“That’s a very charming remark.”
“Well, how charming have you been, since I came? Can’t we behave like sensible creatures and talk this thing out? I hear your father is suing The Bellman.”
“Yes. What’s that to you? All you have to do is get up in the witness box and swear that you never had any intention of marrying me, and you will be as white as driven snow. The judge will probably offer you the pity of the court in your wronged condition.”
“Well if that isn’t the most nauseating feminine attitude I’ve ever heard! Do you suppose I want anything of the kind? I don’t want anything to do with a court action. Do you?”
“Oh don’t talk like a fool! Of course I don’t. How do you suppose it will make me look?”
“Well, then, why don’t you repudiate the action?”
“Simple. You hire a lawyer. When the case comes up he gets on his feet and says, ‘Your Honour, my client, Miss Pearl Vambrace, wishes me to say that she does not consider herself libelled, and wants it understood that she has nothing to do with bringing this action, and that it’s all a pipedream of her father’s, who has got into a fantod about nothing very much.’ Or however lawyers phrase these things. It’d blow the case sky-high.”
Pearl gazed at Solly with reluctant admiration. She had been agonizing about her situation for several days, and had seen no ray of light. But here was a man who cut through the complications with easy brilliance.
“If it was known you were going to do that, I doubt if the case would ever come to court,” Solly went on. “It’d just be a waste of money. Do you know a lawyer?”
“My cousin Ronnie is a lawyer.”
“Fitzalan? No good. He’s old Snelgrove’s partner, and Snelgrove has been telling half the town, in strict confidence, that he is going to take the hide off The Bellman.”
“Well, and so he should. It’s libelled me. And you too.”
“Don’t be silly. If it’s libel to say I’m engaged to you, and if it’s libel to say you’re engaged to me, surely we are both such lepers that the two libels cancel out. It’s a mistake, a damn silly mistake, but still a mistake.”
Once again Pearl was dazzled by Solly’s grasp of the fundamentals of her problem. His law might be shaky, but his reasoning was sound.
“You mean you don’t care about that engagement notice appearing?”
“Of course I care. It can make a hell of a mess of things for me. But it isn’t the end of the world, you know.”
“You mean it would be awful for you if Griselda Webster came to hear of it?”
“Well, it certainly wouldn’t make things any simpler.”
“I’m sorry I was so nasty about Griselda and you the other night.”
“Forget about all that. You were upset, understandably. So was I. All that crawling about on the floor, and hitting me on the nose, and playing those blood-soaked games. Very unnerving.” Solly caught her eye, and Pearl smiled. And she was so surprised to find herself smiling after four bitter days that she laughed and he laughed with her. They were so delighted and relieved to be laughing that they did not notice that the door had opened, and that the Librarian, Dr Forgie, stood beside them. A chronic sufferer from asthma, he spoke bubblingly, like a man under water.
“Well,” said he, looking up at them from his five foot three of scholarly obesity, “I have surprised you, I see. Now I really must protest, Bridgetower, against these, ah — tender assignations during Library hours. Miss Vambrace has her work to do, and I must beg you to confine your meetings to leisure time, which is ample — ample. We shall not quarrel about this single transgression of rules. Cupid plays strange tricks upon us all. Permit me to congratulate you both!” And here Dr Forgie seized Solly’s hand and wrung it powerfully. He then reached up to Pearl’s shoulders and dragged her down to a level with his own face, and kissed her with a smack. “I must beg that there will be no repetition of this incident,” said he, and strutted out of the room.
“Unless you want to be kissed again by Dr Forgie, we’d better part,” said Solly.
“How do you suppose he knew we were here?”
“His daughter Tessie told me where to find you. With many tender and insinuating sighs and glances, I may say. Cupid has a firm friend in Tessie. Then I suppose she regretted her kind action, and blatted to Pa.”
“How like Tessie. You must go.”
“When do I see you again?”
“Eh? What for?”
“We haven’t half settled things. I keep telling you that we must talk. Unless we have a united plan of action, this is going to be bad for both of us. Can I see you tonight?”
“I suppose so.”
“Where shall I call for you?”
“What? Won’t your father mind?”
“I haven’t any notion. Come about half-past eight. I’ll be watching for you. No — just blow your horn, will you?”
It was Solly’s turn to admire. Casually blown motor horns, he was sure, would not soothe the breast of Pearl’s father. And yet she did not seem to care. Clearly Pearl was a girl of greater spirit than he had supposed.
Punctually at half-past four Ridley arrived at the home of his employer, and as concisely as possible he reported to him the conversation which had passed between him and Gordon Balmer, The Bellman’s solicitor, earlier in the day.
“So he’s going to Pimples Buckle?” said Mr Clerebold Warboys.
“Yes. I didn’t tell him, that Weir went to Buckle last week; we know just as much about Buckle’s influence as he does. But it’s no good. Buckle knows nothing about the affair, and isn’t interested. He has his pride, you know. He says this isn’t crime — merely kid stuff — and he’s only interested in crime. He wouldn’t budge unless we would promise him a good deal of newspaper protection next time he comes into court, and of course we can’t do that.”
“So we’re still up in the air about X.”
“Yes. Worse than up in the air, I’m afraid. Snelgrove has nabbed X.”
“I had a call from Balmer just as I was leaving the office. Snelgrove had called him not long before; they say they’ve got X, but of course they won’t tell us who it is. Balmer’s guess is that it is a woman. Anyhow, Snelgrove wanted us to meet him tomorrow, for a showdown, in his office. Balmer fought that, because he wanted the meeting to be in his office. But after a lot of wrangling I’ve arranged that the lawyers, and Vambrace, and X, should all meet in my office. We have to keep some sort of face.”
“Quite right. If we have to climb down and make terms, we’d better do it on our own ground.”
“You think we should climb down?”
“I don’t know. And I’m not going to be there. You must handle this. Let them think they have winkled me out of my house and down to the office, and they’ll imagine we are worried. Which, of course, we are. But we mustn’t show it. That’s why you must deal with it yourself.”
“Very well; if you think that best.”
“I do. Fight to the last ditch. We mustn’t climb down if we can possibly avoid it.”
“I’m glad you feel that way.”
“I certainly do feel that way. There is nothing lawyers like better than to score off a newspaper. In fact, you might say there is nothing most people like better than to score off a newspaper. And it’s understandable that they should feel that way. There have been times in my political life when I would have been glad to silence every newspaper in the country. Newspapers, as you very well know, can be damned nuisances.”
Ridley smiled. “There have been two or three times in my life when I would have done anything to keep something out of a paper,” said he; “anything, that is, except give the order for a story to be killed.”
“I know what you’re talking about,” said Clerebold Warboys. “But in spite of all the hogwash that is talked about the freedom of the Press, and in spite of the nauseating slop which the newspapers sometimes write about it, the freedom of the Press is a damned important thing. Not that this pin-prick has much to do with it. At worst it will cost us some money. But what I don’t like is being pushed around by people who hate the paper and want to make it look foolish. God knows we can make ourselves look silly enough, without any outside help. We’ve got a case of some sort. We are as much abused as Vambrace. So we’ll fight, just to show that a newspaper doesn’t have to look like a fool to please a few cranks. We’ll get Pettypiece to fight the case for us, if it goes to court. He’s forgotten more about newspapers and libel than old Snelgrove will ever know. We won’t climb down unless they can show that we have really been careless and haven’t a leg to stand on.”