Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 31

1

For over a year now it had been murmured through the church-world that no speaker was more useful to the reform organization than the Rev. Dr. Elmer Gantry of Zenith. His own church regretted losing his presence so often, but they were proud to hear of him as speaking in New York, in Los Angeles, in Toronto.

It was said that when Mr. J. E. North retired from the Napap because of the press of his private interests (he was the owner of the Eppsburg, N. Y., Times–Scimitar), Dr. Gantry would be elected executive secretary of the Napap in his stead. It was said that no one in America was a more relentless foe of so-called liberalism in theology and of misconduct in private life.

It was said that Dr. Gantry had refused support for election as a bishop at the 1928 General Conference of the Methodist Church, North, two years from now. And it was definitely known that he had refused the presidency of Swenson University in Nebraska.

But it was also definitely known, alas, that he was likely to be invited to take the pastorate of the Yorkville Methodist Church in New York City, which included among its members Dr. Wilkie Bannister, that resolute cover-to-cover fundamentalist who was also one of the most celebrated surgeons in the country, Peter F. Durbar, the oil millionaire, and Jackie Oaks, the musical-comedy clown. The bishop of the New York area was willing to give Dr. Gantry the appointment. But — Well, there were contradictory stories; one version said that Dr. Gantry had not decided to take the Yorkville appointment; the other said that Yorkville, which meant Dr. Bannister, had not decided to take Dr. Gantry. Anyway, the Wellspring flock hoped that their pastor, their spiritual guardian, their friend and brother, would not leave them.

2

After he had discharged Miss Bundle, the church secretary — and that was a pleasant moment; she cried so ludicrously — Elmer had to depend on a series of incapable girls, good Methodists but rotten stenographers.

It almost made him laugh to think that while everybody supposed he was having such a splendid time with his new fame, he was actually running into horrible luck. This confounded J. E. North, with all his pretenses of friendship, kept delaying his resignation from the Napap. Dr. Wilkie Bannister, the conceited chump — a fellow who thought he knew more about theology than a preacher! — delayed in advising the Official Board of the Yorkville Church to call Elmer. And his secretaries infuriated him. One of them was shocked when he said just the least little small “damn”!

Nobody appreciated the troubles of a man destined to be the ruler of America; no one knew what he was sacrificing in his campaign for morality.

And how tired he was of the rustic and unimaginative devotion of Lulu Bains! If she lisped “Oh, Elmer, you are so strong!” just once more, he’d have to clout her!

3

In the cue of people who came up after the morning service to shake hands with the Reverend Dr. Gantry was a young woman whom the pastor noted with interest.

She was at the end of the cue, and they talked without eavesdroppers.

If a Marquis of the seventeenth century could have been turned into a girl of perhaps twenty-five, completely and ardently feminine yet with the haughty head, the slim hooked nose, the imperious eyes of M. le Marquis, that would have been the woman who held Elmer’s hand, and said:

“May I tell you, Doctor, that you are the first person in my whole life who has given me a sense of reality in religion?”

“Sister, I am very grateful,” said the Reverend Dr. Gantry, while Elmer was saying within, “Say, you’re a kid I’d like to get acquainted with!”

“Dr. Gantry, aside from my tribute — which is quite genuine — I have a perfectly unscrupulous purpose in coming and speaking to you. My name is Hettie Dowler — MISS, unfortunately! I’ve had two years in the University of Wisconsin. I’ve been secretary of Mr. Labenheim of the Tallahassee Life Insurance Company for the last year, but he’s been transferred to Detroit. I’m really quite a good secretary. And I’m a Methodist — a member of Central, but I’ve been planning to switch to Wellspring. Now what I’m getting at is: If you should happen to need a secretary in the next few months — I’m filling in as one of the hotel stenographers at the Thornleigh —”

They looked at each other, unswerving, comprehending. They shook hands again, more firmly.

“Miss Dowler, you’re my secretary right now,” said Elmer. “It’ll take about a week to arrange things.”

“Thank you.”

“May I drive you home?”

“I’d love to have you.”

4

Not even the nights when they worked together, alone in the church, were more thrilling than their swift mocking kisses between the calls of solemn parishioners. To be able to dash across the study and kiss her soft temple after a lugubrious widow had waddled out, and to have her whisper, “Darling, you were TOO wonderful with that awful old hen; oh, you are so dear!”— that was life to him.

He went often of an evening to Hettie Dowler’s flat — a pleasant white-and-blue suite in one of the new apartment hotels, with an absurd kitchenette and an electric refrigerator. She curled, in long leopard-like lines, on the damask couch, while he marched up and down rehearsing his sermons and stopped for the applause of her kiss.

Always he slipped down to the pantry at his house and telephoned good-night to her before retiring, and when she was kept home by illness he telephoned to her from his study every hour or scrawled notes to her. That she liked best. “Your letters are so dear and funny and sweet,” she told him. So he wrote in his unformed script:

Dearest ittle honeykins bunnykins, oo is such a darlings, I adore you, I haven’t got another doggoned thing to say but I say that six hundred million trillion times. Elmer.

BUT— and he would never have let himself love her otherwise, for his ambition to become the chief moral director of the country was greater even than his delight in her — Hettie Dowler was all this time a superb secretary.

No dictation was too swift for her; she rarely made errors; she made of a typed page a beautiful composition; she noted down for him the telephone numbers of people who called during his absence; and she had a cool sympathetic way of getting rid of the idiots who came to bother the Reverend Dr. Gantry with their unimportant woes. And she had such stimulating suggestions for sermons. In these many years, neither Cleo nor Lulu had ever made a sermon-suggestion worth anything but a groan, but Hettie — why, it was she who outlined the sermon on “The Folly of Fame” which caused such a sensation at Terwillinger College when Elmer received his LL. D., got photographed laying a wreath on the grave of the late President Willoughby Quarles, and in general obtained publicity for himself and his “dear old Alma Mater.”

He felt, sometimes, that Hettie was the reincarnation of Sharon.

They were very different physically — Hettie was slimmer, less tall, her thin eager face hadn’t the curious long lines of Sharon’s; and very different were they mentally. Hettie, however gaily affectionate, was never moody, never hysterical. Yet there was the same rich excitement about life and the same devotion to their man.

And there was the same impressive ability to handle people.

If anything could have increased T. J. Rigg’s devotion to Elmer and the church, it was the way in which Hettie, instinctively understanding Rigg’s importance, flattered him and jested with him and encouraged him to loaf in the church office though he interrupted her work and made her stay later at night.

She carried out a harder, more important task — she encouraged William Dollinger Styles, who was never so friendly as Rigg. She told him that he was a Napoleon of Finance. She almost went too far in her attentions to Styles; she lunched with him, alone. Elmer protested, jealously, and she amiably agreed never to see Styles again outside of the church.

5

That was a hard, a rather miserable job, getting rid of the Lulu Bains whom Hettie had made superfluous.

On the Tuesday evening after his first meeting with Hettie, when Lulu came cooing into his study, Elmer looked depressed, did not rise to welcome her. He sat at his desk, his chin moodily in his two hands.

“What is it, dear?” Lulu pleaded.

“Sit down — no, PLEASE, don’t kiss me — sit down over there, dearest. We must have an earnest talk,” said the Reverend Dr. Gantry.

She looked so small, so rustic, for all her new frock, as she quivered in an ugly straight chair.

“Lulu, I’ve got something dreadful to tell you. In spite of our carefulness, Cleo — Mrs. Gantry — is onto us. It simply breaks my heart, but we must stop seeing each other privately. Indeed —”

“Oh, Elmer, Elmer, oh, my lover, PLEASE!”

“You must be calm, dear! We must be brave and face this thing honestly. As I was saying, I’m not sure but that it might be better, with her horrible suspicions, if you didn’t come to church here any more.”

“But what did she say — what did she SAY? I hate her! I hate your wife so! I won’t be hysterical but — I hate her! What did she say?”

“Well, last evening she just calmly said to me — You can imagine how surprised I was; like a bolt out of the blue! She said — my wife said, ‘Well, tomorrow I suppose you’ll be meeting that person that teaches cooking again, and get home as late as usual!’ Well, I stalled for time, and I found that she was actually thinking of putting detectives on us!”

“Oh, my dear, my poor dear! I won’t ever see you again! You mustn’t be disgraced, with your wonderful fame that I’ve been so proud of!”

“Darling Lulu, can’t you see it isn’t that? Hell! I’m a man! I can face the whole kit and boodle of ’em, and tell ’em just where they get off! But it’s you. Honestly, I’m afraid Floyd will kill you if he knows.”

“Yes, I guess he would. . . . I don’t know’s I care much. It would be easier than killing myself —”

“Now you look here, young woman! I’ll have none of this idiotic suicide talk!” He had sprung up; he was standing over her, an impressive priestly figure. “It’s absolutely against every injunction of God, who gave us our lives to use for his service and glory, to even think of self-slaughter! Why, I could never have imagined that you could say such a wicked, wicked, WICKED thing!”

She crawled out after a time, a little figure in a shabby topcoat over her proud new dress. She stood waiting for a trolley car, alone under an arc-light, fingering her new beaded purse, which she loved because in his generosity He had given it to her. From time to time she wiped her eyes and blew her nose, and all the time she was quite stupidly muttering, “Oh, my dear, my dear, to think I made trouble for you — oh, my dear, my very dear!”

Her husband was glad to find, the year after, that she had by some miracle lost the ambitiousness which had annoyed him, and that night after night she was willing to stay home and play cribbage. But he was angry and rather talkative over the fact that whenever he came home he would find her sitting blank-faced and idle, and that she had become so careless about her hair. But life is life, and he became used to her slopping around in a dressing gown all day, and sometimes smelling of gin.

6

By recommendation of J. E. North, it was Elmer who was chosen by the Sacred Sabbath League to lead the fight against Sunday motion pictures in Zenith. “This will be fine training for you,” Mr. North wrote to Elmer, “in case the directors elect you my successor in the Napap; training for the day when you will be laying down the law not merely to a city council but to congressmen and senators.”

Elmer knew that the high lords of the Napap were watching him, and with spirit he led the fight against Sunday movies. The State of Winnemac had the usual blue law to the effect that no paid labor (except, of course, that of ministers of the gospel, and whatever musicians, lecturers, educators, janitors, or other sacred help the ministers might choose to hire) might work on the Sabbath, and the usual blissful custom of ignoring that law.

Elmer called on the sheriff of the county — a worried man, whose training in criminology had been acquired in a harness-shop — and shook hands with him handsomely.

“Well, Reverend, it’s real nice to have the pleasure of making your acquaintance,” said the sheriff. “I’ve read a lot about you in the papers. Have a smoke?”

Elmer sat down impressively, leaning over a little, his elbow on the arm of the chair, his huge fist clenched.

“Thanks, but I never touch tobacco,” he said grimly. “Now look here, Edelstein, are you the sheriff of this county?”

“Huh! I guess I am!”

“Oh, you guess so, do you! Well then, are you going to see that the state law against Sunday movies is obeyed?”

“Oh, now look here, Reverend! Nobody wants me to enforce —”

“Nobody? Nobody? Only a couple of hundred thousand citizens and church-members! Bankers, lawyers, doctors, decent people! And only an equal number of wops and hunkies and yids and atheists and papes want you to let the Sabbath be desecrated! Now you look here, Edelstein! Unless you pinch every last man, movie owners and operators and ushers and the whole kit and bilin’ of ’em that are responsible for this disgraceful and illegal traffic of Sunday movies, I’m going to call a giant mass-meeting of all the good citizens in town, and I’m going to talk a lot less to ’em about the movie-proprietors than I am about YOU, and it’s one fine fat, nice chance you’ll have of being re-elected, if two hundred thousand electors of this county (and the solid birds that take the trouble to vote) are out for your hide —”

“Say, who do you think is running this county? The Methodists and Baptists and Presbyterians?”

“Certainly!”

“Say, you look here now —”

In fact, upon warrants sworn to by the Reverend Dr. Elmer Gantry, all persons connected with the profanation of the Sabbath by showing motion-pictures were arrested for three Sundays in succession (after which the motion-pictures went on as before), and Elmer received telegrams of esteem from the Sacred Sabbath League, J. E. North, Dr. Wilkie Bannister of the Yorkville Methodist Church of New York City, and a hundred of the more prominent divines all over the land.

7

Within twenty-four hours Mr. J. E. North let Elmer know that he was really resigning in a month, and that the choice for his successor lay between Elmer and only two other holy men; and Dr. Wilkie Bannister wrote that the Official Board of the Yorkville Methodist Church, after watching Elmer’s career for the last few months, was ready to persuade the bishop to offer him the pastorate, providing he should not be too much distracted by outside interests.

