Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“My family is not utterly obscure,” said the Professor dryly, “and the Personal Notices are one of the few parts of your paper which are widely read. Scores of people have been asking me about this already –”

“Scores, Professor Vambrace? Did I understand you to say scores?”

“Yes, sir, scores was the word I used.”

“Now, now, precisely how many people have spoken to you about it?”

“Don’t take that tone with me, if you please.”

“My experience has been that when angry men talk about scores of people they mean perhaps half-a-dozen.”

“Do you doubt my word?”

“I think that your annoyance has led you to exaggerate.”

“A man in your trade is hardly in a position to accuse anyone of exaggeration.”

“Now let us be reasonable. Of course we shall do everything in our power to find out who perpetrated this joke –”

“I don’t call it a joke.”

“Nor do I. This outrage, then.”

“That is a better word. And what do you propose to do?”

It was here that Mr Ridley lost the advantage he had gained. He had no idea what he proposed to do. Therefore he looked as wise as he could, and said, “That will take careful consideration. I shall have to have a talk with some of the other men on the paper.”

“Let us do so at once, then.”

“I shall talk to them later this afternoon.”

“Let me make it plain to you that at this moment my daughter and my whole family rest under a vile imputation of which this news­paper is the source. Anything that is to be done must be done at once. So get your men in here now, and I will talk to them just long enough to find out whether you really mean to do anything or whether you are stalling me off. And unless you have an immediate plan of action I shall go straight from this office to my lawyer.”

The Professor had the upper hand again, and this time he did not mean to lose it. Ridley rang for Miss Green. “Will you find Mr Marryat and ask him if he will join us here,” said he; “it is urgent.” When the secretary had gone he and the Professor sat in painful silence for perhaps three minutes until the door opened again, and the general manager of The Bellman appeared.

Mr A. J. Marryat’s principal interest was in advertising, and he had the advertising man’s optimism and self-assurance. He came in smiling and greeted the Professor warmly. He told him that he was looking well. “And how is Mrs Vambrace?” said he.

“My wife is in bed, under strong sedatives, because of what you have done here,” replied Vambrace, and breathed noticeably and audibly through his nostrils.

Ridley took the general manager by the arm, guided him to a chair, and explained the trouble as briefly as he could.

Mr Marryat’s rule was never to display perturbation. He continued to smile. “That’s bad,” he said, “but we’ll find out who did it, and then we’ll show him a joke or two.” He laughed comfortably at the prospect; but under cover of his bonhomie he was taking stock of the situation. Ridley, obviously, was in a tight spot or he would not be discussing a matter of this kind with himself in front of the injured party. Well, A. J. Marryat knew all there was to know about tight spots, and one of his most valuable pieces of knowledge was that the sharpest anger can be blunted by good humour, courtesy and a relaxed manner, all of which could be combined with a refusal to do anything you did not want to do. He turned to Ridley. “Let’s hear the details,” said he.

When he heard the details concerning November 31st, Mr Marryat was disturbed, but his outer appearance of calm was maintained without a ruffle.

“That was inexcusable stupidity,” he said, “but I’m sure you know, Professor, how hard it is to get people to pay attention to things of that kind.”

“It is your work to do so, not mine,” said the Professor. “I am only concerned with the fact that your paper has involved my family in a scandal. My professional dignity and my family honour make it imperative that this announcement be denied, and a full apology made, with the least possible waste of.time. I want that done in today’s paper.”

“That’s a mechanical impossibility,” said Mr Marryat. “The presses will begin rolling in about fifteen minutes.”

“Presses can be stopped, can they not?”

“They can be stopped at very great expense.”

“Probably less than it will cost you if I take this matter to court.”

“Now just a minute, Professor. Let’s not be fantastic. Who’s talking about court?”

“Your associate, Mr Ridley, told me to take my case to court and be damned.”

“I apologize,” said Ridley, “but you were very provocative. You called me a fool and a jackanapes, you know.”

“I did, and I see no reason to retract either term.”

“Oh, come now, Professor,” said Mr Marryat, with his genial and ready laugh; “let’s not lose our perspective on this thing.”

“Mr Marryat,” said the Professor, rising, “I have not come here to be cajoled or lectured. I came to tell you what you must do, and it is plain to me that you will twist and squirm all day to avoid doing it. I have no time to waste and this atmosphere is repugnant to me. You will shortly hear from my lawyers.” The Professor walked rapidly out of the room.

“Well, how do you like that?” said Mr Marryat.

Mr Ridley moaned, and wiped his brow.

The gall of that guy,” said Mr Marryat. “Professional dignity! Family honour! You’d think we did it on purpose. And what’s all this scandal he talks about? Do you know this fellow Bridgetower?”

“Yes. He’s a junior professor.”

“Well? Has he got two heads, or a common-law wife, or some­thing?”

“So far as I know there’s nothing against him except that he is the son of old Mrs Bridgetower.”

“That’s plenty, mind you. And Vambrace’s daughter, what about her?”

“I haven’t seen her for two or three years. I think she’s in the Waverley Library, somewhere, but I never meet her there. So far as I know she’s just a girl.”

“Probably she’s engaged to somebody else. That notice was some­body’s half-baked joke. Well, I’ll trace it. I’ll get busy on it right now, and if we hear anything from Vambrace’s lawyers, we can explain to them. They’ll soon put a stop to that talk about scandal.”

“I’d be grateful if you’d let me know anything you find out as soon as possible, A.J.,” said Ridley.

“At once,” said Marryat, smiling the smile of a man who knows that he has an office system which cannot go wrong.

It was an hour and a half later when Mr Marryat returned. “Well,” he said, sitting down opposite Ridley’s desk, “this isn’t going to be as easy as I thought.”

“What’s wrong?” said Ridley.

“If I’ve told them once, I’ve told them a million times that we have to have a record of every personal notice and classified ad that goes in the paper,” said Mr Marryat. “When the yellow form is written out for the composing room a carbon copy is made on the blue form that goes into the files; the customer gets a pink form with all this on it, as a receipt. All three forms have to be initialled by the girl who takes the order, and the advertiser. You’d think it was foolproof. But look at this.” He handed Ridley a blue form.

It bore the text of the offending engagement notice and some marks which meant nothing to the editor, but Mr Marryat was already explaining them.

“Number of insertions: one. Payment: cash with order, $3.25. Date received: October 30th. Date of insertion: October 31st. Order received by: L E Advertiser: blank. Now what do you think of that?”

“It doesn’t give the name of the advertiser,” said Ridley, who knew that this was a foolish answer, but obviously the one expected of him. When playing straight-man to Mr Marryat or anyone else with a load of grief, these steps must not be omitted.

“Exactly. And do you know why?”

“No. Why?”

“It’s the kind of thing that sickens you; you think you’ve got a staff trained so that this kind of thing won’t happen; you think you can trust everybody; then it happens.”

“Yes. But how?”

“Lucy takes all these classified ads. A dandy girl. Comes from a fine family. But she’s young, and by God, sometimes I swear I won’t have another woman in the office that isn’t over fifty. Whenever she leaves the desk she’s supposed to tell Miss Ellis; she’s allowed fifteen minutes every morning and afternoon for coffee and a rest, and for ordinary purposes besides. But if Miss Ellis is out of the office, Lucy likes to slip off to the girls’ room for a smoke. This ad was taken at 11.42 on October 30th. Miss Ellis was in my office, going over some figures for the monthly statement. Lucy was downstairs for a cigarette and Miss Porter took the ad, and Lucy initialled the form when she came back.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson