Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

When Miss Green had gone he combed his hair and rinsed his removable bridge in his tiny washroom. Sitting at his desk, he fussed with some papers, but he could not calm himself. He was dis­proportionately ashamed of having been found asleep. His nap, like his lunch, was no guilty secret, but he hated to be caught unprepared. How long had Miss Green watched him, perhaps listened to his snores, considered the dry and iridescent matter, like the sheen on a butterfly’s wing, which formed on his lower lip when he slept? To escape this uncomfortable train of thought he rang his bell, and Professor Vambrace stalked from the door to the space before his desk, and glared down upon him.

“Well,” he said, and his deep voice vibrated with anger, “have you decided what you are going to do?”

“As I have no idea what you are talking about, Professor,” said Ridley, “I can’t say that I have. Won’t you sit down?”

The Professor sat, majestically. “I do not believe you, but I’ll soon tell you what I’m talking about,” said he, “and I’ll tell you what you’re going to do, as well.”

Walter Vambrace was a tall, gaunt man who looked like a tragedian of the old school; his large, dark eyes glowed balefully under his demonic eyebrows. From an inner pocket he produced a wallet, and drew a clipping from it with great care. Ridley, to whom the faces of newspapers were as familiar as the faces of his friends, saw at once that the clipping was from The Bellman, and prepared himself for trouble.

“In the next three issues of your paper you will publish this, and the retraction and apology which I shall also give you, in large type at the top of your front page,” said Professor Vambrace.

“Aha,” said Ridley, in a noncommital tone. “may I see the clipping, please?”

“Do you mean to tell me that you are not aware of its contents?” said the Professor, working his eyebrows menacingly.

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“Good God, don’t you read your own newspaper?”

“Of course I do, but I still don’t know what has offended you.”

“Refresh your recollection, then,” said the Professor, with a rich assumption of irony, and handed Ridley the scrap of newsprint upon which was printed the engagement notice with which the reader has already been made familiar.

The editor read it carefully. “This seems quite in order,” said he.

“In order! There is not one word of truth in it from beginning to end. It is a vile calumny!”

“You mean that your daughter is not engaged to Mr Bridgetower?”

“Is not, and never will be, and this damnable libel exposes me and my wife and my daughter to the ridicule of the entire community.”

Ridley’s heart sank within him. Physicians say that this cannot happen, but editors know a sensation which may not be described in any other phrase.

“That is most regrettable. I shall do everything possible to find out how this notice came to appear in print. But I can assure you now that we have a system which provides every possible safeguard against this sort of thing, and I cannot understand how it could have failed.”

Professor Vambrace’s expression, which had been one of anger, now deepened to a horrible grimace in which rage and scorn were mingled. “You have a system!” he roared. “Read it again, you fool, and then tell me, if you dare, that you have a system, or anything except the mischievous incompetence of your disgusting trade to explain the insult!”

Ridley was thoroughly angry himself, now, but caution was ingrained in his nature, and he turned his eyes once again to the clipping.

“To take place November 31st,” hissed the Professor. “And when, you jackanapes, is November 31st? Is that date provided for in your system? Hey?” he was shouting, now.

All Ridley’s anger was drained out of him, and a great but not unfamiliar weariness took its place. He was a good editor, and when praise came to The Bellman he took it on behalf of the staff; when blame came to it, he took that alone. He was, in law and in his own philosophy of journalism, personally responsible for every word which appeared in every issue of his paper. He looked into the eyes of his visitor and spoke the speech which was obligatory on him on such occasions.

“I cannot tell you how much I regret this,” he said; “however, it has happened, and although this is my first knowledge of it, I accept the full blame. Someone has played a tasteless joke on the paper, and, of course, upon you and your family as well. I am deeply sorry that it has happened, and I will join you in doing everything that can be done to find the joker.”

“Pah!” said Professor Vambrace, with such violence that quite a lot of spittle shot across Ridley’s desk and settled upon the papers there. “What kind of newspaper do you call this, where nobody knows how many days there are in November? That alone should have been enough to warn any intelligent person, even a newspaper editor, that the thing was a vile hoax. Quite apart from the ludicrous implication in the notice itself; whatever made you think that my daughter would marry that nincompoop?”

“As I have explained, I have not seen this notice until this moment. And how should I know whom your daughter might or might not marry?”

“Don’t you see what goes in your own paper?”

“I see very little of it, and certainly not the engagement notices. These matters are left in the hands of our staff.”

“A fine staff it must be! The thing is preposterous on the face of it. Do you know this Bridgetower?”

“I have met him two or three times.”

“Well? An idiot, nothing better. What would my daughter be doing with such a fellow?”

“I do not know your daughter.”

“Do you imply that she would take up with any simpleton who came along?”

“Professor Vambrace, this is beside the point.”

“It is not beside the point. It is the whole point. You have linked my daughter with this fellow Bridgetower. You have coupled them in the public mouth.”

“I have done nothing of the sort. The Bellman has been the victim of a practical joke; so have you. We must do what we can to set matters right.”

“Exactly. Therefore you will publish this notice on your front page, along with the apology which I have here, for the next three days, beginning today.”

“We shall publish a correction . . .”

“Not a correction, an apology.”

“A correction, but not on the front page, and not for three days.”

“For three days, beginning today.”

“Impossible. The paper has gone to press.”

“The front page.”

“The page on which these announcements appear. For you must understand that our correction will appear for one day only, in the same place that the erroneous notice appeared.”

“That is what you will publish.” The Professor pushed a piece of paper at Ridley. It began rather in the rhythm of a Papal Encyclical: With the uttermost apology and regret we make unqualified retraction; Ridley read no more.

“Look here, Professor,” said he, “we’ve both been made to look like fools, and we don’t want to make matters worse. Leave this matter in my hands, and I’ll deal with it in a way that will make an adequate correction and attract no unnecessary attention.”

“This will be settled in my way, or I’ll take it to court,” said Professor Vambrace.

“All right, then, take it to court and be damned,” said Ridley.

The Professor glared horribly, but it was the glare of a man who was wondering what to say next. Ridley saw that he had the advantage for the moment and followed up his lead.

“And spare me your histrionics,” said he; “I am not intimidated by them.”

This was a shrewd thrust, but tactically it was a mistake. The Professor was a keen amateur actor, and fancied himself as the “heavy” of the Salterton Little Theatre; Ridley’s remark disconcerted him, but deepened his anger. However, the editor had at last secured the upper hand, and he continued.

“You must understand that I have had more experience in these matters than you have.”

“That is a confession of incompetence rather than a reassurance,” said Vambrace.

“Kindly allow me to say what I have to say. The Bellman will not apologize, because it has acted in good faith, and is just as much a victim of this hoax as yourself. But we will correct the notice, printing the correction in the same place and in the same size of type as the original; we shall do this once only, for the notice appeared only once. If you will think about the matter calmly, you will see that this is best; you do not want an undignified fuss, and you do not want people to hear about this false engagement notice who have not heard of it already. Comparatively few people will have seen it –“

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Categories: Davies, Robertson