FICTION

A Very Good Deed

Hard-boiled Mort Rae slapped heart interest into a story for the sake of bonus and by-line — but got a dividend

HAROLD TITUS October 1 1937
FICTION

A Very Good Deed

Hard-boiled Mort Rae slapped heart interest into a story for the sake of bonus and by-line — but got a dividend

HAROLD TITUS October 1 1937

A Very Good Deed

Hard-boiled Mort Rae slapped heart interest into a story for the sake of bonus and by-line — but got a dividend

MORT RAE, of the Morning Dispatch, sat in the telegraph office at a Northern town called Traverse, betraying his faith for a price.

He bashed a battered typewriter, to produce the veriest piece of hokum he had written in the three long years since he had left university and, casually and with some condescension, entered the field of journalism.

Though, since his sophomore year he had been known and revered by his intimates as an outstanding cynic, he now wallowed in sentiment. He was indulging in an orgy of sentiment because the story he had turned up this day would hit the Scoutmaster—managing editor, to you— between the eyes and stand a better than excellent chance of winning for him the Dispatch’s S25 bonus for the best story of the week.

In shirt sleeves and with his rather handsome mouth set in an expression of self-contempt, he wrote:

“Joe Semec, this day’s hero among the provincial forest fire fighters, lies tonight in Munson Hospital, swathed in bandages and his body drenched with the sweat of physical pain, but those items don’t matter much to Joe because the home he built for his Rosie in Paradise still stands.

“The only thing that matters to Joe,” Mort continued, writing with muscular vehemence, “is that Rosie isn’t in that home. She isn’t in Paradise tonight. She isn’t in Traverse County, of which Paradise is a township. Joe doesn’t know where she is.

“But Joe believes she’s coming back to that home he built for her, and to keep that roof and those walls safe should she ever again walk through the vine-shadowed doorway, Joe today fought alone with seared hands and blistering back. Fire wardens who had retreated before that wall of flame which roared savagely through the pinelands down upon Joe’s little farm, will tell you that his was the most magnificent single-handed effort in the long annals of conflict with the red destroyer.”

MORT RAE leaned forward to reread the lines, and his dark eyes lighted derisively.

Maudlin, he muttered. Shoddy, he told himself. But even to a profound and professed cynic, tilings can matter. Recently he had detected critical looks directed at his last summer’s suit, and twenty-five bucks was-—well, twentyfive bucks.

“It is nearly 300 miles from the provincial capital to Paradise,” he resumed, “but to reach the beginnings of Joe’s and Rosie’s saga one must travel that distance. They travelled it on foot, the two of them, in the spring of 1932, when depression swept over the land like a pestilence.”

Outside, street lights came on as twilight faded, and Mort wrote faster. If he missed the mail edition with this story of Northern interest, it would chafe the Scoutmaster and possibly be a handicap when the weekly reward was being considered.

He could handle words, this young Mr. Rae. He could put words together to mean things, he could. That’s the only reason the Scoutmaster kept him on the stall, he knew—because he had the knack of making words fit in graphic meaning.

He made a half-dozen lines of words say plenty, now. Ina brace ol phrases he evoked a picture of the capital city of ’32, with desperation in the hearts of idle men. He showed Rosie, lovely Czech, evicted from her room in a land the language of which she had scarcely commenced to master. He showed Joe, the alien peasant lad. haunting closed factory gates with fright in his great blue eyes. He brought them together in a park, he started them northward, fleeing a city that was strange in more than tongue, seeking sanctuary in the only thing on all this continent familiar to them—the soil.

He married them, with Joe’s last coins for license and fee.

“. . . because,” he wrote, “in the minds of these children of the earth was a regard for those precepts which make for social and national integrity.”

Mort Rae leaned sideways in his chair, fished for a cigarette and grinned sardonically. The Scoutmaster would fall for that !

The Scoutmaster wouldn’t tumble to the fact he was being ribbed. The Scoutmaster1 was that way. He patterned his life and —as far as he had influence over policies—his paper, on copybook maxims which to a cynic were only grist for gags.

Mort tapped the spacebar reflectively now, and recalled the night he had christened the old man,

“Scoutmaster.” It was a year ago, after he’d gone in to make his play for more money. The play had gone floppo and he had been told just why.

“You've got a slant on things that afflicts a lot of your generation,” the old man had said, not unkindly, peering over his spectacles. ‘T sometimes don’t know what to make of you youngsters. You not only lack enthusiasm yourselves, but you have only scorn for the enthusiasms of other people.

“Youth is supposed to be excitable and demonstrative, but so many of you kids seem to work harder at sealing up emotion than at anything else.

HAROLD TITUS

You seem to strain to hold youth’s natural reactions hack, and consider those who do let themselves go as a bunch of dumb bunnies. I don’t know where the thing comes from. It seems to have appeared after the War.

“It seems to me, sometimes, as if you’re making a cult of mockery. You don’t appear to have any beliefs or ambitions or convictions yourselves, and the only principle common to you that I can put a finger on is contempt for belief or ambition or conviction in others.

‘It happens to color all your work, Rae. You’re a swell observer and you can tell what you’ve seen." he said, “but every word carries a stinger. Every phrase is a sneer at something or somebody.” he said and smiled, perhaps wistfully. “By the law of averages you’re bound to hurt the feelings of a lot of readers.

“Now, maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I believe a newspaper should be helpful,” he continued earnestly. “The harder-boiled the world at large gets, the more I believe a newspaper man should have a genuine interest in and a feeling for people and all sorts of human endeavor. You can t help people if your outlook is constantly ironic and bitter. You’ve got to feel with and for others. You’ve— well, I keep going back to this matter of helpfulness, of doing good.”

He said much more. All the rest he said was only a big yawn to Mort, and that night, in one of the after-twoo clock spots he patronized. Mort related his version of the encounter and made his crack about the old man, dubbing him Scoutmaster. It went well with his audience a brace of other reporters, a red-haired torch singer, a young advertising man and his sweetie. Mort heard it being quoted in another spot a few nights later, and that offset, to some slight degree, his disappointment at failing to get more money on pay day.

CO. AS SOON as he’d stumbled into this story today he ^ knew it was up the Scoutmaster’s alley. It was concerned with heroism and good deeds. It oozed sentiment from every angle, and here he sat writing it, spreading himself like a pre-War sob sister. He hadn’t been sentimental in years. Not since that time when, the first blush of college experience faded, he awoke to the realization that the particular upperclassmen he admired most had forsworn sentiment in all its forms, when the words “dumb” and “sophistication” took on fresh connotations; when, in short, he embraced cynicism as another might have submerged himself in some bizarre metaphysic.

“And so they found this tiny farm, long untenanted.’ he resumed, “and. like babes in the wood, crept within the shelter of the crumbling house.”

Mort Rae shifted in his chair and flailed again, going strong. He showed Joe, working for a depression-ridden neighbor in exchange for the use of team and tools. He showed Joe repairing the house, plowing the overgrown garden plot, planting seeds which were his payment in kind for still more labor.

In a paragraph, Mort made the abandoned place bloom. He diverted the flow of the creek to the pocket of rich soil, he produced vegetables and planted berry bushes, and invested herd-wrung dimes in chickens and a calf. He showed, in a few words, Joe’s and Rosie’s triumph over those desperate years, peddling fruits and vegetables, making a meagre payment on the place, preparing to prosper when general prosperity again filled the North with summer tourists.

“They got on.” he wrote, “because their heritage was the touch of genius with the soil.”

fie snapped the ash from his cigarette and grunted“Tripe !” but braced his feet and went on, striking the keys almost spitefully. He showed Joe and Rosie up before day had well silvered the East; he described them on hands and knees in their truck patch for hours on end; he gave them to his readers going wearily but happily to bed as chickens sought their roosts, and grunted to himself at the wisecrack he was passing up there.

He grew the vine over the doorway, pictured Rosie’s blooming beauty as the soil soothed away the last vestige

of the terror a strange and panic-stricken city had set in her heart. He put into his copy the dogged hopefulness of Joe’s great eyes as they had looked at him while Joe talked slowly and faintly in the hospital an hour ago.

“Horsefeathers!” he growled.

“Then." he wrote, “came the serpent into this garden—” and X’d that out.

“Then." he began again, “came the cloud on their horizon. no larger than a baby’s hand.

“They had made the soil reproduce itself, by the growth of lush cover crops. They’d been forced to enlarge the chicken runs for the growing flock. A second .cow and her calf grew sleek in the swamp pasture. Everything reproduced; the soil, the stock, the deer that ventured into the clearing at dusk, the grouse that fluttered from Rosie’s way as she drove the fourth-hand flivver along the woods roads on her way out to peddle produce.

“Everything reproduced, except Rosie.”

T-JIS FACE didn’t change at that. He didn’t sneer at

himself for writing that. Sitting rigid, he tapped the space-bar nervously when he’d written that and swallowed just a trifle dryly. He was thinking of the versions of the story he’d got from the wardens and the neighbors, but mostly of the one he’d got from Joe himself. You had to keep the dauber up to save your goat from that look in Joe Semec’s eyes.

He wrote next, and still rapidly, of Joe’s eagerness for children; his wide-eyed, honest eagerness. He showed Rosie’s distress at inability to (ili that want, put a hunted look in the black eyes, and washed some of the high color from her cheeks. He told of the interval of ecstasy when a child was finally expected, and wrote, with an economy of words, of the tragedy which blanketed the house in Paradise when Rosie’s baby did not live.

“The birds may have kept singing for other people last May. The sun may have shone over this beautiful Northern country for some, but not for Joe and Rosie.

“Shame at failure to give Joe what he wanted most, deafened Rosie to the songs and clouded the blue skies for her. And because of this deafness and blindness visited upon Rosie, Joe’s life became a round of fear and failure.

“Laughter gave to silence in that little house in Paradise. Enthusiasm for the sprouting seeds, the blooming bushes, lost its zest. The earth was there, warm and fertile, needing only understanding and vigor to make it yield another abundance, but Rosie confided to other women that her own productivity was past. That was not true, the doctors say. but it became a fixed idea with the girl. She had, she felt, failed to do her part, and Joe, whose command of words in even his native language is not good, could not give her the solace and reassurance she needed. It was a time for sympathy and understanding and hope.” he wrote and his mouth did not even quirk, “and though he felt these, Joe could not give them convincing expression.”

Mort Rae was going still faster, now. The response of the typewriter was a sustained rattle as he wrote of Rosie’s flight from Paradise, a flight from shame and humiliation and failure which might have been stayed by the right word, the properly-timed gesture, a touch.

Joe did not know where she had gone except that, hitchhiking, she had started southward. Joe went southward himself. He went to the city and walked the streets in fruitless search and then did all there was left for him to do—he returned to that little house in Paradise, to be there should Rosie come.

Mort paused there and slowly fished for another cigarette. His throat was dry as he thought on Joe’s faith, as he remembered Joe’s words in the hospital, as he recalled the look in those haunting blue eyes. Those memories dried out his throat, and that infuriated young Mort Rae.

The poor sap! he told himself. The dumb cluck! he muttered half aloud. The gal had got fed up, of course. Times were good in the city again. If she had half the looks everybody said she had, she wouldn’t need a job; plenty Continued on page 26

A Very Good Deed

Continued from page 17—Starts on page 16

guys in the city had jobs, now. Joe was just another sucker; just another droop who’d been given the run-around by just another dame !

And yet Mort struck his match thoughtfully, and for a paragraph or two the pace of his writing was slow and hesitant.

He described the invasion of the garden by weeds. He told how Joe, instead of being busy with the soil, stood at the gate and watched hours on end for a figure approaching along the pine-shadowed road, coming for his aching, waiting arms.

"Yes. She will come,” Joe had said an hour before in the hospital, and Mort quoted him so. "She will come back, Joe says,” he wrote. "He repeats it doggedly, persistently, as a man will whose life has but one objective, who knows in his heart that this objective is perhaps impossible of attainment, but who has the will and the perseverance which will heed neither fact nor logic.

“And that,” Mort wrote, “brings us down to today when, after weeks of drought, all the district lay prey to the scourge of forest fire.”

X_XE CITED the start of this day’s fire -*■ from a carelessly-tossed match or cigarette butt. He touched on the flash from a lookout in his high tower to district headquarters. He pictured the dash of the fire wardens, the rolling of heavy equipment, the converging of emergency crews.

"But the wind had its way. The wind and the temperature and the low humidity. Men could not stand before fire rolling as that rolled through Paradise today. Fire lines could not stop it. Backfires could not be held.

“The weary, dismayed fighters fell back. They formed themselves on the fianks, and adopted the strategy of holding the destroyer to narrow limits, and waited for late afternoon, when the wind would drop and they might again attack the front.

“Runners were dispatched along its course to warn the few inhabitants to flee. A runner warned Joe and Joe sent him on, saying he would follow. But Joe didn’t follow. Abandon the place in Paradise he was keeping for his Rosie, to a mere forest fire? Let a trifling thing like a wall of flame wipe from the face of the earth the house he had built for his Rosie? That sort of stuff is not in the blood and bone and heart of Joe Semec !”

Mort Rae breathed through his lips as he made snug phrases, brief sentences, tell of Joe’s fight. Of the furrows Joe plowed along the edge of his clearing to stop flames running on the ground, of the soaked sacks and blankets with which he covered the roof of the house as protection from flying brands. He pictured the flame checked at the furrows but leaping across here and there, to be beaten down again by Joe’s frantic efforts. He showed Joe carrying water single-handed from the creek ; and on the barn roof, cursing and drowning out the pennants of fire that tried to find secure hold there; and with a pitchfork wrenching banners of blazing straw from his stack so it would not spread.

Mort put into his story sweat and fatigue and thirst, and the strangling from smoke. He burned Joe’s shirt on his back, and made graphic the bite and sting of fire on flesh. He raised blisters on Joe’s hands and neck and arms. He wrote a staccato paragraph of action that was immense . . .

“And the fire went on. Over and around and on, leaving Joe’s little farm singed and smudged but intact. Joe did the impossible, but he had it to do because at stake was the home he’d made for his Rosie in Paradise.

“So Joe lies tonight on his hospital bed. His burns are serious but not grave, the doctors say. And if Rosie should come back she’d find her home there, safe for her, as her future is safe in the heart which knows no surrender, which

reflects its steadfastness and courage in those wide blue eyes that say things with eloquence while Joe’s faltering tongue stumbles over meaningless things like words.”

He flashed a look at the clock, typed his name beneath the final paragraph, and began reading copy on the first page.

“Listen, cookie,” he said, tossing the sheet to the girl operator, “get aboard that like a sweet kid, will you?”

Time crowded him, then, and when he was finally finished he was suddenly tired. This forest-fire assignment was nothing soft. He’d been going early and late for three days, now. Added to that, prodding yourself up to grinding out drivel like this wasn’t easy. He drove over to the hotel and fell heavily into bed.

They roused him an hour later with a telegram. It was from the Scoutmaster.

GREAT STORY STOP FIGURED YOU HAD IT IN YOU STOP COVER BAD FIRE AT ROSCOMMON TOMORROW.

As good as the bonus cheque, Mort told himself, but still he wasn’t happy. He didn’t go to sleep at once again. He rolled over petulantly. “Nuts!” he said aloud. He couldn’t get the look in that punk’seyes out of his head !

TI) REAKFAST-TIME found him inGrayling, fifty miles from Traverse, stopping before a restaurant, buying a mail edition of the Dispatch as he entered.

His own name leaped at him from the front page. His own name. “By Mort Rae” in blackface. He’d never had a byline before. He stood still looking at the by-line and telling himself that the bonus was nailed down now.

Then he looked at the head. The Scoutmaster had written that head himself. Nobody on the copy desk would have written a head like that. Nobody else in the business had enough sweetness and light to write a head like that. A single line in a two-column, open box:

ROSIE! JOE NEEDS YOU BADLY!

Mort’s lip started to curl, and then his mouth opened in a durn founded gawp.

This was the first edition. In the city, it had gone on sale before midnight. It had been offered by newsboys just as things were warming up in the hot spots. Every third person who walked out of a café or beer parlor after eleven o’clock would carry one. And there was his by-line, under a head like that, over a story like that !

He ordered breakfast surlily. What a laugh that would give the gang. What a ribbing he’d be in for, now. More than a column of bunk like that under his name !

Half-consciously, last night,he’d planned to weasel out of responsibility. If anybody who counted noticed the story and connected it with his assignment up North, he could have put the bee on a rewrite man. He’d never figured on a by-line.

And now all the city would know. The wisecracking Mort Rae would be at their mercy. The Mort Rae who’d gagged about things and people until he was quoted in all the hot spots anybody went to, had made a monkey of himself. The Mort Rae had written a story like that and had no out from the stigma . . .

It was noon before he reached Roscommon. He met a fire warden outside the Grayling restaurant, and went with him to get a story. Later he drove southward to follow the Scoutmaster’s orders, brooding as he drove. Nobody had laid a pencil on his copy. Not a line had been changed. It was all there in its damning sentimentality, fodder for the razz, and young cynics do not enjoy being ridiculed.

“Judas!” he muttered as he slowed for Roscommon. “Judas Iscariot Rae!” he

muttered, and wondered if the poor sap, Joe, was still figuring he’d get Rosie back. Mort swallowed dryly. It was all screwy, the way he kept seeing that cluck’s eyes!

Another story was in the making here, all right. Three major fires were running in the district. A warden would take him out just as soon as he could get away from headquarters.

Hard-driven men came and went. An equipment-laden truck rolled out. A monotonous voice talked over short-wave radio. The telephone kept ringing.

It wras hot again, but it wasn’t temperature that popped sweat out on Mort’s lip. It was his story.

On the desk lay a copy of the Dispatch's city edition. Someone northward bound had left the city after it was on sale, evidently. And there was his story, still with the by-line. Moved up toward the top of page one, though. He gritted his teeth. Anybody who’d luckily missed it last night couldn’t miss it today. It stuck out like a sore thumb. It was—

He looked quickly outside as a tire blew with a sharp report. An elderly woman driving an ancient car, pulled off the pavement out in front and alighted. A brace of hiking Boy Scouts, knapsacks on their backs, long staffs in their hands, arms and shoulders exposed by their undershirts burned a bright red, approached her. They looked at the tire. They exchanged words with the woman. They wriggled out of their packs and fell to.

"K^ORT groaned. He cursed the Scout•*-*-*master. He cursed everything. But guys like the Scoutmaster were sometimes right, he reminded himself. Like your sins finding you out . . .

He turned the paper over slowly and purposefully, to hide his shame from himself. Scowling, his eyes ran the last page, coming to rest on a story at the bottom of an obscure column. Jt was a story told in a stick of type, and his head crept forward a bit as he leaned over the desk, reading.

“Rose Smitz, 24 and pretty, a waitress at the Poet and Peasant, Woodward Road, was taken to the Highland police station at midnight and booked as disorderly.

“Officers Murray and Kurtz found Rose in the midst of Woodward Road traffic attempting to thumb a ride. The girl was in hysterics by the time she reached the station, insisting she was only attempting to reach the bedside of a relative whom, she had been informed, was ill at her home in Kingsley.

“Rose’s troubles became complex when Joe Piette, proprietor of the café, appeared and claimed the peasant costume which his waitresses wear. Rose settled for this, however, and the disorderly charge was withdrawn. Officer W. M. Riordon, of the Highland Park station, starting north when relieved of duty for a vacation with his family, forestalled a repetition of the girl’s offense by offering her a ride.”

Mort’s scowl deepened . . . Rose Smitz? Joe spelled his name S-e-m-e-c. but pronounced it as though it ended in a soft Is. And the rewrite man who took the story from the leg man wouldn’t know Kingsley from any other of hundreds of villages. It would be, however, Joe’s post-office address.

Midnight, eh? Mort narrowed his eyes. He saw this Rosie, tray on her hip. standing beside a chair waiting for an order. An early edition of the Dispatch might have been spread there and . . .

ROSIE! JOE NEEDS YOU BADLY!

Maybe she’d dropped that tray. Perhaps she’d snatched the paper from the customer. Perhaps she’d walked out and

bought one for herself ... A host of possibilities swirled through Mort Rae’s mind. Along with other things. Swirled and tangled with many other things.

But one thing came clear. Rosie had started north a little after midnight. Rosie had reached Traverse, with luck, while he was staring at his first by-line in Grayling. She was in that hospital ward by then, if she’d had the best of luck. And all the dumb faith Joe had had in her return, had checked out.

“Check!” Mort said aloud to himself, and huskily. He laughed a little.

It gave him a sock, he had to admit. It gave him a lift. The radio’s loud speaker irritated him. He was jumpy. He lit a cigarette and read the story again.

■pUNNY, his hand was shaking. Funny, he felt all jittery inside; almost as though he’d been on a binge last night. Something was happening to him. He was getting warm all over. Not hot; just warm ; a kind of swell sensation. He was feeling as he hadn’t felt since he was a kid. He was trying to dope out how Joe would look when Rosie came into that hospital ward. In her high-bodiced peasant dress . . . Peasants . . . people . . . nuts about each other . . .

He blew his nose violently and said “Nuts!” But it wasn’t a convincing expletive. It didn’t sound scornful. He was all unravelled, somehow. He was kidding himself into thinking—

Suddenly, with vast relief, it struck him that here was a wow of a story for the Dispatch. The Dispatch had sent Rosie back to Joe and her home in Paradise. That gave him something to do, to down these balmy feelings that kept churning inside.

He turned toward the telephone to call the city, but it rang again and a worried warden answered. He’d better walk over to the exchange and put in his call. It was only a block or two. Maybe the walk would settle him down. Inside. A battle of some sort was going on among his ribs. Maybe if he walked over and phoned the tip . had a drink.

Mort shoved open the screen door as the old lady started her car, called something back to the scouts. The scouts were wriggling into their packs again. They picked up their staffs as Mort walked out and fell in behind them. The tall skinnyone hippity-hopped to get in step with the short pudgy one. They swung along, their heels hitting the pavement smartly as your heels will when you’re feeling pretty good.

“Well,” said the short one, “I guess we’ve done our good deed today.”

The skinny one, who wore spectacles and was somewhat stooped, looked nearsightedly into his mate’s face and nodded.

“Yes,” he said through his buck teeth. “And a very good deed, too.”

The confusion that had been going on inside Mort Rae all flattened out. Suddenly he didn’t care about being razzed. Between breaths, he found that he was no longer ashamed of that story. He threw out his chest a little, as the scouts threw theirs out when they entered flanking rows of parked cars. He began to grin, a trifle shamefacedly, but his eyes were bright and shining. He understood, now, what the old man had meant about this thing of a feeling for people.

Rosie had come back, just as Joe had said. How would Joe’s eyes look now, with the dogged hope behind them fulfilled? And who’d done it? Who’d started that pair back into the little house in Paradise?

Tunk! Tunk! Tunk! went six heels on the hot, soft pavement.

But something wasn’t right. Something hadn’t been right. He knew what it was. and hippity-hopped himself so his left heel would hit the pavement smartly when the left heels of the kids ahead came down.

“Yes,” he repeated to himself and his voice sounded queer, “and a very good deed, too!”