The third letter was so badly written that even his accustomed eye could make very little of it, but it appeared to be from an aggrieved citizen whose neighbour spitefully threw garbage into his back yard. Other iniquities of the neighbour were rehearsed, but Ridley marked the letter for Miss Green’s attention; she would return it with the usual note declining to publish libellous material.
The next three letters were legible, grammatical and reasonable, and dealt with a scheme to create a traffic circle at a principal intersection of the city. They were quickly given headings and marked for the printer.
The seventh letter urged that a hockey coach who had trained some little boys the winter before be prevented, by force if necessary, from training them in the winter to come. He was, it appeared, a monster and a heretic whose influence would prove the ruin of hockey tactics and the downfall of that sport in Canada. It was signed with a bold signature and a street address, but the editor’s eye was not deceived. He consulted the Salterton City Directory and found, as he had suspected, that there was no such number as 183 Maple Street, and no such person as Arthur C. Brown. With a sigh for the duplicity of mankind, he threw the letter into the wastepaper basket. He was a little pleased, also, that the intuition which suggested to him that a signature was a fake was in good working order.
The eighth letter was from a farmer who charged the Salterton Exhibition Committee with great unfairness and some measure of dishonesty in the matter of awarding prizes in the Pullet sub-section of the Poultry Division of the Livestock Competition at the fall fair. He was aware, he said, that the fair had taken place seven weeks ago, but it had taken him a little time to get around to writing his letter. It went into the waste basket.
The ninth letter caused Ridley both surprise and annoyance. It read:
Warm congratulations on the editorial headed “Whither The Toothpick” which appeared in your edition of 28/x. It is such delightful bits of whimsy as this which raise the tone of The Bellman above that of any other paper which comes to my notice and give it a literary grace which is doubly distinguished in a world where style is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. This little gem joins many another in my scrapbook. Happy the city which can boast a Bellman! Happy the Bellman which boasts a writer who can produce the felicitous “Toothpick”.
No error about that signature; old Bumford, at eighty-four, was reversing the usual tendency of old men to damn everything, and was loud in his praise of virtually everything. No reason not to publish it. Dead certainty that if it did not appear within a day or two old Bumford would be on the telephone, or worse still, in the chair opposite his desk, asking why. And yet it was out of the question that the thing should be published. Ridley laid it aside for later consideration.
The tenth letter was in a well-known hand, in green ink. Letters in that hand, and in that ink, appeared on Ridley’s desk every two weeks, and their message was always the same: the world had forgotten God. Sometimes it showed this forgetfulness by permitting children to read the comic strips; sometimes drink — invariably referred to as “beverage alcohol” — was the villain; sometimes it was the decline in church attendance which especially afflicted the writer; in winter the iniquity of ski-trains, which travelled during church hours and bore young people beyond the sound of church bells, was complained of; in summer it was the whoredom of two-piece bathing suits, and shorts which revealed girls’ legs, which was consuming society. The writer was able to support all her arguments by copious quotations from Holy Writ, and she did so; now and then she related a modern enormity to one of the monsters in Revelation. The letter at hand urged that the Prime Minister be advised to declare November 11th a National Day of Prayer, in which, by an act of mass repentance, Canada might be cleansed of her wrong-doings, and at the end of which her iniquity might be pardoned. The letter was marked “Urgent — Print this At Once”. Wearily, Ridley laid it aside. This was, perhaps, the voice of the people, and the voice of the people, no editor is ever permitted to forget, is the voice of God. It was a pity, he reflected, that God’s utterances needed such a lot of editorial revision.
Disposing of the remainder of the morning’s mail was easy. Ridley ran his fingers quickly through it: propaganda, some of it expert and much of it amateurish, from a dozen bureaux maintained by a dozen foreign Governments. The Bellman was invited to espouse two opposed causes in India; it was offered a ringing denunciation of the partition of Ireland; it was urged to celebrate the 25oth anniversary of a French poet whom Ridley could not recall having heard of; it was reminded of seven quaint celebrations which would take place in Britain during November.
There were four long mimeographed statements from four trades unions, setting forth extremely complex grievances which the Government was admonished to settle at once. There was a pamphlet from a society which wanted to reform the calendar and had received the permission of Ecuador, Liberia, Iceland and the Latvian Government-in-exile to go ahead and do it. There was a mass of material from United Nations. There were five printed communications of varying length from religious and charitable societies. There was something stamped “Newsflash” in red ink, advertising a new oil well in terms which were not intended to sound like advertisement. A blue-book, to which was attached the visiting card of a Cabinet Minister, presented a mass of valuable statistics, eighteen months out of date. Four packages offered The Bellman new comic strips of unparalleled funniness, which Ridley read through with undisturbed gravity.
He threw the whole lot into the waste basket, filling it almost to the brim.
There was a rich, rumbling sound outside his door, a voice which said, “Ah, Miss Green, as charming as ever, I see. Nobody with the Chief, I presume?” and the door opened, admitting Mr Swithin Shillito.
Mr Shillito was seventy-eight years old, and frequently put people into a position where they had to tell him that he did not look it. His white hair, parted in the middle, swept back in two thick waves. His white moustache was enormous, and was shaped like the horns of a ram. Lesser moustaches, equally white, thick and sweeping, served him for eyebrows. His very large, handsome head appeared to be attached to his small, meagre body by a high stiff collar and a carefully knotted tie, in which a nugget of gold served as a pin. On his waistcoat hung a watch-chain with huge links, from one of which depended an elk’s tooth, mounted in gold. Other interesting elements in his dress were brightly shined high boots, an alpaca working coat, and wicker cuffguards on his sleeves. Gold pince-nez hung from a little reel on his waistcoat, ready to be hauled out and nipped on his large nose when needed. He carried some papers in his hand.
“Nothing strange or startling this morning, Chief,” said he, advancng with a jaunty step. “I thought I’d do my stint a little early. Nothing heavy: just one or two odds and ends that may prove amusing, and fill up a corner here and there. I wanted to get my day clear, in order to do some digging. I tell these young chaps in the news room, ‘Dig, dig, it’s the secret of the Newspaper Game. I’m seventy-eight and still digging,’ I say. Some of them won’t believe it. You’ll do the leader yourself, I suppose?”
“Yes Mr Shillito,” said Ridley. “I have two or three things I want to write about today.”
“And I dare swear you have them written in your head at this moment,” said Mr Shillito, wagging his own head in histrionic admiration. “Plan, plan; it’s the only way to get anything done on a newspaper. They won’t believe it, the young chaps won’t, but it’s the gospel truth.” “I have been reading one or two reports on the seaway scheme which suggested some ideas to me.”
“Ah, that’s it! Read, read. Dig, dig. Plan, plan. That’s what takes a journalist to the top. But the young chaps won’t listen. Time will weed ’em out. The readers, the diggers, the planners will shoot to the top and the rest — well, we know what happens to them. Do you want to cast your eye over those things while I wait?”
I’m damned if I do, thought Ridley. Mr Shillito loved to watch people reading what he had written, and as he did so he would smile, grunt appreciatively, nod and in other ways indicate enjoyment and admiration until all but the strongest were forced by a kind of spiritual pressure to follow his lead. In his way, the old fellow was a bully; he was so keen in his appreciation of himself and his work that not to join him became a form of discourtesy.