Elmer had, even in Zenith, to meet plenty of solemn and whiskery persons whose only pleasure aside from not doing agreeable things was keeping others from doing them. But the general bleakness of his sect was changing, and he found in Wellspring Church a Young Married Set who were nearly as cheerful as though they did not belong to a church.
This Young Married Set, though it was in good odor, though the wives taught Sunday School and the husbands elegantly passed collection plates, swallowed the Discipline with such friendly ease as a Catholic priest uses toward the latest bleeding Madonna. They lived, largely, in the new apartment-houses which were creeping into Old Town. They were not rich, but they had Fords and phonographs and gin. They danced, and they were willing to dance even in the presence of the Pastor.
They smelled in Elmer one of them, and though Cleo’s presence stiffened them into uncomfortable propriety, when he dropped in on them alone they shouted, “Come on, Reverend, I bet you can shake a hoof as good as anybody! The wife says she’s gotta dance with you! Gotta get acquainted with these Sins of the World if you’re going to make snappy sermons!”
He agreed, and he did dance, with a pretty appearance of being shocked. He was light-footed still, for all his weight, and there was electricity in his grasp as his hands curled about his partner’s waist.
“Oh, my, Reverend, if you hadn’t been a preacher you’d have been some dancing-man!” the women fluttered, and for all his caution he could not keep from looking into their fascinated eyes, noting the flutter of their bosoms, and murmuring, “Better remember I’m human, honey! If I did cut loose — Zowie!”
And they admired him for it.
Once, when rather hungrily he sniffed at the odors of alcohol and tobacco, the host giggled, “Say, I hope you don’t smell anything on my breath, Reverend — be fierce if you thought a good Methodist like me could ever throw in a shot of liquor!”
“It’s not my business to smell anything except on Sundays,” said Elmer amiably, and, “Come on now, Sister Gilson, let’s try and fox-trot again. My gracious, you talk about me smelling for liquor! Think of what would happen if Brother Apfelmus knew his dear Pastor was slipping in a little dance! Mustn’t tell on me, folks!”
“You bet we won’t!” they said, and not even the elderly pietists on whom he called most often became louder adherents of the Reverend Elmer Gantry, better advertisers of his sermons, than these blades of the Young Married Set.
He acquired a habit of going to their parties. He was hungry for brisk companionship, and it was altogether depressing now to be with Cleo. She could never learn, not after ten efforts a day, that she could not keep him from saying “Damn!” by looking hurt and murmuring, “Oh, Elmer, how can you?”
He told her, regarding the parties, that he was going out to call on parishioners. And he was not altogether lying. His ambition was more to him now than any exalted dissipation, and however often he yearned for the mechanical pianos and the girls in pink kimonos of whom he so lickerishly preached, he violently kept away from them.
But the jolly wives of the Young Married Set — Particularly this Mrs. Gilson, Beryl Gilson, a girl of twenty-five, born for cuddling. She had a bleached and whining husband, who was always quarreling with her in a weakly violent sputtering; and she was obviously taken by Elmer’s confident strength. He sat by her in “cozy-corners,” and his arm was tense. But he won glory by keeping from embracing her. Also, he wasn’t so sure that he could win her. She was flighty, fond of triumphs, but cautious, a city girl used to many suitors. And if she did prove kind — She was a member of his church, and she was talkative. She might go around hinting.
After these meditations he would flee to the hospitality of T. J. Rigg, in whose cheerfully sloven house he could relax safely, from whom he could get the facts about the private business careers of his more philanthropic contributors. But all the time the attraction of Beryl Gilson, the vision of her dove-smooth shoulders, was churning him to insanity.
He had not noticed them during that Sunday morning sermon in late autumn, not noticed them among the admirers who came up afterward to shake hands. Then he startled and croaked, so that the current hand-shaker thought he was ill.
Elmer had seen, loitering behind the others, his one-time forced fiancée, Lulu Bains of Schoenheim, and her lanky, rugged, vengeful cousin, Floyd Naylor.
They strayed up only when all the others were gone, when the affable ushers had stopped pouncing on victims and pump-handling them and patting their arms, as all ushers always do after all church services. Elmer wished the ushers were staying, to protect him, but he was more afraid of scandal than of violence.
He braced himself, feeling the great muscles surge along his back, then took quick decision and dashed toward Lulu and Floyd, yammering, “Well, well, well, well, well, well —”
Floyd shambled up, not at all unfriendly, and shook hands powerfully. “Lulu and I just heard you were in town — don’t go to church much, I guess, so we didn’t know. We’re married!”
While he shook hands with Lulu, much more tenderly, Elmer gave his benign blessing with “Well, well! Mighty glad to hear it.”
“Yep, been married — gosh, must be fourteen years now — got married just after we last seen you at Schoenheim.”
By divine inspiration Elmer was led to look as though he were wounded clear to the heart at the revived memory of that unfortunate last seeing. He folded his hands in front of his beautiful morning coat, and looked noble, slightly milky and melancholy of eye. . . . But he was not milky. He was staring hard enough. He saw that though Floyd was still as clumsily uncouth as ever, Lulu — she must be thirty-three or — four now — had taken on the city. She wore a simple, almost smart hat, a good tweed top-coat, and she was really pretty. Her eyes were ingratiatingly soft, very inviting; she still smiled with a desire to be friendly to every one. Inevitably, she had grown plump, but she had not yet overdone it, and her white little paw was veritably that of a kitten.
All this Elmer noted, while he looked injured but forgiving and while Floyd stammered:
“You see, Reverend, I guess you thought we played you a pretty dirty trick that night on the picnic at Dad Bains’, when you came back and I was kind of hugging Lulu.”
“Yes, Floyd, I was pretty hurt, but — Let’s forget and forgive!”
“No, but listen, Reverend! Golly, ’twas hard for me to come and explain to you, but now I’ve got going — Lulu and me, we weren’t making love. No, sir! She was just feeling blue, and I was trying to cheer her up. Honest! Then when you got sore and skipped off, Pa Bains, he was so doggone mad — got out his shotgun and cussed and raised the old Ned, yes, sir, he simply raised Cain, and he wouldn’t give me no chance to explain. Said I had to marry Lu. ‘Well,’ I says, ‘if you think THAT’S any hardship —’”
Floyd stopped to chuckle. Elmer was conscious that Lulu was studying him, in awe, in admiration, in a palpitating resurgence of affection.
“‘If you think that’s any hardship,’ I says, ‘let me tell you right now, Uncle,’ I says, ‘I been crazy to marry Lu ever since she was so high. Well, there was a lot of argument. Dad Bains says first we had to go in town and explain everything to you. But you was gone away, next morning, and what with one thing and another — well, here we are! And doing pretty good. I own a garage out here on the edge of town, and we got a nice flat, and everything going fine. But Lulu and I kind of felt maybe we ought to come around and explain, when we heard you were here. And got two fine kids, both boys!”
“Honestly, we never meant — we didn’t!” begged Lulu.
Elmer condescended, “Of course, I understand perfectly, Sister Lulu!” He shook hands with Floyd, warmly, and with Lulu more warmly. “And I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you were both so gallant and polite as to take the trouble and come and explain it to me. That was real courtesy, when I’d been such a silly idiot! THAT night — I suffered so over what I thought was your disloyalty that I didn’t think I’d live through the night. But come! Shall we not talk of it again? All’s understood now, and all’s right!” He shook hands all over again. “And now that I’ve found you, two old friends like you — of course I’m still practically a stranger in Zenith — I’m not going to let you go! I’m going to come out and call on you. Do you belong to any church body here in Zenith?”
“Well, no, not exactly,” said Floyd.
“Can’t I persuade you to come here, sometimes, and perhaps think of joining later?”
“Well, I’ll tell you, Reverend, in the auto business — kind of against my religion, at that, but you know how it is, in the auto business we’re awful’ busy on Sunday.”
“Well, perhaps Lulu would like to come now and then.”
“Sure. Women ought to stick by the church, that’s what I always say. Dunno just how we got out of the habit, here in the city, and we’ve always talked about starting going again, but — Oh, we just kinda never got around to it, I guess.”
“I hope, uh, I hope, Brother Floyd, that our miscomprehension, yours and mine that evening, had nothing to do with your alienation from the church! Oh, that would be a pity! Yes. Such a pity! But I could, perhaps, have a — a comprehension of it.” (He saw that Lulu wasn’t missing one of his dulcet and sinuous phrases; so different from Floyd’s rustic blurting. She WAS pretty. Just plump enough. Cleo would be a fat old woman, he was afraid, instead of handsome. He couldn’t of married Lulu. No. He’d been right. Small-town stuff. But awful nice to pat!) “Yes, I think I could understand it if you’d been offended, Floyd. What a young chump I was, even if I WAS a preacher, to not — not to see the real situation. Really, it’s you who must forgive me for my wooden-headedness, Floyd!”
Sheepishly, Floyd grunted, “Well, I DID think you flew off the handle kind of easy, and I guess it did make me kind of sore. But it don’t matter none now.”
Very interestedly, Elmer inquired of Floyd, “And I’ll bet Lulu was even angrier at me for my silliness!”
“No, by gosh, she never would let me say a word against you, Reverend! Ha, ha, ha! Look at her! By golly, if she ain’t blushing! Well, sir, that’s a good one on her all right!” Elmer looked, intently.
“Well, I’m glad everything’s explained,” he said unctuously. “Now, Sister Lulu, you must let me come out and explain about our fine friendly neighborhood church here, and the splendid work we’re doing. I know that with two dear kiddies — two, was it? — splendid! — with them and a fine husband to look after, you must be kept pretty busy, but perhaps you might find time to teach a Sunday School class or, anyway, you might like to come to our jolly church suppers on Wednesday now and then. I’ll tell you about our work, and you can talk it over with Floyd and see what he thinks. What would be a good time to call on you, and what’s the address, Lulu? How, uh, how would tomorrow afternoon, about three, do? I wish I could come when Floyd’s there, but all my evenings are so dreadfully taken up.”
Next afternoon, at five minutes to three, the Reverend Elmer Gantry entered the cheap and flimsy apartment-house in which lived Floyd and Mrs. Naylor, impatiently kicked a baby-carriage out of the way, panted a little as he skipped up-stairs, and stood glowing, looking at Lulu as she opened the door.
“All alone?” he said — he almost whispered.
Her eyes dropped before his. “Yes. The boys are in school.”
“Oh, that’s too bad! I’d hoped to see them.” As the door closed, as they stood in the inner hall, he broke out, “Oh, Lulu, my darling, I thought I’d lost you forever, and now I’ve found you again! Oh, forgive me for speaking like that! I shouldn’t have! Forgive me! But if you knew how I’ve thought of you, dreamed of you, waited for you, all these years — No. I’m not allowed to talk like that. It’s wicked. But we’re going to be friends, aren’t we, such dear, trusting, tender friends . . . Floyd and you and I?”
“Oh, YES!” she breathed, as she led him into the shabby sitting-room with its thrice-painted cane rockers, its couch covered with a knitted shawl, its department-store chromos of fruit and Versailles.
They stood recalling each other in the living-room. He muttered huskily, “Dear, it wouldn’t be wrong for you to kiss me? Just once? Would it? To let me know you really do forgive me? You see, now we’re like brother and sister.”
She kissed him, shyly, fearfully, and she cried, “Oh, my darling, it’s been so long!” Her arms clung about his neck, invincible, unrestrained.
When the boys came in from school and rang the clicker bell downstairs, the romantics were unduly cordial to them. When the boys had gone out to play, she cried, wildly, “Oh, I know it’s wrong, but I’ve always loved you so!”
He inquired interestedly, “Do you feel wickeder because I’m a minister?”
“No! I’m proud of it! Like as if you were different from other men — like you were somehow closer to God. I’m PROUD you’re a preacher! Any woman would be! It’s — you know. Different!”
He kissed her. “Oh, you darling!” he said.
They had to be careful. Elmer had singularly little relish for having the horny-handed Floyd Naylor come in some afternoon and find him with Lulu.
Like many famous lovers in many ages, they found refuge in the church. Lulu was an admirable cook, and while in her new life in Zenith she had never reached out for such urban opportunities as lectures or concerts or literary clubs, she had by some obscure ambitiousness, some notion of a shop of her own, been stirred to attend a cooking-school and learn salads and pastry and canapés. Elmer was able to give her a weekly Tuesday evening cooking-class to teach at Wellspring, and even to get out of the trustees for her a salary of five dollars a week.
The cooking-class was over at ten. By that time the rest of the church was cleared, and Elmer had decided that Tuesday evening would be a desirable time for reading in his church office.
Cleo had many small activities in the church — clubs, Epworth League, fancy-work — but none on Tuesday evening.
Before Lulu came stumbling through the quiet church basement, the dark and musty corridor, before she tapped timidly at his door, he would be walking up and down, and when he held out his arms she flew into them unreasoning.
He had a new contentment.
“I’m really not a bad fellow. I don’t go chasing after women — oh, that fool woman at the hotel didn’t count — not now that I’ve got Lulu. Cleo never WAS married to me; she doesn’t matter. I like to be good. If I’d just been married to somebody like Sharon! O God! Sharon! Am I untrue to her? No! Dear Lulu, sweet kid, I owe something to her, too. I wonder if I could get to see her Saturday —”
A new contentment he had, and explosive success.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11