Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Fighting down anxiety he changed from his dressing-gown into his jacket, gave a final brush to what remained of his hair, collected some papers into his briefcase and sought out his hat and coat. As he was about to leave the apartment, Mrs Little appeared again from the kitchen, with swollen eyes, from which tears still welled.

“I just don’t know what to say,” she said. “What you must think of Earl’s language I don’t know. I don’t know where he picks up that kind of talk.”

“Don’t give it a thought,” said Ridley, seeking to make his escape.

“Oh, but I do! I never think of anything else. That child’s all I’ve got, and really, well — I guess I just live for him. You’ll never know what it is to try to bring up a boy single-handed. Sometimes it just gets to be too much.” And Mrs Little wept again.

“Please don’t distress yourself. He’ll probably be much like other boys.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of. I just dread that he’ll end up just such another as his father was before him. In front of you, of all people! And when you’re so worried about the paper and everything.”

“Eh?” said Ridley, who thought, like many another worrier, that he showed no outward sign of his distress.

“Of course you’re worried. I can tell. I guess I see you the way nobody else sees you. It’s that piece about Professor Bridgetower and Professor Vambrace’s daughter, isn’t it?”

“What makes you think that?”

“There’s a lot of talk about it, and I hear a good deal. Of course everybody knows I’m connected with The Bellman, sort of. I know how you’ve been worrying. I can see how your bed is all screwed up these mornings, and how you’ve been taking soda, and everything. Oh, I wish there was something I could do!”

This was a cry from the heart, and though she stood perfectly still before him, Ridley had a dreadful sense that in a moment Constant Reader might throw herself into his arms. He was alarmed, and without a word he rushed out of his apartment and down the stairs. He had a sense that even his home had become menacing.

Mrs Little, overwhelmed by the thought that she had been bold, sat down in Ridley’s armchair and wept.

“The root of the matter is the malice of X, and the party to the action which can find X first will win it,” said Gordon Balmer.

“I see,” said Ridley.

“The whole business is ridiculous,” Balmer continued, “but it would make a very pretty case, for all that.”

“I don’t see that it’s ridiculous,” said Ridley. “You tell me that it could cost The Bellman a heavy sum in damages. That wouldn’t be ridiculous.”

“It depends what you call a heavy sum. The Bellman could stand a few thousands. But what the judge would advise a jury to grant the other side, if you lost, mightn’t amount to very much, especially if Vambrace and Snelgrove asked for something very big. A judge often takes a poor view of a big claim. No, it’s precedent you have to avoid. If they got a judgement, even for a thousand dollars, on a thing of this kind, people all over the country would be trying to shake down newspapers because of all kinds of trivial errors, and getting settle­ments out of court. That’s where it could cost you a lot of money. Anyhow, I said it could cost you money; I didn’t say it would. It’s my job to see that it doesn’t. That’s why I want to get my hands on X.”

Mr Balmer poured a glass of water out of a vacuum jug on his side-table and drank it with relish. His office was very different in atmosphere from that of Snelgrove, Martin and Fitzalan; indeed, it could hardly be said to have anything so needless as an atmosphere at all. Mr Balmer sat behind a steel desk, in a scientifically-sprung chair; Ridley sat in a chair which matched it exactly. There was nothing on the desk but a blotter, nothing on the floor but expensive linoleum, and nothing on the walls save some framed evidences that Mr Balmer was a lawyer, and a QC. Mr Balmer himself, though a stout, bald man, managed to suggest that his flesh was merely some scientific modern substance, as it might be foam rubber, over a steel frame. The glass of water set some lawyer-like and explanatory machinery at work inside him, and he continued.

“They will charge libel. Snelgrove was in to see me yesterday, and that is what they have in mind. It will be a difficult charge to prove, but it could be done. However, it is one thing to prove libel, and another to get anything substantial in the way of damages for it. The judge might very well take the line that the libel didn’t amount to much. Still, you published the libel, and you’re guilty. If the judge didn’t like newspapers — and judges don’t, as a usual thing — he could be ugly about it. Now, our defeince should be that you are a victim of malice. Malice is a vague term in law, but though it’s hard to define it isn’t hard to understand. You are the victim, along with Miss Vambrace and Mr Bridgetower, of the malice of X. Give me X, and I’ll put him in the stand and pretty soon the whole issue will be fogged over, because you, and Vambraice, will both be anxious to get at him. The judge probably won’t be able to do anything to X, unless a charge is brought against him — a charge of malice. Whether that could amount to anything will depend on who he is. I wouldn’t advise such a charge, unless the circumstances are exceptional; malice is even slipperier than libel.”

“And what happens if they get X?” asked Ridley.

“Ah, then they would probably keep him under wraps until they had got what they could out of you, and bring another case against him. Or they might even bring him in late in the case, as a sur­prise, and question him in such a way as to further discredit you. X is the key to the case. Give me X, and the whole thing will be sewed up.”

“But I can’t give you X. I’m trying to find him; Marryat’s trying to find him; Weir is looking for him. But we haven’t a thing to go on. We’ll never find him.”

“Don’t say that. Snelgrove is looking for him, and so is Ronny Fitzalan. Vambrace is hunting him, and I hear some very queer rumours about that. When a lot of people are looking for a thing, it usually turns up. Not many people can cover their tracks, and even fewer can keep from telling a secret if they know one. I’m sure X will be found. I just want our side to find him first.”

“I suppose compromise is quite out of the question?” said Ridley.

“No, not by any means. Ronny Fitzalan has been to see me, without Snelgrove knowing. He’s a cousin of the Vambrace girl, and he wants to keep the thing quiet for her sake. But to shut Vambrace up you’ll have to eat a lot of dirt and do it in public, what’s more. I’d advise against it. Technically, you’re in the wrong; morally, you’re in the clear. Give in on this, and God knows what demands you won’t face next. You’ve got a good case, and I think you should fight it. Next time you might not have such a good case; the time for a show of strength is when you’re strong.”

“I see. Well, can you suggest anything? Should we hire detectives, or anything?”

“I’ve been in the law for twenty-five years, and I’ve yet to see a detective who could work effectively in anything except a very big city. In a place like this you can smell ’em. Anyway, they do a lot of their work through the underworld, and the underworld of Salterton is just one man, Pimples Buckle. He controls everything crooked in a fifty-mile radius. Leave it to me. I’ll establish diplomatic contact with Pimples. Meanwhile keep up the search.”

And with this Ridley had to be content.

It was on Monday morning, at the same hour when Gloster Ridley was in consultation with The Bellman’s solicitor, that Solly at last found Pearl in the music room of the Waverley Library. Since the previous Friday, following his visit to the Cobblers, he had been in search of her, for he was now convinced that if they could talk over their difficulty they could find a way out of it. At least, that is what he told himself when he sought Pearl at the Library on Friday morning, and that was his certainty when he sought her again on Friday afternoon. At both times she had been busy and he felt a shyness about asking for her at the main desk, so he had mooned about the reading room hoping that she might come into view and, unsuspected by himself, attracting a good deal of attention among the other librarians, who assumed that he had come for a sight of his fiancée, or a word with her. By Friday night his need to talk to Pearl had become a source of discomfort to him, but he dared not call her on the telephone, and he knew of no place where he might find her.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson