Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 23

In the anteroom of Senator Bultitude’s office, Dr. Planish fell to talking with a meager and gentle man of fifty-odd, with a thin flaxen mustache, baggy gray clothes, a bright blue tie, and a bright blue shirt — the uniform of a man who wanted to be different. His name was Carlyle Vesper. Something he said caused the Doctor to invite him to lunch at the Crayon Club.

The Doctor was fond of the Crayon, which was full of ex-congressmen turned lobbyists or Government clerks. The polite waiters called him “Doctor,” and believed that he was a bureau chief at least.

It appeared that Mr. Vesper had an idea for a virtuous organization, and what was much more remarkable, he seemed to have the money, in the backing of Mrs. John James Piggott, intransigent old widow of the Silver Mine and International Railroad, and of Miss Ramona Tundra, who had started as a child star in the motion pictures and was ending as a child adult who patronized faith-healers. Without this cash behind it, Dr. Planish was too well trained an organizator to have been interested in the mere idea, though he did admit that it was possibly the noblest religious inspiration since St. Paul.

Carlyle Vesper was as simple as Cardinal Newman. During years as a commonplace bookkeeper he had dreamed of a Christian church in which the director would not be a pope or an archbishop or a stated secretary or any kind of paid minister, but Jesus Christ himself.

“I think we ought to believe that Jesus is perfectly capable of doing this without some Doctor of Sacred Theology helping him out,” said Vesper, with the smile of a shy boy or a madman. “I think most churches started off all right, but then they had to support a lot of men who called themselves priests or ministers, and then these fellows wanted to put on fancy dress, and that cost money, and pretty soon they wanted to have churches that their voices would sound big in, and then the people didn’t have a fellowship between Christ and men any longer, but just another salvation shop. I’d like our church to end all that.”

Dr. Planish knew enough history to recall how many other Carlyle Vespers had started churches to end all churches. But the sweet simpleton had managed to interest Mrs. Piggott and Miss Tundra —

Vesper flowed on, “I guess what I want is just a gayer and more modern group of Quakers, without the old Pennsylvania and Ohio Quaker families acting a little like hereditary priests themselves. My organization, if it ever gets going right — and it will be a failure unless it destroys itself and quits, the minute it succeeds, like any good teacher! — it will do nothing but suggest to every man and woman and child that God really did make him a priest, as they understood so well among the early Christians, and that he can pray by himself or in company with others just as he is moved. I want to call it the Every Man a Priest Fraternity.

“Oh, yes, I’ve thought about this for twenty years, and I can keep books, but I’m not much of an executive. I can’t bear bossing people! If we only had a man like you! Could I persuade you to take an interest — say, be our chief shepherd?”

“Uh — uh — how much would you plan to pay?”

“I hadn’t thought about it. We have ten thousand dollars in the treasury now. Would half of that be enough for a year’s salary?”

“I’m afraid I couldn’t even think of it for less than six thousand a year. That’s about what I’m getting now, and of course I have to consider my poor wife and child.”

“Oh, I’m sure that as this world’s goods go, six thousand would be very little for a man of your experience and your love for suffering humanity. Shall we agree on that and get to work, Brother Gideon?”

“Wow!” said Dr. Planish, to himself, but aloud he bumbled, “I’ll think it over. Let’s meet here tomorrow noon.”

He telephoned to New York, to Chris Stern, who answered Yes, this preposterous outsider, Vesper, did seem to have coaxed a lot of money out of that tough old heathen, Mrs. Piggott.

The Doctor dared not hint to Peony, that evening, of his interest in the absurd charlatan.

Next morning, Sanderson–Smith called him in, and Sanderson–Smith had had an unpleasant dinner the evening before. He said, not so silkily as usual, “Planish, I want to talk to you about your next lecture tour among the colleges. I want you to quit all this pussyfooting and heavy Liberalism. Come right out and tell these simpletons of undergraduates that they can choose between bucking the unions and being enslaved by them. Understand?”

“I’ll think it over,” said Dr. Planish, not very belligerently.

At the luncheon table, Vesper smiled, handed over a lovely check for five hundred dollars, and said, “It’s your first month’s check, Brother Gideon — Gideon, the Sword of the Lord! Now will you come with us?”

“By God, I’ll do it! Oh, sorry for cursing.”

