Gideon Planish, by Sinclair Lewis

Chapter 24

The Every Man a Priest Fraternity office, on 43rd Street in New York, was so much like the office of the Association to Promote Eskimo Culture that Dr. Planish was confused. The lone employee, a plump secretary named Miss Kremitz, so much resembled Miss Cantlebury of the Eskimo office that he felt like sitting down and finishing the letter that he had derisively left undone when he deserted to William T. Knife.

But when he went through the files, he found that this shop was notably different from that of Captain Gishorn, who was as methodical about the affairs of the Devil as Carlyle Vesper was slipshod about the service of the Lord. Here were unanswered letters — one, actually, a query from the wealthy chain-store man. Albert Jalenak, about the Fraternity’s aims.

“Gosh all gracious!” winced the professional, “and Jalenak the very finest type of conscience-drugging philanthrobber! Why, he might have come through with five hundred! What kind of a way to promote the Lord is that — not answer feeler letters by return mail! Shocking!”

He found that Vesper hadn’t even “elected,” as organizations playfully call it, an impressive front of general officers and honorary directors. He fretted, “How right Peony was! All Vesper really has here is his idea, which isn’t new, and the support of Mrs. Piggott and Ramona Tundra, which isn’t ironclad. I’ve got to go see those old girls and find out where we are.”

He telephoned, inviting himself to meet them at tea at the old Piggott residence on lower Madison Avenue, not many squares from the J. P. Morgan blockhouse which still defends the last pioneer white settlers.

He arrived at Mrs. Piggott’s without Vesper — and without Vesper’s knowledge.

He felt at home in that ancient hallway, with a teak throne and a marble Psyche holding a gas-lighted torch. He felt that he natively belonged to this house with its resounding memory of past grandeur and of the epoch when a man’s goodness could be exactly measured by the number of his millions. Nor was he embarrassed by the craggy old woman and the slim faded actress who awaited him on a worn satin couch behind a tea-table with a Georgian hot-water kettle resembling Mont–St.-Michel.

On the wall, in a shadow-box, was Mrs. Piggott’s portrait by Sargent.

He accepted tea — yes, thanks, he would have just a wee drop of rum in it; he didn’t ordinarily indulge, but it was raw today. Yes, it would be fine if everybody could feel Carlyle Vesper’s high exaltation.

He mentioned his professorship, his deanhood, his installation of rustic education and Eskimos. Gently laughing at himself, he recalled saying, at the White House, “Mr. President, I trust you remember that SOME people didn’t make their wealth by brigandage but by being exceptionally strong.” (Maybe he really had said something like that, but maybe the President had not heard him properly, as there were fifteen hundred other people at that reception.) He touched on the characters and private ambitions of the Secretary of State, the presidents of Yale, Harvard and the University of Chicago, without feeling called upon to explain that his conversations with all of them had been limited to “How do.”

All this presented modestly, with many little razor-blades of comment which showed that he understood the ladies’ own great position. They listened with increasing trustfulness until his actor’s instinct, so important to salesmen of philanthropy, told him that the time had come to play Old Family Doctor.

He gravely pushed the tea-table away, took both of Mrs. Piggott’s aged hands, and started building his great second-act speech:

“Dear Mrs. Piggott, and you, dear girl” (Miss Tundra was, he calculated, at least thirty-five), “both of you, I have shockingly bad news. Let’s take it in our stride and take it with a brave smile, and get it over. The Every Man Fraternity can’t go on. It’s finished.”

“M?”

“It’s a shame. I’d hoped, after my years of training, to find my lifework here. And I’d hoped that your two names would go down in history as the twin founders of a spiritual reform so powerful that it might be called a new religion, like Mrs. Eddy or Madame Blavatsky or St. Cecilia. But what do I discover when I get here and look over the books and files?

“Letters unanswered. Lists of names with the wrong addresses and even, believe it or not, the wrong titles — a high-class Methodist divine down as ‘Mister’ and not as ‘Doctor’. Now perhaps I could correct all this but —

“We have at the moment only $9,044.37 in the treasury, and need I tell you two, who have handled weightier business affairs than most mere men ever thought of, that we couldn’t even begin to spread this gospel of simplicity and unworldliness for less than thirty-five thousand dollars for a starter? So — but what a pity! — we’ll have to let the whole thing go.”

In the look that Mrs. Piggott and Miss Tundra exchanged his expert eye appraised a further twenty thousand. He hit again, quickly.

“And not only that, but a more spiritual matter. Carlyle Vesper is a seer and a saint — the most forgiving man I’ve ever encountered. Yet — well, I suppose he’s one of these impractical souls that have to be managed. You WOULD think that with his training in accountancy and office technique, he’d at least answer letters from poor, groping, soul-hungry seekers —”

He had not much farther to go before Mrs. Piggott nodded to Miss Tundra, who interrupted him, “Yes, we can see that, Doctor. It’s like a heaven-sent cinema artist trying to produce and distribute. I think I may speak for Lady Piggott, as I always call her, when I say that we’re already agreed YOU ought to be the boss — Director General would be a lovely title — and you can let Mr. Vesper go on dreaming his dear, lovely, lonely lotus dreams apart from all the hurly-burly, and isn’t it fortunate that he’s a widower without children — I’m sure he’ll be perfectly happy on thirty-five dollars a week, instead of the fifty that we have been temporarily allowing him.”

Dr. Planish breathed hard; then he besought the two religion-founders, “But I’m not worthy to go to that noble spirit and tell him —”

“I’m worthy! I’m good at that!” announced Mrs. Piggott. “You let me tell him. I’ll get him right down here. Poor Doctor, I know how hard it is on you!” He was suspicious, but he decided that she meant it. “Don’t go back to the office this afternoon, and when you go in tomorrow, you’ll find everything all okay and sublimated, or do I mean substantiated?”

He felt that for once he could afford the most delicate luxury he knew — having “the works” at the Gyro Building Barber Shop.

As he rode uptown by taxicab, he was only briefly bothered about Vesper’s downfall. “After all, any other executive would have thrown him right out on his ear, and not even allowed him to stay on as a flunky. Besides! I hope I’m a just and humanitarian man, and for myself I don’t want ANYTHING, but when people get in the way of Peony’s rights, God help ’em!”

The Gyro Building was only the fourth highest in Manhattan, only seventy-nine stories, but it had more aluminum, more black glass, and more murals by Communist artists than any other building in the world, including Moscow.

The young Gid Planish, back in Adelbert College, had frequented the shop of an aged German barber, which smelled of bay rum and cigar-smoke and peace. The barber was one of the few people in town who took Gid seriously; he consulted Gid tolerantly about his preference in hair styles and his opinion of free silver. The place had been a refuge, a healing, and ever since then a barber shop had meant escape.

But his tastes in size and glossiness and gadgetry had grown.

The Gyro shop was on the forty-seventh floor, and he rode up in an elevator lined with marquetry depicting the chase of Diana. At the shop entrance, the manager, who tried to resemble Adolphe Menjou, said “Good afternoon, Doctor.”

“Why, they know who I am!” rejoiced Dr. Planish.

It was quite a barber shop. While America might not as yet have developed a Sibelius, it could substitute for the shabby hairdressers’ dens of Europe the combined genius of Edison, Frank Lloyd Wright, Steinmetz and Delilah.

There were forty barber chairs, upholstered in yellow leather, and twenty manicure tables, and ten bootblacks in Roumanian uniform, with the manager in his Easter-morning costume, and a cashier who had once been in a Follies chorus. The shrine was as filled with Beauty as it was with Service. The walls were of black marble with green veins, the washbowls of dark green porcelain, and the cupboard-doors were brass-bound mirrors. The composition floor was patterned in zodiac symbols of yellow and black, and the silvered ceiling was paneled, with inverted onyx bowls for the indirect lighting.

Here was the very sign and heart of the Metropolis which now, for the first time, Dr. Planish had conquered, and started to loot.

