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3: The Blenkinsop File

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Author Topic: 3: The Blenkinsop File  (Read 2 times)
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« on: November 09, 2023, 06:05:17 am »

THE LATE Lord Eglwyswrw’s mansion was a rectangular two-storied building, disproportionately long for its breadth, perched precariously half-way down the steep slope of the north side of Marsett Bay.

The entrance faced the hill, and owing to the lie of the land, the ground floor, supported by stout rusticated columns on the seaward side, rode high above the derelict gardens running down towards the beach. Beneath it was a semi-basement, so designed that his lordship’s domestic staff should have the assistance of a north light supplied through grated windows, without being distracted from their duties by any view of the bay to the south. This now stood empty. It was equipped for an air raid shelter, and would have made an admirable one, if air raids had been known at Marsett Bay.

The bedroom storey housed the voluminous records of the Pin Control. Here the weight of the accumulated files had already caused the floor to sag in one or two places and prompted the introduction of some incongruous wooden beams among the ornamental pillars of the reception rooms beneath.

It was on the ground floor that the main work of the Control was carried on. The late owner had allowed his architect to design for him a suite of long, lofty and exquisitely ugly rooms fit for entertaining half the countryside and for very little else. It was left to the Control for the first time to populate these echoing saloons. The Ministry of Works played its part in furnishing them with trestle tables and office chairs and dividing them where necessary into cubicles with partitions of plywood and frosted glass, which reached less than half-way to the ceiling. But even so, as Mrs. Hopkinson remarked, the result was not very homely.

Even Miss Clarke, important though her position was in the hierarchy of the Pin Control, did not occupy a room of her own. In this she was less fortunate than Pettigrew, but it was a misfortune that visited itself principally on her subordinates in the Licencing department. From behind the flimsy screen that secluded her from the rank and file she was able to hear everything that went on, and they knew that at any moment she was liable to pounce upon the unwary. Miss Clarke was a great pouncer.

On the morning succeeding the murderous discussion at the Fernlea Residential Club, Miss Clarke, as though to atone for the levity into which she had allowed herself to be drawn, had been at her most severe. She had pounced frequently and violently. She was in the mood, common from time to time to most capable organizers, of wanting to meddle in every detail of everybody else’s work. The result was a very jumpy morning for the staff. Even Mrs. Hopkinson had to run the gauntlet of her inquisition. But they by now had been long versed in Miss Clarke’s ways. By dint of sheer bullying she had made them unquestionably the most efficient section in the whole office. To the public, clamouring for licences to manufacture, acquire or dispose of pins, they appeared evasive, dilatory and imperturbably indifferent; but administratively they were wellnigh perfect. They knew all the answers, even the answers to Miss Clarke’s questions. Or so it seemed, until, in an evil hour, Miss Clarke called for the Blenkinsop file.

“Miss Danville!” Miss Clarke’s leonine head appeared round the door of her cubicle. “Miss Danville!”

Honoria Danville, though she vainly hoped that nobody else suspected it, was in fact more than a little deaf. Also, her mind was at the moment wandering some way from her work. She had of late found it increasingly hard to concentrate on the things of this world, with the other world seeming nearer and more important every day. None the less, the second repetition of her name was loud enough to bring her back to her surroundings with a start. She rose, smoothed down her dress with fingers that trembled a little, and answered, “Yes, Miss Clarke.”

“Will you bring me the Blenkinsop file, please, XP782.” The head withdrew.

Miss Danville looked hopelessly at the litter of papers on the table before her, and then began to search. It always took her twice as long to find a file as anybody else, a fact that Miss Clarke had learned and accepted with a certain genial contempt, but this time she began her task with a sense of despair. She was sure she would not find the file. And in this she was perfectly right. Five full minutes later she trailed down the long room into Miss Clarke’s apartment, empty handed.

Miss Clarke, without looking up from her desk, extended her hand for the file. The gesture was characteristic of her in her more unpleasant moods, and appeared to be designed to emphasize that the staff were machines serving the interests of the Pin Control, rather than human beings. But in this instance, the machine failed to function. The extended hand remained unfilled. After a pause, during which she deliberately read through the letter which she was holding in the other hand, Miss Clarke was compelled to treat Miss Danville as a human being, and a very fallible one at that.

“Well?” she said, turning towards her. “Miss Danville, I am waiting. The Blenkinsop file, please.”

“I’m awfully sorry, Miss Clarke, but I haven’t got it.”

“Not got it?” Miss Clarke’s expression was one of disbelief rather than displeasure. “But you must have it. It is marked out to you.”

“Oh yes,” Miss Danville agreed eagerly. “It was marked out to me all right, I know. It’s on my list.”

“Very well then.”