“I don’t think we need worry too much about the ancient Jewish injunction against cursing and swearing. Don’t you suppose God will take the spirit of the oath rather than the actual wording? I don’t guess He is much deceived.”

To himself, already beginning to resent the new employer as all that morning he had been resenting the old one, Dr. Planish groaned, “He’s getting saintly on me! A careerist in holiness! I’ll never be happy till I’ve got an organization where I’m sole boss — unless it’s one run by a fellow like Colonel Marduc, who has real brains and power — and cash! — and not a lot of sappy sentimentality like Vesper or psychopathic malice like Sneaky Sandy — Oh dear!”

But aloud he was beginning, “Now the first thing we want to do is to get the names of the top men, like Bishop Pindyck — no, that’s so, no preachers for once, thank God. Well, how about William T. Knife — a true Christian pioneer?”

It was hard to tell Peony that from now on his salary would be guaranteed only by St. Francis of Assisi. He remembered how game she had been in Chicago, when he had admitted that Hamilton Frisby had kicked him out, but he put off his confession till after they had come home from the movies that evening.

They were having a companionable drink at the scoured table in the dark Washington kitchen when he told her. Even as he spoke, the notion of anybody being a priest without being paid for it seemed as fantastic to him as riding the tail of a rocket.

Peony listened with horrified silence; then: “Have you gone completely bugs? To give up a settled job with Sandy, a racket that ought to be good for at least five more years, for this crazy religious maniac? As you know, I’m a true Christian and a church member, but — Six thousand a year? You’ll never get six hundred! It’ll blow up in a month! You’ve got to get out of this insane picnic, right away. You’ve got to! Tell Vesper to go roll his holy hoop!”

“I’m afraid I can’t. I’ve already spent half of the five hundred he paid me — we were two months behind on the rent — and this afternoon I finally told Sanderson–Smith that he was a high-class scab. I’m through there, I’m afraid.”

“You’re afraid!”

She shrieked it; she dashed out of the kitchen, and upstairs. He followed, and heard the key turning in the door of their bedroom. He hadn’t even known that there was a key.

“Poor impetuous baby!” He smiled to himself. He knocked with playful lightness — no answer; then with marital firmness — no answer. He tried the knob.

After twelve years of married life, she had for the first time locked him out of their room.

He cried, in panic, “Peony! Sweetheart! Let me in! Let me explain!” To himself: “She’s right. And suppose she divorced me? What could I do? I couldn’t sleep alone nights!”

Peony was not answering, even with a sound of tiptoeing feet, as he called her name again and tried again to knock gaily, to show that he didn’t really mind this little loving trick she was playing on him. Making his step as heavy and dignified and rebuking as he could, he thumped downstairs, and stood at the foot, waiting for her to rush out and call him back. She didn’t. But she must — she had to! He went on waiting. He could not hear her at all.

“I’ve had enough of this nonsense. She’s acting like a spoiled child. I’m just not going to pay any attention to her,” he stated.

He went firmly into the small green-and-chintz living-room, and tried to do a cross-word puzzle — a form of escape still fashionable then. It would not come out. He threw the newspaper at the signed photograph of President T. Austin Bull, and sneaked softly to the foot of the stairs. He stood there in sick worry. Upstairs, he could hear her heavily sobbing. He dared not affront her, and he crept back to the living-room, to glare at the newspaper.

Where the devil was he supposed to sleep tonight? In Carrie’s child-bed, maybe! And it was bedtime right now.

He pounded to the stairs, and yelled up, “Hey! Where do you think I’m going to sleep?”

After a noticeable pause, a mournful voice dribbled down, “In hell, I hope.”

“Is that a nice way to answer me when I ask a civil question?” he put it. Yet it encouraged him to find that she was no longer so young and broken. He marched upstairs and tapped, commandingly. “Sweetheart! Let me in. Unlock the door.”

She sobbed, “It’s unlocked.”

Mechanically patting her bare shoulder, he bumbled, “There, there, there! My own baby! Still such a little baby! And yet so wise. Oh, lambie, I’ll never again make any organizational or occupational affiliation [he meant, take a job] without your advice.”

“Oh, no, you mustn’t, lover. You know it’s only because I love you and have your best interests at heart. Of course you’re stuck with the new mission now, but I just know you won’t find this Carlyle Vesper fellow as smart as Sneaky Sandy.”

Lying awake in darkness beside her, filled with the dark smell of her hair, he realized that he was her slave and told himself that he was very happy about it.

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