Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“Oh, but that may not be for another five years,” said Rumball. “I’m giving myself to this, utterly.”

“Not to the neglect of your daily work, I hope?”

“I do that almost mechanically, Mr Ridley. But my creative depths are busy all the time with my book.”

“Aha; will you ask Mr Weir if I may see him?”

“Certainly, sir. But there’s just one thing I’d like your advice about. Names. Names are so important in a book. Now the big force in my book is the prairie itself, and I just call it the Prairie. But my people who are struggling against it are two families; one is English, from the North, and I thought of calling them the Chimneyholes, only they pronounce it Chumnel. The other is Scandinavian and I want to call them the Ruokatavarakauppas. I’m worried that the vowel sounds in the two names may not be sufficiently differentiated. Because, you see, I want to get a big poetic sweep into the writing, and if the main words in the novel aren’t right, the whole thing may bog down, do you see?”

“I want to see Mr Weir at once,” said Ridley, in a loud, compelling voice.

“I’ll tell him right away,” said Rumball, moving toward the door, “but if you should happen to think of a name that has the same rhythm as Ruokatavarakauppas but has a slightly darker vowel shading I’d be grateful if you would tell me. It’s really going to be a kind of big saga, and I want people to read it aloud as much as possible, and the names are terribly important.”

Reluctantly, he left the office, and shortly afterward Edward Weir, the managing editor, came in and sat in the chair from which Rumball had been driven with such difficulty.

“Anything out of the ordinary last night?” asked Ridley.

“Just the usual Hallowe’en stuff, except for one story we can’t track down. Some sort of trouble at the Cathedral. The Dean won’t say anything, but he didn’t deny that something had happened. Archie was going home a little after midnight and he met Miss Pottinger coming from the West Door of the Cathedral. He asked her if anything was wrong and she said, “You’ll get nothing out of me,” and hurried off across the street. But she had no stockings on, and bedroom slippers; he spotted them under her coat. Now what was she doing in the Cathedral at midnight on Hallowe’en with no stockings on?”

“At her age lack of stockings suggests great perturbation of mind, but nothing really interesting. Did Archie try to get into the church?”

“Yes, but the door was locked. He could see light through the keyhole, but there was nothing to be heard.”

“Probably nothing at all happening, really.”

“I don’t know. When I called Knapp this morning he was very short, and when I asked him if it was true that someone had tried to rob the Cathedral last night he said. “Where did you hear about that?” and then tried to tell me he meant nothing by it.”

“Why don’t you try the organist? You know, that fellow — what’s his name? — Cobbler. He never stops talking.”

“Called him. He said, ‘my lips are sealed.’ You know what a jackass he is.”

“We’d better keep after it. Tell me, is that fellow Rumball any good?”

“Fair. He was better when he first came on the staff. He moons a good deal now. Maybe he’s in love.”

“Perhaps Mr Shillito could give him one of his talks on the virtue of digging in the Newspaper Game.”

“God forbid. Are you going to do anything about that matter?”

“I’m moving as fast as I can. It’s very difficult. You have no heart, Ned. How would you like to be thrown out of your job at seventy-eight?”

“If I had a pension, and a house all paid for, and a nice little private income, and probably a good chunk of savings, like Old Shillito, I would like nothing better.”

“Has he all that?”

“You know it as well as I do. He just likes to prowl around this office and waste everybody’s time.”

“He says he prays to whatever gods there be that he may drop in harness. He’s not a conventionally religious man, but that is his prayer.”

“The old faker! When he caught on to this Cathedral story this morning he was in my office like a shot out of a gun. “Ned, my boy,” he said, “take an old newspaperman’s advice and let this thing drop; I’ve been a staunch churchman all my life, and there’s nothing I would not do to shield the church against a breath of slander.” Of course I tried to find out if he knew anything, but he shut up like a clam. Gloster, why don’t you give him the axe? He’s just a pest.”

“I inherited him. And he was editor himself for a few months before I was appointed. I don’t want anybody to be able to say that I was unfair to him.”

“It’s your funeral. But he’s a devil of a nuisance. Always in the news room, keeping somebody from work. The boys are sick of him. They aren’t even civil to him any more, but he doesn’t notice.”

“I’m going to do something very soon. I just want to be able to do it the right way. If we could ease him out gloriously, somehow it would be best. I had a notion involving an illuminated address which might work. But leave it with me for a few days more. Nothing else out of the way?”

But the day’s news was barren of anything else which the manag­ing editor thought Mr Ridley should know, and he went back to his own office leaving the editor once more with the task of writing his leader. To postpone the dread moment a little longer he picked up the few typewritten sheets which Mr Shillito called “his stint”, and read that which was uppermost.


That the walking-stick is disappearing from our streets — nay even from our hall-stands — is a fact not to be gainsaid by the boldest. Where once:

Sir Plume, of amber snuffbox justly vain

And the nice conduct of a clouded cane,

took pride in possessing half-a-score different sticks for every occasion — for dress, for church, for the town stroll and the rural ramble — your modern man, hastening from business to home and from home to club in his comfortable car, needs none and, be it said, desires none. Macaulay’s schoolboy, young model of erudition, might be excused today for failing to distinguish between rattan and ebony, between cherished blackthorn and familiar ashplant. Beyond question the walking-stick has – hinc illae lacrimae — gone where the woodbine twineth.

Ridley sighed and then, slowly and painfully, was possessed by rage. His weakness in failing to get rid of the Old Mess condemned him to publish this sort of hogwash in the paper of which he was known to be the editor. The mantle of the eighteenth-century essayist — old, frowsy, tattered, greasy and patched with Addison’s gout-rags and the seat of the gentle Elia’s pants — had fallen upon Swithin Shillito, and he strutted and postured in it, every day, in the columns of The Bellman. And why? Because he, Gloster Ridley, lacked the guts to tell the Old Mess that he was fired. He hated himself. He despised his weakness. And yet — a pious regard for old age and a sincere desire to be just and to use his power wisely restrained him from acting as he would have done if the offender had been, for instance, Henry Rumball. And, who could say, might not many readers of The Bellman — even a majority of them — share the opinion of Eldon Bumford, who revelled in Mr Shillito’s essay on the fate of the toothpick and exulted in his discussions of the importation of snuff and birdseed? To what extent was he, Gloster Ridley, justified in imposing his taste upon the newspaper’s subscribers? Still, was it not for doing so that he drew his excellent salary and his annual bonus reckoned upon the profits? What about the barber’s chair; might there not be a few buttocks for Shillito? But he could go on in this Hamlet-like strain all day. There was only one thing for it. He rang for Miss Green.

“Please call Mr Warboys and ask if I may see him for half an hour this afternoon,” said he.

“Yes, Mr Ridley. And Professor Vambrace called again and said he couldn’t come at eleven and insists on seeing you at two.”

“Very well, Miss Green. But what is all this about Professor Vambrace? What does he want to see me about?”

“I don’t know sir, because he wouldn’t give me any hint on the phone. But he was very crusty. He kept repeating ‘Two, sharp,’ in a way I didn’t like.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson