I Meddled

by Charles Hoy Fort

When I was on the staff of a Brooklyn newspaper, I learned that every female inhabitant of Brooklyn was an amateur actress, and every male inhabitant sang in a male quartet. Everybody in Brooklyn belonged to a lodge of some kind, and every lodge gave a theatrical performance when it had no one to initiate and had nothing else to do. In small theaters and large halls, and small halls and every kind of a hall, this vice broke out. We were pestered with it. Gilt-edged cards, with cupids or masks on them, came in every mail, and most of our night assignments were theatrical performances -- for hopeless actresses and hopeless tenors would buy many copies of the newspaper with their names in it to send throughout the country to every one they had ever known.

When programs were sent, we would not bother to go to a performance, but would just make a list of the participants and write our criticisms at home. It is very easy to be a dramatic critic. Start with the first name on a program and write "credible rendition" after it; go on with "lifelike interpretation," and tack on to some one else "dramatic intensity." When we had nothing else to do, we wrote out a dozen criticisms in advance, and then filled in with names from night to night.

One evening I really went to one of these performances. It was given by the Vampire Benevolent Association; genius was to be turned loose, a fifteen-page letter told us. Some Exalted Mightiness met me at the door of the hall, and, learning that I came from a newspaper, introduced me to some other lodge member, who had paid for enough degrees to make him a Sublime Majesty. His Sublimity led me through a crowd of stationers and plumbers and boss carpenters, who were Highnesses and Enormities and Monstrosities, to the table reserved for the press, where reporters sat with pads of copy paper, upon which they would not bother to take notes, in front of them and all their hats telescoped in a toppling pile. It was then that I met Madeline Firscape.

Old Firscape, who wore regalia and insignia and escutcheons of such altitude that he could scarcely breathe, though he was also very fat, drew me aside.

Regalia rolled in billows, as the old fellow wheezed:

"I don't like this sort of thing; it's only amateur, but sometimes that leads to the real stage, doesn't it?"

I was not sure.

"Well, my daughter will have her way and play-act here, and so long as she will have her way about it, I want you to give her a good send-off. You'll write up a good little puff? Well, here's something for yourself. I don't want you to go to any trouble for nothing. I'm a business man and know what business methods are."

Seeming to forget the ethics of my calling, I accepted what he offered me. It was the worst two-cent cigar I have ever seen. But then I became acquainted with Madeline, and, when she pretended fear of me because I was "one of those awful critics," I was as charmed as any ordinary reporter would be to be called a critic.

Madeline was ossified on the stage; she had no joints and spoke in shrill tones, like chalk rubbed on slate. She walked like scissors, and her gesticulations were as unmeaning as the fluttering of a family wash in the wind. But, instead of fairly dividing "creditable rendition," "lifelike interpretation" and "dramatic intensity" among the cast, I lavished them all upon Madeline and would have bestowed other phrases upon her had I had any more in stock -- for she had called me a critic; and to Madeline Firscape, body and typewriter, I belonged.

It was pleasant to "belong." Many evenings when the city editor sent me to lectures and meetings of various kinds, I went to see Madeline, and then returned to the office to write up the assignments as if I had gone where I was sent. And with Old Firscape I was getting along very well, loudly admiring him every time he took another degree in his lodge, humbly looking up to him as he towered, more exalted and more altitudinous, upon superlatives in an awesome mass.

But then my assignment was a big church fair, and I had to go to the church every night to keep count of how much was made for charity and of the popular beauty voting contest. So it was that for a week I had not seen Madeline. Then one evening Old Firscape met me. He was excited.

The old fellow wheezed: "Madeline is missing! For three days nothing has been seen of her, and if you can help me, I'll have you jumped to a Chief Powerfulness in our lodge without taking any intermediate degrees. I want you to keep this out of the newspapers. Can you? Such a story going around can do no good for any reputation. Madeline will come back and explain, I am sure. But nothing must get in the papers about her. Now, I'm not asking you to do this for nothing, even though I feel I can count upon your friendship for us. No, you must not refuse! Right is right." He gave me the worst three-cent cigar I have ever heard of.

Of course Madeline would return, and of course she would explain. I, too, was sure of this. But how to keep the story from the newspapers? Even with our own paper I felt some delicacy about trying to have anything suppressed; it would look like using my position unprofessionally. With the editor of no other paper had I any influence.

"Just the same, it must be done!" I cried. "Come down to the drug store with me, and you telephone to the office, asking for Mr. Buttling, because my voice would be recognized."

The old fellow wheezed and trotted to the drug store with me, and, calling up Editor Buttling, said over the wire what I told him to say. He trusted me absolutely; he repeated what I whispered to him without thinking what he was saying. Then the old fellow turned to glare at me as murderously as a fat old fellow could glare.

I had made him telephone: "Madeline Firscape, aged twenty-three, has been missing from her home for the past three days."

"Go on with all the details," I whispered. And my possible father-in-law, as if thinking that no more harm could be done and he might as well tell all, told that his daughter was the well-known amateur, then adding all about himself, though posing as some one else, and mentioning just what financial standing and importance he imagined his was.

"Who is this? Who's speaking?" Editor Buttling asked.

I whispered: "Jerry O'Toole."

"Oh, it is, hey? Well, that's enough for me! I'm sorry, but we have no space for your interesting little story to-day."

We telephoned to another newspaper. A reporter took down the story at the other end of the wire, but when he learned the name his informant had assumed he said:

"You'll have to tell that to some one else, Jerry. You faked so hard on that last invention of yours that you need a rest. Good-by."

Similar interviews were held over the wire with every other newspaper office in the city. And the next day, when Editor Buttling received an anonymous letter, probably from some neighbor, telling of the disappearance of Madeline Firscape, he gave it no credence.

He grunted: "Jerry O'Toole's at it again! I told him yesterday that this story of some client of his wouldn't work. He's the best press-agent in town, but he can't take me in this way." So it was that not a word of this matter was printed by any newspaper, as the name of Jerry O'Toole cast discredit upon every tip of Madeline's disappearance that was received in the offices of the city.

Madeline came back. I was told of her return and went up to the Firscape home, perhaps not to be honored, but to be appreciated as one who had staved off disgrace and saved a reputation. Madeline could explain all, I was sure. But suppose she would not? I should trust her, anyway.

"Monster!" cried Madeline. "Wretch! You have spoiled my mystery by your stupid meddling. Here I have accepted a place with the Skeeters Stock Company, and, because of your stupidity, shall have to join it with no advertising in advance. Monster, depart!"

Oh, well! Madeline's nose was too thin, anyway. I never did like any of the colors of her hair. I never had cared for the cast in her eye. I went down to spend the evening with Mamie Willow.

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