Local and Personal
In which a small town editor justifies an obsession for putting two and two together
R. E. BREACH
HALFWAY down Richvale’s Main Street stands a narrow one-story building. The wall facing the street has been built up beyond the roof after that style of architecture known as the false-front. The upper part of this wall, above the two dingy windows, is filled with the letters of a legend setting forth the name and business of the occupant:
THE RICHVALE RECORD
Issued every Thursday. Job Printing.
Advertising Rates on Request.
Benjamin H. Myers, Editor & Prop.
The editor himself stood in the doorway, a thin man with stooping shoulders and spectacled eyes, a long nose twisted awry over a straggling fringe of mustache. His quick eyes darted this way and that, like a robin’s looking for worms in early morning. He saw that the People’s Store had raised its curtains on a new display of millinery; that Farmer Jenkins had brought two cans of cream to the butter factory instead of his usual one. Trivial things, passing unnoticed to the casual eye, but not to Ben Myers. He noted them, and stored them away in his capacious memory, along with a thousand other notations, ready to be called forth at a moment’s notice, as facts bearing on other events, interpreting and explaining them.
He was a man with a nose for news. No two citizens ever met for a friendly or a business talk on Main Street without presently discovering that lanky form beside them. A man reading a letter in the post-office was apt to look up from his muttered spelling to find those peering eyes fixed on the written page. He was secretary of nearly every organization in town. For executive work he cared not a whit, but he could not bear that meetings should be held and business transacted which were not under his hand. He knew every event the moment it happened, and from his observation of seemingly unimportant details, sensed the causes that brought that event forth, and could forecast the results it would produce.
Myers was a local man. He had been a farmer’s boy, one of many sons. When he had passed school age, his father, having no land to give him, bade the boy wash himself and put on a clean shirt, and took him to town. He spent the day going from store to store, seeking an opening for his superfluous fledgling. The blacksmith had an apprentice, the butcher had sons of his own, the merchants shook their heads at the uncouth youngster, the liveryman had a dozen loafers at his beck and call. Finally, their round brought them to a shack where a journeyman printer had that day set up his press, and was busy printing handbills informing the townsmen
that the community would shortly have an up-to-date advertising and news medium. He noted the docile manners and alert eyes of the boy, and nodded. The bargain was struck between the two old men. The printer put a broom into the boy’s hands and bade him set to work.
Of the wider application of his calling he had not the faintest conception. His editorship, reached after many years of work and saving, was a trade. His father, he often remarked, had had him taught a good trade. His press was his equipment, the piles of jumbled type his tools, like the hammer of the blacksmith, the saws of the carpenter.
For the rest, he affected pink or blue shirts and black sateen sleeve-protectors. He had married a farm-girl, as lank and thrifty and acquisitive of news as himself, and they kept house in four small rooms behind the printing shop, whence at intervals issued half a dozen small boys of varying ages. You wmndered wehere they all slept at night.
TT WAS Wednesday evening, and the Record had gone A to press. Myers was assisted in this feverish operation by Miss Minerva Button, who deftly inserted and removed the sheets from the press as fast as they were printed, motive power being supplied to the machine through a treadle worked by the editor’s feet. These sheets came to him printed on the inner side with snippets and trimmings of news, one ancient serial, and a syndicated half-column of editorials. But the front and back pages were his own. Here appeared the advertisements of the local merchants, announcements of public meetings, write-ups of social and athletic events; and, his pride and joy, a column entitled Local and Personal.
Herein were run various news items of the people of the town and district, small advertisements, jokes and innuendos more or less personal. A half-dozen citizens were listed am business visitors to the city; several young men had spent Sunday apparently with staid elder neighbors, no mention being made of pretty daughters; so-and-so had purchased a new car; such an one was recovering from an illness. It was a mirror of the intimate life of the community; its highlights, the dramatic occurrences which break the monotony of regular lives. You may read such a column in any smalltown newspaper, but Ben’s was unique in that it
revealed an unusual intimacy, a certain shrewd deduction, and the interest and charity of an observant friend.
AMAN entered the office, materializing out of the warm dusk of the summer evening. Ben peered at him over an armful of folded newspapers. He had carried them to a table and was writing on the margin the names of his subscribers. The papers would be carried across to the post-office for mail delivery.
“Evenin’,” said the man. “Are you the fellow that runs this paper?”
“My name is Myers,” replied Ben, “and I publish
the Richvale Record.”
“And my name is Mullens, and I sent you two good hard dollars two weeks ago for your paper, and I ain’t
seen a copy yet.”
“Then you’ve missed one issue. I can’t see how it happened—”
“I can, then. You town guys like to get your money easy, taking it away from the poor man. Now I want that paper sent to me every week, without fail.”
“I’ll see to it, I’ll see to it!” cried Ben, in a fluster. “Such a thing hasn’t happened very often, I assure you, Mr.—I have your name right here, in my address book.”
“That’s all right, Myers. I’ll take your word for it. But I want what I’ve paid for when it’s due me.” “You’ll get it!” cried Ben, taking fire at the man’s insolence. He found a copy of the previous week’s Record, and gave it to him, together with his copy of the current issue. When he had gone, the editor said to Minerva Button:
“Are you sure you posted him a copy last week, Minnie?”
“I can’t take oath before my Maker that I did;” snapped Miss Button, “but I’m reasonably sure that I didn’t skip his name.”
“That’s all right, Minnie. Don’t get sore. You’re not to blame anyway.”
BEN had a second visitor that evening. Hertsey, the young rancher, came in. Minnie smiled in good humor again, and invented tasks to delay her departure. The young man greeted her jovially, picked up a copy of the Record and complimented the editor thereon, and said;
“I’ve some business for you, Ben.”
“You needn’t wait, Minnie,” said Ben, and the young lady departed, with many backward glances.
Everybody liked young Noble Hertsey, and the town girls professed themselves in love with him. He was a handsome, ambitious young fellow, who had taken up
land in the district seven years before, and was already making a name for himself with pedigreed stock and registered grains. It was expected that some year he would take the crown in wheat at Chicago. He was unmarried, and lived in a pleasant bungalow on his ranch, with his mother to keep house for him.
“Now what can I do for you?” asked Ben, lighting the cigar which young Hertsey had offered him.
“I’ve an ad. for you, Ben.”
“Sure thing, Noble—let’s see your copy. Where do you want it run?”
“If it’s the same to you, Ben, put it in your Local and Personal column. It’s only a small item.”
Ben carried the copy to his file for the following week’s issue, and glancing through the window, he saw Hertsey’s saddlehorse before the office, its reins held by a girl on horseback. He recognized Mary McRae on her pinto pony beside Hertsey’s black horse. Ben’s mind began to revolve:
“Mary’s a fine girl—but brought up strict—too strict. No sense in tying girls down nowadays. Old Donald McRae’s too good to live with. Hum-m-m—shouldn’t wonder if that’s why Hertsey’s taken to church-going nowadays. Mary sings in the choir—shouldn’t wonder—”
He had it planned, even to a brilliant column under the heading “Wedding Bells,” to grace the front page, before he turned away from the window. News is news, and first news is better than old.
As Noble Hertsey went out, a furtive shape detached itself from the shadows and slouched past him down the street. Ben recognized Mullens.
“Still hanging about, waiting for someone to cheat him,” he thought. “Surly dog! He walks by folks without so much as a good evening. I’ll see that he gets next week’s paper if I have to take it out to his farm.”
BUT the incident remained with him, and he began, as was his custom when an inexplicable event was presented to him, to search back through the storehouse of his memory for other events which would furnish an explanation. But for once he found nothing which made clear to him why the man Mullens was so irate about his missed copy, or even why the man Mullens would want a copy at all.
Mullens was a newcomer to the district, who had arrived that spring from a vague “East,” and had squatted on vacant land. He eked out a living by doing odd jobs among the neighboring farmers, and his wife and children were reputed to live on gopher stew, potatoes and milk. He was a whining, shirking worker, and why such a man, obviously illiterate, should subscribe to the Record and be so grieved at missing a number, Ben did not know. He carefully shelved this remarkable fact for further reference, confident that something would occur to throw further light on the puzzle.
But careful rummaging among the shelves of his memory, adroit questioning of his acquaintances, brought nothing to answer the question. It began to irk him, and he could not keep his mind on his work. He surprised and pained Miss Button by frequently rising abruptly and hurrying outside, and staring up and down the street, presently to return shaking his head, and rumpling his thin hair.
On one of these excursions, on a hot, rain-hovering afternoon, his roving eye fell upon a sweating team hitched to a grain wagon covered with canvas against the threatened rain. The hidden contents of the wagon drew him like a magnet. He had laid hand on the canvas to lift it, when the driver appeared. He recognized Hertsey’s hired man.
“So Noble has found a buyer for his seed wheat,” Ben remarked.
“No, he ain’t,’’ retorted the teamster. “He’s selling his feed oats, and I’ve told him we’re going to be short of feed. How does he expect the teams to work through harvest without grain? I’ve told him—”
“I thought it was seed wheat he was selling.”
“Ain’t you heard that seedin’ was finished last month?” expostulated the teamster, climbing into his high seat. “We’re worrying about harvest right now. Aimin’ to plant a second crop in August, Ben?”
The puzzled editor replaced the canvas over the grain.
“Who is buying these oats?” he called after the driver.
“I’m takin’ them to the elevator. There isn’t a farmer in this district fool enough to leave himself short of feed but Noble Hertsey. I’ve told him—”
But Ben wasn’t listening any longer.
“I’ve made a mistake in that ad. of Noble’s,” he thought, ruefully.
He returned to his office to search through his disordered files for the copy that Hertsey had brought to him.
“A fool’s error,” he muttered. “I should have noticed —Well, I’ll be dished—and served up with gravy! It is seed wheat. In his own handwriting, too.”
He called Hertsey on the telephone.
“Hello, Noble, Ben Myers speaking. Noble, we’ve made a mistake in that ad. you brought in. Did you know that you’d written seed wheat instead of feed oats? Easy enough to do, I suppose—Eh? What’d you say? No, it’s not printed yet. But the forms are ready, and we’re printing in the morning, and I happened to see your team out here, and Barney says you’re selling oats—”
“What say? It doesn’t matter? Man, the change won’t cost you anything. Any fool will know it’s a mistake. Nobody’s selling wheat now—”
“Oh, all right, all right. No harm done . . . no, it isn’t any affair of mine . . . I’ll keep it under my hat . . . sure . . . Say, Noble, aren’t you going to be short of feed, selling off your oats now?”
But Hertsey had rung off.
Ben rubbed his hair into wilder confusion. Here was another mystery to be solved—a man who had oats to sell, and insisted on calling them wheat. Life was growing complicated. He leaned gloomily in the doorway, nibbling the ends of his moustache. He had a good notion to get out of this publishing business. It was all at loose ends. For two cents he’d lock the door and ask the railway section boss to give him a job shoveling gravel.
NEXT morning when the newly printed issue of the Record was ready for distribution, Ben remarked to his energetic assistant:
“Minnie, I’ve put a copy of the Record in this big envelope and addressed it to Samuel Mullens, Esquire.” “Sure—what of it?”
“I want you to take it across to the post-office and register it to him.”
“Well, for cryin’ out loud!” exclaimed Miss Button. “You must have valuable news this week.”
“Maybe I have, Minnie, though I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary.”
Ben saw Mullens the next day coming out of the postoffice with the copy of the Record in his hand. He stood at the street-corner, jostled by the passers-by, scanning his paper eagerly. What he read seemed to please him mightily. He nodded his head, drew the back of his dirty hand across his loose mouth, and strolled off to the pool-room.
But strangely enough, he did not trouble to take the following week’s Record out of the post-office.
“Tell Myers to start his fire with it,” he told the postmaster. “I’ve enough to carry now, without luggin’ wastepaper around.”
Which insult the postmaster made haste to relate to Minnie Button, and Minnie to her employer.
Ben bristled, but did not take time just then to frame a suitable reprisal. He had received a notice to be inserted in the Record, and he was heartily congratulating himself on this confirmation of his powers of prognostication:
Mr. and Mrs. Donald McRae announce the engagement of their only daughter, Mary Ishbel, to Mr. Noble Hertsey, of Greenview Ranch, the marriage to take place early in September.
MULLENS might have got
away with it, except for that slip he made in refusing the Record, after receiving the three issues. It did not seem reasonable to Ben that a man should go to such lengths to get a newspaper, and then, after receiving a few copies, refuse the rest, with insult. He understood that it was the nature of the man to act thus; that he was of a mean temper, and that in him there was neither kindliness nor grace. Yet if Mullens had kept on taking his Records, Ben would have concluded that his disgruntled subscriber had got wThat he wanted and was satisfied, and then thought no more of the matter. But to refuse further copies, for which he had paid, made Ben think furiously. There must be some reason for it, he thought. And being the man he was, there could be no peace for him until he had discovered that reason.
He considered the matter one warm, quiet afternoon, while he was setting up the type for an advertisement of an auction sale, and Miss Continued on page 55
Continued from page 13
Button had gone out to one of the town’s social events, about which he wished exact reporting. In among the lists of farm machinery and household utensils too numerous to mention, down the roll of bays and grays rising three or six or nine years old, the little restless sprites of curiosity danced, and pricked him with sharp spears of speculation.
Ben did not credit Mullens either with finesse or shrewdness; the man acted according to his nature. What had prompted him to throw the Record back into its editor’s face? Ben suspected the action was not dictated entirely by malice. It was a gesture, as one throws his cap into the air on receiving joyful news. Had Mullens received joyful news? If he had, it must have been in the Record. And in that jibe about wastepaper there was a discernible note of triumph. Mullens had got something he wanted. Fear of missing this something had made him so irate about the missing number. And this something for which he searched must have been in that copy of the Record which had been registered to him. For, having obtained that copy, he had no further use for the publication, and refused it in derision.
But what was that something for which he searched? Ben had only solved one puzzle to be confronted with another. His head ached with the intensity of his thoughts. He found the number of the Record, then sat down to peruse it. He read it carefully and thoughtfully—news items, advertisements—then turned to the inside pages and scanned them also; a jumble of month-old events, snippets of information about what-not, and matters of interest to housewives.
“I don’t see anything there that would make me joyful,” he mused. “Nothing out of the ordinary that I can see—unless it’s that queer ad. of Noble Hertsey’s.”
It struck him sharply that among the jumble of events stored in his omnivorous memory there were only two incidents for which he could not account, and they were the actions of the worthy Mr. Mullens
anent his subscription to the Record and the advertisement inserted by Noble Hertsey in the Local and Personal column. These two facts he eliminated, item by item, from connection with every other fact in his experience. They were isolated, unrelated to the logical sequence of ordinary events; unreasonable. Every other line of printing in the issue he could account for. He could in most cases have foretold their advent, as that a suit for damages would follow a certain young gentleman’s acquisition of a fast motor car. But here were two incidents tö which he could assign no initial cause or eventual effect. He, therefore, concluded that, having no logical connection with any other event, they might be related to each other.
What had Noble Hertsey to do with Sam Mullens, the idler, the shirker? So far as Ben knew, they were not acquainted. He remembered that they had passed each other without greeting in front of the printing-shop on the evening when Hertsey had brought in his advertisement. And if Mullens had read this advertisement, if that was why, having read it, he was no longer interested in the Record, then he had expected this advertisement. It contained information that he desired. It might even be an answer.
An answer to what? Had Mullens asked something? Had his question been asked in an advertisement, also? He hurried to read back through earlier issues. There was nothing he could not account for; everything reasonable and correct and decent.
