Elmer gantry was twenty-eight and for two years he had been a traveling salesman for the Pequot Company.
Harrows and rakes and corn-planters; red plows and gilt-striped green wagons; catalogues and order-lists; offices glassed off from dim warehouses; shirt-sleeved dealers on high stools at high desks; the bar at the corner; stifling small hotels and lunch-rooms; waiting for trains half the night in foul boxes of junction stations, where the brown slatted benches were an agony to his back; trains, trains, trains; trains and time-tables and joyous return to his headquarters in Denver; a drunk, a theater, and service in a big church.
He wore a checked suit, a brown derby, striped socks, the huge ring of gold serpents and an opal which he had bought long ago, flower-decked ties, and what he called “fancy vests”— garments of yellow with red spots, of green with white stripes, of silk or daring chamois.
He had had a series of little loves, but none of them important enough to continue.
He was not unsuccessful. He was a good talker, a magnificent hand-shaker, his word could often be depended on, and he remembered most of the price-lists and all of the new smutty stories. In the office at Denver he was popular with “the boys.” He had one infallible “stunt”— a burlesque sermon. It was known that he had studied to be a preacher, but had courageously decided that it was no occupation for a “real two-fisted guy,” and that he had “told the profs where they got off.” A promising and commendable fellow; conceivably sales-manager some day.
Whatever his dissipations, Elmer continued enough exercise to keep his belly down and his shoulders up. He had been shocked by Deacon Bains’ taunt that he was growing soft, and every morning in his hotel room he unhumorously did calisthenics for fifteen minutes; evenings he bowled or boxed in Y.M.C.A. gymnasiums, or, in towns large enough, solemnly swam up and down tanks like a white porpoise. He felt lusty, and as strong as in Terwillinger days.
Yet Elmer was not altogether happy.
He appreciated being free of faculty rules, free of the guilt which in seminary days had followed his sprees at Monarch, free of the incomprehensible debates of Harry Zenz and Frank Shallard, yet he missed leading the old hymns, and the sound of his own voice, the sense of his own power, as he held an audience by his sermon. Always on Sunday evenings (except when he had an engagement with a waitress or a chambermaid) he went to the evangelical church nearest his hotel. He enjoyed criticizing the sermon professionally.
“Golly, I could put it all over that poor boob! The straight gospel is all right, but if he’d only stuck in a couple literary allusions, and lambasted the saloon-keepers more, he’d ‘ve had ’em all het up.”
He sang so powerfully that despite a certain tobacco and whisky odor the parsons always shook hands with extra warmth, and said they were glad to see you with us this evening, Brother.
When he encountered really successful churches, his devotion to the business became a definite longing to return to preaching: he ached to step up, push the minister out of his pulpit, and take charge, instead of sitting back there unnoticed and unadmired, as though he were an ordinary layman.
“These chumps would be astonished if they knew what I am!” he reflected.
After such an experience it was vexatious on Monday morning to talk with a droning implement-dealer about discounts on manure-spreaders; it was sickening to wait for train-time in a cuspidor — filled hotel lobby when he might have been in a church office superior with books, giving orders to pretty secretaries and being expansive and helpful to consulting sinners. He was only partly solaced by being able to walk openly into a saloon and shout, “Straight rye, Bill.”
On Sunday evening in a Western Kansas town he ambled to a shabby little church and read on the placard outside:
This Morning: The Meaning of Redemption
This Evening: Is Dancing of the Devil?
FIRST BAPTIST CHURCH
The Rev. Edward Fislinger, B.A., B.D.
“Oh, Gawd!” protested Elmer. “Eddie Fislinger! About the kind of burg he would land in! A lot he knows about the meaning of redemption or any other dogma, that human wood-chuck! Or about dancing! If he’d ever been with me in Denver and shaken a hoof at Billy Portifero’s place, he’d have something to hand out. Fislinger — must be the same guy. I’ll sit down front and put his show on the fritz!”
Eddie Fislinger’s church was an octagonal affair, with the pulpit in one angle, an arrangement which produced a fascinating, rather dizzy effect, reminiscent of the doctrine of predestination. The interior was of bright yellow, hung with many placards: “Get Right With God,” and “Where Will You Spend Eternity?” and “The Wisdom of This World is Foolishness with God.” The Sunday School Register behind the pulpit communicated the tidings that the attendance today had been forty-one, as against only thirty-nine last week, and the collection eighty-nine cents, as against only seventy-seven.
The usher, a brick-layer in a clean collar, was impressed by Elmer’s checked suit and starched red-speckled shirt and took him to the front row.
Eddie flushed most satisfactorily when he saw Elmer from the pulpit, started to bow, checked it, looked in the general direction of Heaven, and tried to smile condescendingly. He was nervous at the beginning of his sermon, but apparently he determined that his attack on sin — which hitherto had been an academic routine with no relation to any of his appallingly virtuous flock — might be made real. With his squirrel-toothed and touching earnestness he looked down at Elmer and as good as told him to go to hell and be done with it. But he thought better of it, and concluded that God might be able to give even Elmer Gantry another chance if Elmer stopped drinking, smoking, blaspheming, and wearing checked suits. (If he did not refer to Elmer by name, he certainly did by poisonous glances.)
Elmer was angry, then impressively innocent, then bored. He examined the church and counted the audience — twenty-seven excluding Eddie and his wife. (There was no question but that the young woman looking adoringly up from the front pew was Eddie’s consort. She had the pitifully starved and home-tailored look of a preacher’s wife.) By the end of the sermon, Elmer was being sorry for Eddie. He sang the closing hymn, “He’s the Lily of the Valley,” with a fine unctuous grace, coming down powerfully on the jubilant “Hallelujah,” and waited to shake hands with Eddie forgivingly.
“Well, well, well,” they both said; and “What are you doing in these parts?” and Eddie: “Wait till everybody’s gone — must have a good old-fashioned chin with you, old fellow!”