If a file is marked out to you, Miss Clarke’s tone implied, you have it. That is the System of the department, and if the System errs, then chaos is come again.

“But I haven’t got it.” Miss Danville was trembling. “I’ve looked and looked and----” Her face cleared suddenly. “Oh---I’ve just remembered. Of course, Mr. Edelman’s got it.”

“Really, Miss Danville, this will not do. You know perfectly well that when a file is marked out to another section, the carbon transfer slip must be placed in my tray. I suppose you sent it up to Registry along with the top copy. You girls are getting too careless. Ring up Registry and ask for it back. Then----What is the matter?”

“I---I don’t think there was a transfer slip,” Miss Danville faltered.

Miss Clarke’s expression, from being merely severe became outraged.

“No transfer slip?” she echoed. Then, with the air of one determined to probe iniquity to its depths, she went on. “Then perhaps you will tell me where is A.14’s requisition note for the file?”

Even her profound emotion could not make her forget that officially Mr. Edelman was A.14.

Miss Danville, quite unstrung, could only shake her head.

“No requisition note?” Miss Clarke went on remorselessly.

“No.” Miss Danville squeaked in a curious high-pitched tone. “No. Mr. Edelman just came into the room the other day, Wednesday, I think it was, or Thursday, no, Wednesday I’m almost sure, it doesn’t matter which, I suppose, and said, ‘Can I have the Blenkinsop file for a bit?’ and I said, ‘Oh yes, I suppose so,’ and he put it under his arm and walked off with it, and I never thought anything about it, because I knew the file wouldn’t be likely to be wanted again in a hurry, as I’d sent them a form P.C.52 only the day before, and that always keeps them quiet for ages, and so----Well, that’s what happened,” she concluded, her torrent of words stopping as abruptly as it had begun.

There was a shocked silence at the end of her recital. Chaos, Miss Clarke’s expression indicated, had come again indeed.

“I see,” she said at last, grimly. “Well, now that you have remembered the whereabouts of the file, perhaps you will oblige me by fetching it.”

“From Mr. Edelman?” Miss Danville asked nervously.

“Obviously---unless somebody else has decided to have it for a bit, in which case you will fetch it from that person,” Miss Clarke replied with bitter irony.

“Might---might I send a messenger for it, Miss Clarke? Mr. Edelman is sometimes rather---difficult.”

“That was why I suggested that you should fetch it yourself. I see no reason for adding to the messengers’ difficulties. And while you are about it, please give my compliments to Mr. Edelman, and draw his attention to Registry’s standing order governing Transit of Files. Take this copy with you. It may assist your memory.”

A.14 was the Research section, and the Research section consisted of Mr. Edelman. He was, in every sense, in a singular position. He had arrived, some time after the rest of the Control, installed himself in an alcove of one of the largest rooms, where the Ministry of Works presently immured him in a plywood compartment of his own, and there he remained, all day and every day, shrouded in fumes of tobacco smoke, an object of mystery to everyone else. He had no secretary and never troubled the harassed maidens of the typing pool with demands on their services. All that was known of his activities was that into his room went a never-ending procession of files, and from it proceeded a no less continuous stream of immense hand-written minutes. The fact that gave Mr. Edelman’s occupation its peculiar prestige was that these minutes, as cross-questioning of the messengers revealed, went direct from A.14 to the Controller himself. What became of them thereafter, nobody knew. They did not, like the minutes of lesser men, percolate down to the Licensing section, the Enforcement branch or the Raw Materials group. Marketing and Export, who between them had their fingers in nearly every pie baked by the Control, knew no more about them than the rest. The current gossip was that they formed part of the staple diet of the Policy Committee at its monthly meetings, and this seemed a plausible suggestion; but since the Policy Committee met in London under the chairmanship of the Minister himself, its agenda were not matters on which the rank and file could speak with any assurance.

The one thing that was obvious about Mr. Edelman was that he was a glutton for work. His hours were long, although he had no superior authority to keep him up to the mark---unless the Controller, in some omniscient fashion, contrived to keep an eye on his activities. Moreover, not content with the daily ration of files which the messengers brought him---again, so it was said, direct from the Controller’s sanctum itself---he had an easy-going habit of wandering through the department from time to time and requisitioning papers impartially from other sections. No worker objected to this practice---everybody had so many files in current use that the disappearance of one from the table was a positive blessing---and there was always the hope that when it returned it might prove to be enriched by one of the legendary Edelman minutes. It was a hope that had never yet been fulfilled. Naturally, the wary ones automatically safeguarded themselves by filling in at least one of the half-dozen forms that the System provided for such contingencies. It was only in the case of Miss Danville, who was in her own way as easy-going as Mr. Edelman, that trouble resulted.

Miss Danville nervously picked her way between the serried tables of the Enforcement branch. Enforcement, for some reason, was exclusively male, just as Licensing was predominantly female. At the far corner of the room was Mr. Edelman’s door. She knocked nervously on it. There was no answer, and after standing uncertainly outside it, horribly conscious of the amused glances of the Enforcement men behind her, she screwed up her courage and went in.

The first thing that she noticed about the cubicle was that it was extremely stuffy. The Ministry of Fuel and Power’s Permitted Date had passed, and consequently the whole house was kept reasonably warm by excellent central heating inherited from Lord Eglwyswrw; but this was evidently not enough for A.14. An electric radiator at full blast filled the tiny apartment with almost unbearable heat. It served to emphasize Mr. Edelman’s lordly attitude to the System and all that it stood for. For even Miss Danville knew that private additions to the official heating installation were forbidden. The stuffiness was accentuated by the smoke from a short, black pipe, clenched firmly between Mr. Edelman’s teeth. Miss Danville coughed.

At the sound, Mr. Edelman raised his head, and peered at her through horn-rimmed glasses.

“Oh it’s you, is it?” he said abstractedly, laying his pipe on the table and scattering ash over the paper on which he was writing. He stared for a moment, as if he had never seen her before, and then, suddenly coming to life, said briskly, “I know---Blenkinsop! I’ve done with him, thank’s very much. Do you want to take him with you?”

“Yes please. And, Mr. Edelman, Miss Clarke says----”

But Mr. Edelman was not paying any attention to what Miss Clarke had to say. He was kneeling behind his desk, burrowing in a mass of files that lay higgledy-piggledy on the floor. Almost immediately he found what he wanted, and rising to his feet pressed an untidy bundle of papers into her hands.

“There you are!” he said genially. “Thanks for the memory. I’m afraid I’ve made rather a mess of him, but he’s all there. Present, if not correct.” His earnest face lit up with a smile at his own wit.

“Oh, Mr. Edelman!” Miss Danville stared in dismay at the eviscerated file in her hands.

This is not the place to describe the Control’s regulations for the arrangement of files. It is enough to say that in them the System reached its apogee. One glance at the corpse of Blenkinsop was enough to establish that here every one of them had been ruthlessly violated.

“I had to pull him about a bit to get what I wanted,” Edelman said airily. “They tie these things up in such a ridiculous way.” Then, seeing Miss Danville’s look of despair, he went on in a kindly tone, “Look here, sit down and put it straight before you go. It’s no good my offering to help you, but you’re welcome to my desk.”

Miss Danville shook her head miserably.

“Miss Clarke wants it at once,” she said. “I’ll have to take it as it is.”

“Oh, so the Clarke is after you, is she? My sympathies. Well, in that case. . . .”

He sat down at his desk again and drew his paper towards him.

“And she asked me to give you this.”

She laid the Registry’s standing order on Transit of Files in front of him. Edelman contemplated it with disgust.

“Oh, this---rubbish!” he exclaimed, evidently substituting the word at the last moment for something a good deal more expressive.

“Why on earth should I have to waste my time----” He stopped abruptly and looked closely at Miss Danville. “I say,” he went on in a different tone, “has the Clarke been making your life a misery over this?”

Miss Danville pursed her lips and said nothing. An odd sense of loyalty to the Licensing section, which she acknowledged to herself to be quite ridiculous, kept her silent.

“I see she has,” Edelman said quietly. He lit a spill of paper at the electric fire and applied it to his pipe. “What a so-and-so that woman is,” he remarked between puffs. “I wonder nobody’s pushed her over the cliffs one of these dark nights. That reminds me---of course you went to bed early last night, and didn’t hear all our discussion---but don’t you think the Clarke would be a very suitable subject for murder? I must get Wood’s views on it. I’m sure you feel like killing her sometimes, don’t you?”

Really, Miss Danville was saying to herself, the heat in here is something dreadful. And the smoke---one can hardly breathe. If I don’t get out of here, I shall faint, I’m sure I shall. But she did not move, and a moment later she realized that she could not move. A strange, yet familiar sensation crept through her---a feeling of divine elation that was at the same time intermingled with deep despair. Time stood still, and she felt as though she had been for untold ages shut in this airless cabin, where the tobacco smoke wreathed like incense, and the desk-lamp gleamed on Edelman’s dark, satanic face, as he spoke words of death. Kill Miss Clarke. Was this then her destiny---this the meaning of the voices that she heard so often and strove so hard to interpret? The Master was speaking, and now his message was plain.

“God almighty! What’s the matter with you?” exclaimed Edelman suddenly. “What are you staring at me like that for?”

The spell was broken. “Get thee behind me Satan!” she cried hoarsely. “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain!” and she ran from the room.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” murmured Edelman.

He rose, carefully closed the door which she had left open behind her, and plunged into his work again.

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