Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“He did, did he? Well, whenever he comes, keep him waiting five minutes. And I don’t want to be disturbed until lunch.”

“Yes, sir. Here are a few letters which came with the second mail.”

These were quickly dealt with. A temperance league called for “renewed efforts”, and Moral Re-Armament asserted in three para­graphs that if everybody would try to be decent to everybody else, all problems between management and labour would disappear. A young Nigerian wrote, “I am African boy but always wear American shoes,” and wanted a Canadian pen-friend, preferably a girl between 14 and 16. Another, deeply critical of The Bellman, was so eccentric in grammar and spelling that it took five minutes of Ridley’s time to prepare it for the printer; there is nothing that makes an editor feel more like St Francis — a loving brother to the ass — than this sort of remedial work on a letter which accuses him of unfairness or stupidity. At last Ridley was ready to write his leader.

After all his fussing it came out quite smoothly, and by mid-day he had everything prepared for the printers and was ready to think about his luncheon.

Considering that he prepared and ate it in strict privacy, Gloster Ridley’s lunch was a matter of extraordinary interest to a great many people in Salterton. There are some ways in which a man may be eccentric, and nobody will think anything of it; there are others in which eccentricity becomes almost a moral issue. Having no wife to return to at the middle of the day, the obvious thing was for him to eat at an hotel or a restaurant. But instead he preferred to prepare his own luncheon and eat it in his office. This oddity might have been overlooked if he had uncomfortably devoured a sandwich at his desk, and washed it down with milk; such a course might have won him a reputation as a keen newspaperman, unwilling to relax for an instant in his contemplation of the day’s horrors; it might have brought him those stigmata of the conscientious and ambitious executive, a couple of ulcers. But he was known to prepare and eat a hot dish, and follow it with some cheese or a bit of fruit, and make himself black coffee in a special percolator. It was even suspected that he sometimes took a glass of sherry with his meal.

These enormities might have been forgiven if he had made a joke of them, or had asked other men of business to come and share his repast. But he obstinately considered his lunch to be nobody’s busi­ness but his own. Consequently spiteful things were said of him, and it was hinted that he wore a blue apron with white frills while preparing his meal, and more than one Letter to the Editor had suggested that if he knew as much about politics, or economics, or world affairs or whatever it might be, as he did about cooking, The Bellman would be a better paper.

Cooking, however, was his hobby, and he saw no reason why he should not do as he pleased. He would probably have admitted — indeed, often did admit to his particular friend Mrs Fielding — that he was a bit of an old woman, and fussed about his food. He hated to eat in public, and he hated the kind of food which the restaurants of Salterton offered. In a modest way he was a gourmet. He cooked his own dinners in his apartment, and often asked his friends to dine with him. They agreed that his cooking was excellent. He permitted his housekeeper (whom he always thought of as Constant Reader because she devoured The Bellman nightly and gave him unsought advice about it daily) to cook his breakfast, but otherwise he took care of himself in this respect. He did not realize that his daily luncheon was taken almost as a personal affront by several ladies in Salterton who regarded all unattached men with suspicion, and if he knew that other men laughed at him he did not care.

Perhaps the most irritating part of the whole business to those who disapproved of his custom was his extreme thinness. A man who makes so much fuss about his food ought, by all laws of morality and justice, to be fat. He should bear about with him burdensome evi­dence of his shameful and unmanly preoccupation. But Ridley was tall and thin and bald, and was referred to by the staff of The Bellman, when he was out of earshot, as Bony.

He liked his lunch-time, because it gave him an opportunity to think. On this first of November he moved the little hot-plate out of his cupboard as usual, took two eggs and other necessaries from his brief case, and made himself an excellent omelette. He sat down at a small table near his window and ate it, looking down at the Salterton market, which was one of the last of the open-air markets in that part of Canada, and a very pretty sight.

He was thinking, of course, about Mr Shillito. When he saw his publisher that afternoon, he would explain that Mr Shillito must go, and he would ask Mr Warboys to help him to ease the blow. Execrable as Mr Shillito might be as a writer, and detestable as he might be about the office, he was an old man with somewhat more than his fair share of self-esteem, and Ridley could not bring himself to wound him. But, there must be no half-measures. Shillito must have an illuminated address, presented if possible by Mr Warboys himself. The whole staff must be assembled, and Mr Shillito must be allowed to make a speech. Perhaps the Mayor could be bamboozled into coming. And a picture of the affair must appear in The Bellman, with a caption which would make it clear that Mr Shillito was retiring of his own volition. It would all be done in the finest style. Why, if Mr Warboys were in a good mood, he might even suggest a little dinner for Mr Shillito, instead of a staff meeting. Ridley found that his eyes had moistened as he contemplated the golden light in which Mr Shillito would depart from The Bellman.

But why do I worry about him? he asked himself. Does he ever give a thought to my convenience? Doesn’t he use me shamelessly whenever he can? What was that incident only a week ago? Shillito had burst into his office with some dreadful freak in tow, a grinning little fellow called Bevill Higgin – how tiresome he had been about the lack of a final “s” on his name – who wanted Ridley to publish half-a-dozen articles by himself on some method of singing that he taught. Print them and pay for them, if you please! Ridley had been furious, but when really angry he did not show it. Instead he gave them both what he thought of as the Silent Treatment. He had allowed little Higgin to chatter on and on, making silly jokes and paying him monstrous compliments, while he sat in his chair, saying nothing and only now and then gnashing the scissors which he held in his hand. The Silent Treatment never failed, and at last Shillito had said, “But we mustn’t detain you, Chief; shall I make arrangements with Mr Higgin for the articles?” And he had replied, “No, Mr Shillito, I don’t think we need trouble you to do that.” Higgin had blushed and grinned, and even the Old Mess knew that he had been snubbed. But if people invaded his office unasked and tried to force upon him things which he did not want, did they deserve any better treatment? One of Shillito’s worst characteristics was that he looked upon The Bellman as a sort of relief centre and soup kitchen for all the lame ducks he picked up in a social life which yielded an unusual number of lame ducks. A lunatic, lean-witted fool, presuming on an ague’s privilege, he quoted to himself, and at once felt sorry for the Old Mess. But he really must stop thinking of him as the Old Mess. It was one of his worst mental faults, that trick of having private and usually in­admissible names for people. Some day a few of them were sure to pop out. When he was on the operating-table, under anaesthetic, for instance.

Thus, rocking between anger against Mr Shillito and pity for him, Ridley ate his biscuits and cheese, drank his excellent coffee, put his dishes on Miss Green’s desk to be washed, and composed himself for his invariable twenty-minute after-lunch sleep in his armchair.

Miss Green coughed discreetly. “Professor Vambrace is waiting,” she said.

Ridley leaped from his chair. He hated being caught thus; he had an uneasy conviction that he was unsightly when asleep. And he had overslept by ten minutes. “Keep him till I ring,” he said.

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Categories: Davies, Robertson