As he walked with the Fislingers to the parsonage, a block away, and sat with them in the living-room, Elmer wanted to be a preacher again, take the job away from Eddie and do it expertly; yet he was repulsed by the depressing stinginess of Eddie’s life. His own hotel bedrooms were drab enough, but they were free of nosey parishioners, and they were as luxurious as this parlor with its rain-blotched ceiling, bare pine floor, sloping chairs, and perpetual odor of diapers. There were already, in two years of Eddie’s marriage, two babies, looking as though they were next-door to having been conceived without sin; and there was a perfectly blank-faced sister-inlaw who cared for the children during services.
Elmer wanted to smoke, and for all his training in the eternal mysteries he could not decide whether it would be more interesting to annoy Eddie by smoking or to win him by refraining.
He smoked, and wished he hadn’t.
Eddie noticed it, and his reedy wife noticed it, and the sister-inlaw gaped at it, and they labored at pretending they hadn’t.
Elmer felt large and sophisticated and prosperous in their presence, like a city broker visiting a farmer cousin and wondering which of his tales of gilded towers would be simple enough for belief.
Eddie gave him the news of Mizpah. Frank Shallard had a small church in a town called Catawba, the other end of the state of Winnemac from the seminary. There had been some difficulty over his ordination, for he had been shaky about even so clear and proven a fact as the virgin birth. But his father and Dean Trosper had vouched for him, and Frank had been ordained. Harry Zenz had a large church in a West Virginia mining town. Wallace Umstead, the physical instructor, was “doing fine” in the Y.M.C.A. Professor Bruno Zechlin was dead, poor fellow.
“Whatever became of Horace Carp?” asked Elmer.
“Well, that’s the strangest thing of all. Horace’s gone into the Episcopal Church, like he always said he would.”
“Well, well, zatta fact!”
“Yes-sir, his father died just after he graduated, and he up and turned Episcopalian and took a year in General, and now they say he’s doing pretty good, and he’s high-church as all get-out.”
“Well, you seem to have a good thing of it here, Eddie. Nice church.”
“Well, it isn’t so big, but they’re awful’ fine people. And everything’s going fine. I haven’t increased the membership so much, but what I’m trying to do is strengthen the present membership in the faith, and then when I feel each of them is a center of inspiration, I’ll be ready to start an evangelistic campaign, and you’ll see that ole church boom — yes-sir — just double overnight. . . . If they only weren’t so slow about paying my salary and the mortgage. . . . Fine solid people, really saved, but they are just the least little bit tight with the money.”
“If you could see the way my cook-stove’s broken and the sink needs painting,” said Mrs. Fislinger — her chief utterance of the evening.
Elmer felt choked and imprisoned. He escaped. At the door Eddie held both his hands and begged, “Oh, Elm, I’ll never give up till I’ve brought you back! I’m going to pray. I’ve seen you under conviction. I know what you can do!”
Fresh air, a defiant drink of rye, loud laughter, taking a train — Elmer enjoyed it after this stuffiness. Already Eddie had lost such devout fires as he had once shown in the Y.M.C.A: Already he was old, settled down, without conceivable adventure, waiting for death.
Yet Eddie had said —
Startled, he recalled that he was still a Baptist minister! For all of Trosper’s opposition, he could preach. He felt with superstitious discomfort, Eddie’s incantation, “I’ll never give up till I’ve brought you back.”
And — just to take Eddie’s church and show what he could do with it! By God HE’D bring those hicks to time and make ’em pay up!
He flitted across the state to see his mother.
His disgrace at Mizpah had, she said, nearly killed her. With tremulous hope she now heard him promise that maybe when he’d seen the world and settled down, he might go back into the ministry.
In a religious mood (which fortunately did not prevent his securing some telling credit-information by oiling a bookkeeper with several drinks) he came to Sautersville, Nebraska, an ugly, enterprising, industrial town of 20,000. And in that religious mood he noted the placards of a woman evangelist, one Sharon Falconer, a prophetess of whom he had heard.
The clerk in the hotel, the farmers about the implement warehouse, said that Miss Falconer was holding union meetings in a tent, with the support of most of the Protestant churches in town; they asserted that she was beautiful and eloquent, that she took a number of assistants with her, that she was “the biggest thing that ever hit this burg,” that she was comparable to Moody, to Gipsy Smith, to Sam Jones, to J. Wilbur Chapman, to this new baseball evangelist, Billy Sunday.
“That’s nonsense. No woman can preach the gospel,” declared Elmer, as an expert.
But he went, that evening, to Miss Falconer’s meeting.
The tent was enormous; it would seat three thousand people, and another thousand could be packed in standing-room. It was nearly filled when Elmer arrived and elbowed his majestic way forward. At the front of the tent was an extraordinary structure, altogether different from the platform-pulpit-American-flag arrangement of the stock evangelist. It was a pyramidal structure, of white wood with gilded legs, affording three platforms; one for the choir, one higher up for a row of seated local clergy; and at the top a small platform with a pulpit shaped like a shell and painted like a rainbow. Swarming over it all were lilies, roses and vines.
“Great snakes! Regular circus lay-out! Just what you’d expect from a fool woman evangelist!” decided Elmer.
The top platform was still unoccupied; presumably it was to set off the charms of Miss Sharon Falconer.
The mixed choir, with their gowns and mortar-boards, chanted “Shall We Gather at the River?” A young man, slight, too good-looking, too arched of lip, wearing a priest’s waistcoat and collar turned round, read from Acts at a stand on the second platform. He was an Oxonian, and it was almost the first time that Elmer had heard an Englishman read.
“Huh! Willy-boy, that’s what he is! This outfit won’t get very far. Too much skirts. No punch. No good old-fashioned gospel to draw the customers,” scoffed Elmer.
A pause. Every one waited, a little uneasy. Their eyes went to the top platform. Elmer gasped. Coming from some refuge behind the platform, coming slowly, her beautiful arms outstretched to them, appeared a saint. She was young, Sharon Falconer, surely not thirty, stately, slender and tall; and in her long slim face, her black eyes, her splendor of black hair, was rapture or boiling passion. The sleeves of her straight white robe, with its ruby girdle, were slashed, and fell away from her arms as she drew every one to her.
“God!” prayed Elmer Gantry, and that instant his planless life took on plan and resolute purpose. He was going to have Sharon Falconer.
Her voice was warm, a little husky, desperately alive.
“Oh, my dear people, my dear people, I am not going to preach tonight — we are all so weary of nagging sermons about being nice and good! I am not going to tell that you’re sinners, for which of us is not a sinner? I am not going to explain the Scriptures. We are all bored by tired old men explaining the Bible through their noses! No! We are going to find the golden Scriptures written in our own hearts, we are going to sing together, laugh together, rejoice together like a gathering of April brooks, rejoice that in us is living the veritable spirit of the Everlasting and Redeeming Christ Jesus!”
Elmer never knew what the words were, or the sense — if indeed any one knew. It was all caressing music to him, and at the end, when she ran down curving flower-wreathed stairs to the lowest platform and held out her arms, pleading with them to find peace in salvation, he was aroused to go forward with the converts, to kneel in the writhing row under the blessing of her extended hands.
But he was lost in no mystical ecstasy. He was the critic, moved by the play but aware that he must get his copy in to the newspaper.
“This is the outfit I’ve been looking for! Here’s where I could go over great! I could beat that English preacher both ways from the ace. And Sharon — Oh, the darling!”
She was coming along the line of converts and near-converts, laying her shining hands on their heads. His shoulders quivered with consciousness of her nearness. When she reached him and invited him, in that thrilling voice, “Brother, won’t you find happiness in Jesus?” he did not bow lower, like the others, he did not sob, but looked straight up at her jauntily, seeking to hold her eyes, while he crowed, “It’s happiness just to have had your wondrous message, Sister Falconer!”
She glanced at him sharply, she turned blank, and instantly passed on.
He felt slapped. “I’ll show her yet!”
He stood aside as the crowd wavered out. He got into talk with the crisp young Englishman who had read the Scripture lesson — Cecil Aylston, Sharon’s first assistant.
“Mighty pleased to be here tonight, Brother,” bumbled Elmer. “I happen to be a Baptist preacher myself. Bountiful meeting! And you read the lesson most inspiringly.”
Cecil Aylston rapidly took in Elmer’s checked suit, his fancy vest, and “Oh. Really? Splendid. So good of you, I’m sure. If you will excuse me?” Nor did it increase Elmer’s affection to have Aylston leave him for one of the humblest of the adherents, an old woman in a broken and flapping straw hat.
Elmer disposed of Cecil Aylston: “To hell with him! There’s a fellow we’ll get rid of! A man like me, he gives me the icy mitt, and then he goes to the other extreme and slops all over some old dame that’s probably saved already, that you, by golly, couldn’t unsave with a carload of gin! That’ll do you, my young friend! And you don’t like my check suit, either. Well, I certainly do buy my clothes just to please you, all right!”
He waited, hoping for a chance at Sharon Falconer. And others were waiting. She waved her hand at all of them, waved her flaunting smile, rubbed her eyes, and begged, “Will you forgive me? I’m blind-tired. I must rest.” She vanished into the mysteries behind the gaudy gold-and-white pyramid.
Even in her staggering weariness, her voice was not drab; it was filled with that twilight passion which had captured Elmer more than her beauty. . . . “Never did see a lady just like her,” he reflected, as he plowed back to his hotel. “Face kinda thin. Usually I like ’em plumper. And yet — golly! I could fall for her as I never have for anybody in my life . . . . So this darn’ Englishman didn’t like my clothes! Looked as if he thought they were too sporty. Well, he can stick ’em in his ear! Anybody got any objection to my clothes?”
The slumbering universe did not answer, and he was almost content. And at eight next morning — Sautersville had an excellent clothing shop, conducted by Messrs. Erbsen and Goldfarb — and at eight Elmer was there, purchasing a chaste double-breasted brown suit and three rich but sober ties. By hounding Mr. Goldfarb he had the alterations done by half-past nine, and at ten he was grandly snooping about the revival tent. . . . He should have gone on to the next town this morning.
Sharon did not appear till eleven, to lecture the personal workers, but meanwhile Elmer had thrust himself into acquaintanceship with Art Nichols, a gaunt Yankee, once a barber, who played the cornet and the French horn in the three-piece orchestra which Sharon carried with her.
“Yes, pretty good game, this is,” droned Nichols. “Better’n barberin’ and better’n one-night stands — oh, I’m a real trouper, too; play characters in tent shows — I was out three seasons with Tom shows. This is easier. No street parades, and I guess prob’ly we do a lot of good, saving souls and so on. Only these religious folks do seem to scrap amongst themselves more’n the professionals.”
“Where do you go from here?”
“We close in five days, then we grab the collection and pull out of here and make a jump to Lincoln, Nebraska; open there in three days. Regular troupers’ jump, too — don’t even get a Pullman — leave here on the day coach at eleven P.M. and get into Lincoln at one.”
“Sunday night you leave, eh? That’s funny. I’ll be on that train. Going to Lincoln myself.”
“Well, you can come hear us there. I always do ‘Jerusalem the Golden’ on the cornet, first meeting. Knocks ’em cold. They say it’s all this gab that gets ’em going and drags in the sinners, but don’t you believe it — it’s the music. Say, I can get more damn’ sinners weeping on a E-flat cornet than nine gospel-artists all shooting off their faces at once!”
“I’ll bet you can, Art. Say, Art — Of course I’m a preacher myself, just in business temporarily, making arrangements for a new appointment.” Art looked like one who was about to not lend money. “But I don’t believe all this bull about never having a good time; and of course Paul said to ‘take a little wine for your stomach’s sake’ and this town is dry, but I’m going to a wet one between now and Saturday, and if I were to have a pint of rye in my jeans — heh?”
“Well, I’m awful’ fond of my stomach — like to do something for its sake!”
“What kind of a fellow is this Englishman? Seems to be Miss Falconer’s right-hand man.”
“Oh, he’s a pretty bright fellow, but he don’t seem to get along with us boys.”
“She like him? Wha’ does he call himself?”
“Cecil Aylston, his name is. Oh, Sharon liked him first-rate for a while, but wouldn’t wonder if she was tired of his highbrow stuff now, and the way he never gets chummy.”
“Well, I got to go speak to Miss Falconer a second. Glad met you, Art. See you on the train Sunday evening.”
They had been talking at one of the dozen entrances of the gospel tent. Elmer had been watching Sharon Falconer as she came briskly into the tent. She was no high priestess now in Grecian robe, but a business-woman, in straw hat, gray suit, white shirt-waist, linen cuffs and collar. Only her blue bow and the jeweled cross on her watch-fob distinguished her from the women in offices. But Elmer, collecting every detail of her as a miner scoops up nuggets, knew now that she was not flat-breasted, as in the loose robe she might have been.
She spoke to the “personal workers,” the young women who volunteered to hold cottage prayer-meetings and to go from house to house stirring up spiritual prospects:
“My dear friends, I’m very glad you’re all praying, but there comes a time when you’ve got to add a little shoe-leather. While you’re longing for the Kingdom — the devil does his longing nights, and daytimes he hustles around SEEING people, TALKING to ’em! Are you ashamed to go right in and ask folks to come to Christ — to come to our meetings, anyway? I’m not at all pleased. Not at all, my dear young friends. My charts show that in the Southeast district only one house in three has been visited. This won’t do! You’ve got to get over the idea that the service of the Lord is a nice game, like putting Easter lilies on the altar. Here there’s only five days left, and you haven’t yet waked up and got busy. And let’s not have any silly nonsense about hesitating to hit people for money-pledges, and hitting ’em hard! We can’t pay rent for this lot, and pay for lights and transportation and the wages of all this big crew I carry, on hot air! Now you — you pretty girl there with the red hair — my! I wish I had such hair! — what have you done, sure-enough DONE, this past week?”
In ten minutes she had them all crying, all aching to dash out and bring in souls and dollars.
She was leaving the tent when Elmer pounced on her, swaggering, his hand out.
“Sister Falconer, I want to congratulate you on your wonderful meetings. I’m a Baptist preacher — the Reverend Gantry.”
“Yes?” sharply. “Where is your church?”
“Why, uh, just at present I haven’t exactly got a church.”
She inspected his ruddiness, his glossiness, the odor of tobacco; her brilliant eyes had played all over him, and she demanded:
“What’s the trouble this time? Booze or women?”
“Why, that’s absolutely untrue! I’m surprised you should speak like that, Sister Falconer! I’m in perfectly good standing! It’s just — I’m taking a little time off to engage in business, in order to understand the working of the lay mind, before going on with my ministry.”
“Um. That’s splendid. Well, you have my blessing, Brother! Now if you will excuse me? I must go and meet the committee.”
She tossed him an unsmiling smile and raced away. He felt soggy, lumbering, unspeakably stupid, but he swore, “Damn you, I’ll catch you when you aren’t all wrapped up in business and your own darn-fool self-importance, and then I’ll make you wake up, my girl!”
He had to do nine days’ work, to visit nine towns, in five days, but he was back in Sautersville on Sunday evening and he was on the eleven-o’clock train for Lincoln — in the new brown suit.
His fancy for Sharon Falconer had grown into a trembling passion, the first authentic passion of his life.
It was too late in the evening for a great farewell, but at least a hundred of the brethren and sisters were at the station, singing “God Be With You Till We Meet Again” and shaking hands with Sharon Falconer. Elmer saw his cornet-wielding Yankee friend, Art Nichols, with the rest of the evangelistic crew — the aide, Cecil Aylston, the fat and sentimental tenor soloist, the girl pianist, the violinist, the children’s evangelist, the director of personal work. (That important assistant, the press agent, was in Lincoln making ready for the coming of the Lord.) They looked like a sleepy theatrical troupe as they sat on their suit-cases waiting for the train to come in, and like troupers, they were dismayingly different from their stage rôles. The anemically pretty pianist, who for public uses dressed in seraphic silver robes, was now merely a small-town girl in wrinkled blue serge; the director of personal work, who had been nun-like in linen, was bold in black-trimmed red, and more attentive to the amorous looks of the German violinist than to the farewell hymns. The Reverend Cecil Aylston gave orders to the hotel baggageman regarding their trunks more like a quartermaster sergeant than like an Oxonian mystic.
Sharon herself was imperial in white, and the magnet for all of them. A fat Presbyterian pastor, with whiskers, buzzed about her, holding her arm with more than pious zeal. She smiled on him (to Elmer’s rage), she smiled equally on the long thin Disciples-of-Christ preacher, she shook hands fervently, and she was tender to each shout of “Praise God, Sister!” But her eyes were weary, and Elmer saw that when she turned from her worshipers, her mouth drooped. Young she seemed then, tired and defenseless.
“Poor kid!” thought Elmer.
The train flared and shrieked its way in, and the troupe bustled with suit-cases. “Good-by — God bless you — God speed the work!” shouted every one . . . every one save the Congregational minister, who stood sulkily at the edge of the crowd explaining to a parishioner, “And so she goes away with enough cash for herself, after six weeks’ work, to have run our whole church for two years!”
Elmer ranged up beside his musical friend, Art Nichols, and as they humped up the steps of a day-coach he muttered, “Art! Art! Got your stomach-medicine here!”
“Say. Look. Fix it so you sit with Sharon. Then pretty soon go out for a smoke —”
“She don’t like smoking.”
“You don’t need to tell her what for! Go out so I can sit down and talk to her for a while. Important business. Here: stick this in your pocket. And I’ll dig up s’more for you at Lincoln. Now hustle and get in with her.”
“Well, I’ll try.”
So, in the dark malodorous car, hot with late spring, filled with women whose corsets creaked to their doleful breathing, with farmers who snored in shirt-sleeves, Elmer stood behind the seat in which a blur marked the shoulders of Art Nichols and a radiance showed the white presence of Sharon Falconer. To Elmer she seemed to kindle the universe. She was so precious, every inch of her; he had not known that a human being could be precious like this and magical. To be near her was ecstasy enough . . . almost enough.
She was silent. He heard only Art Nichols’ twanging, “What do you think about us using some of these nigger songs — hand ’em a jolt?” and her drowsy, “Oh, let’s not talk about it tonight.” Presently, from Art, “Guess I’ll skip out on the platform and get a breath of air,” and the sacred haunt beside her was free to the exalted Elmer.
He slipped in, very nervous.
She was slumped low in the seat, but she sat up, peered at him in the dimness, and said, with a grave courtesy which shut him out more than any rudeness, “I’m so sorry, but this place is taken.”
“Yes, I know, Sister Falconer. But the car’s crowded, and I’ll just sit down and rest myself while Brother Nichols is away — that is, if you’ll let me. Don’t know if you remember me. I’m — I met you at the tent in Sautersville. Reverend Gantry.”
“Oh,” indifferently. Then quickly: “Oh, yes, you’re the Presbyterian preacher who was fired for drinking.”
“That’s absolutely —!” He saw that she was watching him, and he realized that she was not being her saintly self nor her efficient self but a quite new, private, mocking self. Delightedly he went on, “— absolutely incorrect. I’m the Christian Scientist that was fired for kissing the choir-leader on Saturday.”
“Oh, that was careless of you!”
“So you’re really human?”
“Me? Good Heavens, yes! Too human.”
“And you get tired of it?”
“Of being the great Miss Falconer, of not being able to go into a drug-store to buy a tooth-brush without having the clerk holler, ‘Praise God, we have some dandy two-bit brushes, hallelujah!’”
“Tired,” and his voice was lulling now, “of never daring to be tired, which same is what you are tonight, and of never having anybody to lean on!”
“I suppose, my dear reverend Brother, that this is a generous offer to let me lean on you!”
“No. I wouldn’t have the nerve! I’m scared to death of you. You haven’t only got your beauty — no! please let me tell you how a fellow preacher looks at you — and your wonderful platform-presence, but I kind of guess you’ve got brains.”
“No, I haven’t. Not a brain. All emotion. That’s the trouble with me.” She sounded awake now, and friendly.
“But think of all the souls you’ve brought to repentance. That makes up for everything, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, yes, I suppose it — Oh, of course it does. It’s the only thing that counts. Only — Tell me: What really did happen to you? Why did you get out of the church?”
Gravely, “I was a senior in Mizpah Theological Seminary, but I had a church of my own. I fell for a girl. I won’t say she lured me on. After all, a man ought to face the consequences of his own foolishness. But she certainly did — Oh, it amused her to see a young preacher go mad over her. And she was so lovely! Quite a lot like you, only not so beautiful, not near, and she let on like she was mad about church work — that’s what fooled me. Well! Make a long story short: We were engaged to be married, and I thought of nothing but her and our life together, doing the work of the Lord, when one evening I walked in and there she was in the arms of another fellow! It broke me up so that I— Oh, I tried, but I simply couldn’t go on preaching, so I quit for a while. And I’ve done well in business. But now I’m ready to go back to the one job I’ve ever cared about. That’s why I wanted to talk to you there at the tent. I needed your woman’s sympathy as well as your experience — and you turned me down!”
“Oh, I am so, so sorry!” Her hand caressed his arm.
Cecil Aylston came up and looked at them with a lack of sanctity.
When they reached Lincoln, he was holding her hand and saying, “You poor, dear, tired child!” and, “Will you have breakfast with me? Where are you staying in Lincoln?”
“Now see here, Brother Gantry —”
“Oh, don’t be ridiculous! Just because I’m so fagged out that it’s nice to play at being a human being, don’t try to take advantage —”
“Sharon Falconer, will you quit being a chump? I admire your genius, your wonderful work for God, but it’s because you’re too big to just be a professional gospel-shouter every minute that I most admire you. You know mighty good and well that you like to be simple and even slangy for a while. And you’re too sleepy just now to know whether you like me or not. That’s why I want us to meet at breakfast, when the sleepiness is out of the wonderful eyes —”
“Um. It all sounds pretty honest except that last stuff — you’ve certainly used that before. Do you know, I like you! You’re so completely brazen, so completely unscrupulous, and so beatifically ignorant! I’ve been with sanctimonious folks too much lately. And it’s interesting to see that you honestly think you can captivate me. You funny thing! I’m staying at the Antlers Hotel in Lincoln — no use, by the way, your trying to get a room near my suite, because I have practically the whole floor engaged — and I’ll meet you at breakfast there at nine-thirty.”
Though he did not sleep well, he was up early and at his toilet; he shaved, he touched up his bluff handsomeness with lilac water and talcum, he did his nails, sitting in athletic underwear, awaiting his new suit, sent down for pressing. The new purpose in a life recently so dispirited gave vitality to his bold eyes and spring to his thick muscles as he strode through the gold-and-marble lobby of the Antlers Hotel and awaited Sharon at the restaurant door. She came down fresh in white crash bordered with blue. As they met they laughed, admitting comradeship in folly. He took her arm gaily, led her through a flutter of waitresses excited over the coming of the celebrated lady of God, and ordered competently.
