In the autumn of his first year in Zenith Elmer started his famous Lively Sunday Evenings. Mornings, he announced, he would give them solid religious meat to sustain them through the week, but Sunday evenings he would provide the best cream puffs. Christianity was a Glad Religion, and he was going to make it a lot gladder.
There was a safe, conservative, sanguinary hymn or two at his Lively Sunday Evenings, and a short sermon about sunsets, authors, or gambling, but most of the time they were just happy boys and girls together. He had them sing “Auld Lang Syne,” and “Swanee River,” with all the balladry which might have been considered unecclesiastical if it had not been hallowed by the war: “Tipperary,” and “There’s a Long, Long, Trail,” and “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile.”
He made the women sing in contest against the men; the young people against the old; and the sinners against the Christians. That was lots of fun, because some of the most firmly saved brethren, like Elmer himself, pretended for a moment to be sinners. He made them whistle the chorus and hum it and speak it; he made them sing it while they waved handkerchiefs, waved one hand, waved both hands.
Other attractive features he provided. There was a ukulele solo by the champion uke-player from the University of Winnemac. There was a song rendered by a sweet little girl of three, perched up on the pulpit. There was a mouth-organ contest, between the celebrated Harmonica Quartette from the Higginbotham Casket Factory and the best four harmonicists from the B. & K. C. railroad shops; surprisingly won (according to the vote of the congregation) by the enterprising and pleasing young men from the railroad.
When this was over, Elmer stepped forward and said — you would never in the world have guessed he was joking unless you were near enough to catch the twinkle in his eyes — he said, “Now perhaps some of you folks think the pieces the boys have played tonight, like ‘Marching Through Georgia’ and ‘Mammy,’ aren’t quite proper for a Methodist Church, but just let me show you how well our friend and brother, Billy Hicks here, can make the old mouth-organ behave in a real highbrow religious hymn.”
And Billy played “Ach Du Lieber Augustin.”
How they all laughed, even the serious old stewards! And when he had them in this humor, the Reverend Mr. Gantry was able to slam home, good and hard, some pretty straight truths about the horrors of starting children straight for hell by letting them read the colored comics on Sunday morning.
Once, to illustrate the evils of betting, he had them bet as to which of two frogs would jump first. Once he had the representative of an illustrious grape-juice company hand around sample glasses of his beverage, to illustrate the superiority of soft drinks to the horrors of alcohol. And once he had up on the platform a sickening twisted motor-car in which three people had been killed at a railroad-crossing. With this as an example, he showed his flock that motor speeding was but one symptom of the growing madness and worldliness and materialism of the age, and that this madness could be cured only by returning to the simple old-time religion as preached at the Wellspring Methodist Church.
The motor-car got him seven columns of publicity, with pictures of himself, the car, and the killed motorists.
In fact there were few of his new paths to righteousness which did not get adequate and respectful attention from the press.
There was, perhaps, no preacher in Zenith, not even the liberal Unitarian minister or the powerful Catholic bishop, who was not fond of the young gentlemen of the press. The newspapers of Zenith were as likely to attack religion as they were to attack the department-stores. But of all the clerics, none was so hearty, so friendly, so brotherly, to the reporters as the Reverend Elmer Gantry. His rival parsons were merely cordial to the sources of publicity when they called. Elmer did his own calling.
Six months after his coming to Zenith he began preparing a sermon on “The Making and Mission of a Great Newspaper.” He informed the editors of his plan, and had himself taken through the plants and introduced to the staffs of the Advocate–Times, its sister, the Evening Advocate, the Press, the Gazette, and the Crier.
Out of his visits he managed to seize and hold the acquaintanceship of at least a dozen reporters. And he met the magnificent Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Advocate, a white-haired, blasphemous, religious, scoundrelly old gentleman, whose social position in Zenith was as high as that of a bank-president or a corporation-counsel. Elmer and the Colonel recognized in each other an enterprising boldness, and the Colonel was so devoted to the church and its work in preserving the free and democratic American institutions that he regularly gave to the Pilgrim Congregational Church more than a tenth of what he made out of patent medicine advertisements — cancer cures, rupture cures, tuberculosis cures, and the notices of Old Dr. Bly. The Colonel was cordial to Elmer, and gave orders that his sermons should be reported at least once a month, no matter how the rest of the clergy shouted for attention.
But somehow Elmer could not keep the friendship of Bill Kingdom, that peculiarly hard-boiled veteran reporter of the Advocate–Times. He did everything he could; he called Bill by his first name, he gave him a quarter cigar, and he said “damn,” but Bill looked uninterested when Elmer came around with the juiciest of stories about dance-halls. In grieved and righteous wrath, Elmer turned his charm on younger members of the Advocate staff, who were still new enough to be pleased by the good-fellowship of a preacher who could say “damn.”
Elmer was particularly benevolent with one Miss Coey, sob-sister reporter for the Evening Gazette and an enthusiastic member of his church. She was worth a column a week. He always breathed at her after church.
Lulu raged, “It’s hard enough to sit right there in the same pew with your wife, and never be introduced to her, because you say it isn’t safe! But when I see you holding hands with that Coey woman, it’s a little too much!”
But he explained that he considered Miss Coey a fool, that it made him sick to touch her, that he was nice to her only because he had to get publicity; and Lulu saw that it was all proper and truly noble of him . . . even when in the church bulletins, which he wrote each week for general distribution, he cheered, “Let’s all congratulate Sister Coey, who so brilliantly represents the Arts among us, on her splendid piece in the recent Gazette about the drunken woman who was saved by the Salvation Army. Your pastor felt the quick tears springing to his eyes as he read it, which is a tribute to Sister Coey’s powers of expression. And he is always glad to fellowship with the Salvation Army, as well as with all other branches of the true Protestant Evangelical Universal Church. Wellspring is the home of liberality, so long as it does not weaken morality or the proven principles of Bible Christianity.”
As important as publicity to Elmer was the harassing drive of finance.
He had made one discovery superb in its simple genius — the best way to get money was to ask for it, hard enough and often enough. To call on rich men, to set Sunday School classes in competition against one another, to see that every one received pledge-envelopes, these were all useful and he pursued them earnestly. But none of them was so useful as to tell the congregation every Sunday what epochal good Wellspring and its pastor were doing, how much greater good they could do if they had more funds, and to demand their support now, this minute.
His Official Board was charmed to see the collections increasing even faster than the audiences. They insisted that the bishop send Elmer back to them for another year — indeed for many years — and they raised Elmer’s salary to forty-five hundred dollars.
And in the autumn they let him have two subordinates — the Reverend Sidney Webster, B. A., B. D., as Assistant Pastor, and Mr. Henry Wink, B. A., as Director of Religious Education.
Mr. Webster had been secretary to Bishop Toomis, and it was likely that he would some day be secretary of one of the powerful church boards — the board of publications, the board of missions, the board of temperance and morals. He was a man of twenty-eight; he had been an excellent basket-ball player in Boston University; he was tight-mouthed as a New England president, efficient as an adding machine, and cold as the heart of a bureaucrat. If he loved God and humanity-ingeneral with rigid devotion, he loved no human individual; if he hated sin, he was too contemptuous of any actual sinner to hate him — he merely turned his frigid face away and told him to go to hell. He had no vices. He was also competent. He could preach, get rid of beggars, be quietly devout in death-bed prayers, keep down church expenses, and explain about the Trinity.
Henry Wink had a lisp and he told little simpering stories, but he was admirable in the direction of the Sunday School, vacation Bible schools, and the Epworth Leagues.
With Mr. Webster and Mr. Wink removing most of the church detail from him, Elmer became not less but more occupied. He no longer merely invited the public, but galloped out and dragged it in. He no longer merely scolded sin. He gratifyingly ended it.
When he had been in Zenith for a year and three-quarters, Elmer formed the Committee on Public Morals, and conducted his raids on the red-light district.
It seemed to him that he was getting less publicity. Even his friend, Colonel Rutherford Snow, owner of the Advocate–Times, explained that just saying things couldn’t go on being news; news was essentially a report of things done.
“All right, I’ll DO things, by golly, now that I’ve got Webster and Wink to take care of the glad hand for the brethren!” Elmer vowed.
He received an inspiration to the effect that all of a sudden, for reasons not defined, “things have gotten so bad in Zenith, immorality is so rampant in high places and low, threatening the morals of youth and the sanctity of domesticity, that it is not enough for the ministry to stand back warning the malefactors, but a time now to come out of our dignified seclusion and personally wage open war on the forces of evil.”
He said these startling things in the pulpit, he said them in an interview, and he said them in a letter to the most important clergymen in town, inviting them to meet with him to form a Committee on Public Morals and make plans for open war.
The devil must have been shaken. Anyway, the newspapers said that the mere threat of the formation of the Committee had caused “a number of well-known crooks and women of bad reputation to leave town.” Who these scoundrels were, the papers did not say.
The Committee was to be composed of the Reverends Elmer Gantry and Otto Hickenlooper, Methodists; G. Prosper Edwards, Congregationalist; John Jennison Drew, Presbyterian; Edmund St. Vincent Zahn, Lutheran; James F. Gomer, Disciples; Father Matthew Smeesby, Catholic; Bernard Amos, Jewish; Hosea Jessup, Baptist; Willis Fortune Tate, Episcopalian; and Irving Tillish, Christian Science reader; with Wallace Umstead, the Y.M.C.A. secretary, four moral laymen, and a lawyer, Mr. T. J. Rigg.
They assembled at lunch in a private dining-room at the palatial Zenith Athletic Club. Being clergymen, and having to prove that they were also red-blooded, as they gathered before lunch in the lobby of the club they were particularly boisterous in shouting to passing acquaintances, florists and doctors and wholesale plumbers. To one George Babbitt, a real estate man, Dr. Drew, the Presbyterian, clamored, “Hey, Georgie! Got a flask along? Lunching with a bunch of preachers, and I reckon they’ll want a drink!”
There was great admiration on the part of Mr. Babbitt, and laughter among all the clergymen, except the Episcopal Mr. Tate and the Christian Scientific Mr. Tillish.
The private dining-room at the club was a thin red apartment with two pictures of young Indian maidens of Lithuanian origin sitting in native costumes, which gave free play to their legs, under a rugged pine-tree against a background of extremely high mountains. In Private Dining-room A, beside them, was a lunch of the Men’s Furnishers Association, addressed by S. Garrison Siegel of New York on “The Rented Dress Suit Business and How to Run It in a High-class Way.”
The incipient Committee on Public Morals sat about a long narrow table in bent-wood chairs, in which they were always vainly trying to tilt back. Their table did not suggest debauchery and the demon rum. There were only chilly and naked-looking goblets of ice water.
They lunched, gravely, on consommé, celery, roast lamb, which was rather cold, mashed potatoes, which were arctic, Brussels sprouts, which were overstewed, ice cream, which was warm; with very large cups of coffee, and no smoking afterward.
Elmer began, “I don’t know who is the oldest among us, but certainly no one in this room has had a more distinguished or more valuable term of Christian service than Dr. Edwards, of Pilgrim Congregational, and I know you’ll join me in asking him to say grace before meat.”
The table conversation was less cheerful than the blessing.
They all detested one another. Every one knew of some case in which each of the others had stolen, or was said to have tried to steal, some parishioner, to have corrupted his faith and appropriated his contributions. Dr. Hickenlooper and Dr. Drew had each advertised that he had the largest Sunday School in the city. All of the Protestants wanted to throw ruinous questions about the Immaculate Conception at Father Smeesby, and Father Smeesby, a smiling dark man of forty, had ready, in case they should attack the Catholic Church, the story of the ant who said to the elephant, “Move over, who do you think you’re pushing?” All of them, except Mr. Tillish, wanted to ask Mr. Tillish how he’d ever been fooled by this charlatan, Mary Baker Eddy, and all of them, except the rabbi, wanted to ask Rabbi Amos why the Jews were such numbskulls as not to join the Christian faith.
They were dreadfully cordial. They kept their voices bland, and smiled too often, and never listened to one another. Elmer, aghast, saw that they would flee before making an organization if he did not draw them together. And what was the one thing in which they were all joyously interested? Why, vice! He’d begin the vice rampage now, instead of waiting till the business meeting after lunch.
He pounded on the table, and demanded, “Most of you have been in Zenith longer than myself. I admit ignorance. It is true that I have unearthed many dreadful, DREADFUL cases of secret sin. But you gentlemen, who know the town so much better — Am I right? Are Conditions as dreadful as I think, or do I exaggerate?”
All of them lighted up and, suddenly looking on Elmer as a really nice man after all, they began happily to tell of their woeful discoveries. . . . The blood-chilling incident of the father who found in the handbag of his sixteen-year-old daughter improper pictures. The suspicion that at a dinner of war veterans at the Leroy House there had danced a young lady who wore no garments save slippers and a hat.
