“I’m afraid we have been careless,” said Ridley.
“It could happen to anybody. Anyway, they don’t know we’ve been careless yet. And they won’t, unless this comes to court. Don’t let this thing worry you, Ridley. A pin-prick.”
“I’m afraid it is a little more than a pin-prick for me, sir,” said Ridley. “This is not easy to explain, because it makes me look vain and probably a little foolish. You know I’ve done a great deal to arrange the new journalism course at Waverley. In fact, I might say that I’ve done all the real work. It’s meant a great deal of time for several months. There has never been any talk of reward, and I don’t want money. I can say quite honestly that I haven’t done it for money. But it has crossed my mind, once or twice, that I might be named for an honorary degree.”
Thus modestly he brought out the ambition which had been his constant, lively companion for many weeks.
“Well, what about it? Vambrace has no say in such things. He isn’t a Governor.”
“He is very close to several Governors.”
“This is rather embarrassing, but I think he carries a great deal of influence with your daughter-in-law.”
“With Nesta? Oh, I don’t think she sees much of him.”
“Mrs Roger Warboys has been interesting herself in this matter to a greater degree than you apparently know. And you are aware that she has a poor opinion of me as an editor. She is a friend of Mrs Bridgetower’s as well.”
“Well, God bless my soul! You think she’s out to sink you, for this honorary degree, or whatever it is?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Well, what do you expect me to do about it?”
“I have not mentioned it to you before because I do not expect you to do anything about it. I have too much pride to appeal to you in a thing of this kind.”
“I’m glad of that,” said Mr Warboys who, like many people, had a keen sense of the triviality of ambition in others. “I couldn’t interfere, you know. Most of the Governors are friends of mine, but I couldn’t go hat in hand to them and ask them to do something for somebody who was working for me. They might take it amiss. But you can leave it to me to put Nesta straight. It would be a fine thing for you to have a doctorate. A very nice crown to your career. A good thing for The Bellman. But if it doesn’t work out, don’t worry. These things are pretty chancy. Anyhow, you don’t care much about it, do you?”
Ridley longed to say that he cared passionately about it. But life had not encouraged that sort of boldness in him, and he muttered something which suggested that he cared little for worldly gauds. Mr Warboys was plainly relieved, and after a few further remarks, Ridley rose to go. As he was about to leave the room Mrs Roger Warboys entered.
“There’s a taxi at the door,” said she to Ridley. “I thought, it must be yours. You always come and go in taxis; why don’t you get yourself a car?”
“I prefer taxis,” said he. “I find them much more convenient.”
“Not a bit convenient, really,” said Mrs Warboys, contradicting absent-mindedly and without interest. Then something seemed to strike her, and she looked at Ridley keenly. “What news of Mrs Ridley?” said she.
Ridley turned very white, and the bony structure of his brow stood out in stronger relief. But when he spoke it was quietly and with self-possession. “The news does not change very much, and never for the better, Mrs Warboys,” said he, and hurried out of the room.
“You shouldn’t have asked him that, Nesta,” said Clerebold Warboys. “Anyhow, you’re not supposed to know.”
“Nobody’s supposed to know,” said his daughter-in-law, “but somehow everybody does.”
Drawing up outside the Vambrace house at about half-past eight o’clock, Solly sounded his horn in a discreet, rather than a challenging blast. He did not wish to see Pearl come through the door pursued by an angry father. A light in an upper window went out at once, and immediately afterward Pearl came down the walk, perfectly self-possessed, and stepped into his car as though this were the most ordinary thing in the world. Solly could not refrain from admiring comment.
“You made it all right?”
“Of course. What did you expect?”
When he had hunted down Pearl that morning in the music room she had been too surprised to assume her new role of woman of the world, which she had not yet been able to make fully her own. Thinking about their conversation afterward, Pearl had decided that she had been too friendly; the truth was that she had been so amazed by the common sense which Solly had brought to their common predicament that she had been pleasanter than she intended; he had even made her laugh. But he had referred tactlessly to her father’s treatment of her; he had let her know, quite needlessly, that he had seen that cuff on the ear, had heard those sobs. Therefore she was determined to give him a double dose of the woman of the world tonight.
Solly was properly intimidated. He had thought, that morning, that Pearl would be easy to deal with; she had laughed with him, and he set great store by laughter. So he drove in silence along a country road until he came to a point where it ran directly beside the bay upon which Salterton faces, and there he brought the car to a stop.
There was a silence, which Solly and Pearl both found embarrassing, but after a very long time — perhaps two or three minutes — he broke it.
“Well?” said he.
“Well?” countered Pearl. She did not mean to be difficult, but she could not think of anything better to say.
“Well, here we are. The meeting is now open. Ladies first; what do you want to say?”
A woman of the world should always be able to say something, and Pearl felt herself to be at least as much a woman of the world as the Old Woman in Candide, so she plunged into speech.
“We must look at this reasonably,” said she. “There’s no use getting excited; there’s been quite enough of that. We’ve been reported engaged. We’re not engaged and aren’t going to be. We want the report contradicted. It isn’t really so dreadful. Of course Father thinks it is. He hates your family.”
“He doesn’t,” said Solly. “Only a couple of years ago when we were all working on The Tempest he was easy enough to get on with. And not so many years ago he and my mother appeared together on some sort of public committee about some current affairs thing, and they got on like a house afire. What’s all this about hating my family? It’s a good fifteen years since my father nosed him out as Dean.”
“Father’s hates ebb and flow,” said Pearl. “He hates you now and that’s all there is to it.”
“He’s as mad as a hornet at the thought of your marrying anybody. That’s what it is.”
“Please. We aren’t here to discuss my father.”
“Very well, Madam Chairman. But I’ll bet we can’t keep off him for long. Go ahead.”
“As I was saying, this report is a nuisance, and it will take some living down, but there is no very great harm done, provided there is no legal action.”
“No very great harm done?”
“Father thinks so. I don’t. After all, you’re a human being. It is within the range of possibility that I might have been engaged to you. There are people who aspire to that condition, in case you don’t know it; and in the case you do know it and are conceited about it, I may tell you that Tessie Forgie is the most avid of them all. But the fact is that I’m not engaged to you, and while I am annoyed at the report that I am, I do not consider it to be libellous or insulting.”
“You overwhelm me.”
“Please don’t be sarcastic. I’m simply trying to be objective.”
“You are succeeding magnificently. I hardly feel as if I were present in the flesh at all.”
“Unfortunately, my father takes a very serious view of this whole affair. He thinks it is part of a plot to make him appear ridiculous.”
“Please! You’re turning my head with all this subtle flattery.”
“He wants to bring an action against the newspaper. The editor is behaving abominably. Do you know this man Ridley?”
“I’ve met him once or twice —
A poor, unfruitful, prying, windy scribe,
Who scratches down hell’s witsome sprits, that he
May show them to her vulgar, gaping crowds,
Extended on his tablets.”
“I am amazed that you, a librarian, cannot place the quotation instantly. From the great Charles Heavysege, Canada’s earliest and foremost dramatist. I presume that when your father formed his opinion of me he did not know that I was the coming big man in the Heavysege field.”