While musing, Ridley had drawn moustaches and spectacles on pictures of four statesmen which appeared in a paper under his hand. He sketched a wig of curly hair on a bald man. With two deft dots of his pencil, he crossed the eyes of a huge-breasted girl under whose picture appeared the caption: “Miss Sweater Girl for this month is lovely Dinah Ball, acclaimed by outstanding artists for her outstanding physique”. If a new Sweater Girl every month, why not an Udders Day, for the suitable honouring of all mammals? Could a witty aperçu be made of that? Probably not for a family journal.
But this was idleness. He must work. The editor of an evening daily has no time for profitless musing until after three o’clock. He tore up the defaced pictures, so that Miss Green should not find them, and turned once again to his task.
When another twenty minutes had passed he had perused the editorial outpourings of his thirty-eight contemporaries and had produced four more paragraphs of Notes and Comment. It was possible, he knew, to buy syndicated material of this sort, but he rather liked writing his own; the technique had its special fascination. It was possible, when desperate for material, to make an editorial note about virtually anything, or out of nothing at all. Consider, for instance, his startling success of the previous June: a mosquito in his office had annoyed him, and when he mentioned it to Miss Green she borrowed an atomizer filled with some sort of spray from the janitor, sought out the monster, and stifled it. “There’s a spray for every kind of bug now, Mr Ridley,” she had said. “Except the humbug, Miss Green,” he had replied, thinking of Mr Shillito. And there had been a Note, ready to hand. He had typed it at once:
An eminent scientist asserts that there is now a spray for the control of every form of bug. Excluding, of course, the humbug.
One always attributed any foolish remark upon which one intended to pun either to an eminent scientist, a prominent physician, or a political commentator; it gave authenticity and flourish to the witty aperçu which followed. This gem, so quickly conceived and executed, had been copied by eighteen other newspapers, with appropriate credit to The Bellman, stolen by several more, and had appeared a month afterward in the magazine section of the New York Times, attributed to the late Will Rogers.
It was now time for him to settle down to work on the leader for the day, his editorial on the St Lawrence seaway. This was a nervous moment, for he hated to make a beginning at any piece of writing. As the Old Mess had told him, it was already written in his head, but what is written in the head is always so much more cogent and firmly expressed than what at last appears upon the page. He longed for a discretion, something that would postpone beginning for a few more minutes. His wish was gratified; Miss Green came in, carrying three books.
“Shall I put these with the other review books, Mr Ridley?”
“No, let’s have a look at them, Miss Green.”
Books for review always gave him a moment of excitement. There was the chance, faint, but still possible, that among them there would be something which he himself would like to read. But not this time. The first was a volume of pious reflections by a well-known Canadian divine; just the thing for Shillito. Next was a slim volume of verse by a Canadian poetess. Why are such volumes always “slim”, he wondered; why not “scrawny”, which would be so much nearer the truth? Miss Green could polish off the poetess. Next — ah, yes, the choice of an American book club, a volume somewhat larger and heavier than a brick, with a startling jacket printed upon paper so slick as to be somewhat sticky to the touch. Plonk was its title, and the inside flap of the jacket declared that “it lays bare the soul of a man and woman caught up in the maelstrom of modern metropolitan life. Rusty Maloney fights his way from Boston’s Irishtown to success as an advertising executive, only to fall under the spell of Siva McNulty, lovely, alluring but already addicted to Plonk, the insidious mixture of stout, brandy and coarse-ground poppyheads which brings surcease to screaming nerves and abraded passions. An Odyssey of the spirit on a scale rarely attempted, this novel is redolent of. . .” No use giving that to Shillito; his usual reviewer of novels which were redolent of something was in hospital, having a baby, and he did not want the Old Mess being offensively moral through four inches in the review column. Who, then? Ah, Rumball!
He rang the bell and asked Miss Green to find Mr Rumball and send him in. Meanwhile he made a bet with himself that the first sex scene in Plonk would be found between pages 15 and 30. He won his bet. It was by no means a certainty. Sometimes this important scene came between pages 1 and 15.
Henry Rumball was a tall, untidy young man on the reportorial staff; his daily round included visits to the docks, the university and the undertakers. He presented himself wordlessly before the editor’s desk.
“I thought you might like to review Plonk,” said Ridley. “I know you take an interest in the modern novel. This is rather special, I believe. Stark stuff. Say what you think, but don’t frighten any old ladies’
“Thanks, Mr Ridley. Gosh, Plonk,” said Rumball, seizing the volume and seeming to caress it.
“You know something about it?”
“I’ve seen the American reviews. They say it moves the novel on to an entirely different plateau of achievement. The Saturday Review man said when he’d finished it he felt exactly as if he had been drinking plonk all night himself. It’s kind of tactile, I guess.”
“Well, say so in your piece. Tactile is a handy word; tends to make a sentence quotable.”
Rumball rocked his weight from foot to foot, breathed heavily, and then said, “I don’t know that I really ought to do it.”
“Why not? I thought you liked that kind of thing?”
“Yes, Mr Ridley, but I’m trying to keep my head clear, you see. I’m avoiding outside influences, to keep my stream unpolluted, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know in the least what you mean. What stream are you talking about?”
“My stream of inspiration. For The Plain. My book, you know.”
“Are you writing a book?”
“Yes. Don’t you remember? I told you all about it nearly a year ago.”
“I can’t recall anything about it. When did you tell me?”
“Well, I came in to ask you about a raise –”
“Oh yes, I remember that. I told you to talk to Mr Weir. I never interfere with his staff.”
“Yes, well, I told you then I was writing a novel. And now I’m working on my first draft. And I’m not reading anything, for fear it may influence me. That’s the big danger, you know. Influences. Above all, you have to be yourself.”
“Aha, well if you don’t want Plonk I’ll find someone else. Will you ask Mr Weir to see me when he has a free moment?”
“Could I just talk to you for a minute, about the novel? I’d appreciate your help, Mr Ridley.”
“This is rather a busy time.”
But Rumball had already seated himself, and his shyness had fallen from him. His eyes gleamed.
“It’s going to be a big thing. I know that. It’s not conceit; I feel it just as if the book was somebody else’s. It’s something nobody has ever tried to do in Canada before. It’s about the West –”
“I recall quite a few novels about the West.”
“Yes, but they were all about man’s conquest of the prairie. This is just the opposite. It’s the prairie’s conquest of man. See? A big concept. A huge panorama. I only hope I can handle it. You remember that film The Plough that Broke the Plain? I’m calling my book The Plain that Broke the Plough. I open with a tremendous description of the Prairie; vast, elemental, brooding, slumbrous; I reckon on at least fifteen thousand words of that. Then Man comes. Not the Red Man; he understands the prairie; he croons to it. No, this is the White Man; he doesn’t understand the prairie; he rips up its belly with a blade; he ravishes it. ‘Take it easy,’ says the Red Man. ‘Aw, drop dead,’ says the White Man. You see? There’s your conflict. But the real conflict is between the White Man and the prairie. The struggle goes on for three generations, and at last the prairie breaks the White Man. Just throws him off.”
“Very interesting,” said Ridley, picking up some papers from his desk. “We must have a talk about it some time. Perhaps when you have finished it.”