“I know all about that dinner — I got the details from a man in my church — I’ll tell you about it if you feel you ought to know,” said Dr. Gomer.
They looked as though they decidedly felt that they ought to know. He went into details, very, and at the end Dr. Jessup gulped, “Oh, that Leroy House is absolutely a den of iniquity! It ought to be pulled!”
“It certainly ought to! I don’t think I’m cruel,” shouted Dr. Zahn, the Lutheran, “but if I had my way, I’d burn the proprietor of that joint at the stake!”
All of them had incidents of shocking obscenity all over the place — all of them except Father Smeesby, who sat back and smiled, the Episcopal Dr. Tate, who sat back and looked bored, and Mr. Tillish, the healer, who sat back and looked chilly. In fact it seemed as though, despite the efforts of themselves and the thousands of other inspired and highly trained Christian ministers who had worked over it ever since its foundation, the city of Zenith was another Sodom. But the alarmed apostles did not appear to be so worried as they said they were. They listened with almost benign attention while Dr. Zahn, in his German accent, told of alarming crushes between the society girls whom he knew so well from dining once a year with his richest parishioner.
They were all, indeed, absorbed in vice to a degree gratifying to Elmer.
But at the time for doing something about it, for passing resolutions and appointing sub-committees and outlining programs, they drew back.
“Can’t we all get together — pool our efforts?” pleaded Elmer. “Whatever our creedal differences, surely we stand alike in worshiping the same God and advocating the same code of morals. I’d like to see this Committee as a permanent organization, and finally, when the time is ripe — Think how it would jolt the town! All of us getting ourselves appointed special police or deputy sheriffs, and personally marching down on these abominations, arresting the blood-guilty wretches, and putting them where they can do no harm! Maybe leading our church members in the crusade! Think of it!”
They did think of it, and they were alarmed.
Father Smeesby spoke. “My church, gentlemen, probably has a more rigid theology than yours, but I don’t think we’re quite so alarmed by discovering the fact, which seems to astonish you, that sinners often sin. The Catholic Church may be harder to believe, but it’s easier to live with.”
“My organization,” said Mr. Tillish, “could not think of joining in a wild witch-hunt, any more than we could in indiscriminate charity. For both the poverty-laden and the vicious —” He made a little whistling between his beautiful but false teeth, and went on with frigid benignancy. “For all such, the truth is clearly stated in ‘Science and Health’ and made public in all our meetings — the truth that both vice and poverty, like sickness, are unreal, are errors, to be got rid of by understanding that God is All-inall; that disease, death, evil, sin deny good, omnipotent God, life. Well! If these so-called sufferers do not care to take the truth when it is freely offered them, is that our fault? I understand your sympathy with the unfortunate, but you are not going to put out ignorance by fire.”
“Golly, let me crawl too,” chuckled Rabbi Amos. “If you want to get a vice-crusading rabbi, get one of these smart-aleck young liberals from the Cincinnati school — and they’ll mostly have too much sympathy with the sinners to help you either! Anyway, my congregation is so horribly respectable that if their rabbi did anything but sit in his study and look learned, they’d kick him out.”
“And I,” said Dr. Willis Fortune Tate, of St. Colomb’s Episcopal, “if you will permit me to say so, can regard such a project as our acting like policemen and dealing with these malefactors in person as nothing short of vulgar, as well as useless. I understand your high ideals, Dr. Gantry —”
“— Mr. Gantry, and I honor you for them, and respect your energy, but I beg you to consider how the press and the ordinary laity, with their incurably common and untrained minds, would misunderstand.”
“I’m afraid I must agree with Dr. Tate,” said the Congregational Dr. G. Prosper Edwards, in the manner of the Pilgrim’s Monument agreeing with Westminister Abbey.
And as for the others, they said they really must “take time and think it over,” and they all got away as hastily and cordially as they could.
Elmer walked with his friend and pillar, Mr. T. J. Rigg, toward the dentist’s office in which even an ordinary minister of God would shortly take on strangely normal writhings and gurglings.