“I’ve got a great idea,” said he. “I’ve got to beat it this afternoon, but I’ll be back in Lincoln on Friday, and how’d it be if you billed me to address your meeting as a saved business man, and I talked for half an hour or so on Friday evening about the good, hard, practical, dollars-and-cents value of Christ in Commerce?”
“Are you a good talker?”
“I’m the crack salesman of the Pequot Farm Implement Company, Sharon, and if you don’t believe it —”
“Oh, I do. (She shouldn’t have.) I’m sure you tell the truth often. Of course we won’t need to mention the fact that you’re a preacher, unless somebody insists on asking. How would this be as a topic —‘Getting the Goods with a Gideon Bible?’”
“Say, that would be elegant! How I was in some hick town, horrible weather, slush and rain and everything — dark skies, seemed like sun never would shine again — feet all soaked from tramping the streets — no sales, plumb discouraged — sat in my room, forgotten to buy one of the worldly magazines I’d been accustomed to read — idly picked up a Gideon Bible and read the parable of the talents — found that same day YOU were in town — went and got converted — saw now it wasn’t just for money but for the Kingdom of Christ, to heighten my influence as a Christian business man, that I had to increase sales. That bucked up my self-confidence so that I increased sales to beat the band! And how I owe everything to your inspired powers, so it’s a privilege to be able to testify. And about how it isn’t the weak skinny failure that’s the fellow to get saved, but takes a really strong man to not be ashamed to surrender all for Jesus.”
“Why, I think that’s fine, Brother Elmer, I really do. And dwell a lot on being in your hotel room there — you took off your shoes and threw yourself down on the bed, feeling completely beaten, but you were so restless you got up and poked around the room and picked up the Gideon Bible. I’ll feature it big. And you’ll make it strong, Elmer? You won’t let me down? Because I really will headline it in my announcements. I’ve persuaded you to come clear from Omaha — no, that’s not far — clear from Denver for it. And if you do throw yourself into it and tear loose, it’ll add greatly to the glory of God, and the success of the meeting in winning souls. You will?”
“Dear, I’ll slam into ’em so hard you’ll want me in every town you go to. You bet.”
“Um, that’s as may be, Elmer. Here comes Cecil Aylston — you know my assistant? He looks so cross. He is a dear, but he’s so terribly highbrow and refined and everything and he’s always trying to nag me into being refined. But you’ll love him.”
“I will not! Anyway, I’ll struggle against it!”
The Rev. Cecil Aylston, of the flaxen hair and the superior British complexion, glided to their table, looked at Elmer with a blankness more infuriating than a scowl, and sat down, observing:
“I don’t want to intrude, Miss Falconer, but you know the committee of clergy are awaiting you in the parlor.”
“Oh, dear,” sighed Sharon. “Are they as terrible as usual here? Can’t you go up and get the kneeling and praying done while I finish my scrambled eggs? Have you told them they’ve got to double the amount of the pledges before this week is over or the souls in Lincoln can go right on being damned?” Cecil was indicating Elmer with an alarmed jerk of his head. “Oh, don’t worry about Elmer. He’s one of us — going to speak for us Friday — used to be a terribly famous preacher, but he’s found a wider field in business — Reverend Aylston, Reverend Gantry. Now run along, Cecil, and keep ’em pious and busy. Any nice-looking young preachers in the committee or are they all old stiffs?”
Aylston answered with a tight-lipped glare, and flowed away.
“Dear Cecil, he is so useful to me — he’s actually made me take to reading poetry and everything. If he just wouldn’t be polite at breakfast-time! I wouldn’t mind facing the wild beasts of Ephesus, but I can’t stand starch with my eggs. Now I must go up and join him.”
“You’ll have lunch with me?”
“I will not! My dear young man, this endeth my being silly for this week. From this moment on I’ll be one of the anointed, and if you want me to like you — God help you if you come around looking pussy-catty while I’m manhandling these stiff-necked brethren in Christ! I’ll see you Friday — I’ll have dinner with you, here, before the meeting. And I can depend on you? Good!”
Cecil Aylston was a good deal of a mystic, a good deal of a ritualist, a bit of a rogue, something of a scholar, frequently a drunkard, more frequently an ascetic, always a gentleman, and always an adventurer. He was thirty-two now. At Winchester and New College, he had been known for sprinting, snobbishness, and Greek versification. He had taken orders, served as a curate in a peculiarly muddy and ancient and unlighted church in the East End, and become fanatically Anglo–Catholic. While he was considering taking the three vows and entering a Church of England monastery, his vicar kicked him out, and no one was ever quite certain whether it was because of his “Romish tendencies” or the navvy’s daughter whom he had got with child.
He was ordered down to a bleak, square, stone church in Cornwall, but he resigned and joined the Plymouth Brethren, among whom, in resounding galvanized-iron chapels in the Black Country, he had renown for denunciation of all the pleasant sins. He came to Liverpool for a series of meetings; he wandered by the Huskinson docks, saw a liner ready for sea, bought a steerage ticket, took the passport which he had ready for a promised flight to Rio with the wife of an evangelical merchant in coals and, without a word to the brethren or the ardent lady of the coals, sailed sulkily off to America.
In New York he sold neckties in a department store, he preached in a mission, he tutored the daughter of a great wholesale fish-dealer, and wrote nimble and thoroughly irritating book-reviews. He left town two hours ahead of the fish-dealer’s eldest son, and turned up in Waco, Texas, teaching in a business college, in Winona, Minnesota, preaching in a Nazarene Chapel, in Carmel, California, writing poetry and real-estate brochures, and in Miles City, Montana, as the summer supply in a Congregational pulpit. He was so quiet, so studious, here that the widow of a rancher picked him up and married him. She died. He lost the entire fortune in two days at Tia Juana. He became extra pious after that and was converted from time to time by Billy Sunday, Gipsy Smith, Biederwolf, and several other embarrassed evangelists who did not expect a convert so early in the campaign and had made no plans to utilize him.
