EXIT PURSUED BY A BEAR by EW Farnsworth
Shakespeare performances commenced in the Ox-Bow Open Theatre in the park on sunny weekend days after the middle of April. Sheriff Fatty Millstone was importuned by the producers to take minor parts to attract the children who loved his Sunday story telling.
Fatty was cast as Banquo’s Ghost in Macbeth and a host of other supernatural figures in other plays; Sycorax the mother of Caliban, Gonzago in the modified dumb show orchestrated by Hamlet, and the bear who, in The Winter’s Tale, was the subject of the most curious stage direction in English theatre history: “Exit, pursued by a bear.” In the latter case, audiences tended to remember the hairy, lumbering bear but not poor Antigonus, who formed the fearsome creature’s offstage meal. Fatty figured that maybe the dramatic shift of reference suited the immortal playwright’s original intent.
The children naturally looked forward to seeing their moon-faced and unlikely hero appear in the Bard’s plays. Fatty did not mind the often uproarious laughter that accompanied his appearances even when they happened to occur in the most serious contexts.
Mr. Congreve, a theatre history buff and relative to the playwright of the same name, whispered to Trueheart, the author of the books on which Fatty’s tales of Cthulhu were based, that ages ago in Scotland Shakespeare plays were performed prior to farces ridiculing the famous plays. In turn, these buffooneries were followed by separate plays on other subjects, sometimes historical ones. Thus, the afternoon entertainments varied the mood of the crowd and satisfied everyone.
So this year, the first play about Cthulhu was inserted into the program after a farce based on The Tempest. Fatty Millstone was cast as the anti-hero, who withdrew from the evil world in disgust and frustration, much like Moliere’s character in The Misanthrope. Fatty’s portrayal of character Cthulhu shook with rage, his tentacles flying in all directions as he vowed to seek a faraway place as home where he could live an honourable life.
The standing ovation Fatty received for that performance was a spontaneous judgment on the evil contemporaneous time. Congreve’s elbow dug into Trueheart’s rib as he urged the man to consider extending the stories of the Cthulhu mythos, both in his books and the plays.
Congreve and Trueheart took their idea to Fatty at the Cracked Bell Pub that evening where toasts to the afternoon’s spectacle had only just begun.
“Sheriff, congratulations. You have struck a chord in the populace. No you must find a way to continue answering the people’s needs with more in the same line. Cthulhu’s story must be fleshed out, and Trueheart tells me he is ready to write the children’s books. If you are willing to help stage the performances of the accompanying plays, Cthulhu will soon become a household name throughout the nation.”
Millstone sipped his pint and thought about Congreve’s proposition. “Of course, I am still the sheriff. My sojourn in the theatre is accidental in the larger drama of my life. What if I suggest a person who could play the role of Cthulhu to perfection? That way, I could revert to an advisory role while the goodness of telling the Cthulhu mythos could grow on its own without my explicit involvement.”
Congreve’s and Trueheart’s eyes met in approval. Trueheart turned to Millstone and asked, “Who could possibly be the perfect Cthulhu in your judgment?”
Fatty leaned over so only Trueheart could hear him and whispered in his ear.
“You aren’t serious, are you? Cthulhu performed by a woman?”
“And why on earth not? Helga is the image of the ancient hero, and her voice commands authority.”
Congreve nodded. “The proof will be in the eating of this pudding. Let’s plan for your candidate to assume the role in next year’s Cthulhu production. I will bear the expenses for the rehearsals and costumes. Trueheart will prepare the people for the appearance of the new star.”
The reporter said, “If the woman measures up to the sheriff’s estimation, she will be a smash hit and probably go on national tour after her summer work in the park.”
Of course, the person Fatty recommended for the part of Cthulhu was his trusty masseuse Helga, whose ministrations with the Swedish massage were legendary at the Roman Baths. Fatty arranged a session for the two men at the baths, and all their doubts were eliminated. Fatty had briefed Helga beforehand, and she embraced the chance of becoming a major actress in a character study that seemed to be made for her specially.
The sheriff and Congreve huddled to hone Helga for her task. Private acting lessons were arranged, and her press persona was designed by Trueheart. The public were not to be privy to details. Her acting would be the key for her success.
Naturally, Fatty divulged the secret plan to Sir Hudibras and his wife. Though they were at first apprehensive about publicly showing an alien presence like Helga, they warmed to the argument that at last one of their own kind was going to be outed in a way distancing her from her kindred and providing the seed kernel of heroism to change the course of prejudice in the favour of hybrids of all forms. With the MP and his dame in full support, Fatty focused on the story he would turn into a Cthulhu play for the next season. With Trueheart, he fashioned a romance that pleased his Sunday audience. Trueheart’s rendition of Cthulhu in his next children’s book increasingly resembled Helga, thus preparing the public for her premier stage appearance. The sheriff had an inspiration: he would share his story telling with Helga, and she would gradually become the principal narrator as well as the leading character. The children and their parents had no trouble accommodating the masseuse as she gradually slipped into her new role. Three Sundays after the new regime began, Helga performed solo to delighted applause.
Trueheart witnessed the transformation and illustrated what he saw. He advertised “Cthulhu in the park” as a spectacle. The public, naturally, thought Helga’s appearance was a matter of ingenious makeup. In fact, though, her facial tentacles and her sinuous bodily tentacles were genuinely her own. No one bothered to try to discover how she managed to move all her appendages at once as if each member had a mind of its own acting independently from the others.
Fatty felt comfortable segueing back to his law enforcement duties while Helga invested her soul in her production. The muckrakers were attracted to the sensational phenomenon, but Fatty assumed they could do no harm. To be sure, the yellow press would sensationalize and play on the basest impulses of the population, but the sheriff saw only the possibilities of free advertising. Besides, no one was allowed access to Helga except Trueheart, who was a fierce protector of her privacy. The sleuths began digging into the myths about alien origins. The tabloids began sporting tentacle-covered creatures on their covers. The more intellectual newshounds found the works of H. P. Lovecraft helpful. Fans of popular imagination liked to recall comic-book figures of humanoids with waving tentacles laced with suckers. Old stories about an alien invasion once again broke the surface and went rampant in pseudohistorical accounts of prophecies and portents about the end of the world.
Meanwhile, as an unintended consequence of their enforced seclusion and common secret, Trueheart and Helga developed a friendly relationship which grieved Trueheart’s beloved. The love triangle was helpful for developing the plot of the children’s book and the play script, but Fatty realized the newsman was becoming overly stressed.
Congreve, sharing a pint at the Cracked Bell, tried to dispel Fatty’s rising alarm about the situation. “Millhouse, we are close to entering the next phase of our plan. This is not the time for us to become squeamish.”
“Mr. Congreve, this is not the stuff of your ancestor’s love comedies, if you please. I am not only worried about the very real love of Trueheart for his woman, I am also concerned that unsettling Helga at this stage may cause her to withdraw and go into hiding.”
Congreve considered his pint seriously. Fatty wondered whether his comment about the man’s ancestor’s comedies was going too far, too fast for the pace of events. As if on cue, Trueheart arrived at the table with a handful of the latest tabloids, which he spread on the table as he ordered a pint for himself.
“Look at this drivel, Sheriff! There is simply no controlling the yellow press once they have decided on a path to destruction.”
“Take a pew, Trueheart. Congreve and I were just contemplating how to bring closure to what we have begun.”
“Closure? My Lord! I hope it has not come to that.” Congreve looked distraught and started poking through the newspapers as if looking for answers to the conundrum.
“I am having love problems; I had no idea Helga could be so jealous.”
Fatty said, “You had better tell us all about it. Spare no detail.”
“Everything was going well between Helga and me. When she came under attack from the other press folk, she naturally needed consolation. The more I consoled her, the more she leaned on me for support. She needed me to be by her side constantly, and she refused to countenance any ideas about my feelings for another woman. Just yesterday, she demanded I break off with all other women while we sort out our relationship. She talked about suicide.”
Congreve looked at Millhouse. “And we were talking about Restoration comedy?”
“I admit, I had not reckoned on the human dimensions. But suicide is not comedy—it is tragedy bordering on farce.”
The three men sought their own counsel for a time. The pub was now full to overflowing, and the din was so great it was hard to make out individual voices in the throng. Through the crowd came Helga, looking a fright, her tentacles flying in all directions. She collapsed in the empty chair at Fatty’s table. When she saw the tabloids with the scabrous pictures, she burst into tears.
“Calm down, Helga,” Fatty said patting the woman’s tentacle nearest him while he raised his other hand to order her a pint.
“Have you gentlemen been reading the garbage they are printing about me?”
Congreve said, “Believe me, Madam, we feel your pain.”
“Maybe so, and then again, maybe not. I have been grievously mis-gendered!”
“What are you talking about?” The sheriff seemed dumbfounded.
“I know Cthulhu is male, but I am female. I know it’s silly, but I cannot feel settled when I am called a male figure in the press. I feel misused and abused. How would you feel if you saw your image spread across the papers and the muckrakers called you a woman?”
Congreve chuckled. “This is anything but Restoration comedy!”
“What’s that?” Helga asked. Just then her pint arrived, and she began drowning her sorrows. “Do you know what I feel like doing, Trueheart? I feel like taking you right now to the baths and getting total satisfaction by giving you a Swedish massage.”
“Helga, I don’t think that’s a good idea!”
“And why is it not a good idea? I would feel vindicated, or at least consoled.”
“Nut Helga, I have a girlfriend. You know that.” Trueheart was clueless how to continue.
From the tentacle-covered face came moans and blubbering. Fatty handed the masseuse a handkerchief. “Helga, I can remove all your tribulations. Will you listen to me?”
“I hope what you say will help us all through this,” Congreve said.
“I am at fault. If you want someone to blame, I take full responsibility. I had no idea you would be so sensitive to the reactions of the press.”
Helga bawled and earned another handkerchief—from Congreve this time.
“We can simply revise our plans.”
“What?” she asked.
“How?” said Trueheart.
“This is going to be good,” said Congreve. “Let’s hear it.”
Just as he was about to begin, a group of rowdy pressmen forced their way to the table where they saw Cthulhu sitting with the sheriff and his friends. Suddenly they were gesturing and shouting questions. Fatty stood to his full height and yelled, “Silence! Or I’ll jail the lot of you. You have interrupted my private conference. Go to the bar and get yourselves pints. When you feel civil, we can talk. And not one more word to my evening guest!”
“Thank you, Sheriff Millhouse,” Helga said. “You are so big and strong. I always feel comfortable things will turn out right when you get involved.” She was looking daggers at Trueheart as she uttered those words. “You were saying?”
“Helga, do you like your work in the Roman Baths?”
“Yes, I do. And my clients like what I do for them, too.”
“So if you went back to work full-time at the baths?”
“I would jump at the chance. Who needs fame and fortune? I am sick of the notoriety play acting has brought me.”
Fatty looked at the two men at the table. “Gentlemen, we are going to have an alteration to our plan. Helga is going to go back doing what she likes best. I will take her place in our scheme and assume the role of Cthulhu.”
The three others’ jaws dropped. They had all invested much of themselves. Now a momentous and unannounced change was being made—by fiat.
“Does anyone object to my proposal?” the sheriff asked in his most authoritative voice. The two men and one woman shook their heads. “Then we have a new deal. Helga, go back to your baths. Trueheart, go back to your beloved. Congreve, stay where you sit and let me give you the details of my new plan. You heard me. Now move!”
Trueheart and Helga moved through the crowd toward the Pub’s front door as Fatty folded the tabloids and arranged them in a neat stack. A couple of the yellow press folk tried to approach the table, but the sheriff waved them away. “Keep drinking, newshounds. When I am ready for you, I shall call.”
Congreve said, “I have made a significant investment in Helga.”
“I will repay every penny, but only if you are dissatisfied with what I have in mind.”
“I am listening.” The man had a smile, but his eyes were wary.
“I was the original candidate for Cthulhu, and I know all his lines by heart. Besides, I can look the part as easily as Helga. I only enlisted her help to give myself distance so I could afford my law enforcement activities their proper due. I thought Helga needed a chance to do something other than her work as a masseuse.”
“So you will step into the role we groomed her for?”
“And why not?” His eyes bored into Congreve’s.
“Since you put it that way, I offer no objection.”
Fatty extended his hand and Congreve shook it. “We have a new deal then. And the reason we had to strike it right away was Helga’s threat of suicide.”
“You took that threat seriously?”
“Congreve, you can never underestimate a threat of suicide. For me, it is a game stopper. I know Helga as a masseuse. She is highly skilled and sensitive in her profession. She is also a happy person by nature and inclination. I hope tonight’s rearrangement of priorities removes a great unhappiness from her.”
Fatty looked up and beckoned the yellow press reporters to the table. “Gentlemen, have a seat or just hover around. What questions do you have? I will answer all of them until closing time. I fancy the tapster will keep all our glasses full to the brim.”
The newshounds did not need a second invitation. Once again, Fatty had to raise his hand to silence them. “One at a time, please! And let the waitress through to take any new orders. Thank you.”