“You are far away from the facts,” said Vambrace.
“I know that, Wally, but not half as far as the general public will be after you’ve had your fun. They’ll get all the details jumbled up, and rumours will be everywhere that Pearl threw down some chap in a nasty way, or that you are such a jealous father that nobody dares come near your girl. You’ve got to give some thought to Pearlie, Wally. And this fellow Bridgetower; you’ve got to give him some consideration.”
“Why?” said the Professor.
“Why? Well, for decency’s sake, that’s why. He’s at the University, isn’t he? So are you. Do you want to kick a colleague around? Maybe you do, but it wouldn’t look well.”
“Decency has never troubled the Bridgetower family in their relations with me,” said Vambrace.
“Oh, I know all about that old quarrel with this fellow’s father. But it was never as bad as you pretended.”
“I think I am the best judge of that. And this young man has offered me insults which I cannot brook.”
“Listen, Wally, stop talking like a novel by Sir Walter Scott. You should have some thought for Liz and Pearlie.”
“I have. That is why I intend to see this thing through to a finish. It shall not be said that I allowed any reflection to be cast upon them.”
“Wally, you’re crackers. Libel is the slipperiest charge you can take into court. Most libel cases are not worth a damn to anybody but the lawyers. And before you’ve finished with this one, some smart cross-examiner will make you look like a monkey, and then you’ll be worse off than ever.”
Although he despised his cousin-in-law’s vocabulary, and detested being called Wally, and hearing his wife and daughter called Liz and Pearlie, the Professor respected Fitzalan’s ability as a lawyer, and in spite of his protests he was beginning to think that he might forgo the excitements of a law case, and accept The Bellman’s limited apology. But it was at this moment that the senior partner of the firm, Mr Matthew Snelgrove, put his head in at the door.
“I’m very sorry,” said he, “I didn’t realize there was anyone with you, Fitzalan. I was looking for a book.” He made as though to withdraw, but did not do so, for the fact was that he had learned from the office girls that Professor Vambrace was with his junior partner, and after his chat with the Dean that morning, he thought that he could guess why. So after some symbolic shuffling, intended to signify polite withdrawal, he said to the Professor, “I hope that it is nothing unpleasant that brings you to us, Professor Vambrace.”
“Something most unpleasant,” said the Professor, falling into the trap.
“Really?” said Snelgrove, feigning surprise and concern. “If I had suspected that anything was really wrong I would not have inquired. Please overlook my poor attempt at jocularity. Of course any advice that we can give you is at your disposal.”
“My cousin has been giving me what I presume is good advice; he urges me not to go to law.”
“A libel action, Mr Snelgrove,” said Fitzalan. “I’ve been telling Wally how tricky they can be. Never like to advise anyone to start a libel case — unless it’s something really rough, and when you have a chance of winning.”
“Now what do you think of that?” said Mr Snelgrove, smiling at the Professor with an urbanity which Dean Knapp might have envied. “Imagine a lawyer advising a client not to go to law! Still, Fitzalan has a very level head about these things. Libel is very strange; very strange indeed. But if you think two heads are better than one, I’d be happy to hear the facts — at no extra charge, of course.” And again he laughed in a manner which was supposed to convey his knowledge that Fitzalan would not charge a relative for advice, and that he concurred in such generosity. And in another minute Mr Snelgrove was sitting down, the door was closed and the Professor was rehearsing his grievance against The Bellman once more, just as Mr Snelgrove intended.
Matthew Snelgrove presented, in himself, one of those interesting and not infrequent cases in which Nature imitates Art. In the nineteenth century it appears that many lawyers were dry and fusty men, of formal manner and formal dress, who carried much of the deportment of the courtroom into private life. Novelists and playwrights, observing this fact, put many such lawyers into their books and upon the stage. Actors deficient in observation and resource adopted this stock character of the Lawyer, and he was to be seen in hundreds of plays. And Matthew Snelgrove, whose professional and personal character was being formed about the turn of the century, seized upon this lawyer-like shell eagerly, and made it his own. Through the years he perfected his impersonation until, as he confronted Professor Vambrace, he was not only a lawyer in reality, but also a lawyer in a score of stagey mannerisms; a lawyer who joined the tips of his fingers while listening to a client; a lawyer who closed his eyes and smacked his lips disconcertingly while others talked; a lawyer who tugged and polished at his long nose with a very large handkerchief; a lawyer who coughed dryly before speaking; a lawyer who used his eyeglasses not so much as aids to vision as for peeping over, snatching from the nose, rubbing on the lapel, and wagging in his listener’s face. He was a master of legal grimace — the smile of disbelief, the smile of I-pity-your-ignorance, the smile of that-may-safely-be-left-in-my-hands, as well as a number of effective frowns, signifying disapproval, impatience and disgust. Like many another professional man, Mr Snelgrove had become the prisoner of a professional manner, and as his legal skill was by no means extraordinary it was often impossible to tell whether he was really a lawyer or an indifferent character actor playing the part of a lawyer. Whatever the truth of the matter, his life-long performance had brought him great respect and no small measure of wealth.
For the practice of the law he had no particular intellectual endowment except an enthusiasm for the status quo and a regret that most of the democratic legislation of the last century could not be removed from the statute books. If Dean Knapp’s ideal was the urbane cleric of the nineteenth century, Mr Snelgrove’s was the lawyer-squire of the eighteenth; he was a snob, ready to play the dignified toady to anyone whom he considered his superior, and heavily patronizing to those beneath him; it was with people who might be considered his equals that he was uneasy and contentious. But as no client can be considered the full equal of his lawyer during a professional consultation, he was quite at ease with Professor Vambrace.
As he listened to Vambrace’s story he realized that this was a case peculiarly fitted to his own talents and temperament. Fitzalan could not be expected to understand it. The law firm of Snelgrove, Martin and Fitzalan was composed on a familiar principle; Mr Martin was particularly adept at corporation law and did all the firm’s business in that line; Fitzalan was a Catholic and a Liberal in politics, and brought a good deal of business into the office from those quarters; Mr Snelgrove was a Conservative who liked to be called a Tory, and he attracted Tory business in wills and estates. But he also considered himself the firm’s expert on what he called “the niceties” — meaning matters of offended honour, as opposed to vulgar rape and breach of promise. Obviously the matter of the false engagement notice was a “nicety”, and he would pronounce upon it himself. When the Professor had finished, Mr Snelgrove fitted the tips of his fingers together, smacked his lips, raised his eyebrows and peeped over his pince-nez, and feeling that this was enough of what actors call “business” for the moment, gave utterance.
“I see what Fitzalan means, of course. It would not be easy to determine whether the publication of this distasteful notice constitutes libel. Libel, as you are probably not aware, is that which brings a man into hatred, contempt or ridicule, or which lowers a man in the estimation of his fellows; where there is a defamatory imputation which can be plainly shown to the court, it is not necessary to prove special damage — loss of money, or some actual loss of that sort. If this is a case at all, it is a border-line case. Judges as a rule do not like border-line cases, and if you were to go to court on this matter you might be badly disappointed.”
“Just what I mean,” said Mr Fitzalan, who had not been with Mr Snelgrove long enough to know when to keep his mouth shut. When Mr Snelgrove was rolling the sweet morsels of the law under his tongue, he did not care to be interrupted, and he put on the face of one who thinks he detects an escape of sewer gas, but is not quite sure. But Fitzalan went on: “You see, Wally, you’ve got to decide who would be the plaintiff in a case you brought. How old is Pearlie?”