He did not encourage the barber’s conversation, but sat in an ecstasy of silence, thinking how he could most dramatically tell Peony, waiting for him in their cheap hotel, the news that he now ranked with Chris Stern or Captain Gishorn.

He did have “the works”: a manicure by a red-head who squeezed his soapy fingers; a hair-trim, a beard-trim, a shave, a face-massage, an oil shampoo, a shine, an electrical treatment with horrible little rubber tits, and a final Assyrian smearing with lilac ointment and violet lotion.

Yet after a time his dreams were so disturbed by the babble of his next-chair neighbor that virtue passed out of them, and he began to mutter to himself, through the scented foam, “Barber — barbarous; manicure — manic-depressive; electric massage — electric chair.”

The neighbor was evidently an Important Man. He was having a quantity of expensive things done all at once: not only reveling in a massage and shine and manicure, but receiving telegrams from a Western Union boy and giving messages for a page to transmit by telephone. He was talking about the Spanish Republicans (he didn’t care for them), the races at Hialeah, his new girl, who was in a floor show, and real-estate prices in La Jolla. He had, he informed the listening world, a yacht that would “sleep eight and eat twenty,” and he had once lost thirty-five hundred dollars at roulette.

This magnificence so submerged the Doctor that suddenly he was no longer a conquering Hun of humanitarianism, but just Doc Planish, a Kinnikinick prof.

He went through the rest of his orgy as voluptuously as he could; powdered and pink and brushed and polished, he tipped spaciously, bought a large cigar, and went through the delicious nuisance of breaking the cellophane wrapper.

But as he tried to parade into their sordid side-street-hotel parlor like a Hialeah plunger, he gave way, ran to Peony, muttered, “I went and saw the Piggott woman and we got her for all the money we need, and I’m Vesper’s boss now,” then whimpered like a small boy. And his fat and pretty wife sobbed joyfully with him.

But young Carrie said, “The assistant manager of this hotel has a pet coon that eats Brussels sprouts.”

An hour after this, a self-educated ex-bookkeeper named Vesper, who half an hour ago had been told by a high-spirited old lady what an unsystematic fool he was, walked quietly into his furnished room, in an old house that smelled of generations of death.

It was a small bedroom and, aside from a table, a chair, a bed, a bureau, a sink and a pile of books, mostly lives of the saints, there was not much in it but an old photograph of a lovely girl, a bundle of letters and a full bottle of strong sleeping tablets.

Vesper sat for some time on the bed, staring at the wall where two evil blotches made the design of a gallows. He rose, looked at the photograph of the girl, took the bundle of her letters, and read them all. He carefully retied them. He hesitated for a while. Then he drew a half glass of water at the sink, and one by one he dropped the fifty sleeping tablets into it.

“It will be bitter,” he said, aloud but without perceptible emotion.

He lay on the bed, the drugged glass at hand on the straight chair.

His head, on the pillow, was turned toward the girl’s photograph. He looked at it for a long time.

“All right, Mary,” he said aloud.

He rose hastily, threw the contents of the charged glass into the sink, and fell again upon the bed. He was sobbing, not as Peony had sobbed, but dryly and painfully and alone.

“I wish now I’d drunk it. It’s the anti-climax that’s so clownishly horrible,” he choked. “But this too, O Lord, shall pass away. Grant me strength even to be ridiculous, for Thy sake. Amen.”

All that evening, all that night, unfed but empty of hunger, he slept in spasms. In the morning he went to the Every Man a Priest Fraternity office and told Dr. Planish — after that worthy had got through his recitative of booming and manly and cordial lies — that he was ready to take orders. Perhaps he was one who could not work without orders. To himself he said that he had hoped it would be God who would give the orders, but perhaps Brother Planish could hear them better and interpret them for him. . . . Not in our time, O Lord.

Within a week he was trotting out on office errands. Dr. Planish was not often impatient with his absent-minded pokiness — not very impatient — not very often.

From that time on, Carlyle Vesper was errand boy or typist or emergency accountant in one tender-hearted organization after another until he died. . . . Once, at Christmas, he got a ten-dollar bonus.

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