“By Godfrey!” Ben was moved to mild profanity. “If they’ve been using my columns for any dirty work—”
And it must be low business if they could not meet man to man and talk it out; if they dared not set it down in honest words, but must talk in riddles.
Ben turned to Hertsey’s advertisement again. It was a short and compactly worded offer for sale of seed wheat—a common enough advertisement in a Continued on page 58
Continued, from page 55
country where seed grains are registered like blooded stock. But against that there was in Ben’s mind the fact that the advertisement was unseasonable, for seed-time was long past; and that Hertsey was selling not wheat, but oats. Again Ben might not have known this salient fact except that his customary curiosity had led him to investigate the canvas-covered wagon. Htrtsey’s insistence on the publication of the original and wrongly-worded form of the advertisement, which at first Ben had laid t > a youthful and wrong-headed vanity which would not acknowledge a foolish error, now assumed a larger importance.
And, lastly, why was Hertsey selling oats which according to evidence, he sc badly needed for his stock? The answer to that problem was clearly indicated in Ben's experience of the ways of the country. No man ever sold grain which his
stock needed for food except through a desperate need of money. And Hertsey could have raised money at the bank, from his future father-in-law, or from his many friends. He wanted money, he wanted it badly, and he did not want his need to be known.
To the casual passer-by there would have been no problem, nc straws showing which way the wind blew, But Ben, who must know che why and when and wherefore ot all trivial things, who could not pass a covered wagon without looking to see what was in it, felt that he had found a justification for his inquisitiveness.
He liked Hertsey. He believed that any underhanded dealing was foreign to his nature. He liked Mary McRae, with her sweetness and beauty. He believed, in spite of an accumulation of evidence to the contrary, in the ultimate triumph of right over wrong. His mind, which busied
itself continually in the myriad of little events which made up his world, knew the merciless judgment of that world and the ruthless lines of conduct which it dictated. It would ruin Hertsey, it would ruin Mary McRae. Men said that he was a meddler, a busybody; but these were his people; he loved them; he understood them. He was their chronicler and their prophet. What wrong, then, if seeing clearly the countless threads’' of destiny running through his hands, he altered the pattern here and there or smoothed a tangled skein?
He called Hertsey on the telephone. “Noble, are tyou coming to town this afternoon? Yes? Then come in to see me, without fail. About four-thirty, or five. Important.”
Then he went into his house, and gave his wife an equally mysterious message.
IATER, when Hertsey came in, Ben ■i studied him closely. He was thinner than he should be; there were premature lines on his face. He did not look as happy as he should be who had won the fairest girl in the country for his promised bride. Yet he was good to look on, as he tossed his wide hat aside, shirt open at his brown throat, his eyes very blue and honest. Ben shooed two of his small sons out of the office, and closed the door.
“Noble,” he said gravely, “what’s this thing that Sam Mullens is putting over on you?”
The strain that had lined the boy’s face now broke him. He dropped his head into his hands. Ben stood over him and clumsily patted the shaking shoulders.
“I couldn’t give her up,” said Hertsey, brokenly. “If it had been only myself, or the money—but not her. That’s what made me a coward.”
“Her? Who?” cried Ben. “Is there a woman mixed up in this? Or is it your mother?”
“Mary McRae? What has she to do with this business?”
“Nothing, thank God! But he said he would tell her. That would have ended everything. I couldn’t ask her to marry me if she knew. But how did you find out about it, Ben?”
“Don’t you think I keep an eye on what’s printed in my own columns?” Then he added, more kindly: “Come now, lad, let’s get this straightened out. Mullens has some hold on you. Can you confide in me? Perhaps I can help you.” Hertsey fumbled in his pocket, and produced a dirty, ill-spelled scrawl.
“I want a thousand. Put your anser in a ad. in the Record. Make it seed wheat if you mean yes, and for oats if you mean no. You dont ketch me with no letters or any chat that the bulls can listen in at. you dont know me and I dont know you, see? we’ll forget about old times. I can wait awile for the cash if your short but I want an anser inside three wekesfrom this or I’ll spill the beans. Old Mac will be glad to have the son of a theef in the fambly.
