The Sea Lady/Chapter 3
CHAPTER THE THIRD
THE EPISODE OF THE VARIOUS JOURNALISTS
The remarkable thing is that the Buntings really carried out the programme Mrs. Bunting laid down. For a time at least they positively succeeded in converting the Sea Lady into a credible human invalid, in spite of the galaxy of witnesses to the lady's landing and in spite of the severe internal dissensions that presently broke out. In spite, moreover, of the fact that one of the maids—they found out which only long after—told the whole story under vows to her very superior young man who told it next Sunday to a rising journalist who was sitting about on the Leas maturing a descriptive article. The rising journalist was incredulous. But he went about enquiring. In the end he thought it good enough to go upon. He found in several quarters a vague but sufficient rumour of a something; for the maid's young man was a conversationalist when he had anything to say.
Finally the rising journalist went and sounded the people on the two chief Folkestone papers and found the thing had just got to them. They were inclined to pretend they hadn't heard of it, after the fashion of local papers when confronted by the abnormal, but the atmosphere of enterprise that surrounded the rising journalist woke them up. He perceived he had done so and that he had no time to lose. So while they engaged in inventing representatives to enquire, he went off and telephoned to the Daily Gunfire and the New Paper. When they answered he was positive and earnest. He staked his reputation—the reputation of a rising journalist!
"I swear there's something up," he said. "Get in first—that's all."
He had some reputation, I say—and he had staked it. The Daily Gunfire was sceptical but precise, and the New Paper sprang a headline "A Mermaid at last!"
You might well have thought the thing was out after that, but it wasn't. There are things one doesn't believe even if they are printed in a halfpenny paper. To find the reporters hammering at their doors, so to speak, and fended off only for a time by a proposal that they should call again; to see their incredible secret glaringly in print, did indeed for a moment seem a hopeless exposure to both the Buntings and the Sea Lady. Already they could see the story spreading, could imagine the imminent rush of intimate enquiries, the tripod strides of a multitude of cameras, the crowds watching the windows, the horrors of a great publicity. All the Buntings and Mabel were aghast, simply aghast. Adeline was not so much aghast as excessively annoyed at this imminent and, so far as she was concerned, absolutely irrelevant publicity. "They will never dare—" she said, and "Consider how it affects Harry!" and at the earliest opportunity she retired to her own room. The others, with a certain disregard of her offence, sat around the Sea Lady's couch—she had scarcely touched her breakfast—and canvassed the coming terror.
"They will put our photographs in the papers," said the elder Miss Bunting.
"Well, they won't put mine in," said her sister. "It's horrid. I shall go right off now and have it taken again."
"They'll interview the Ded!"
"No, no," said Mr. Bunting terrified. "Your mother——"
"It's your place, my dear," said Mrs. Bunting.
"But the Ded—" said Fred.
"I couldn't," said Mr. Bunting.
"Well, some one 'll have to tell 'em anyhow," said Mrs. Bunting. "You know, they will——"
"But it isn't at all what I wanted," wailed the Sea Lady, with the Daily Gunfire in her hand. "Can't it be stopped?"
"You don't know our journalists," said Fred.
The tact of my cousin Melville saved the situation. He had dabbled in journalism and talked with literary fellows like myself. And literary fellows like myself are apt at times to be very free and outspoken about the press. He heard of the Buntings' shrinking terror of publicity as soon as he arrived, a perfect clamour—an almost exultant clamour indeed, of shrinking terror, and he caught the Sea Lady's eye and took his line there and then.
"It's not an occasion for sticking at trifles, Mrs. Bunting," he said. "But I think we can save the situation all the same. You're too hopeless. We must put our foot down at once; that's all. Let me see these reporter fellows and write to the London dailies. I think I can take a line that will settle them."
"Eh?" said Fred.
"I can take a line that will stop it, trust me."
"How?" said Fred and Mrs. Bunting. "You're not going to bribe them!"
"Bribe!" said Mr. Bunting. "We're not in France. You can't bribe a British paper."
(A sort of subdued cheer went around from the assembled Buntings.)
"You leave it to me," said Melville, in his element.
And with earnestly expressed but not very confident wishes for his success, they did.
He managed the thing admirably.
"What's this about a mermaid?" he demanded of the local journalists when they returned. They travelled together for company, being, so to speak, emergency journalists, compositors in their milder moments, and unaccustomed to these higher aspects of journalism. "What's this about a mermaid?" repeated my cousin, while they waived precedence dumbly one to another.
"I believe some one's been letting you in," said my cousin Melville. "Just imagine!—a mermaid!"
"That's what we thought," said the younger of the two emergency journalists. "We knew it was some sort of hoax, you know. Only the New Paper giving it a headline——"
"I'm amazed even Banghurst—" said my cousin Melville.
"It's in the Daily Gunfire as well," said the older of the two emergency journalists.
"What's one more or less of these ha'-penny fever rags?" cried my cousin with a ringing scorn. "Surely you're not going to take your Folkestone news from mere London papers."
"But how did the story come about?" began the older emergency journalist.
"That's not my affair."
The younger emergency journalist had an inspiration. He produced a note book from his breast pocket. "Perhaps, sir, you wouldn't mind suggesting to us something we might say——"
My cousin Melville complied.
The rising young journalist who had first got wind of the business—who must not for a moment be confused with the two emergency journalists heretofore described—came to Banghurst next night in a state of strange exultation. "I've been through with it and I've seen her," he panted. "I waited about outside and saw her taken into the carriage. I've talked to one of the maids—I got into the house under pretence of being a telephone man to see their telephone—I spotted the wire—and it's a fact. A positive fact she's a mermaid with a tail—a proper mermaid's tail. I've got here——"
He displayed sheets.
"Whaddyer talking about?" said Banghurst from his littered desk, eyeing the sheets with apprehensive animosity.
"The mermaid—there really is a mermaid. At Folkestone."
Banghurst turned away from him and pawed at his pen tray. "Whad if there is!" he said after a pause.
"But it's proved. That note you printed——"
"That note I printed was a mistake if there's anything of that sort going, young man." Banghurst remained an obstinate expansion of back.
"We don't deal in mermaids here."
"But you're not going to let it drop?"
"But there she is!""Let her be." He turned on the rising young journalist, and his massive face was unusually massive and his voice fine and full and fruity. "Do you think we're going to make our public believe anything simply because it's true? They know
"Stuff that the public won't believe aren't facts."
perfectly well what they are going to believe and what they aren't going to believe, and they aren't going to believe anything about mermaids—you bet your hat. I don't care if the whole damned beach was littered with mermaids.—not the whole damned beach! We've got our reputation to keep up. See? . . . Look here!—you don't learn journalism as I hoped you'd do. It was you what brought in all that stuff about a discovery in chemistry——"
"I had it from a Fellow of the Royal Society——"
"I don't care if you had it from—anybody. Stuff that the public won't believe aren't facts. Being true only makes 'em worse. They buy our paper to swallow it and it's got to go down easy. When I printed you that note and headline I thought you was up to a lark. I thought you was on to a mixed bathing scandal or something of that sort—with juice in it. The sort of thing that all understand. You know when you went down to Folkestone you were going to describe what Salisbury and all the rest of them wear upon the Leas. And start a discussion on the acclimatisation of the café. And all that. And then you get on to this (unprintable epithet) nonsense!"
"But Lord Salisbury—he doesn't go to Folkestone."
Banghurst shrugged his shoulders over a hopeless case. "What the deuce," he said, addressing his inkpot in plaintive tones, "does that matter?"
The young man reflected. He addressed Banghurst's back after a pause. His voice had flattened a little. "I might go over this and do it up as a lark perhaps. Make it a comic dialogue sketch with a man who really believed in it—or something like that. It's a beastly lot of copy to get slumped, you know."
"Nohow," said Banghurst. "Not in any shape. No! Why! They'd think it clever. They'd think you was making game of them. They hate things they think are clever!"
The young man made as if to reply, but Banghurst's back expressed quite clearly that the interview was at an end.
"Nohow," repeated Banghurst just when it seemed he had finished altogether.
"I may take it to the Gunfire then?"
Banghurst suggested an alternative.
"Very well," said the young man, heated, "the Gunfire it is."
But in that he was reckoning without the editor of the Gunfire.
It must have been quite soon after that, that I myself heard the first mention of the mermaid, little recking that at last it would fall to me to write her history. I was on one of my rare visits to London, and Micklethwaite was giving me lunch at the Penwiper Club, certainly one of the best dozen literary clubs in London. I noted the rising young journalist at a table near the door, lunching alone. All about him tables were vacant, though the other parts of the room were crowded. He sat with his face towards the door, and he kept looking up whenever any one came in, as if he expected some one who never came. Once distinctly I saw him beckon to a man, but the man did not respond.
"Look here, Micklethwaite," I said, "why is everybody avoiding that man over there? I noticed just now in the smoking-room that he seemed to be trying to get into conversation with some one and that a kind of taboo——"
Micklethwaite stared over his fork. "Ra-ther," he said.
"But what's he done?"
"He's a fool," said Micklethwaite with his mouth full, evidently annoyed. "Ugh," he said as soon as he was free to do so.
I waited a little while.
"What's he done?" I ventured.
Micklethwaite did not answer for a moment and crammed things into his mouth vindictively, bread and all sorts of things. Then leaning towards me in a confidential manner he made indignant noises which I could not clearly distinguish as words.
"Oh!" I said, when he had done.
"Yes," said Micklethwaite. He swallowed and then poured himself wine—splashing the tablecloth.
"He had me for an hour very nearly the other day."
"Yes?" I said.
"Silly fool," said Micklethwaite.
I was afraid it was all over, but luckily he gave me an opening again after gulping down his wine.
"He leads you on to argue," he said.
"That he can't prove it."
"And then he shows you he can. Just showing off how damned ingenious he is."
I was a little confused. "Prove what?" I asked.
"Haven't I been telling you?" said Micklethwaite, growing very red. "About this confounded mermaid of his at Folkestone."
"He says there is one?"
"Yes, he does," said Micklethwaite, going purple and staring at me very hard. He seemed to ask mutely whether I of all people proposed to turn on him and back up this infamous scoundrel. I thought for a moment he would have apoplexy, but happily he remembered his duty as my host. So he turned very suddenly on a meditative waiter for not removing our plates.
"Had any golf lately?" I said to Micklethwaite, when the plates and the remains of the waiter had gone away. Golf always does Micklethwaite good except when he is actually playing. Then, I am told— If I were Mrs. Bunting I should break off and raise my eyebrows and both hands at this point, to indicate how golf acts on Micklethwaite when he is playing.
I turned my mind to feigning an interest in golf—a game that in truth I despise and hate as I despise and hate nothing else in this world. Imagine a great fat creature like Micklethwaite, a creature who ought to wear a turban and a long black robe to hide his grossness, whacking a little white ball for miles and miles with a perfect surgery of instruments, whacking it either with a babyish solemnity or a childish rage as luck may have decided, whacking away while his country goes to the devil, and incidentally training an innocent-eyed little boy to swear and be a tip-hunting loafer. That's golf! However, I controlled my all too facile sneer and talked of golf and the relative merits of golf links as I might talk to a child about buns or distract a puppy with the whisper of "rats," and when at last I could look at the rising young journalist again our lunch had come to an end.
I saw that he was talking with a greater air of freedom than it is usual to display to club waiters, to the man who held his coat. The man looked incredulous but respectful, and was answering shortly but politely.
When we went out this little conversation was still going on. The waiter was holding the rising young journalist's soft felt hat and the rising young journalist was fumbling in his coat pocket with a thick mass of papers.
"It's tremendous. I've got most of it here," he was saying as we went by. "I don't know if you'd care——"
"I get very little time for reading, sir," the waiter was replying.