Two more series of meetings Sharon Falconer held that summer, and at each of them the power in the machinery world appeared and chronicled his conversion by the Gideon Bible and the eloquence of Sister Falconer.
Sometimes he seemed very near her; the next time she would regard him with bleak china eyes. Once she turned on him with: “You smoke, don’t you?”
“I smelled it. I hate it. Will you stop it? Entirely? And drinking?”
“Yes. I will.”
And he did. It was an agony of restlessness and craving, but he never touched alcohol or tobacco again, and he really regretted that in evenings thus made vacuous he could not keep from an interest in waitresses.
It was late in August, in a small Colorado city, after the second of his appearances as a saved financial Titan, that he implored Sharon as they entered the hotel together, “Oh, let me come up to your room. Please! I never have a chance to just sit and talk to you.”
“Very well. Come in half an hour. Don’t ‘phone. Just come right up to Suite B.”
It was a half-hour of palpitating, of almost timorous, expectancy.
In every city where she held meetings Sharon was invited to stay at the home of one of the elect, but she always refused. She had a long standard explanation that “she could devote herself more fully to the prayer life if she had her own place, and day by day filled it more richly with the aura of spirituality.” Elmer wondered whether it wasn’t the aura of Cecil Aylston for which she had her suite, but he tried to keep his aching imagination away from that.
The half-hour was over.
He swayed up-stairs to Suite B and knocked. A distant “Come in.”
She was in the bedroom beyond. He inched into the stale hotel parlor — wall-paper with two-foot roses, a table with an atrocious knobby gilt vase, two stiff chairs and a grudging settee ranged round the wall. The lilies which her disciples had sent her were decaying in boxes, in a wash-bowl, in a heap in the corner. Round a china cuspidor lay faint rose petals.
He sat awkwardly on the edge of one of the chairs. He dared not venture beyond the dusty brocade curtains which separated the two rooms, but his fancy ventured fast enough.
She threw open the curtains and stood there, a flame blasting the faded apartment. She had discarded her white robe for a dressing-gown of scarlet with sleeves of cloth of gold — gold and scarlet; riotous black hair; long, pale, white face. She slipped over to the settee, and summoned him, “Come!”
He diffidently dropped his arm about her, and her head was on his shoulder. His arm drew tighter. But, “Oh, don’t make love to me,” she sighed, not moving. “You’ll know it all right when I want you to! Just be nice and comforting tonight.”
“But I can’t always —”
“I know. Perhaps you won’t always have to. Perhaps! Oh, I need — What I need tonight is some salve for my vanity. Have I ever said that I was a reincarnated Joan of Arc? I really do half believe that sometimes. Of course it’s just insanity. Actually I’m a very ignorant young woman with a lot of misdirected energy and some tiny idealism. I preach elegant sermons for six weeks, but if I stayed in a town six weeks and one day, I’d have to start the music box over again. I can talk my sermons beautifully . . . but Cecil wrote most of ’em for me, and the rest I cheerfully stole.”
“Do you like Cecil?”
“Oh, is a nice, jealous, big, fat man!” She who that evening had been a disturbing organ note was lisping baby-talk now.
“Damn it, Sharon, don’t try to be a baby when I’m serious!”
“Damn it, Elmer, don’t say ‘damn it’! Oh, I hate the little vices — smoking, swearing, scandal, drinking just enough to be silly. I love the big ones — murder, lust, cruelty, ambition!”
“And Cecil? Is he one of the big vices that you love?”
“Oh, he’s a dear boy. So sweet, the way he takes himself seriously.”
“Yes, he must make love like an ice-cream cone.”
“You might be surprised! There, there! The poor man is just longing to have me say something about Cecil! I’ll be obliging. He’s done a lot for me. He really knows something; he isn’t a splendid cast-iron statue of ignorance like you or me.”
“Now you look here, Sharon! After all, I AM a college graduate and practically a B.D. too.”