You Know Who.”
“Whew!” whistled Ben, in gratified astonishment. “So that was what friend Mullens was looking for in the Record. I knew there was a reason if I only could find it.”
“I held off for two weeks,” said Noble. “But the third week I lost my nerve. I wrote the advertisement for wheat.”
“I suppose he thought of using seed wheat or oats for his cipher because you are getting to be such a famous ßeedgrower, Noble. Thought nobody would think anything of your selling seed. If he had only changed the code a little, using oats for yes, eh? A clever rascal, but not quite clever enough. - You knew it was Mullens who wrote the letter?”
“Yes, he worked for my father back east. He knows all about us. I’ll tell you
the story, Ben. You’re a man a fellow can trust. My poor old dad—he died in the penitentiary. It was the old story. He held certain funds in trust, used them for his own need, intending to replace them. But he couldn’t, and the day of reckoning came too soon. He died of it, Ben. He wasn’t meant to be a thief. Mother and I came west to make a fresh start where we weren’t known. And then this devil happens along, and spoils everything.”
“The low cur!” ejaculated Ben, blinking behind his misty glasses. “But see, Noble, how a mean man lays a trap for himself. He was mad at me for missing out his first copy, and when he had your ad. he thought it would be smart to spite me by decrying my paper. Turns it back on me, in public, in the post-office. Right there I knew something was wrong. So come now, everything is going to be all right.” “Mullens is right,” said young Hertsey, bitterly. “Old Donald wouldn’t want his daughter married to the son of a thief.” “Look here, Noble,” said Ben. “Do you think the McRae’s would like it any better to have the son of a thief in the family, and not know about it, or to have such a man for a son-in-law, and know it was so?”
Hertsey had no answer.
“Have you sent him the money yet?” “I’ve got it here,” producing a package. “I intended to mail it to him this afternoon.”
“Do you believe he would let you off with one payment? Every year, or oftener, you would have had to run your ad. Sooner or later, this old story is bound to come to light. Why didn’t you ignore him?”
“I couldn’t bear to lose Mary?”
“You seem to have a poor opinion of Mary.”
“What do you mean?”
“Mary McRae isn’t a girl to condemn a man for a sin for which he isn’t responsible. What good is a woman who won’t stand by you through thick and thin?” “The McRae’s—”
“Yes, I know. Oonald is a strict man, but I never knew him to be unjust. But he hates a lie, Noble, and he despises a coward. Surely you’re neither liar nor coward.”
“You speak plainly, Ben.”
“What has the lack of plain-speaking and plain-dealing# done for you, Noble? It has put you into the power of a mean and contemptible man; it has put chains on you that one honest-spoken word would have broken. It has put between you and the finest girl in the world a wall of mistrust that should never exist. For her sake, as well as for yours, I beg you to speak the truth. You can’t build lasting happiness on a secret.”
“I’m learning that lesson now?”
“Call me §. busybody, if you will,” confined Ben, “and tell me to mind my own business, but have you ever known me to betray a trust, or to spread gossip? I like to know about everything; why, man, I have to, in my business; but I know the difference between news and a confidence. You can trust me to keep this a secret, if that’s the way you want it. It’s up to you.”
“All right, Ben. What shall I do?”
“Go to Mary, and tell her the whole story. That’s the only way you can take the wind out of Mullen’s sails. If Mary stands by you, and I know she will, you needn’t care what Mullens tells. We judge you by yourself, not by your father’s misfortunes. And then I’d go out and find Mullens, and I’d—” the mild Ben was moved to unusual wrath— “I’d give him what for!”
“Thanks, Ben, I’ll do it.” Noble rose and grasped the editor’s hand. “I know where Mullens is—loafing in the poolroom. But where shall I find Mary?” “Where she wijl always be,” said a warm voice from the doorway. “Right beside you!”