‘Against the Thursday Review?’ said Aunt Dahlia. ‘That’s your rag, isn’t it, young Herring? What have they done to stir him up?’
‘It’s this book Daddy wrote about preparatory schools. He wrote a book about preparatory schools. Did you know he had written a book about preparatory schools?’
‘Hadn’t an inkling. Nobody tells me anything.’
‘Well, he wrote this book about preparatory schools. It was about preparatory schools.’
‘About preparatory schools, was it?’
‘Yes, about preparatory schools.’
‘Thank God we’ve got that straightened out at last. I had a feeling we should get somewhere if we dug long enough. And – ?’
‘And the Thursday Review said something libellous about it, and Daddy’s lawyer says the jury ought to give Daddy at least five thousand pounds. Because they libelled him. So he’s been in London all this time seeing his lawyer. But he’s coming back tonight. He’ll be here for the prize-giving, and I’ve got his speech all typed out and ready for him. Oh, there’s my precious Poppet,’ said Phyllis, as a distant barking reached the ears. ‘He’s asking for his dinner, the sweet little angel. All right, darling, Mother’s coming,’ she fluted, and buzzed off on the errand of mercy.
A brief silence followed her departure.
‘I don’t care what you say,’ said Aunt Dahlia at length in a defiant sort of way. ‘Brains aren’t everything. She’s a dear, sweet girl. I love her like a daughter, and to hell with anyone who calls her a half- wit. Why, hullo,’ she proceeded, seeing that Kipper was slumped back in his chair trying without much success to hitch up a drooping lower jaw. ‘What’s eating you, young Herring?’
I could see that Kipper was in no shape for conversation, so took it upon myself to explain.
‘A certain stickiness has arisen, aged relative. You heard what P. Mills said before going to minister to Poppet. Those words tell the story.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The facts are readily stated. Upjohn wrote this slim volume, which, if you recall, was about preparatory schools, and in it, so Kipper tells me, said that the time spent in these establishments was the happiest of our lives. Ye Ed passed it on to Kipper for comment, and he, remembering the dark days at Malvern House, Bramley-on-Sea, when he and I were plucking the gowans fine there, slated it with no uncertain hand. Correct, Kipper?’
He found speech, if you could call making a noise like a buffalo taking its foot out of a swamp finding speech.
‘But, dash it,’ he said, finding a bit more, ‘it was perfectly legitimate criticism. I didn’t mince my words, of course -‘
‘It would be interesting to find out what these unminced words were,’ said Aunt Dahlia, ‘for among them there appear to have been one or two which seem likely to set your proprietor back five thousand of the best and brightest. Bertie, get your car out and go to Market Snodsbury station and see if the bookstall has a copy of this week’s … No, wait, hold the line. Cancel that order. I shan’t be a minute,’ she said, and went out, leaving me totally fogged as to what she was up to. What aunts are up to is never an easy thing to divine.
I turned to Kipper.
‘Bad show,’ I said.
From the way he writhed I gathered that he was feeling it could scarcely be worse.
‘What happens when an editorial assistant on a weekly paper lets the bosses in for substantial libel damages?’
He was able to answer that one.
‘He gets the push and, what’s more, finds it pretty damned difficult to land another job. He’s on the blacklist.’
I saw what he meant. These birds who run weekly papers believe in watching the pennies. They like to get all that’s coming to them and when the stuff, instead of pouring in, starts pouring out as the result of an injudicious move on the part of a unit of the staff, what they do to that unit is plenty. I think Kipper’s outfit was financed by some sort of board or syndicate, but boards and syndicates are just as sensitive about having to cough up as individual owners. As Kipper had indicated, they not only give the erring unit the heave-ho but pass the word round to the other boards and syndicates.