Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 19

1

A Thursday in June 1913.

The train wandered through orchard-land and cornfields — two seedy day-coaches and a baggage car. Hurry and efficiency had not yet been discovered on this branch line, and it took five hours to travel the hundred and twenty miles from Zenith to Banjo Crossing.

The Reverend Elmer Gantry was in a state of grace. Having resolved henceforth to be pure and humble and humanitarian, he was benevolent to all his traveling companions, he was mothering the world, whether the world liked it or not.

But he did not insist on any outward distinction as a parson, a Professional Good Man. He wore a quietly modest gray sack suit, a modestly rich maroon tie. Not just as a minister, but as a citizen, he told himself, it was his duty to make life breezier and brighter for his fellow wayfarers.

The aged conductor knew most of his passengers by their first names, and they hailed him as “Uncle Ben,” but he resented strangers on their home train. When Elmer shouted, “Lovely day, Brother!” Uncle Ben looked at him as if to say “Well, ‘tain’t my fault!” But Elmer continued his philadelphian violences till the old man sent in the brakeman to collect the tickets the rest of the way.

At a traveling salesman who tried to borrow a match, Elmer roared, “I don’t smoke, Brother, and I don’t believe George Washington did either!” His benignancies were received with so little gratitude that he almost wearied of good works, but when he carried an old woman’s suit-case off the train, she fluttered at him with the admiration he deserved, and he was moved to pat children upon the head — to their terror — and to explain crop-rotation to an ancient who had been farming for forty-seven years.

Anyway, he satisfied the day’s lust for humanitarianism, and he turned back the seat in front of his, stretched out his legs, looked sleepy so that no one would crowd in beside him, and rejoiced in having taken up a life of holiness and authority.

He glanced out at the patchy country with satisfaction. Rustic, yes, but simple, and the simple honest hearts of his congregation would yearn toward him as the bookkeepers could not be depended upon to do in Prosperity Classes. He pictured his hearty reception at Banjo Crossing. He knew that his district superintendent (a district superintendent is a lieutenant-bishop in the Methodist Church — formerly called a presiding elder) had written the hour of his coming to Mr. Nathaniel Benham of Banjo Crossing, and he knew that Mr. Benham, the leading trustee of the local church, was the chief general merchant in the Banjo Valley. Yes, he would shake hands with all of his flock, even the humblest, at the station; he would look into their clear and trusting eyes, and rejoice to be their shepherd, leading them on and upward, for at least a year.

Banjo Crossing seemed very small as the train staggered into it. There were back porches with wash-tubs and broken-down chairs; there were wooden sidewalks.

As Elmer pontifically descended at the red frame station, as he looked for the reception and the holy glee, there wasn’t any reception, and the only glee visible was on the puffy face of the station agent as he observed a City Fellow trying to show off. “Hee, hee, there AIN’T no ‘bus!” giggled the agent. “Guess yuh’ll have to carry your own valises over to the hotel!”

“Where,” demanded Elmer, “is Mr. Benham, Mr. Nathaniel Benham?”

“Old Nat? Ain’t seen him today. Guess yuh’ll find him at the store, ‘bout as usual, seeing if he can’t do some farmer out of two cents on a batch of eggs. Traveling man?”

“I am the new Methodist preacher!”

“Oh, well, say! That a fact! Pleased to meet yuh! Wouldn’t of thought you were a preacher. You look too well fed! You’re going to room at Mrs. Pete Clark’s — the Widow Clark’s. Leave your valises here, and I’ll have my boy fetch ’em over. Well, good luck, Brother. Hope you won’t have much trouble with your church. The last fellow did, but then he was kind of pernickety — wa’n’t just plain folks.”

“Oh, I’m just plain folks, and mighty happy, after the great cities, to be among them!” was Elmer’s amiable greeting, but what he observed as he walked away was “I am like hell!”

Altogether depressed now, he expected to find the establishment of Brother Benham a littered and squalid cross-roads store, but he came to a two-story brick structure with plate-glass windows and, in the alley, the half-dozen trucks with which Mr. Benham supplied the farmers for twenty miles up and down the Banjo Valley. Respectful, Elmer walked through broad aisles, past counters trim as a small department-store, and found Mr. Benham dictating letters.

If in a small way Nathaniel Benham had commercial genius, it did not show in his aspect. He wore a beard like a bath sponge, and in his voice was a righteous twang.

“Yes?” he quacked.

“I’m Reverend Gantry, the new pastor.”

Benham rose, not too nimbly, and shook hands dryly. “Oh, yes. The presiding elder said you were coming today. Glad you’ve come, Brother, and I hope the blessing of the Lord will attend your labors. You’re to board at the Widow Clark’s — anybody’ll show you where it is.”

Apparently he had nothing else to say.

A little bitterly, Elmer demanded, “I’d like to look over the church. Have you a key?”

“Now let’s see. Brother Jones might have one — he’s got the paint and carpenter shop right up here on Front Street. No, guess he hasn’t, either. We got a young fella, just a boy you might say, who’s doing the janitor work now, and guess he’d have a key, but this bein’ vacation he’s off fishin’ more’n likely. Tell you: you might try Brother Fritscher, the shoemaker — he might have a key. You married?”

“No. I’ve, uh, I’ve been engaged in evangelistic work, so I’ve been denied the joys and solaces of domestic life.”

“Where you born?”

“Kansas.”

“Folks Christians?”

“They certainly were! My mother was — she is — a real consecrated soul.”

“Smoke or drink?”

“Certainly not!”

“Do any monkeying with this higher criticism?”

“No, indeed!”

“Ever go hunting?”

“I, uh — Well, yes!”

“That’s fine! Well, glad you’re with us, Brother. Sorry I’m busy. Say, Mother and I expect you for supper tonight, six-thirty. Good luck!”

Benham’s smile, his handshake, were cordial enough, but he was definitely giving dismissal, and Elmer went out in a fury alternating with despair. . . . To this, to the condescension of a rustic store-keeper, after the mounting glory with Sharon!

As he walked toward the house of the widow Clark, to which a loafer directed him, he hated the shabby village, hated the chicken-coops in the yards, the frowsy lawns, the old buggies staggering by, the women with plump aprons and wet red arms — women who made his delights of amorous adventures seem revolting — and all the plodding yokels with their dead eyes and sagging jaws and sudden guffawing.

Fallen to this. And at thirty-two. A failure!

As he waited on the stoop of the square, white, characterless house of the Widow Clark, he wanted to dash back to the station and take the first train — anywhere. In that moment he decided to return to farm implements and the bleak lonely freedom of the traveling man. Then the screen door was opened by a jolly ringleted girl of fourteen or fifteen, who caroled, “Oh, is it Reverend Gantry! My, and I kept you waiting! I’m terrible sorry! Ma’s just sick she can’t be here to welcome you, but she had to go over to Cousin Etta’s — Cousin Etta busted her leg. Oh, please do come in. My, I didn’t guess we’d have a young preacher this time!”

She was charming in her excited innocence.

After a faded provincial fashion, the square hall was stately, with its Civil War chromos.

Elmer followed the child — Jane Clark, she was — up to his room. As she frisked before him, she displayed six inches of ankle above her clumsy shoes, and Elmer was clutched by that familiar feeling, swifter than thought, more elaborate than the strategy of a whole war, which signified that here was a girl he was going to pursue. But as suddenly — almost wistfully, in his weary desire for peace and integrity — he begged himself, “No! Don’t! Not any more! Let the kid alone! Please be decent! Lord, give me decency and goodness!”

The struggle was finished in the half-minutes of ascending the stairs, and he could shake hands casually, say carelessly, “Well, I’m mighty glad you were here to welcome me, Sister, and I hope I may bring a blessing on the house.”

He felt at home now, warmed, restored. His chamber was agreeable — Turkey-red carpet, stove a perfect shrine of polished nickel, and in the bow-window, a deep arm-chair. On the four-poster bed was a crazy-quilt, and pillow-shams embroidered with lambs and rabbits and the motto, “God Bless Our Slumbers.”

“This is going to be all right. Kinda like home, after these doggone hotels,” he meditated.

He was again ready to conquer Banjo Crossing, to conquer Methodism; and when his bags and trunk had come, he set out, before unpacking, to view his kingdom.

2

Banjo Crossing was not extensive, but to find the key to the First Methodist Church was a Scotland Yard melodrama.

Brother Fritscher, the shoemaker, had lent it to Sister Anderson of the Ladies’ Aid, who had lent it to Mrs. Pryshetski, the scrubwoman, who had lent it to Pussy Byrnes, president of the Epworth League, who had lent it to Sister Fritscher, consort of Brother Fritscher, so that Elmer captured it next door to the shoemaker’s shop from which he had irritably set out.

