Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“My honour has never been called in question,” shouted the Professor, starting up. “That is a lie, a damned, malicious lie, and I demand that you apologize immediately.”

“I’ll apologize,” said Balmer, “if you will give me your word of honour that anything you get out of your libel suit — after you have paid your lawyers their very considerable fees — will be given to a charity.”

“Say nothing!” commanded Mr Snelgrove. “Don’t imagine that I don’t see what you are up to! You are trying dirty, underhanded tricks to make my client discredit himself or frighten him off suit. Your conduct, sir, is a disgrace to the Bar, and don’t suppose that I won’t bring it up at the next meeting of the Bar Association!”

The atmosphere of the room had become very hot. The Dean’s pipe had gone out, and he tittered occasionally, from nervous tension. Marryat and Ridley were, to tell the truth, a little ashamed of their lawyer, whom they had never seen in action in quite this spirit before.

“Please yourself about that,” said Balmer. “I’m tired of this dis­cussion, which is not leading us anywhere. You say that there is libel, and that my clients were negligent. All right. Prove it. Let’s have X. Where have you got him hidden?”

With great dignity Mr Snelgrove rose and walked to the window. Having trained his eyeglasses upon something in the street below, he took out his pocket-handkerchief, and solemnly waved it three times. He then returned to his chair, and glared at Mr Balmer in silence, which was broken only by a furious nasal whistling from Professor Vambrace.

Some time passed, uncomfortably for the six men in Ridley’s office, until Miss Green’s knock was heard, and she opened the door to admit Humphrey Cobbler, followed by Ronnie Fitzalan. No one seemed to have anything to say, and no word was spoken until Mr Snelgrove had waved Cobbler into a chair which Ronnie, rather apologetically, placed very much in the centre of the room.

“Well, Mr Cobbler,” said Mr Snelgrove, now the stage lawyer to the life, “I daresay you are wondering why you have been asked to come here?”

Cobbler produced a very large wad of torn sheeting from his jacket pocket and blew his nose resoundingly. “I’m sure it’s something pleasant,” said he, “and I love the suspense. Whenever lawyers want me for anything, I always assume that it is because somebody has left me a fortune. Just let me have the details slowly, saving up the actual glorious figures for the last.” He spoke in a thickened voice, and his face was pale. Closing his eyes, he relaxed as much as he could in the straight, armless chair which he had been given.

“I’d advise you not to take that tone,” said Mr Snelgrove. “This may be an extremely serious affair for you.”

“You needn’t worry about what tone I take; I have perfect pitch,” said Cobbler. “As for seriousness, I have risen virtually from my death-bed to be here, chiefly because Mr Fitzalan is a very persuasive fellow. My one thought now is to get back to bed.”

“My dear fellow,” said the Dean, solicitously. “Are you worse since Sunday?”

Cobbler made no reply, but blew his nose as though painfully expelling his soul from his nostrils.

“Gentlemen,” said Mr Snelgrove. “Behold X.”

The moment fell short of great drama. Ridley and Marryat seemed unmoved, and Balmer glanced momentarily at Cobbler, only to return to a paper which he held in his hand. The Dean, who did not know what X meant, except that it was something vaguely discredit­able, merely looked confused. Only Professor Vambrace scowled upon Cobbler, and as the organist had his eyes shut, this was not particularly effective.

“I shall be brief,” continued Mr Snelgrove. “Cobbler, I put it to you that on October 31st, on Tuesday last to be precise, you and a gang of hoodlums invaded the premises of St Nicholas’ Cathedral, taking liquor with you. There you created a disturbance, the details of which I shall not specify; it was, however, sufficient to arouse the attention of some of the Cathedral neighbours, and even of the Dean, who arrived after some lapse of time and drove you forth. Is this true?”

“Guilty, m’lord,” said Cobbler, without opening his eyes.

“It was on the following night,” said Mr Snelgrove, “that you sought out Professor Vambrace in a public place, and there sang a ribald song, directed at him personally, while indulging in drunken and derisive antics. What do you say?”

“Guilty as hell,” said Cobbler, indifferently.

“Oh come,” said Ridley, “Mr Cobbler was not drunk on that occasion. I was with him shortly beforehand, and I know.”

“Oh, you do, do you?” said Mr Snelgrove, rounding on him. “I was not aware that there was an association between you two. Where were you and what part did you play in this disgraceful and libellous action toward my client, may I ask?”

“You may not ask,” said Mr Balmer. “Please do not interfere, Mr Ridley. You interrupt my friend’s train of reason,”

“If you do not answer me now, I do not greatly care,” said Mr Snelgrove. “There will come a time, and a place, where I shall question you under circumstances where you will be compelled to answer, and then we shall uncover whatever link there is between you and this shameless rowdy. You’re thick enough, I dare say.”

“I object to the suggestion that I am thick with anyone,” said Cobbler, as though half asleep. “It’s an expression I particularly dislike.”

“Go on, sir, go on!” said Mr Snelgrove, who had worked himself up into a fine forensic fit. “Be as impertinent as you please! Now, I put it to you that before you insulted Professor Vambrace in the park, and on the same day that you so grossly abused your position as cathedral organist, you caused this to be inserted in the paper edited by your friend, here.” And with a flourish Mr Snelgrove produced from among his papers a very large sheet in the exact middle of which the tiny clipping of the engagement notice had been pasted, and upon which a secretary had made a notation in a very small hand, in red ink.

Cobbler opened his eyes, and took the paper. “Aha,” said he, showing little interest, “so that’s what it looked like. I missed it when it came out.” And, handing it back to the lawyer, he closed his eyes again.

“Well, sir,” said Mr Snelgrove. “What have you to say for yourself?”

“Nothing,” said Cobbler.

“You will now understand, Mr Dean,” said Mr Snelgrove, “why I asked you to come here. You have, for several years, obstinately defended this man against those of us who understood his nature and his pernicious influence in the Cathedral. You hear him now confess that he has nothing whatever to say in extenuation of this exceedingly mischievous and, I fully believe, libellous action. It has caused great inconvenience to you, to Professor Vambrace and his daughter and, I fully expect, to Mrs Bridgetower and her son, though I am not empowered to speak for them. I hope, sir, that your eyes are open at last. I must say, also, that I hope that in future you will look upon your Cathedral Chancellor as something more than a man of straw. I am sorry to have involved you in a disagreeable scene, but there seemed to be no other equally powerful way of carrying conviction to you. Now, Mr Ridley, will you be good enough to inform me if The Bellman intends to take action against this man?”

“No,” said Ridley.

“Then I shall advise my client to take action for libel against The Bellman and against Cobbler, and because of his conduct toward my client in the park, I shall prove that libel in the full meaning of the term was intended. Further, I shall bring forward your refusal to prosecute, after what you said earlier, as an indication that you knew of his guilt and tried to shield him.”

“But I don’t know of his guilt,” said Ridley. “Indeed, I know that he is not guilty. I have proof of it here.” And, reaching into a drawer of his desk he drew out a pink receipt for a classified advertisement.

“But he has admitted guilt,” said Mr Snelgrove.

“No I didn’t,” said Cobbler. “I simply didn’t deny it. Never deny; never explain. That’s my guiding rule of life.”

“Oh, come, that will never do,” said Mr Snelgrove, with elaborate contempt. “You permitted me to put the question to you, backed by extremely strong circumstantial evidence, and you did not utter a word of denial. That will require a great deal of explanation.”

“Not really,” said Cobbler, still with his eyes closed. “I was curious to hear what you would say. And a pretty poor show you made of it, I must say, for a lawyer. Circumstantial evidence! Guess-work and spite; nothing more.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson