THE COMING FLOOD by EW Farnsworth
Crenshaw the yellow journalist stopped by the Cracked Bell, Fatty Millstone’s favourite pub on Picklock Lane, to ask the sheriff what he thought of the rumours being spread about the coming flood. The newshound’s gossipy wife Celery was in tow, her head darting every which way while her husband spoke between sips from the pint the lawman had bought at the public’s expense to calm the troubled waters.
“Tell me again, Crenshaw, why you think the waters will be rising soon?” The big, fat man smiled and sat back in his chair while trying to avoid looking at Mrs. Crenshaw’s wandering eyes.
“It’s not the first time I have reported on this continuing story, but the evidence is compounding. Deucalion has set up a soap box in Kensington to declaim while holding up the plan for the ark he will build with subscriptions. Tell the sheriff what you heard this morning, Celery.”
The woman blinked twice as she wheeled her head to look Fatty in the eyes. “It has been raining continuously over a fortnight now. I was the second person at the greengrocer’s this morning and overheard Parson Highly whisper to the proprietor he felt as if he might frame this Sunday’s sermon on the biblical story of Noah. Then the greengrocer told how last night he saw tentacled creatures crawling and wiggling all over the place. It is a sign of the end. Moll Doughty agrees. Her husband is a carpenter too. Then Sissy Placemat felt that tentacle up her dress on her way to play bridge last Tuesday. The weirdest things are happening. No one is safe.” She put one hand on top of the other in her lap. She had said what she had intended and dutifully passed the conch to her husband.
“You see how it is, Sheriff. I only need a few words from you—on the record. The official position in troublous times can quell the spirits of the multitudes.” He leaned forward to catch every word the sheriff uttered. He waited. Then he took a long draught from his pint. Then he stuck his head out while his wife dug her elbow into his side.
“Please stop that, Celery. We should give the great man time to summon his wits. He knows the importance of words from his illustrious mouth. Take plenty of time, Sheriff Millhouse. I can wait till this pint is gone before I go hear the man on the soap box.”
Fatty harrumphed and lines formed on his forehead. He looked from the newsman to his wife. Then, like an oracle, he spoke. “I like rain. It is good for gardening and fishing. It is also good for melancholy and poetry, of which far too little has been published lately. As for the nonsense about tentacles and such, I place no stock in those idle rumours. Perpetrating fraud to solicit money under false pretences is a veritable crime. In that I take keen interest. Bring me direct quotes implicating a citizen in a crime, and I shall pounce on him or her forthwith.” Fatty stopped for a swig from his pint.
“Did I just hear the oracle of Delphi speak? I do not think so, Husband. Trash-mouth my gossips and deputize my husband while plying him with drink? We shall see who the fraudster is. Come now, Mr. Crenshaw. We do not want to miss Mr. Deucalion’s exhortation. Finish your pint if you like, but I can sit here no longer.” She stood and watched the newshound quaff the rest of his drink. Then the two made their way through the crowded room as Fatty shook his head and raised his hand for a waitress.
“Trudy, please take the used glasses away and bring me another pint with bitters. Before you go, tell me what you have been hearing about the flood.”
The young woman looked around to be sure she was not overheard.
“Sheriff Millstone, everyone talks about the flood. You know, Global Warming. The end of the world as we know it. And there is nothing we poor souls can do about it but wait for the rising water to cover the earth. We will all drown. My boyfriend Jack is always reminding me when he tests my virtue. I have not yielded to him yet. Maybe I should yield while there is still time.” She winked at Fatty and smiled. “Anyway, I will be right back with your second pint.”
Fatty sat brooding about the rumours of tentacles. Those cut too close to truth for his liking. He had caught snippets of gossip about those too. The yellow press had published pictures of enormous tentacles reaching out from the Great Tower or stretching toward citizens walking in the mall. He used his hand to smooth his shirt front where his own tentacle rested against his chest. He thought, “I had better put an end to the stories about the connection between the tentacles and the flood. But how? Maybe Hudibras has a few ideas on that score.”
Trudy brought the sheriff’s pint and set it on top of a new napkin hear his right hand. “Will there be anything else, Sir?”
“One thing you can do for me that would greatly ease my mind.”
“Anything, Sheriff—anything that’s legal.”
Fatty smiled. “If you ever have trouble keeping your boyfriend Jack in line, let him know that if I hear he has done anything to harm or distress you, I will see him punished in ways they do not publish in the papers.”
“I will let him know, Sir. It is my quitting time now.” Fatty laid three coins on the table as her tip, which she swept into her apron pocket with a smile and curtsy. “Thank you, Sir. You are always so kind. Good day.”
Late that afternoon it was still raining cats and dogs, and the pub’s customers naturally talked about the weather. An elderly gentleman looking for a place to sit down was invited by Fatty to join him. He bought the man a pint, which opened his soul.
“I am ninety-three years old, Sheriff, and I have never witnessed such a deluge as we are having. The rivers and lakes are filling up with all kinds of deep sea creatures. What do you make of it?”
“I frankly do not think the world is going to end, old man. This merry country has sloughed off more water in its time than it every collected in its lakes and ponds. Some people are trying to make money off gullible people afraid of the terrible things that are happening.”
“Who can blame them? They are afraid now, but after the rain, they will be happier than they ever were and soon forget their doldrums. Now as for the tentacles...” He winked. “Those I know are real.”
“How do you know they are real?”
The old man rocked forward on his cane and looked around to be sure no one saw what he was about to do. He then undid the middle buttons on his shirt and wagged the tip of his tentacle at Fatty. When he stuffed the appendage back under his shirt and buttoned and smoothed it, he said, “What I just showed you was in strictest confidence. You will not lock me up for being candid, will you, Sheriff?”
“Old man, you have nothing to fear from me. I shall keep your secret to the grave.”
“That is a great relief to me, though I have not much time left. You know, I always thought you might be one of us lucky few.”
“I think we might both be surprised about how many in this country have an extra appendage under his shirt.”
The old man smiled. “Or running down the pants leg or climbing down from her skirt. Are the newspapers wrong positing tentacles waving from the battlements and coming up from the sewers?”
Fatty shook his head. “Anything seems to be possible in the yellow press.”
“That’s so. Rapscallions will be playing havoc with the people’s minds as if there were no honest way of making money. Speaking of which, this way comes Sir Hudibras himself. Shall I vacate my place to let him sit down with you?”
“Stay where you are. He can pull up another chair to our table. Let me buy you another pint?”
“With a squeeze of lime this time, please.”
“Sir Hudibras, pull up a pew. With Deucalion declaiming from a soapbox in the park and the parson wanting to explicate the story of Noah and his ark, this gloomy day needs a pint in every hand.”
The barkeep, never slack or hard of hearing, said, “We heard, Your Eminence! Drinks on the house, compliments of our MP and our Sheriff.” This pronouncement set the conversations in progress on another level of decibels. The thunder and lightning announced the Crenshaws just having returned from their edification in the park. The two shoved their way to Fatty’s table to join the three men drinking.
“Crenshaw, did you get what you wanted for your story about the coming flood?” The man and his wife were stripping their drenched rain gear and parking their umbrellas under the table.
“You were right, Sheriff. The man is a fraud. The idea of paying him five hundred pounds for a seat on his ark!”
Celery was bristling with rage. “Imagine trying to scalp us—in a time when the whole nation is at risk!”
Sir Hudibras sat astonished. “I must have missed a conversation or three. Sheriff, what has been going on?”
“Sir, the people are concerned that the perpetual rain is another sign of the end times, when everyone will be destroyed by a flood.”
The MP got a serious look on his face. He looked at Crenshaw and said, “If I am not mistaken, your name is Crenshaw, like the melon. You are the chief architect of the brazen false stories about giant tentacles coming out of public buildings and such-like poppycock.”
The old man raised his glass and said, “Hear! Hear!”
Crenshaw’s face was a mask of bewilderment and pain. “I only report what I know to be true. And my editor keeps me in line, I assure you.”
Mrs. Crenshaw leaned forward on her elbows and under her breath said, “My husband might have been a preacher. He chose newsprint over the cloth because he did not want to be dressed in sheep’s clothing.”
“Celery, here comes your pint. Why don’t you enjoy it while I talk with the gentlemen?” Crenshaw was glad to take refuge in his own drink. When sufficient time had passed since his wife’s blunder, he asked, “Sir Hudibras, what do you have to say—on the record—about the coming flood?”
“I will give you a statement but only on condition it will be printed verbatim and not distorted out of context as so many of my prior utterances have been.”
“My galleys are gospel, Sir. What editorial does with them is beyond my ken.”
Sir Hudibras took a deep draught from his pint and sat up to make his pronouncement. “We have been through blood, sweat and tears,” he began, and the old man raised his glass and said, “We have, indeed. But who among the young remember those words?”
“Ahem. As I was saying, We have been through many forms of hell, and we will endure the present too. Water is the least of our troubles. I prophesy the threat of a coming flood will pass, and naysayers and doomsayers will be proven charlatans and mountebanks, like that clown on the box in the park.” This time, Celery Crenshaw raised her glass with, “I will drink to that!”
Stimulated by the approval of the old man and the newshound’s wife, Sir Hudibras said, “And we shall survive, thrive and prosper, one and all.” Now all glasses were in the air. “Rule Britannia” was sung off-key yet vigorously.
Tears came to the old man’s eyes. “We have heard the chimes at midnight!”
Fatty decided to cap the moment. “And we shall hear no more defeatist rhetoric about tentacled creatures invading our land or seats being offered for sale on some mythical ark.”
The parson came in on cue. “Did someone mention the biblical ark of Noah? Why, it may be coincidental if not providential, but that is my text for this Sunday’s sermon. I only just mentioned it to my greengrocer this morning. I hoped it would be a surprise, but praise the Lord, it has become general knowledge. Such is the power of the Almighty. You will find nothing about suckers or tentacles in my sermon. And I shall abide by explication of the text of the new revised standard edition of the King James authorized Bible. I will have one more pint, with your favour, before I leave to compose my sermon.”
“Serve this saint another pint—with a squeeze of lime, Parson?”
“I would not say no to that, Sheriff.”
“Barkeep, please top off all the glasses at the people’s expense. I propose a toast: To the People of this lush, emerald-green land. May they ever thrive!”
Carousing continued straight through till last call and quitting time. The Crenshaws said as they left they had never had such a joyful time. The old man had problems rising, so Fatty volunteered to walk him home. Sir Hudibras walked out with the Crenshaws to be sure the newsman got his quotation exactly right.
In the street, the runoff was rushing to the drains, but the rain had stopped. The clouds had broken up, so the stars shone through. The air smelled so fresh and clean, it was like paradise. That is what the old man said.
“I have a bet for you, Sheriff. Tomorrow’s tabloids will have pictures of those tentacles reaching from everywhere to grab the people. They will be terrified by that idea, but guess what? They were cowering in fear about some babble about a coming flood for days without a tentacle in sight. Do you think I should try to get a refund for my seat on the ark? Evidently, I will not be needing it now.”
Before Fatty could answer, he heard a voice calling from behind them.
“Sheriff Millstone! It is Trudy. And I have Jack with me. Please tell him what you will do to him if he ever does evil things to me.”
The sheriff assumed his sternest demeanour. “Jack, if you harm or distress this young woman, I will do unprintable things to you. Do you understand me?”
Jack looked contrite. He said, “Yes, Sir. I would never do Trudy harm, as I love her and want her to marry me. She is doing me harm by not saying yes.”
The old man said, “What a beauty she is. I wish I were seventy years younger.”
“Trudy, do you need me to say anything else tonight? If not, I warn you both you should get home to your separate houses before curfew.”
“Curfew?” Jack asked.
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “Get this child home at once before I arrest you.”
“Trudy, what have you done?”
The two walked off together while the sheriff and the old man continued on their journey. By now the full moon was shining down on the landscape. The old man began singing a fighting song. Fatty wondered whether the old man was right about the morning tabloids, but he had done his best, and tomorrow was another day.