Each of them, Brother Fritscher and Sister Fritscher, Sister Pryshetski and Sister Byrnes, Sister Anderson and most of the people from whom he inquired directions along the way, asked him the same questions:

“You the new Methodist preacher?” and “Not married, are you?” and “Just come to town?” and “Hear you come from the City — guess you’re pretty glad to get away, ain’t you?”

He hadn’t much hope for his church-building — but he expected a hideous brown hulk with plank buttresses. He was delighted then, proud as a worthy citizen elected mayor, when he came to an agreeable little church covered with gray shingles, crowned with a modest spire, rimmed with cropped lawn and flower-beds. Excitedly he let himself in, greeted by the stale tomb-like odor of all empty churches.

The interior was pleasant. It would hold two hundred and ninety, perhaps. The pews were of a light yellow, too glaring, but the walls were of soft cream, and in the chancel, with a white arch graceful above it, was a seemly white pulpit and a modest curtained choir-loft. He explored. There was a goodish Sunday School room, a basement with tables and a small kitchen. It was all cheerful, alive; it suggested a chance of growth.

As he returned to the auditorium, he noted one good colored memorial window, and through the clear glass of the others the friendly maples looked in at him.

He walked round the building. Suddenly he was overwhelmed and exalted with the mystic pride of ownership. It was all his; his own; and as such it was all beautiful. What beautiful soft gray shingles! What an exquisite spire! What a glorious maple-tree! Yes, and what a fine cement walk, what a fine new ash-can, what a handsome announcement board, soon to be starred with his own name! His! To do with as he pleased! And, oh, he would do fine things, aspiring things, very important things! Never again, with this new reason for going on living, would he care for lower desires — for pride, for the adventure of women. . . . HIS!

He entered the church again; he sat proudly in each of the three chairs on the platform which, as a boy, he had believed to be reserved for the three persons of the Trinity. He stood up, leaned his arms on the pulpit, and to a worshiping throng (many standing) he boomed, “My brethren!”

He was in an ecstasy such as he had not known since his hours with Sharon. He would start again — HAD started again, he vowed. Never lie or cheat or boast. This town, it might be dull, but he would enliven it, make it his own creation, lift it to his own present glory. He could! Life opened before him, clean, joyous, full of the superb chances of a Christian knighthood. Some day he would be a bishop, yes, but even that was nothing compared with the fact that he had won a victory over his lower nature.

He knelt, and with his arms wide in supplication he prayed, “Lord, thou who hast stooped to my great unworthiness and taken even me to thy Kingdom, who this moment hast shown me the abiding joy of righteousness, make me whole and keep me pure, and in all things, Our Father, thy will be done. Amen.”

He stood by the pulpit, tears in his eyes, his meaty hands clutching the cover of the great leather Bible till it cracked.

The door at the other end of the aisle was opening, and he saw a vision standing on the threshold in the June sun.

He remembered afterward, from some forgotten literary adventure in college, a couplet which signified to him the young woman who was looking at him from the door:

Pale beyond porch and portal,

Crowned with calm leaves she stands.

She was younger than himself, yet she suggested a serene maturity, a gracious pride. She was slender, but her bosom was full, and some day she might be portly. Her face was lovely, her forehead wide, her brown eyes trusting, and smooth her chestnut hair. She had taken off her rose-trimmed straw hat and was swinging it in her large and graceful hands . . . . Virginal, stately, kind, most generous.

She came placidly down the aisle, a hand out, crying, “It’s Reverend Gantry, isn’t it? I’m so proud to be the first to welcome you here in the church! I’m Cleo Benham — I lead the choir. Perhaps you’ve seen Papa — he’s a trustee — he has the store.”

“You sure are the first to welcome me, Sister Benham, and it’s a mighty great pleasure to meet you! Yes, your father was so nice as to invite me for supper tonight.”

They shook hands with ceremony and sat beaming at each other in a front pew. He informed her that he was certain there was “going to be a great spiritual awakening here,” and she told him what lovely people there were in the congregation, in the village, in the entire surrounding country. And her panting breast told him that she, the daughter of the village magnate, had instantly fallen in love with him.

3

Cleo Benham had spent three years in the Sparta Women’s College, specializing in piano, organ, French, English literature, strictly expurgated, and study of the Bible. Returned to Banjo Crossing, she was a fervent church-worker. She played the organ and rehearsed the choir; she was the superintendent of the juvenile department in the Sunday School; she decorated the church for Easter, for funerals, for the Halloween Supper.

She was twenty-seven, five years younger than Elmer.

Though she was not very lively in summer-evening front-porch chatter, though on the few occasions when she sinned against the Discipline and danced she seemed a little heavy on her feet, though she had a corseted purity which was dismaying to the earthy young men of Banjo Crossing, yet she was handsome, she was kind, and her father was reputed to be worth not a cent less than seventy-five thousand dollars. So almost every eligible male in the vicinity had hinted at proposing to her.

Gently and compassionately she had rejected them one by one. Marriage must, she felt, be a sacrament; she must be the helpmate of some one who was “doing a tremendous amount of good in the world.” This good she identified with medicine or preaching.

Her friends assured her, “My! With your Bible training and your music and all, you’d make a perfect pastor’s wife. Just dandy! You’d be such a help to him.”

But no detached preacher or doctor had happened along, and she had remained insulated, a little puzzled, hungry over the children of her friends, each year more passionately given to hymnody and agonized solitary prayer.

Now, with innocent boldness, she was exclaiming to Elmer: “We were so afraid the bishop would send us some pastor that was old and worn-out. The people here are lovely, but they’re kind of slow-going; they need somebody to wake them up. I’m so glad he sent somebody that was young and attractive — Oh, my, I shouldn’t have said that! I was just thinking of the church, you understand.”

Her eyes said that she had not been just thinking of the church.

She looked at her wrist-watch (the first in Banjo Crossing) and chanted, “Why, my gracious, it’s six o’clock! Would you like to walk home with me instead of going to Mrs. Clark’s — you could wash up at Papa’s.”

“You can’t lose me!” exulted Elmer, hastily amending, “— as the slangy youngers say! Yes, indeed, I should be very pleased to have the pleasure of walking home with you.”

Under the elms, past the rose-bushes, through dust emblazoned by the declining sun, he walked with his stately abbess.

He knew that she was the sort of wife who would help him to capture a bishopric. He persuaded himself that, with all her virtue, she would eventually be interesting to kiss. He noted that they “made a fine couple.” He told himself that she was the first woman he had ever found who was worthy of him. . . . Then he remembered Sharon. . . . But the pang lasted only a moment, in the secure village peace, in the gentle flow of Cleo’s voice.

4

Once he was out of the sacred briskness of his store, Mr. Nathaniel Benham forgot discounts and became an affable host. He said, “Well, well, Brother,” ever so many times, and shook hands profusely. Mrs. Benham — she was a large woman, rather handsome; she wore figured foulard, with an apron over it, as she had been helping in the kitchen — Mrs. Benham was equally cordial. “I’ll just bet you’re hungry, Brother!” cried she.

He was, after a lunch of ham sandwich and coffee at a station lunch-room on the way down.

The Benham house was the proudest mansion in town. It was of yellow clapboards with white trim; it had a huge screened porch and a little turret; a staircase window with a border of colored glass; and there was a real fireplace, though it was never used. In front of the house, to Elmer’s admiration, was one of the three automobiles which were all that were to be found in 1913 in Banjo Crossing. It was a bright red Buick with brass trimmings.

The Benham supper was as replete with fried chicken and theological questions as Elmer’s first supper with Deacon Bains in Schoenheim. But here was wealth, for which Elmer had a touching reverence, and here was Cleo.

Lulu Bains had been a tempting mouthful; Cleo Benham was of the race of queens. To possess her, Elmer gloated, would in itself be an empire, worth any battling. . . . And yet he did not itch to get her in a corner and buss her, as he had Lulu; the slope of her proud shoulders did not make his fingers taut.

After supper, on the screened porch pleasant by dusk, Mr. Benham demanded, “What charges have you been holding, Brother Gantry?”

Elmer modestly let him know how important he had been in the work of Sister Falconer; he admitted his scholarly research at Mizpah Seminary; he made quite enough of his success at Schoenheim; he let it be known that he had been practically assistant sales-manager of the Pequot Farm Implement Company.

Mr. Benham grunted with surprised admiration. Mrs. Benham gurgled, “My, we’re lucky to have a real high-class preacher for once!” And Cleo — she leaned toward Elmer, in a deep willow chair, and her nearness was a charm.

He walked back happily in the June darkness; he felt neighborly when an unknown muttered, “Evening, Reverend!” and all the way he saw Cleo, proud as Athena yet pliant as golden-skinned Aphrodite.

He had found his work, his mate, his future.

Virtue, he pointed out, certainly did pay.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38