Leaven of Malice – Salterton Trilogy 02 by Robertson Davies

“I see.”

“It took me over an hour to get that story out of them. Tears! The more these damned girls are in the wrong, the more they cry.”

“Hadn’t Miss Porter enough sense to make whoever-it-was sign in the space for the advertiser’s name?”

“She swears she did. And she swears he signed. My guess is that he signed the customer’s own pink receipt slip and put it in his pocket and she didn’t notice.”

“Aha, then she knows it was a man?”

“Yes, at least she remembers that. And he gave her the copy, typewritten, and she clipped it to the order for the composing room. Here it is. But it doesn’t tell us anything.”

“Except that the writer was not used to a typewriter; and it is done on a piece of cheap linen correspondence paper; and the ribbon was in poor condition. What does she remember about the man’s appearance?”

“She thinks he wore a blue suit. It might have been a dark grey.”

“Useless. What else?”

“Not a thing. Believe it or not, she can’t remember whether he was young or old, dark or fair, wore glasses or not. She does remember that he had what she calls a funny voice.”

“What kind of funny voice?”

“Just funny. I asked her to imitate it, and she opened her mouth and let it hang open; then she cried again. Would you believe anybody could be so dumb and not be in an institution?”

“Most people are very unobservant.”

“You can say that again. Well, you can see what this does to us.”

“We haven’t a leg to stand on.”

“Not a leg.”

“Still,” said Ridley, “the advertisement isn’t libel, and Vambrace’s lawyers won’t advise him to go ahead on that line.”

“Of course not,” said Mr Marryat, “but if they ever find out that there was any carelessness here they’ll make our lives miserable. So I’m taking these papers out of the files and putting them in the safe till we know what’s going to happen.”

“I’ve got to see Mr Warboys this afternoon about another matter. Should I mention this to him, do you think?”

“What for? It won’t come to anything. I wouldn’t bother him.” And after a few more reflections upon the untrustworthiness and tearful­ness of girls Mr Marryat withdrew.

It was half-past three, and Mr Ridley was to see his publisher at half-past four. At four o’clock he received a call from the legal firm of Snelgrove, Martin and Fitzalan, asking that he see Mr Snelgrove at ten o’clock the following morning.on a matter of urgent importance.

Clerebold Warboys was not primarily interested in the publication of the Salterton Evening Bellman; he had been born wealthy, and in the process of becoming much wealthier he had acquired several prop­erties, of which The Bellman was one. It had come upon the market as an ancient and almost bankrupt newspaper, and he had bought it because he did not want to see an institution which was so much a part of his native city disappear from that city’s life; he also thought that the application of business acumen to the newspaper might improve its fortunes. He was right, as he usually was about such matters, and Mr Marryat and Mr Ridley had made The Bellman not only a very much better paper than it had been before, but a profitable business, as well.

Mr Warboys never interfered with the paper, and this was a source of disagreement between himself and his daughter-in-law, Mrs Roger Warboys, who lived with him and was his housekeeper and hostess. Mrs Roger Warboys, who had been widowed before she was forty, had a great store of energy which was not fully absorbed by her stewardship for Mr Warboys and the many women’s causes into which she threw herself. Her dearest dream was to “take over” The Bellman and to give it a policy more in line with her own opinions. She had a passion for crusading, and she felt that with a newspaper at her command she could do tremendous things to defeat juvenile delin­quency, the drug traffic, comic books, immodest bathing suits and other evils which were gnawing at the foundations of society; she would also be able to do much to improve the status of women which, in her view, was unsatisfactory. But her father-in-law, who had passed the greater part of his life in public affairs and had acquired a considerable store of worldly wisdom, refused to pay any attention to her wishes. He was wont to say, “Nesta, you have what most of the world wants: leisure and the money to enjoy it; why don’t you relax?” But for Mrs Roger Warboys there could be no happiness which was not also turmoil and the imposition of her will upon other people. Perhaps twice a year she renewed her attack upon her obdurate father-in-law, and the rest of the time she seized what opportunities she could to call his attention to what she believed were fatal weak­nesses in the editorship of Gloster Ridley.

It was with no quickening of the spirit, therefore, that Ridley found Mrs Roger Warboys in the publisher’s study, pouring tea.

“Ridley,” said his employer, “I’ve got the title for my book, at last.”

“Splendid!” said Ridley, with false enthusiasm.

“Yes. Politics: The Great Game. What do you think of that?”

“Absolutely first-rate!”

“Really? Don’t give a snap decision. Do you really think it’s what I want?”

“It’s very original,” said Ridley.

“It sounds well. But of course most people won’t hear it. They’ll read it. How do you think it would look? Nesta, give me that dummy.”

His daughter-in-law handed him a book from the desk. Upon it Mr Warboys had put a piece of white paper, to resemble a dust jacket, and had crudely lettered Politics: The Great Game, by Clerebold Warboys, across it.

“Very fine,” said Ridley: “it has a kind of ring about it, even in print.”

Conversation as they drank their tea was all about Mr Warboys’ book. This work had been in utero, so to speak, for eight years, but even at the age of seventy he could not find time to write it. Instead, he made copious notes for it, which he revised whenever a political contemporary died; when they were all dead, and the decks cleared, he might actually write it. Meanwhile he sustained the enthusiasm of an author at a remarkably high level, year in and year out, and Ridley rarely visited him without being asked for advice on some point relative to the great work. But at last the moment came when Ridley was able to raise the question of Mr Shillito.

“It is by no means easy,” he explained, “because Mr Shillito is in a sense a legacy from the former management. He is a link with the past of the paper. But the sort of thing he writes no longer has a place in The Bellman, and I feel that it is not in the best interest of the paper to postpone his retirement.”

“There’s no doubt about it that he’s a bloody old nuisance and not worth his keep,” said Mr Warboys, who was only eight years younger than Mr Shillito and felt no need to beat about the bush. “Well; we’ve got a pension scheme. What’s it for? We’ll bounce him with all honours, as you suggest.”

“Mr Shillito never subscribed to the pension scheme,” said Mrs Roger Warboys, unexpectedly.

“How do you know?” asked her father-in-law.

“He asked me to tea on Sunday last. The poor old man is getting very frail, Father, and he has some nice things he wants to see in good hands before he dies. He was really very touching about it. He gave me the loveliest little bronze bowl — Chinese, and very good; I have it in my sitting-room. He hasn’t much in the way of money, he says, but he has a few treasures, and he doesn’t want them to go to just anybody when he dies. He told me that he had never felt able to contribute to the pension scheme.”

“I don’t know how that could be,” said Ridley. “Miss Ellis has always been very good about arranging payment plans for anybody who needed special help.”

“Perhaps you don’t understand Mr Shillito’s way of looking at things, Mr Ridley,” said Mrs Roger Warboys, quietly censorious. “He’s one of those proud old Englishmen who would rather die than ask anybody for help.”

“Then why didn’t he take advantage of the pension scheme?” asked Mr Warboys.

“Because he didn’t think he would ever live to enjoy it,” said his daughter-in-law. “He told me that he worked himself so hard in the last few years before you took over The Bellman that he never expected to reach his present age. He has always expected that he would drop in harness.”

“Well, let him have the good sense to get out of harness,” said Mr Warboys, “and he needn’t drop so soon.”

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Categories: Davies, Robertson