It was fortunate that the headquarters of the Napap were in New York City and not, as was the case with most benevolent lobbying organizations, in Washington.

Elmer wrote to Dr. Bannister and the other trustees of the Yorkville Church that while he would titularly be the executive secretary of the National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press (and, oh! what a credit it would be to dear old Yorkville that their pastor should hold such a position!), he would be able to leave all the actual work of the Napap to his able assistants, and except for possibly a day a week, give all his energy and time and prayers to the work of guiding onward and upward, so far as might lie within his humble power, the flock at Yorkville.

Elmer wrote to Mr. J. E. North and the trustees of the Napap that while he would titularly be the pastor of the Yorkville Methodist (and would it not be a splendid justification of their work that their executive secretary should be the pastor of one of the most important churches in New York City?) yet he would be able to leave all the actual work to his able assistants, and except possibly for Sabbaths and an occasional wedding or funeral, give all his energy and time to the work of guiding, so far as might lie within his humble power, the epochal work of the National Association for the Purification of Art and the Press.

From both of these pious assemblies he had answers that they were pleased by his explanation, and that it would be a matter now of only a few days —

It was Hettie Dowler who composed these letters, but Elmer made several changes in commas, and helped by kissing her while she was typing.

8

It was too vexatious that at this climax of his life Elmer’s mother should have invited herself to come and stay with them.

He was happy when he met her at the station. However pleasant it might be to impress the great of the world — Bishop Toomis or J. E. North or Dr. Wilkie Bannister — it had been from his first memory the object of life to gain the commendation of his mother and of Paris, Kansas, the foundation of his existence. To be able to drive her in a new Willys–Knight sedan, to show her his new church, his extraordinarily genteel home, Cleo in a new frock, was rapture.

But when she had been with them for only two days, his mother got him aside and said stoutly, “Will you sit down and try not to run about the room, my son? I want to talk to you.”

“That’s splendid! But I’m awfully afraid I’ve got to make it short, because —”

“Elmer Gantry! Will you hold your tongue and stop being such a wonderful success? Elmer, my dear boy, I’m sure you don’t mean to do wrong, but I don’t like the way you’re treating Cleo . . . and such a dear, sweet, bright, devout girl.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think you know what I mean!”

“Now you look here, Mother! All RIGHT, I’ll sit down and be quiet, but — I certainly do not know what you mean! The way I’ve always been a good husband to her, and stood for her total inability to be nice to the most important members of my congregation — And of all the chilly propositions you ever met! When I have folks here for dinner — even Rigg, the biggest man in the church — she hasn’t got hardly a thing to say. And when I come home from church, just absolutely tired out, and she meets me — does she meet me with a kiss and look jolly? She does NOT! She begins crabbing, the minute I enter the house, about something I’ve done or I haven’t done, and of course it’s natural —”

“Oh, my boy, my little boy, my dear — all that I’ve got in this whole world! You were always so quick with excuses! When you stole pies or hung cats or licked the other boys! Son, Cleo is suffering. You never pay any attention to her, even when I’m here and you try to be nice to her to show off. Elmer, who is this secretary of yours that you keep calling up all the while?”

The Reverend Dr. Gantry rose quietly, and sonorously he spoke:

“My dear mater, I owe you everything. But at a time when one of the greatest Methodist churches in the world and one of the greatest reform organizations in the world are begging for my presence, I don’t know that I need to explain even to you, Ma, what I’m trying to do. I’m going up to my room —”

“Yes, and that’s another thing, having separate rooms —”

“— and pray that you may understand. . . . Say, listen, Ma! Some day you may come to the White House and lunch with me and the PRESIDENT! . . . But I mean: Oh, Ma, for God’s sake, quit picking on me like Cleo does all the while!”

And he did pray; by his bed he knelt, his forehead gratefully cool against the linen spread, mumbling, “O dear God, I am trying to serve thee. Keep Ma from feeling I’m not doing right —”

He sprang up.

“Hell!” he said. “These women want me to be a house dog! To hell with ’em! No! Not with mother, but — Oh, damn it, she’ll understand when I’m the pastor of Yorkville! O God, why can’t Cleo die, so I can marry Hettie!”

Two minutes later he was murmuring to Hettie Dowler, from the telephone instrument in the pantry, while the cook was grumbling and picking over the potatoes down in the basement, “Dear, will you just say something nice to me — anything — anything!”

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