“My daughter Pearl is twenty-two,” said the Professor.
“Well, you see, she’s not a minor. Is she to be the plaintiff? Who has suffered the libel, you or her? Does she want to bring a case?”
“I have naturally not discussed such a painful and distasteful matter with her.”
“Well, you’d better do it before you go any farther. If Pearlie doesn’t put a good face on it in court, and act like a girl who is wronged the judge will think you’ve forced her into the action, and the defence lawyers will get it out of her, and you’ll look like a tyrant and a fool as well. You’d better watch your step, Wally.”
“My wife and daughter and I have all suffered more than you can suppose, Ronald, from this iniquitous thing,” said the Professor. “It is not inconceivable that we might appear as joint plaintiffs.”
“Oh, now, hold on, Wally,” said Fitzalan. “You know what a mess Liz would make of it in the box; anybody could make her swear that black was white. You’re making a mountain out of a molehill. Anyhow, what have you to gain by an action?”
“I have this to gain; I should make those idiots on The Bellman feel something of the pain that I have felt. I should make them smart.”
“Oh, Wally, never go to law for simple vengeance; that’s not what law is for. Redress, yes; vengeance, no. You talk as if The Bellman did it to spite you. Of course it was damn silly of them to take an ad with a date like November 31st in it, but wrong dates are common enough. You’d be surprised how many law cases hang on a wrong date. But they were just as much the victims of this practical joker as you.”
“Precisely,” said Mr Snelgrove, snatching the conversation to himself. “Now my advice, Professor Vambrace, is this: to threaten an action for libel is not necessarily to go to court and fight it. You think The Bellman has been negligent, and I agree with you. A sharp lesson will do them no harm. I have no special affection for the Press; indeed, in a long career in the courts, I have despaired of teaching the Press manners. Rather than face an action, The Bellman would probably consider some reparation out of court. But it would not be good strategy to let them think that we would do so. If you care to leave the matter in our hands, I should like to think it over, and advise you.”
Thus Professor Vambrace experienced that sensation of bereavement which so often comes to a man who seeks professional assistance with a grievance, and shortly finds that his grievance is no longer his own personal property, and that much of the flavour has gone out of it.
When the Professor had left the office, Mr Snelgrove sat silent, his finger-tips together, peering over his spectacles, until Fitzalan spoke.
“Do you want to see the people at The Bellman or shall I?” said he.
“Perhaps I had better attend to it,” said Mr Snelgrove. “You are a relative of Professor Vambrace, are you not?”
“I’m his wife’s cousin. I thought you knew that.”
“I wasn’t sure just where the kinship lay. I think there might be some indelicacy about your appearing too openly in such a matter. I’ll be glad to deal with it.”
“As a matter of fact, Mr Snelgrove, I’m not at all sure that anything should be done. I told Wally to forget about it, or take The Bellman’s apology.”
“I don’t agree with you. The Vambrace family has undoubtedly sustained some injury of reputation. They have a right to expect some reparation.”
“I always think it’s better to swallow a little hurt to a family reputation than to get tangled in a lawsuit, or a law wrangle in private. It always comes out, and sounds worse. Wally’s cracked on his family reputation. Doesn’t amount to a damn. Who cares, anyhow?”
“Isn’t Vambrace related to a noble family in Ireland?”
“Second cousin to the Marquis of Mourne and Derry. He brings it up fairly often, in order to say that such things mean nothing to him.”
“Aha; and isn’t his wife’s family, and yours, rather a distinguished one, among the Irish families in this part of Canada?”
“Well, we didn’t emigrate during either of the Potato Famines. I suppose that’s something. Liz’s father, old Wolfe Tone Fitzalan, drank a bottle of whisky a day for thirty years and was never drunk. That’s distinction, of course.”
“You make light of it, but these things have their significance. Fine old families should not suffer affront in silence.”