“That’s what I said. Cecil really knows how to read. And he taught me to quit acting like a hired girl, bless him. But — Oh, I’ve learned everything he can teach me, and if I get any more of the highbrow in me I’ll lose touch with the common people — bless their dear, sweet, honest souls!”
“Chuck him. Take me on. Oh, it isn’t the money. You must know that, dear. In ten years, at thirty-eight, I can be sales-manager of the Pequot — prob’ly ten thousand a year — and maybe some day the president, at thirty thou. I’m not looking for a job. But — Oh, I’m crazy about you! Except for my mother, you’re the only person I’ve ever adored. I love you! Hear me? Damn it — yes, damn it, I said — I worship you! Oh, Sharon, Sharon, Sharon! It wasn’t really bunk when I told ’em all tonight how you’d converted me, because you DID convert me. Will you let me serve you? And will you maybe marry me?”
“No. I don’t think I’ll ever marry — exactly. Perhaps I’ll chuck Cecil — poor sweet lad! — and take you on. I’ll see. Anyhow — Let me think.”
She shook off his encircling arm and sat brooding, chin on hand. He sat at her feet — spiritually as well as physically.
She beatified him with:
“In September I’ll have only four weeks of meetings, at Vincennes. I’m going to take off all October, before my winter work (you won’t know me then — I’m DANDY, speaking indoors, in big halls!), and I’m going down to our home, the old Falconer family place, in Virginia. Pappy and Mam are dead now, and I own it. Old plantation. Would you like to come down there with me, just us two, for a fortnight in October?”
“Would I? My God!”
“Could you get away?”
“If it cost me my job!”
“Then — I’ll wire you when to come after I get there: Hanning Hall, Broughton, Virginia. Now I think I’d better go to bed, dear. Sweet dreams.”
“Can’t I tuck you into bed?”
“No, dear. I might forget to be Sister Falconer! Good night!”
Her kiss was like a swallow’s flight, and he went out obediently, marveling that Elmer Gantry could for once love so much that he did not insist on loving.
In New York he had bought a suit of Irish homespun and a heather cap. He looked bulky but pleasantly pastoral as he gaped romantically from the Pullman window at the fields of Virginia. “Ole Virginny — ole Virginny” he hummed happily. Worm fences, negro cabins, gallant horses in rocky pastures, a longing to see the gentry who rode such horses, and ever the blue hills. It was an older world than his baking Kansas, older than Mizpah Seminary, and he felt a desire to be part of this traditional age to which Sharon belonged. Then, as the miles which still separated him from the town of Broughton crept back of him, he forgot the warm-tinted land in anticipation of her.
He was recalling that she was the aristocrat, the more formidable here in the company of F. F. V. friends. He was more than usually timid . . . and more than usually proud of his conquest.
For a moment, at the station, he thought that she had not come to meet him. Then he saw a girl standing by an old country buggy.
She was young, veritably a girl, in middy blouse deep cut at the throat, pleated white skirt, white shoes. Her red tam-o’-shanter was rakish, her smile was a country grin as she waved to him. And the girl was Sister Falconer.
“God, you’re adorable!” he murmured to her, as he plumped down his suit-case, and she was fragrant and soft in his arms as he kissed her.
“No more,” she whispered. “You’re supposed to be my cousin, and even very nice cousins don’t kiss quite so intelligently!”
As the carriage jerked across the hills, as the harness creaked and the white horse grunted, he held her hand lightly in butterfly ecstasy.
He cried out at the sight of Hanning Hall as they drove through the dark pines, among shabby grass plots, to the bare sloping lawn. It was out of a story-book: a brick house, not very large, with tall white pillars, white cupola, and dormer windows with tiny panes; and across the lawn paraded a peacock in the sun. Out of a story-book, too, was the pair of old negroes who bowed to them from the porch and hastened down the steps — the butler with green tail-coat and white mustache almost encircling his mouth, and the mammy in green calico, with an enormous grin and a histrionic curtsy.
“They’ve always cared for me since I was a tiny baby,” Sharon whispered. “I do love them — I do love this dear old place. That’s —” She hesitated, then defiantly: “That’s why I brought you here!”
The butler took his bag up and unpacked, while Elmer wandered about the old bedroom, impressed, softly happy. The wall was a series of pale landscapes: manor houses beyond avenues of elms. The bed was a four-poster; the fireplace of white-enameled posts and mantel; and on the broad oak boards of the floor, polished by generations of forgotten feet, were hooked rugs of the days of crinoline.
“Golly, I’m so happy! I’ve come home!” sighed Elmer.
When the butler was gone, Elmer drifted to the window, and “Golly!” he said again. He had not realized that in the buggy they had climbed so high. Beyond rolling pasture and woods was the Shenandoah glowing with afternoon.
“Shen-an-doah!” he crooned.
Suddenly he was kneeling at the window, and for the first time since he had forsaken Jim Lefferts and football and joyous ribaldry, his soul was free of all the wickedness which had daubed it — oratorical ambitions, emotional orgasm, dead sayings of dull seers, dogmas, and piety. The golden winding river drew him, the sky uplifted him, and with outflung arms he prayed for deliverance from prayer.
“I’ve found her. Sharon. Oh, I’m not going on with this evangelistic bunk. Trapping idiots into holy monkey-shines! No, by God, I’ll be honest! I’ll tuck her under my arms and go out and fight. Business. Put it over. Build something big. And laugh, not snivel and shake hands with church-members! I’ll do it!”
Then and there ended his rebellion.
The vision of the beautiful river was hidden from him by a fog of compromises. . . . How could he keep away from evangelistic melodrama if he was to have Sharon? And to have Sharon was the one purpose of life. She loved her meetings, she would never leave them, and she would rule him. And — he was exalted by his own oratory.
“BESIDES! There is a lot to all this religious stuff. We do do good. Maybe we jolly ’em into emotions too much, but don’t that wake folks up from their ruts? Course it does!”
So he put on a white turtle-necked sweater and with a firm complacent tread he went down to join Sharon.
She was waiting in the hall, so light and young in her middy blouse and red tam.
“Let’s not talk seriously. I’m not Sister Falconer — I’m Sharon today. Gee, to think I’ve ever spoken to five thousand people! Come on! I’ll race you up the hill!”
The wide lower hall, traditionally hung with steel engravings and a Chickamauga sword, led from the front door, under the balcony of the staircase, to the garden at the back, still bold with purple asters and golden zinnias.
Through the hall she fled, through the garden, past the stone sundial, and over the long rough grass to the orchard on the sunny hill: no ceremonious Juno now but a nymph; and he followed, heavy, graceless, but pounding on inescapable, thinking less of her fleeting slenderness than of the fact that since he had stopped smoking his wind cer’nly was a lot better — cer’nly was.
“You CAN run!” she said, as she stopped, panting, by a walled garden with espalier pears.
“You bet I can! And I’m a grand footballer, a bearcat at tackling my young friend!”
He picked her up, while she kicked and grudgingly admired, “You’re terribly strong!”
But the day of halcyon October sun was too serene even for his coltishness and sedately they tramped up the hill, swinging their joined hands; sedately they talked (ever so hard he tried to live up to the Falconer Family, an Old Mansion, and Darky Mammies) of the world-menacing perils of Higher Criticism and the genius of E. O. Excell as a composer of sacred but snappy melodies.
While he dressed, that is, while he put on the brown suit and a superior new tie, Elmer worried. This sure intimacy was too perfect. Sharon had spoken vaguely of brothers, of high-nosed aunts and cousins, of a cloud of Falconer witnesses, and the house was large enough to secrete along its corridors a horde of relatives. Would he, at dinner, have to meet hostile relics who would stare at him and make him talk and put him down as a piece of Terwillinger provinciality? He could see the implications in their level faded eyes; he could see Sharon swayed by their scorn and delivered from such uncertain fascination as his lustiness and boldness had cast over her.
“Damn!” he said. “I’m just as good as they are!”
He came reluctantly down-stairs to the shabby, endearing drawing-room, with its whatnot of curios — a Chinese slipper, a stag carved of black walnut, a shell from Madagascar — with its jar of dried cattails, its escritoire and gate-legged table, and a friendly old couch before the white fireplace. The room, the whole spreading house was full of whispers and creakings and dead suspicious eyes. . . . There had been no whispers and no memories in the cottage at Paris, Kansas. . . . Elmer stood wistful, a little beaten boy, his runaway hour with the daughter of the manor house ended, too worshiping to resent losing the one thing he wanted.
Then she was at the door, extremely unevangelistic, pleasantly worldly in an evening frock of black satin and gold lace. He had not known people who wore evening frocks. She held out her hand gaily to him, but it was not gaily that he went to her — meekly, rather, resolved that he would not disgrace her before the suspicious family.
They came hand in hand into the dining-room and he saw that the table was set for two only.
He almost giggled, “Thought maybe there’d be a lot of folks,” but he was saved, and he did not bustle about her chair.
He said grace, at length.
Candles and mahogany, silver and old lace, roses and Wedgwood, canvasback and the butler in bottle-green. He sank into a stilled happiness as she told riotous stories of evangelism — of her tenor soloist, the plump Adelbert Shoop, who loved crème de cocoa; of the Swedish farmer’s wife, who got her husband prayed out of the drinking, cursing, and snuff habits, then tried to get him prayed out of playing checkers, whereupon he went out and got marvelously pickled on raw alcohol.
“I’ve never seen you so quiet before,” she said. “You really can be nice. Happy?”
The roof of the front porch had been turned into an outdoor terrace, and here, wrapped up against the cool evening, they had their coffee and peppermints in long deck chairs. They were above the tree-tops; and as their eyes widened in the darkness they could see the river by starlight. The hoot of a wandering owl; then the kind air, the whispering air, crept round them.
“Oh, my God, it is so sweet — so sweet!” he sighed, as he fumbled for her hand and felt it slip confidently into his. Suddenly he was ruthless, tearing it all down:
“Too darn’ sweet for me, I guess. Sharon, I’m a bum. I’m not so bad as a preacher, or I wouldn’t be if I had the chance, but ME— I’m no good. I have cut out the booze and tobacco — for you — I really have! But I used to drink like a fish, and till I met you I never thought any woman except my mother was any good. I’m just a second-rate traveling man. I came from Paris, Kansas, and I’m not even up to that hick burg, because they are hard-working and decent there, and I’m not even that. And you — you’re not only a prophetess, which you sure are, the real big thing, but you’re a Falconer. Family! Old Servants! This old house! Oh, it’s no use! You’re too big for me. Just because I do love you. Terribly. Because I can’t lie to you!”
He had put away her slim hand, but it came creeping back over his, her fingers tracing the valleys between his knuckles while she murmured:
“You will be big! I’ll make you! And perhaps I’m a prophetess, a little bit, but I’m also a good liar. You see I’m not a Falconer. There ain’t any! My name is Katie Jonas. I was born in Utica. My dad worked on a brickyard. I picked out the name Sharon Falconer while I was a stenographer. I never saw this house till two years ago; I never saw these old family servants till then — they worked for the folks that owned the place — and even they weren’t Falconers — they had the aristocratic name of Sprugg! Incidentally, this place isn’t a quarter paid for. And yet I’m not a liar! I’m not! I AM Sharon Falconer now! I’ve made her — by prayer and by having a right to be her! And you’re going to stop being poor Elmer Gantry of Paris, Kansas. You’re going to be the Reverend Dr. Gantry, the great captain of souls! Oh, I’m glad you don’t come from anywhere in particular! Cecil Aylston — oh, I guess he does love me, but I always feel he’s laughing at me. Hang him, he notices the infinitives I split and not the souls I save! But you — Oh, you will serve me — won’t you?”
