Leaven of Malice
Salterton Trilogy 02
by Robertson Davies
It was on the 31st of October that the following announcement appeared under “Engagements”, in the Salterton Evening Bellman:
Professor and Mrs Walter Vambrace are pleased to announce the engagement of their daughter, Pearl Veronica, to Solomon Bridgetower, Esq., son of Mrs Bridgetower and the late Professor Solomon Bridgetower of this city. Marriage to take place in St Nicholas’ Cathedral at eleven o’clock a.m., November 31st.
Few of the newspaper’s readers found anything extraordinary about this intimation, or attached any significance to the fact that it was made on Hallowe’en.
When fortune decides to afflict a good man and rob him of his peace, she often chooses a fine day to begin.
The 1st of November was a beautiful day, and the sun shone with a noble autumn glory as Gloster Ridley, editor of The Bellman, walked through the park to his morning’s work. The leaves rustled about his feet and he kicked them with pleasure. It was like tramping through some flaky breakfast food, he thought, and smiled at the unromantic fancy. That was not in the least what his colleague Mr Shillito would think about autumn leaves. He recalled what Mr Shillito had written yesterday on the subject of Hallowe’en — which Mr Shillito had managed five times to call All Hallows’ Eve and twice “this unhallowed Eve” — and his face darkened; the Old Mess had been at his most flowery and most drivelling. But Ridley quickly banished Mr Shillito from his mind; that was a problem to be dealt with later in the day. Meanwhile, his walk to his office was his own, for his own agreeable musings. His day had begun well; Constant Reader had prepared an excellent breakfast for him, and the hateful Blubadub, though faintly audible in the kitchen, had kept out his sight. He sniffed the delightfully cool and smoky autumn air. The day stretched before him, full of promise.
In less than a week he would be fifty. Middle-aged, unquestionably, but how much better he felt than ever in his youth! From his seventeenth year until quite recently, Anxiety had ridden him with whip and spur, and only when well past forty had he gained any hope of unseating her. But today. . .! His bosom’s lord, he told himself, sat lightly in his throne. Who said that? Romeo. Pooh, Romeo knew nothing about the quiet, well-controlled self-satisfaction of a man who might well, before he was fifty-one, be a Doctor of Civil Law.
To be Doctor Ridley! He would not, of course, insist upon the title, but it would be his, and if he should ever chance to be introduced to a new acquaintance as Mister, there would almost certainly be someone at hand to say, probably with a pleasant laugh, “I think it should be Doctor Ridley, shouldn’t it?” Not that he attached undue importance to such distinctions; he knew precisely how matters stood. After what he had done for Waverley University they must reward him with a substantial fee or give him an honorary doctorate. Waverley, like all Canadian universities, was perpetually short of money, whereas its store of doctorates was inexhaustible. They would not even have to give him a gown, for that glorious adornment would be returnable immediately after the degree ceremony. It would be a doctorate, certainly, and he would value it. It was a symbol of security and success, and it would be another weapon with which to set his old enemy, Anxiety, at bay. He would feel himself well rewarded when he was Doctor Ridley.
He had fairly earned it. When it had occurred to some of the Governors of the University two years ago that Waverley ought to establish a course in journalism, it had been to him that they turned for advice. When the decision was taken to make plans for such a course, he had been the only person not directly associated with the University to sit upon the committee; tactfully and unobtrusively, he had guided it. He had listened, without visible emotion, to the opinions of professors upon the Press and upon the duty which some of them believed they owed to society to reform the Press. He had discussed without mirth or irony their notions of the training which would produce a good newspaperman. He had counselled against foolish spending, and he had fought tirelessly for spending which he believed to be necessary. Little by little his academic colleagues on the committee had recognized that he knew what he was talking about.
He had triumphed in persuading them that their course should occupy three years instead of two. His had been the principal voice in planning the course, and his would certainly be the principal voice in hiring the staff. Next autumn the course would be included in the Waverley syllabus, and now his work was almost done.
One task still lay before him, and it was a pleasant one. He was to deliver the first of the Wadsworth Lectures for the current academic year. These public lectures, founded twenty years before to inform the university opinion on matters of public importance, were to be devoted this year to “The Press and The People”. A Cabinet Minister would speak, and the United Kingdom High Commissioner; a celebrated philosopher and an almost equally celebrated psychologist were also to give their views. But the first of the five lectures would be given by himself, Gloster Ridley, editor of the Salterton Evening Bellman, and he was determined that it should be the best of the lot. For, after all, he knew at first hand what a newspaper was, and the other lecturers did not. And it was widely admitted that under his guidance The Bellman was a very good paper.
Yes, he thought, he had a shrewd idea what the Press was. Not a cheap Press, nor yet the pipedream Press that the university reformers had talked about at those early meetings. And he knew about the People, too, for he was one of them. He had had no university education. That was one of the reasons why it would fall so sweetly upon his ear to be spoken of as Doctor Ridley.
Oh, yes, he would tell them about the Press and the People. The Press, he would explain, belonged to the People — to all of the People, whether their tastes and needs were common or uncommon. He would speak amusingly, but there would be plenty in his lecture for them to chew on. He would begin with a quotation from Shakespeare, from All’s Well that Ends Well; a majority of his listeners, even in a university audience, would not have read the play, but he would remind them that people outside university halls could be well-read. Of a newspaper he would quote, “It is like a barber’s chair that fits all buttocks; the pin-buttock, the quatch-buttock, the brawn buttock, or any buttock”. And then he would develop his theme, which was that in any issue of a good daily paper every reader, gentle or simple, liberally educated or barely able to read, should find not only the news of the day but something which was, in a broad sense, of special concern to himself.
It would be a good lecture. Possibly his publisher would have it reprinted in pamphlet form, and distribute it widely to other papers. Without vulgar hinting, he thought he could insinuate that idea into his publisher’s mind.
Musing pleasantly on these things, he reached the newspaper building.
He climbed the stairs to his second-floor office somewhat furtively, for he did not want to meet Mr Shillito and exchange greetings with him. He was determined to do nothing which might appear two-faced, and Mr Shillito’s greetings were of so courtly and old-world a nature that he was often enticed into a geniality of which he was afterward ashamed. He must not feed the Old Mess sugar from his hand, while concealing the sword behind his back. But his path was clear, and he slipped into his office unseen by anyone but Miss Green, his secretary. She followed him through the door.
“No personal mail this morning, Mr Ridley. Just the usual. And the switchboard says somebody called you before nine, but wouldn’t leave their name.”
The usual was neatly marshalled on his desk. Miss Green had been solicitous about the morning’s letters since the day, more than three days ago, when somebody had sent him a dead rat, wrapped as a gift, with a card explaining that this was a comment upon The Bellman’s stand on a matter of public controversy. She had failed, since then, to intercept an envelope filled with used toilet paper (a political innuendo) but in general her monitorship was good. There were ten Letters to the Editor, and he took them up without curiosity, and with a thick black pencil ready in his hand.
Two, from “Fair Play” and “Indignant”, took the Salterton City Council to task, the former for failing to re-surface the street on which he lived, and the latter for proposing to pave a street on which he owned property, thereby raising the rates. Both writers had allowed anonymity to go to their heads, and both had added personal notes requesting that their true names be withheld, as they feared reprisals of an unspecified nature. From “Fair Play”s’ letter Ridley deleted several sentences, and changed the word “shabby” to “ill-advised”. “Indignant” required more time, as the writer had not used enough verbs to make his meaning clear, and had apparently punctuated his letter after writing it, on some generous but poorly conceived principle of his own.