Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

Mr Snelgrove was very angry now. His face was extremely red, and as he had not blushed for many years the unaccustomed feeling bereft him momentarily of the power to speak. The Dean seized his opportunity.

“Mr Cobbler,” said he, “will you give me your word of honour that you had nothing to do with this engagement notice?”

The accused man sat up smartly in his chair and turned toward his questioner. “Honour bright, Mr Dean,” said he. “It’s a simple matter of psychology; I do a lot of damn silly things on the spur of the moment, but I’m not a calculating practical joker. Unless you call letting Mr Snelgrove make a jackass of himself a calculated practical joke. Anyhow, Bridgetower’s a friend of mine. And I’m sorry I made Professor Vambrace feel cheap; I didn’t mean it very seriously. But he looked so funny hiding behind trees, playing I-spy. And I’ve paid dearly for that; look at the cold I caught, dancing and getting heated. I’ll gladly admit that I’m a fool, if it will make anybody happy, but I really don’t think I’m malicious or underhand.”

The Dean smiled and nodded several times, and applied himself again to his smelly little pipe. As for Mr Snelgrove, it appeared that he might have a stroke. His face was contorted, and he made gasping noises so alarming that Ronnie Fitzalan hastened to pour a glass of water from Ridley’s thermos jug, which he offered to his senior partner.

Ridley’s eyes moved to meet those of Mr Marryat. Face? they seemed to ask, and the reply beamed back, Indubitably Face. The editor spoke.

“I feel sure that everyone present would be glad to meet the real X,” said he. “And as I think he is in the building at this moment, it can easily be managed.” He pressed a bell. “Miss Green, will you ask Mr Shillito to bring his visitor in here?”

There was another short wait. Cobbler, who seemed much recovered, sang very softly, under his breath,

The charge is prepared,

The lawyers are met,

The judges all ranged —

A terrible show!

— but he caught the cold eye of Mr Balmer upon him, and desisted. Mr Snelgrove appeared to recapture something of his self-possession, and was giving a powerful impersonation of a man who had some­thing very telling up his sleeve. Professor Vambrace was sunk even deeper than before in his melancholy; his face was as grey and forbidding as a rock. Ridley, though he wore a bland and hopeful look upon his face, was kicking one leg furiously under his desk. Would his scheme come off? It was 3.30, and everything should be in readiness, but so often people were unpunctual and — But before his nerves got the better of him Miss Green opened the door again, and this time it was Mr Swithin Shillito who entered, ushering before him Mr Bevill Higgin.

Mr Shillito was about to embark on an elaborate round of greetings, but something in the atmosphere of the room stopped him just as he made a move toward the Dean. Mr Balmer spoke.

“I don’t intend to make a stage-play of this,” said he, with a look at Mr Snelgrove, “and I shall content myself with asking a very few questions. Your name is Bevill Higgin, is it not?”

“That’s right,” said Mr Higgin, smirking nervously. The sight of the assembly had put him palpably upon his guard, and his voice shook a little.

“Mr Higgin, did you, or did you not, on the thirty-first of October, at some time in the morning, insert and pay for an engagement notice in this newspaper? This notice, to be precise?” and Mr Balmer produced a sheet of paper, very much like Mr Snelgrove’s, on which the tiny piece of newsprint was pasted, with a notation in blue.

Bevill Higgin did not reply at once, and the nervous smirk did not leave his face. But his eyes flickered quickly from Balmer to Ridley, and from him to Snelgrove. “What makes you think I did?” said he.

“Because the receipt for payment was found in that scrapbook, which is your property, and which you are now carrying under your arm,” said Mr Balmer.

“And how do you connect that with me?” said Higgin. “Is my name on it?”

“The whole text of the notice is written on it in what is demonstrably your handwriting.”

“I deny any knowledge of it. I write like a great many other people. I should like to know why I have been asked here to be questioned in this way?”

“Because you did it.”

“Prove that. I suppose you’re a lawyer. You know that what you’re saying is libellous. You haven’t one scrap of real evidence to connect me with what you’re talking about. If it’s the text of an advertisement somebody must have signed it. What is the name on the receipt?”

“You signed it with a false name.”

“Oh yes! Very likely! Anything to get a scapegoat! You don’t catch me like that! I bet you haven’t got any receipt.”

Ridley lifted the pink slip from his blotter, where it had been concealed and waved it gently in the air. “We have it, and we have you, Mr Higgin,” said he. “Also, I have a witness — I need hardly tell you her name — who will testify, if necessary, that you confessed to her that this advertisement was your doing. There’s no point in keeping up a pretence. We’ve got you. Mr Snelgrove, Professor Vambrace, allow me to present X.”

This, too, should have been a satisfactorily dramatic moment, but it failed. For, as every eye turned upon him, Bevill Higgin’s face changed from its usual bright pink to a deep red, crinkled into a mask of misery, and with embarrassing noise and openness, the little man cried. Cried so that tears ran down his cheeks and dropped upon his threadbare blue serge jacket. Cried so that Mr Marryat and Ronnie Fitzalan looked away from him in deep embarrassment. Cried for what seemed an age, but what was perhaps ninety seconds. Cried until a clear ball of mucus formed at the end of his nose, then swung by a thin string in mid-air. He did not raise his hands to his face, nor did he close his eyes. He wept with the abandon of a guilty child, but his whole figure spoke of failure, of genteel poverty, of hopeless middle age. The sound worked horribly upon Ridley’s nerves, and just as he was about to shout at the man, to shout that all would be forgiven him if only he would stop that dreadful weeping, Mr Swithin Shillito drew a very large, very clean white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and handed it to Higgin, deftly fielding the pendulous nose-drop as he did so. At the same moment Fitzalan, taking the water glass from Mr Snelgrove, who still nursed it, offered it to the stricken man. By less than two minutes of weeping Higgin had washed all the starch out of his judges.

Mr Snelgrove was the first to act; his quick legal mind saw in this a chance to recover the prestige which he had lost in the matter of Cobbler. He pounced.

“You admit your guilt?”

Higgin, mopping his eyes, nodded, but said nothing.

“Well, then we have X at last,” said Mr Snelgrove, looking round the room with the air of a man who has at last triumphed over the stupidity and obscurantism of others. He continued, with heavy irony: “Now, Mr Higgin, perhaps you will have no objection to explaining your motive for inserting that advertisement?”

Higgin mumbled something, in a voice still thick with tears.

“Hey?” said Mr Snelgrove, cupping his hand to his ear. “I can’t hear you. Speak up. Let us all hear what you have to say.”

Again Higgin spoke, somewhat more loudly, but again Mr Snelgrove shook his head.

“He says it was only a joke, sir,” said Ronnie Fitzalan.

“A joke!” said Mr Snelgrove in what was almost a whisper of horror. “Have you any conception, man, of the mischief you have made? Of the trouble you have brought into the life of my client, Professor Vambrace? Have you any notion of this?”

“Never meant any harm to Professor Vambrace,” said Higgin, his voice tripping over a sob as he spoke. “Haven’t the pleasure of his acquaintance.”

“God bless my soul!” said the Professor. It was a strange comment from a professed agnostic, and it rose to his lips unbidden.

“And if your joke, as you choose to call it, was not directed at my client, just what did you expect to gain by it?” asked Mr Snelgrove.

“Permit me to point out that I also represent injured parties in this matter,” said Mr Balmer. “On behalf of The Bellman, Mr Higgin, I put this question to you: Did you realize when you inserted that adver­tisement, that you were involving this newspaper in a fraud, and a possible action for libel? Did you think of that?”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson