“Mr. Justice Harbottle”

There’s not much reading or blogging going on at my house right now, but I did finally read this subject of the Deep Ones group discussion over at LibraryThing.

Review: “Mr. Justice Harbottle”, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872.

Cover by Anyka/Fotolia

The story starts out with a complicated and dry prologue which explains this account, like Le Fanu’s “Green Tea”, comes from the papers of Dr. Hesselius with the notation it comes from “Harman’s Report” and Hesselius’ own interest in “The Interior Sense, and the Conditions of the Opening thereof”. This opening is the story’s weakest point, but it does tell us we will get an “intrusion of the spirit-world upon the proper domain of matter”.

From the prologue, I couldn’t exactly tell who is narrating this tale among the names given, but it doesn’t really matter. 

We open the story proper with that narrator telling us how, 30 years ago, a man showed up in his office for an early payment of a quarterly annuity he gets. He wants some money early because he needs to move out of his house “on a dark street in Westminster”. We get a nice description of the gloomy house which constantly has a sign saying it’s for sale or rent.

It seems to be haunted because, one night, the man saw a closet door open and two figures emerge.  One was a “particularly sinister” dark man. The other an older man,

 stout, and blotched with scurvy, and whose features, fixed as a corpse’s, were stamped with dreadful force with a character of sensuality and villainy. 

The dark man carries a rope, they move across the room and out the door, walking as normal.

The narrator writes to a unnamed friend since the description of the ghostly figures seems familiar. His friend writes back about Mr. Justice Harbottle who lived in the house. Besides describing the house, which the correspondent had visited the first time as a boy in 1808. His father actually saw Harbottle before he died in 1748. Harbottle was 67. 

Harbottle was known as “the wickedest man in England”, a man of some intellect and much sarcasm which he showed on the bench. He was a corrupt judge.

He had carried cases his own way, it was said, in spite of counsel, authorities, and even of juries, by a sort of cajolery, violence, and bamboozling, that somehow confused and overpowered resistance. 

He was “dangerous and unscrupulous”. He associated with bad sorts in the off hours, and they certainly were unconcerned about his character. 

One night in 1746, an anonymous and elderly man showed up telling Harbottle there is a conspiracy against him. The man mentions a prisoner charged with forgery named Lewis Pyneweck. A secret tribunal has been formed to consider the conduct of judges, and Harbottle is to be investigated. The elderly gentleman doesn’t have the names of anybody on the tribunal, but he offers to keep the judge informed after he knows some names in a couple of days. The conspiracy goes by the name the “High Court of Appeal”.

The gentleman finally identifies himself as Hugh Peters, a Whig and gives his address. When Harbottle asks him how he even knows about this, Peters tells him that he knows someone who joined the plot but thought better of the “unexpected wickedness of their plans” and has become an informer for the Crown.  His informer hasn’t been introduced to the club yet. Harbottle tells him that, when his informer has more information, he should go to the attorney general.

Harbottle also wants to know what Pyneweck has to do with all this. Peters doesn’t know, but he advises Harbottle not to try the case. Peters says he can come back the next morning. Harbottle warns him he better not be tricking him. 

After Peters leaves, Harbottle remarks that Peters either painted his face or is very sick. Harbottle does send a footman to follow Peters. The footman catches up with him and offers to escort him home. Peters then claims he dropped a guinea and needs help finding it. The footman stoops to look, and Peters clubs him over the head. It seems Peters is not as winded or feeble as he appeared. 

Harbottle is actually pleased to hear this. It confirms his suspicion that Peters was a “disguised ‘affidavit man,’ or footpad” sent to trick him. He is more determined than ever to try Pyneweck. We get an aside about the

criminal code of England, at that time a rather pharisaical, bloody and heinous system of justice.

(Le Fanu was trained as a lawyer but never practiced.) 

We learn that Harbottle has some connection with Pyneweck. He rented lodgings from him until Pyneweck mistreated his wife. Harbottle did Pyneweck “a grievous wrong” some five or six years ago, but Harbottle’s conscience isn’t bothered by that or much else. Pyneweck takes the view that at least 99 out of a 100 people brought to trial are guilty. Harbottle, unlike his weak and learned brother, appreciates what is necessary to “keep the high-roads safe, and make crime tremble”. Harbottle follows the old saying “Foolish pity Ruins a city.” 

Then we are introduced to another character, “a saucy-looking woman, still handsome”. She is Mrs. Pyneweck’s, officially Harbottle’s housekeeper but actually his mistress. She has a letter from her husband, and she wants to know if the judge can do anything for him. Yes, he can, he replies – “Hang him.” 

Then he asks Mrs. Pyneweck if she’s actually falling in love with her husband. She replies he’s always been a “bad one to me” but asks if Harbottle is getting jealous. 

We get the back story of Mr. Pyneweck who stole his wife’s fortune, spoons, and earrings and then kicked her out after he discovered she had made herself “comfortable, and found a good situation”.  (Presumably this refers to her taking up with Harbottle.) Harbottle says she does not really wish her husband well. 

It seems Mr. Pyneweck wants some money for a lawyer. Harbottle threatens to expel Mrs. Pnyeweck from the house if she answers the letter. 

Peters, of course, does not show up again, and Harbottle, thinking he looks like Pyneweck, makes some inquiries to make sure Pyneweck hasn’t escaped jail or no one is impersonating him. 

As Pyneweck’s trial gets closer, his wife is surprised how it affects her emotionally even though she doesn’t like him but she does have remorse.  She does get news, while Harbottle is away on official duties, that her husband has been hanged. Upon hearing the news Mrs. Carwell goes to hold her daughter by Pyneweck tearfully. She honestly thought Harbottle would save her husband and is angry with him for a while and feels afraid for the child. But, since she’s a “gross and material person”, she doesn’t mourn long. 

One day, at the Old Bailey (Harbottle is a circuit judge) sees Mr. Pyneweck, “a stripe of swollen blue round his neck, which indicated, he thought, the grip of a rope”.  He tries to have him detained but, of course, no one else sees him. 

An undefined time later (the story seems to cover about two years in Harbottle’s life), he gets a letter. It is addressed to him from the High Court of Appeals. He is to prepare to be tried for murdering Pyneweck. Trial is set for the 10th of the next month. His case will be the first tried. The court sits “day and night, and never rises”. If he’s found guilty, execution will be the 10th of the month after that. The letter is signed “CALEB SEARCHER, Officer of the Crown, Solicitor in the Kingdom of Life and Death”. 

The judge thinks it’s all a scam. Still, a part of him thinks there is a conspiracy against him. But Harbottle is not a man to frighten easily and willing to fight. However, he is afraid that people will identify his housekeeper Flora Carwell as Mrs. Pyneweck. Harbottle asks her if her husband had a brother. Yes, she says, but he died long ago – or, at least, so she was told by him. 

Here the narrator inserts a comment that the original letter was not found in Harbottle’s effects, only a copy in his hand.  “Was it a copy of an illusion, incident to brain disease? Such is my belief.” 

Late one night, coming home in a coach with some dubious cronies after seeing a play in Drury Lane, the judge wakes up from nap and is taken out of the coach, arrested. He is led by some “evil-looking fellows” armed with pistols and put in a coach. 

He gets out on a desolate moor. He recognizes the footman as Dingly Chuff who was hanged for stealing a spoon. On the side of the road is a giant gallows, eight or ten people hanging off it.

He is taken inside a dark and dingy building, fires burning in its halls, and put in the dock before the High Court of Appeals. Appellant Pyneweck is there. Harbottle is dazed. It’s a sham. The relevant law is non-existent. They don’t have jurisdiction over him. Harbottle enters a plea of not guilty. 

He also notes the judge is a “dilated effigy of himself”.

Nothing the prisoner could argue, cite, or state, was permitted to retard for a moment the march of the case towards its catastrophe. 

The predictable guilty verdict is pronounced. Chains are put on Harbottle’s legs. He feels the still hot iron burn his leg. 

Then he wakes up. It seems to have all been a dream. He’s still in the carriage on the way home with his friends. The pain in his leg seems to have been gout. 

The judge is, predictably, out of sorts after this. He keeps thinking about being told his execution is going to come exactly a month after this trial. He even tells Mrs. Pyneweck about it. 

Then he begins to convince himself the 10th may not be the day of his death. Maybe it means good fortune will happen that date like his nephew dying and leaving him some money. 

On the evening of the 9th, Dr. Hedstone visits. Harbottle claims he feels fine, but Hedstone is not convinced and warns him not to aggravate his gout and leaves. 

We then hear what three people saw. 

Mrs. Pyneweck’s young daughter sees a man sitting in the judge’s sedan chair. The description she gives, unknown to her, is of her father, Mr. Pyneweck. Mrs. Pyneweck goes with the girl over to the chair and asks her again to look past the curtain. Margery the daughter says she sees nothing in the chair now, but that’s because the figure has gone down the hall. A search of the house does not find the man. 

Going up the stairs to bring some food to the judge, she sees a strange figure on the staircase with a rope in hand. His description matches what Margery gave and that of her late husband. She follows him into a room, but he vanishes just leaving the rope. 

Later that night, a scullery maid sees, in the back kitchen, a blacksmith banging out rivets and chains on a forge. A body is on the floor, and she faints. When two servants hear her scream, she tells him the body was that of the judge. They find the judge still alive and awake in his room.

But, the next morning, Harbottle is found dead, hanging from a rope off the bannister. The death is ruled a suicide but “to at least two persons”, his death on the 10th seems a “startling coinicidence”.

I liked this story and its unusual permutations on the ghost story, specifically in its doubling of Pyneweck when he meets the judge about a conspiracy. Pyneweck is not a ghost then but some kind of spiritual projection or doppelganger but with enough of a physical presence to club the footman. The hangman and the blacksmith forging those chains are not exactly ghosts but spiritual figures of revenge, angels or demons perhaps. There is, with them, also the mixing of the ghostly and physical when the hangman shows up at the end leaving only the trace of his rope when Mrs. Pyneweck follows him. I also liked the believable psychology of Mrs. Pyneweck regarding the death of her husband.

2 thoughts on ““Mr. Justice Harbottle”

  1. It was just the other day I happened to read Le Fanu’s “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street,” which is said to be an earlier version of “Mr. Justice Harbottle.” However, from your description of “Mr. Justice Harbottle,” it sounds like the two stories have very little in common, though the judge is a central figure in both.

    1. I have not read the other story. However, one of the members of the discussion group said in the Oxford Classics’ edition of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly it’s stated that “Mr. Justice Harbottle” is a “drastic revision” of the earlier “An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street”.

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