It was in Ishpeming, Michigan, where he was conducting a shooting-gallery while he sought by mail a mastership in Groton School, that he heard and was more than usually converted by Sharon Falconer. He fell in love with her, and with contemptuous steady resolution he told her so.
At the moment she was without a permanent man first assistant. She had just discharged a really useful loud-voiced United Brethren D.D. for hinting to delighted sons of Belial that his relations to her were at least brotherly. She took on the Reverend Cecil Aylston.
He loved her, terrifyingly. He was so devoted to her that he dropped his drinking, his smoking, and a tendency to forgery which had recently been creeping on him. And he did wonders for her.
She had been too emotional. He taught her to store it up and fling it all out in one overpowering catastrophic evening. She had been careless of grammar, and given to vulgar barnyard illustrations. He taught her to endure sitting still and reading — reading Swinburne and Jowett, Pater and Jonathan Edwards, Newman and Sir Thomas Browne. He taught her to use her voice, to use her eyes, and in more private relations, to use her soul.
She had been puzzled by him, annoyed by him, led meekly by him, and now she was weary of his supercilious devotion. He was more devoted to her than to life, and for her he refused a really desirable widow who could have got him back into the Episcopal fold and acquired for him the dim rich sort of church for which he longed after these months of sawdust and sweaty converts.
When Elmer descended from the train in Lincoln Friday afternoon, he stopped before a red-and-black poster announcing that Elmer Gantry was a power in the machinery world, that he was an eloquent and entertaining speaker, and that his address “Increasing Sales with God and the Gideons” would be a “revelation of the new world of better business.”
“Jiminy!” said the power in the machinery world. “I’d rather see a sermon of mine advertised like that than sell steen million plows!”
He had a vision of Sharon Falconer in her suite in late afternoon, lonely and clinging in the faded golden light, clinging to him. But when he reached her room by telephone she was curt. “No, no, sorry, can’t see you ‘safternoon — see you at dinner, quarter to six.”
He was so chastened that he was restrained and uncommenting when she came swooping into the dining-room, a knot-browed, efficient, raging Sharon, and when he found that she had brought Cecil Aylston.
“Good evening, Sister — Brother Aylston,” he boomed sedately.
“Evening. Ready to speak?”
She lighted a little. “That’s good. Everything else’s gone wrong, and these preachers here think I can travel an evangelistic crew on air. Give ’em fits about tight-wad Christian business men will you, Elmer? How they hate to loosen up! Cecil! Kindly don’t look as if I’d bitten somebody. I haven’t . . . not yet.”
Aylston ignored her, and the two men watched each other like a panther and a buffalo (but a buffalo with a clean shave and ever so much scented hair-tonic).
“Brother Aylston,” said Elmer, “I noticed in the account of last evening’s meeting that you spoke of Mary and the anointing with spikenard, and you quoted these ‘Idylls of the King,’ by Tennyson. Or that’s what the newspaper said.”
“But do you think that’s good stuff for evangelism? All right for a regular church, especially with a high-class rich congregation, but in a soul-saving campaign —”
“My dear Mr. Gantry, Miss Falconer and I have decided that even in the most aggressive campaign there is no need of vulgarizing our followers.”
“Well, that isn’t what I’d give ’em!”
“And what, pray, would you give them?”
“The good old-fashioned hell, that’s what!” Elmer peeped at Sharon and felt that she was smiling with encouragement. “Yes-sir, like the hymn says, the hell of our fathers is good enough for me.”
“Quite so! I’m afraid it isn’t good enough for me, and I don’t know that Jesus fancied it particularly!”
“Well, you can be dead sure of one thing: When he stayed with Mary and Martha and Lazarus, he didn’t loaf around drinking tea with ’em!”
“Why not, my dear man! Don’t you know that tea was first imported by caravan train from Ceylon to Syria in 627 B.C.?”
“No-o, didn’t know just when —”
“Why, of course. You’ve merely forgotten it — you must have read in your university days of the great epicurean expedition of Phthaltazar — when he took the eleven hundred camels? Psaltazar? You remember!”
“Oh, yes, I remember his expedition, but I didn’t know he brought in tea.”
“Why, naturally! Rather! Uh, Miss Falconer, the impetuous Mr. Shoop wants to sing ‘Just As I Am’ for his solo tonight. Is there any way of preventing it? Adelbert is a good saved soul, but just as he is, he is too fat. Won’t you speak to him?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Let him sing it. He’s brought in lots of souls on that,” yawned Sharon.
“Mangy little souls.”
“Oh, stop being so supercilious! When you get to heaven, Cecil, you’ll complain of the way the seraphims — oh, do shut up; I KNOW it’s seraphim, my tongue just slipped — you’ll complain of the kind of corsets they wear.”
“I’m not at all sure but that you really do picture that sort of heaven, with corseted angels and yourself with a golden mansion on the celestial Park Lane!”
“Cecil Aylston, don’t you quarrel with me tonight! I feel — vulgar. That’s your favorite word! I do wish I could save some of the members of my own crew! . . . Elmer, do you think God went to Oxford?”
“And you did, of course!”
“I did not, by golly! I went to a hick college in Kansas! And I was born in a hick town in Kansas!”
“Me too, practically! Oh, I did come from a frightfully old Virginia family, and I was born in what they called a mansion, but still, we were so poor that our pride was ridiculous. Tell me: did you split wood and pull mustard when you were a boy?”
“Did I? Say! You bet I did!”
They sat with their elbows on the table, swapping boasts of provincial poverty, proclaiming kinship, while Cecil looked frosty.
Elmer’s speech at the evangelistic meeting was a cloudburst.
It had structure as well as barytone melody, choice words, fascinating anecdotes, select sentiment, chaste point of view, and resolute piety.
Elmer was later to explain to admirers of his public utterances that nothing was more important than structure. What, he put it to them, would they think of an architect who was fancy about paint and clapboards but didn’t plan the house? And tonight’s euphuisms were full of structure.
In part one he admitted that despite his commercial success he had fallen into sin before the hour when, restless in his hotel room, he had idly fingered o’er a Gideon Bible and been struck by the parable of the talents.
In part two he revealed by stimulating examples from his own experience the cash value of Christianity. He pointed out that merchants often preferred a dependable man to a known crook.
Hitherto he had, perhaps, been a shade too realistic. He felt that Sharon would never take him on in place of Cecil Aylston unless she perceived the poetry with which his soul was gushing. So in part three he explained that what made Christianity no mere dream and ideal, but a practical human solvent, was Love. He spoke very nicely of Love. He said that Love was the Morning Star, the Evening Star, the Radiance upon the Quiet Tomb, the Inspirer equally of Patriots and Bank Presidents, and as for Music, what was it but the very voice of Love?
He had elevated his audience (thirteen hundred they were, and respectful) to a height of idealism from which he made them swoop now like eagles to a pool of tears:
“For, oh, my brothers and sisters, important though it is to be prudent in this world’s affairs, it is the world to come that is alone important, and this reminds me, in closing, of a very sad incident which I recently witnessed. In business affairs I had often had to deal with a very prominent man named Jim Leff — Leffingwell. I can give his name now because he has passed to his eternal reward. Old Jim was the best of good fellows, but he had fatal defects. He drank liquor, he smoked tobacco, he gambled, and I’m sorry to say that he did not always keep his tongue clean — he took the name of God in vain. But Jim was very fond of his family, particularly of his little daughter. Well, she took sick. Oh, what a sad time that was to that household! How the stricken mother tiptoed into and out of the sick-room; how the worried doctors came and went, speeding to aid her! As for the father, poor old Jim, he was bowed with anguish as he leaned over that pathetic little bed, and his hair turned gray in a single night. There came the great crisis, and before the very eyes of the weeping father that little form was stilled, and that sweet, pure young soul passed to its Maker.
“He came to me sobbing, and I put my arms round him as I would round a little child. ‘Oh, God,’ he sobbed, ‘that I should have spent my life in wicked vices, and that the little one should have passed away knowing her dad was a sinner!’ Thinking to comfort him, I said, ‘Old man, it was God’s will that she be taken. You have done all that mortal man could do. The best of medical attention. The best of care.’
“I shall never forget how scornfully he turned upon me. ‘And you call yourself a Christian!’ he cried. ‘Yes, she had medical attention, but one thing was lacking — the one thing that would have saved her — I could not pray!’
“And that strong man knelt in anguish and for all my training in- in trying to explain the ways of God to my fellow business men, there was nothing to say. IT WAS TOO LATE!
“Oh, my brothers, my fellow business men, are YOU going to put off repentance till it’s too late? That’s YOUR affair, you say. Is it? Is it? Have you a right to inflict upon all that you hold nearest and dearest the sore burden of your sins? Do you love your sins better than that dear little son, that bonnie daughter, that loving brother, that fine old father? Do you want to punish them? Do you? Don’t you love some one more than you do your sins? If you do, stand up. Isn’t there some one here who wants to stand up and help a fellow business man carry this gospel of great joy to the world? Won’t you come? Won’t you HELP me? Oh, come! Come down and let me shake your hand!”
And they came, dozens of them, weeping, while he wept at his own goodness.
They stood afterward in the secluded space behind the white-and-gold platforms, Sharon and Elmer, and she cried, “Oh, it was beautiful! Honestly, I almost cried myself! Elmer, it was just fine!”
“Didn’t I get ’em? Didn’t I get ’em? Didn’t I? Say, Sharon, I’m so glad it went over, because it was your show and I wanted to give you all I could!”
He moved toward her, his arms out, and for once he was not producing the false ardor of amorous diplomacy. He was the small boy seeking the praise of his mother. But she moved away from him, begging, not sardonically:
“But you do like me?”
“Yes. I do.”
“Not very much. I can’t like any one very much. But I do like you. Some day I might fall in love with you. A tiny bit. If you don’t rush me too much. But only physically. No one,” proudly, “can touch my soul!”
“Do you think that’s decent? Isn’t that sin?”
She flamed at him. “I can’t sin! I am above sin! I am really and truly sanctified! Whatever I may choose to do, though it might be sin in one unsanctified, with me God will turn it to his glory. I can kiss you like this —” Quickly she touched his cheek, “yes, or passionately, terribly passionately, and it would only symbolize my complete union with Jesus! I have told you a mystery. You can never understand. But you can serve me. Would you like to?”
“Yes, I would. . . . And I’ve never served anybody yet! Can I? Oh, kick out this tea-drinking mollycoddle, Cecil, and let me work with you. Don’t you need arms like these about you, just now and then, defending you?”
“Perhaps. But I’m not to be hurried. I am I! It is I who choose!”
“Yes. I guess prob’ly it is, Sharon. I think you’ve plumb hypnotized me or something.”
“No, but perhaps I shall if I ever care to. . . . I can do anything I want to! God chose me to do his work. I am the reincarnation of Joan of Arc, of Catherine of Sienna! I have visions! God talks to me! I told you once that I hadn’t the brains to rival the men evangelists. Lies! False modesty! They are God’s message, but I am God’s right hand!”
She chanted it with her head back, her eyes closed, and even while he quaked, “My God, she’s crazy!” he did not care. He would give up all to follow her. Mumblingly he told her so, but she sent him away, and he crept off in a humility he had never known.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52