“Don’t you worry that Wally will be silent. He’ll bellyache about this till the day he dies. I just hope he doesn’t scare all the boys away from Pearlie because of it. Her chances aren’t first rate, anyhow, working in Waverley Library; there’s a graveyard of matrimonial hopes, let me tell you!”
“I’ll undertake it, and let you know what happens.”
“If you insist, sir, there’s nothing I can say. But I’m against it. You’re fighting The Bellman, but they’re as much a victim of this joke as Wally and his family, and they may dig in their heels and refuse to pay up.”
“Ah, yes, the anonymous practical joker should come in for his share of the punishment, of course, or the matter cannot be considered closed.”
“Exactly. And how do you think you’ll find him?”
“As a matter of fact,” said Mr Snelgrove, pausing at the door before making a well-timed exit, “I have a shrewd idea that I know who he is.”
And with this remark he went, leaving his junior impressed against his will.
Who reads a newspaper? In a very large city, where newspapers are many, the question is of real concern to publishers, to editors, to circulation managers. But in such a city as Salterton, though it is no mean city, there is little question as to who reads The Bellman; it is no great exaggeration to say that everybody reads it. But with what a range of individual differences they read it!
Even in our time, when there is supposed to be so much rush and bustle, there are people who read a newspaper solemnly through, taking all evening to do so, missing nothing; international news, district correspondence, local affairs, editorials, special articles and advertisements even down to the humblest adjuration to “End Pile Torture Quickly”, all are grist to their mill. What it means to them is never easy to discover; they are usually aged and uncommunicative people, and they rarely make themselves known to the staff of the paper which affords them so much entertainment, unless it is to confess to a reporter on a ninetieth birthday that they are still able to read The Bellman without glasses. How different are they from those others, usually women, who confess under questioning that they have “skimmed through” the paper, but who appear to have missed the chief news of the day. It was to this class of skimmers, perhaps, that the lady belonged who was discovered in London in 1944, and who admitted that she had never heard of Hitler. The vagaries of female readers, however, are beyond all reason; the simplest group for study is that which reads the paper from back to front, dropping its central portions to the floor early in the proceedings, and reassembling the whole on a principle which makes it intolerable to those who attempt to read it later.
Inevitably the literacy and comprehension of a newspaper’s readers ranges over the widest scope. The Bellman had readers who read the column headed “City and Vicinity” every night of their lives, and never failed to speak of it as “City and Vinicity”. At the opposite pole to these were some members of the Waverley faculty who affected a fine superiority to the paper, spoke of it as “the local rag” and were alternately amused by it or angry with it; indeed, they were almost ashamed to be seen ordering half a dozen extra copies when some references to themselves or their work appeared in it. But there were others at Waverley who thought differently, and who knew something of the part which the old paper had played in the history of its country. Of course there were readers who asserted that The Bellman was not nearly so good as it had been when they were younger; they found that this stricture applied to much else in life as well.
Gloster Ridley’s editorials were read by people who were interested to know what The Bellman thought about current affairs, as well as by people who wanted to know what the paper thought in order that they might, as a matter of principle, disagree with it. Of these readers, only a very few bore in mind that each editorial was simply an expression of opinion by one man, who had made up his mind after some consultation with perhaps two or three other men; the majority thought of newspaper editorials as the opinions of a group of remote beings, like the Cabinet, or the justices of the Supreme Court, but with this difference: it was a mark of grace to dissent from them, if only in some slight particular. Thus it was that many people who met Ridley for the first time said, “I always read your editorials; of course I don’t agree with all of them” — as though this revealed a special independence of spirit in them, and put the editor in his place. Many people feel it necessary to be especially belligerent when talking to an editor, to show that they are not afraid of him; for however foolish an editor may be in private life, when he puts on his editorial “We” he is like a judge who has put on his wig, and has added a cubit to his stature. And the readers who least resembled these editor-quellers were those who read the paper chiefly for its comic strips. Not that these were frivolous; the solemn devotion with which they followed the snail-like progress of those serial adventures was as great as that of the devout who read the syndicated Bible comment which was published every Saturday.