And there was little said then. Even the agreement that she was to get rid of Cecil, to make Elmer her permanent assistant, was reached in a few casual assents. He was certain that the steely film of her dominance was withdrawn.
Yet when they went in, she said gaily that they must be early abed; up early tomorrow; and that she would take ten pounds off him at tennis.
When he whispered, “Where is your room, sweet?” she laughed with a chilling impersonality, “You’ll never know, poor lamb!”
Elmer the bold, Elmer the enterprising, went clumping off to his room, and solemnly he undressed, wistfully he stood by the window, his soul riding out on the darkness to incomprehensible destinations. He humped into bed and dropped toward sleep, too weary with fighting her resistance to lie thinking of possible tomorrows.
He heard a tiny scratching noise. It seemed to him that it was the doorknob turning. He sat up, throbbing. The sound was frightened away, but began again, a faint grating, and the bottom of the door swished slowly on the carpet. The fan of pale light from the hall widened and, craning, he could see her, but only as a ghost, a white film.
He held out his arms, desperately, and presently she stumbled against them.
“No! Please!” Hers was the voice of a sleep-walker. “I just came in to say good-night and tuck you into bed. Such a bothered unhappy child! Into bed. I’ll kiss you good-night and run.”
His head burrowed into the pillow. Her hand touched his cheek lightly, yet through her fingers, he believed, flowed a current which lulled him into slumber, a slumber momentary but deep with contentment.
With effort he said, “You too — you need comforting, maybe you need bossing, when I get over being scared of you.”
“No. I must take my loneliness alone. I’m different, whether it’s cursed or blessed. But — lonely — yes — lonely.”
He was sharply awake as her fingers slipped up his cheek, across his temple, into his swart hair.
“Your hair is so thick,” she said drowsily.
“Your heart beats so. Dear Sharon —”
Suddenly, clutching his arm, she cried, “Come! It is the call!”
He was bewildered as he followed her, white in her nightgown trimmed at the throat with white fur, out of his room, down the hall, up a steep little stairway to her own apartments; the more bewildered to go from that genteel corridor, with its forget-me-not wallpaper and stiff engravings of Virginia worthies, into a furnace of scarlet.
Her bedroom was as insane as an Oriental cozy corner of 1895 — a couch high on carven ivory posts, covered with a mandarin coat; unlighted brass lamps in the likeness of mosques and pagodas; gilt papier-mâché armor on the walls; a wide dressing-table with a score of cosmetics in odd Parisian bottles; tall candlesticks, the twisted and flowered candles lighted; and over everything a hint of incense.
She opened a closet, tossed a robe to him, cried, “For the service of the altar!” and vanished into a dressing-room beyond. Diffidently, feeling rather like a fool, he put on the robe. It was of purple velvet embroidered with black symbols unknown to him, the collar heavy with gold thread. He was not quite sure what he was to do, and he waited obediently.
She stood in the doorway, posing, while he gaped. She was so tall and her hands, at her sides, the backs up and the fingers arched, moved like lilies on the bosom of a stream. She was fantastic in a robe of deep crimson adorned with golden stars and crescents, swastikas and tau crosses; her feet were in silver sandals, and round her hair was a tiara of silver moons set with steel points that flickered in the candlelight. A mist of incense floated about her, seemed to rise from her, and as she slowly raised her arms he felt in schoolboyish awe that she was veritably a priestess.
Her voice was under the spell of the sleep-walker once more as she sighed “Come! It is the chapel.”
She marched to a door part-hidden by the couch, and led him into a room —
Now he was no longer part amorous, part inquisitive, but all uneasy.
What hanky-panky of construction had been performed he never knew; perhaps it was merely that the floor above this small room had been removed so that it stretched up two stories; but in any case there it was — a shrine bright as bedlam at the bottom but seeming to rise through darkness to the sky. The walls were hung with black velvet; there were no chairs; and the whole room focused on a wide altar. It was an altar of grotesque humor or of madness, draped with Chinese fabrics, crimson, apricot, emerald, gold. There were two stages of pink marble. Above the altar hung an immense crucifix with the Christ bleeding at nail-wounds and pierced side; and on the upper stage were plaster busts of the Virgin, St. Theresa, St. Catherine, a garish Sacred Heart, a dolorous simulacrum of the dying St. Stephen. But crowded on the lower stage was a crazy rout of what Elmer called “heathen idols”: ape-headed gods, crocodile-headed gods, a god with three heads and a god with six arms, a jade-and-ivory Buddha, an alabaster naked Venus, and in the center of them all a beautiful, hideous, intimidating and alluring statuette of a silver goddess with a triple crown and a face as thin and long and passionate as that of Sharon Falconer. Before the altar was a long velvet cushion, very thick and soft. Here Sharon suddenly knelt, waving him to his knees, as she cried:
“It is the hour! Blessed Virgin, Mother Hera, Mother Frigga, Mother Ishtar, Mother Isis, dread Mother Astarte of the weaving arms, it is thy priestess, it is she who after the blind centuries and the groping years shall make it known to the world that ye are one, and that in me are ye all revealed, and that in this revelation shall come peace and wisdom universal, the secret of the spheres and the pit of understanding. Ye who have leaned over me and on my lips pressed your immortal fingers, take this my brother to your bosoms, open his eyes, release his pinioned spirit, make him as the gods, that with me he may carry the revelation for which a thousand thousand grievous years the world has panted.
“O rosy cross and mystic tower of ivory —
“Hear my prayer.
“O sublime April crescent —
“Hear my prayer.
“O sword of undaunted steel most excellent —
“Hear thou my prayer.
“O serpent with unfathomable eyes —
“Hear my prayer.
“Ye veiled ones and ye bright ones — from caves forgotten, the peaks of the future, the clanging today — join in me, lift up, receive him, dread, nameless ones; yea, lift us then, mystery on mystery, sphere above sphere, dominion on dominion, to the very throne!”
She picked up a Bible which lay by her on the long velvet cushion at the foot of the altar, she crammed it into his hands, and cried, “Read — read — quickly!”
It was open at the Song of Solomon, and bewildered he chanted:
“How beautiful are thy feet with shoes, O prince’s daughter! The joints of thy thighs are like jewels, the work of the hands of a cunning workman. Thy two breasts are like two young roes. Thy neck is as a tower of ivory. The hair of thine head like purple; the king is held in the galleries. How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights!”
She interrupted him, her voice high and a little shrill: “O mystical rose, O lily most admirable, O wondrous union; O St. Anna, Mother Immaculate, Demeter, Mother Beneficent, Lakshmi, Mother Most Shining; behold, I am his and he is yours and ye are mine!”
As he read on, his voice rose like a triumphant priest’s:
“I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof —”
That verse he never finished, for she swayed sideways as she knelt before the altar, and sank into his arms, her lips parted.
They sat on the hilltop, looking down on noon in the valley, sleepily talking till he roused with: “Why won’t you marry me?”
“No. Not for years, anyway. I’m too old — thirty-two to your — what is it, twenty-eight or — nine? And I must be free for the service of Our Lord. . . . You do know I mean that? I am really consecrated, no matter what I may seem to do!”
“Sweet, of course I do! Oh, yes.”
“But not marry. It’s good at times to be just human, but mostly I have to live like a saint. . . . Besides, I do think men converts come in better if they know I’m not married.”
“Damn it, listen! Do you love me a little?”
“Yes. A little! Oh, I’m as fond of you as I can be of any one except Katie Jonas. Dear child!”
She dropped her head on his shoulder, casually now, in the bee-thrumming orchard aisle, and his arm tightened.
That evening they sang gospel hymns together, to the edification of the Old Family Servants, who began to call him Doctor.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11