“They’re a fine bunch of scared prophets, a noble lot of apostolic ice-cream cones!” protested Mr. Rigg. “Hard luck, Brother Elmer! I’m sorry. It really is good stuff, this vice-crusading. Oh, I don’t suppose it makes the slightest difference in the amount of vice — and I don’t know that it ought to make any. Got to give fellows that haven’t our advantages some chance to let off steam. But it does get the church a lot of attention. I’m mighty proud of the way we’re building up Wellspring Church again. Kind of a hobby with me. But makes me indignant, these spiritual cold-storage eggs not supporting you!”
But as he looked up he saw that Elmer was grinning.
“I’m not worried, T. J. Fact, I’m tickled to death. First place, I’ve scared ’em off the subject of vice. Before they get back to preaching about it, I’ll have the whole subject absolutely patented for our church. And now they won’t have the nerve to imitate me if I do do this personal crusading stunt. Third, I can preach against ’em! And I will! You watch me! Oh, not mention any names — no come-back — but tell ’em how I pleaded with a gang of preachers to take practical methods to end immorality, and they were all scared!”
“Fine!” said the benevolent trustee. “We’ll let ’em know that Wellspring is the one church that’s really following the gospel.”
“We sure will! Now listen, T. J.: if you trustees will stand for the expense, I want to get a couple of good private detectives or something, and have ’em dig up a lot of real addresses of places that ARE vicious — there must be some of ’em — and get some evidence. Then I’ll jump on the police for not having pinched these places. I’ll say they’re so wide open that the police MUST know of ’em. And probably that’s true, too. Man! A sensation! Run our disclosures every Sunday evening for a month! Make the chief of police try to answer us in the press!”
“Good stuff! Well, I know a fellow — he was a government man, prohibition agent, and got fired for boozing and blackmail. He’s not exactly a double-crosser, lot straighter than most prohibition agents, but still I think he could slip us some real addresses. I’ll have him see you.”
When from his pulpit the Reverend Elmer Gantry announced that the authorities of Zenith were “deliberately conniving in protected vice,” and that he could give the addresses and ownerships of sixteen brothels, eleven blind tigers, and two agencies for selling cocaine and heroin, along with an obscene private burlesque show so dreadful that he could only hint at the nature of its program, when he attacked the chief of police and promised to give more detailed complaints next Sunday, then the town exploded.
There were front-page newspaper stories, yelping replies by the mayor and chief of police, re-replies from Elmer, interviews with everybody, and a full-page account of white slavery in Chicago. In clubs and offices, in church societies and the back-rooms of “soft-drink stands,” there was a blizzard of talk. Elmer had to be protected against hundreds of callers, telephoners, letter writers. His assistant, Sidney Webster, and Miss Bundle, the secretary, could not keep the mob from him, and he hid out in T. J. Rigg’s house, accessible to no one, except to newspaper reporters who for any Christian and brotherly reason might care to see him.
For the second Sunday evening of his jeremiad, the church was full half an hour before opening-time, standing-room was taken even to the back of the lobby, hundreds clamored at the closed doors.
He gave the exact addresses of eight dives, told what dreadful drinkings of corn whisky went on there, and reported the number of policemen, in uniform, who had been in the more attractive of these resorts during the past week.
Despite all the police could do to help their friends close up for a time, it was necessary for them to arrest ten or fifteen of the hundred-odd criminals whom Elmer named. But the chief of police triumphed by announcing that it was impossible to find any of the others.
“All right,” Elmer murmured to the chief, in the gentleness of a boxed newspaper interview in bold-face type, “if you’ll make me a temporary lieutenant of police and give me a squad, I’ll find and close five dives in one evening — any evening save Sunday.”
“I’ll do it — and you can make your raids tomorrow,” said the chief, in the official dignity of headlines.
Mr. Rigg was a little alarmed.
“Think you’re going too far, Elmer,” he said. “If you really antagonize any of the big wholesale bootleggers, they’ll get us financially, and if you hit any of the tough ones, they’re likely to bump you off. Darn’ dangerous.”
“I know. I’m just going to pick out some of the smaller fellows that make their own booze and haven’t got any police protection except slipping five or ten to the cop on the beat. The newspapers will make ’em out regular homicidal gangsters, to get a good story, and we’ll have the credit without being foolish and taking risks.”
At least a thousand people were trying to get near the Central Police Station on the evening when a dozen armed policemen marched down the steps of the station-house and stood at attention, looking up at the door, awaiting their leader.
He came out, the great Reverend Mr. Gantry, and stood posing on the steps, while the policemen saluted, the crowd cheered or sneered, and the press cameras went off in a fury of flashlight powder. He wore the gilt-encircled cap of a police lieutenant, with a lugubrious frock coat and black trousers, and under his arm he carried a Bible.
Two patrol wagons clanged away, and all the women in the crowd, except certain professional ladies, who were grievously profane, gasped their admiration of this modern Savonarola.
He had promised the mob at least one real house of prostitution.
There were two amiable young females who, tired of working in a rather nasty bread factory and of being unremuneratively seduced by the large, pale, puffy bakers on Sunday afternoons, had found it easier and much jollier to set up a small flat in a street near Elmer’s church. They were fond of reading the magazines and dancing to the phonograph and of going to church — usually Elmer’s church. If their relations to their gentlemen friends were more comforting than a preacher could expect, after his experience of the sacred and chilly state of matrimony, they entertained only a few of these friends, often they darned their socks, and almost always they praised Elmer’s oratory.
One of the girls, this evening, was discoursing with a man who was later proved in court not to be her husband; the other was in the kitchen, making a birthday-cake for her niece and humming “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” She was dazed by a rumbling, a clanging, a shouting in the street below, then mob-sounds on the stairs. She fluttered into the living-room, to see their pretty imitation mahogany door smashed in with a rifle butt.
Into the room crowded a dozen grinning policemen, followed, to her modest shame, by her adored family prophet, the Reverend Gantry. But it was not the cheerful, laughing Mr. Gantry that she knew. He held out his arm in a horrible gesture of holiness, and bawled, “Scarlet woman! Thy sins be upon thy head! No longer are you going to get away with leading poor unfortunate young men into the sink and cesspool of iniquity! Sergeant! Draw your revolver! These women are known to be up to every trick!”
“All right, sure, loot!” giggled the brick-faced police sergeant.
“Oh, rats! This girl looks as dangerous as a goldfish, Gantry,” remarked Bill Kingdom, of the Advocate–Times . . . he who was two hours later to do an epic of the heroism of the Great Crusader.
“Let’s see what the other girl’s up to,” snickered one of the policemen.
They all laughed very much as they looked into the bedroom, where a half-dressed girl and a man shrank by the window, their faces sick with shame.
It was with her — ignoring Bill Kingdom’s mutters of “Oh, drop it! Pick on somebody your size!”— that Elmer the vice-slayer became really Biblical.
Only the insistence of Bill Kingdom kept Lieutenant Gantry from making his men load the erring one into the patrol wagon in her chemise.
Then Elmer led them to a secret den where, it was securely reported, men were ruining their bodies and souls by guzzling the devil’s brew of alcohol.
Mr. Oscar Hochlauf had been a saloon-keeper in the days before prohibition, but when prohibition came, he was a saloon-keeper. A very sound, old-fashioned, drowsy, agreeable resort was Oscar’s Place; none of the grander public houses had more artistic soap scrawls on the mirror behind the bar; none had spicier pickled herring.
Tonight there were three men before the bar: Emil Fischer, the carpenter, who had a mustache like an ear-muff; his son Ben, whom Emil was training to drink wholesome beer instead of the whisky and gin which America was forcing on the people; and old Daddy Sorenson, the Swedish tailor.
They were discussing jazz.
“I came to America for liberty — I think Ben’s son will go back to Germany for liberty,” said Emil. “When I was a young man here, four of us used to play every Saturday evening — Bach we played, and Brahms — Gott weiss we played terrible, but we liked it, and we never made others listen. Now, wherever you go, this jazz, like a St. Vitus’s. Jazz iss to music what this Reverend Gantry you read about is to an old-time Prediger. I guess maybe he was never born, that Gantry fellow — he was blowed out of a saxophone.”
“Aw, this country’s all right, Pa,” said Ben.
“Sure, dot’s right,” said Oscar Hochlauf contentedly, while he sliced the foam off a glass of beer. “The Americans, like when I knew dem first, when dere was Bill Nye and Eugene Field, dey used to laugh. Now dey get solemn. When dey start laughing again, dey roar dere heads off at fellows like Gantry and most all dese preachers dat try to tell everybody how dey got to live. And if the people laugh — oof! — God help the preachers!”
“Vell, that’s how it is. Say, did I tell you, Oscar,” said the Swedish tailor, “my grandson Villiam, he got a scholarship in the university!”
