, I do so on her behalf, and I am bound to ask, is this the kind of person who should be representing his constituents in the House of Commons? No doubt the citizens of Bristol will express their opinion at the ballot box.
I apologize, sir, for placing the burden of responsibility on your shoulders, but I felt I had been left with no choice.
Alexander Fisher, Major (Rtd.)
Giles stared down at his political obituary.
Copyright © 2016 Jeffrey Archer.
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Jeffrey Archer was educated at Oxford University. He has served five years in Britain's House of Commons and nineteen years in the House of Lords. All of his novels and short story collections-including Best Kept Secret, The Sins of the Father, Kane and Abel, and False Impression-have been international bestselling books. Archer is married with two sons and lives in London and Cambridge.