“That’s fine!” they all agreed, slapping Daddy Sorenson on the back . . . as a dozen policemen, followed by a large and gloomy gentleman armed with a Bible, burst in through the front and back doors, and the gloomy gentleman, pointing at the astounded Oscar, bellowed, “Arrest that man and hold all these other fellows!”
To Oscar then, and to an audience increasing ten a second:
“I’ve got you! You’re the kind that teaches young boys to drink — it’s you that start them on the road to every hellish vice, to gambling and murder, with your hellish beverages, with your draught of the devil himself!”
Arrested for the first time in his life, bewildered, broken, feebly leaning on the arms of two policemen, Oscar Hochlauf straightened at this, and screamed:
“Dot’s a damned lie! Always when you let me, I handle Eitelbaum’s beer, the finest in the state, and since den I make my own beer. It is good! It is honest! ‘Hellish beverage!’ Dot YOU should judge of beer — dot a pig should judge poetry! Your Christ dot made vine, HE vould like my beer!”
Elmer jumped forward with his great fist doubled. Only the sudden grip of the police sergeant kept him from striking down the blasphemer. He shrieked, “Take that foul-mouthed bum to the wagon! I’ll see he gets the limit!”
And Bill Kingdom murmured to himself, “Gallant preacher single-handed faces saloon full of desperate gun-men and rebukes them for taking the name of the Lord in vain. Oh, I’ll get a swell story. . . . Then I think I’ll commit suicide.”
The attendant crowd and the policemen had whispered that, from the careful way in which he followed instead of leading, it might be judged that the Reverend Lieutenant Gantry was afraid of the sinister criminals whom he was attacking. And it is true that Elmer had no large fancy for revolver duels. But he had not lost his delight in conflict; he was physically no coward; and they were all edified to see this when the raiders dashed into the resort of Nick Spoletti.
Nick, who conducted a bar in a basement, had been a prizefighter; he was cool and quick. He heard the crusaders coming and shouted to his customers, “Beat it! Side door! I’ll hold ’em back!”
He met the first of the policemen at the bottom of the steps, and dropped him with the crack of a bottle over his head. The next tripped over the body, and the others halted, peering, looking embarrassed, drawing revolvers. But Elmer smelled battle. He forgot holiness. He dropped his Bible, thrust aside two policemen, and swung on Nick from the bottom step. Nick slashed at his head, but with a boxer’s jerk of the neck Elmer slid away from the punch, and knocked out Nick with a deliberately murderous left.
“Golly, the parson’s got an awful wallop!” grunted the sergeant, and Bill Kingdom sighed, “Not so bad!” and Elmer knew that he had won . . . that he would be the hero of Zenith . . . that he was now the Sir Lancelot as well as the William Jennings Bryan of the Methodist Church.
After two more raids he was delivered at his home by patrol wagon, and left with not entirely sardonic cheers by the policemen.
Cleo rushed to meet him, crying, “Oh, you’re safe! Oh, my dear, you’re hurt!”
His cheek was slightly bleeding.
In a passion of admiration for himself so hot that it extended even to her, he clasped her, kissed her wetly, and roared, “It’s nothing! Oh, it went great! We raided five places — arrested twenty-seven criminals — took them in every sort of horrible debauchery — things I never dreamed could exist!”
“You poor dear!”
There was not enough audience, with merely Cleo, and the maid peering from the back of the hall.
“Let’s go and tell the kids. Maybe they’ll be proud of their dad!” he interrupted her.
“Dear, they’re asleep —”
“Oh! I see! Sleep is more important to ’em than to know their father is a man who isn’t afraid to back up his gospel with his very life!”
“Oh, I didn’t mean — I meant — Yes, of course, you’re right. It’ll be a wonderful example and inspiration. But let me put some stickum plaster on your cheek first.”
By the time she had washed the cut, and bound it and fussed over it, he had forgotten the children and their need of an heroic exemplar, as she had expected, and he sat on the edge of the bath-tub telling her that he was an entire Trojan army. She was so worshipful that he became almost amorous, until it seemed to him from her anxious patting of his arm that she was trying to make him so. It angered him — that she, so unappealing, should have the egotism to try to attract a man like himself. He went off to his own room, wishing that Lulu were here to rejoice in his splendor, the beginning of his fame as the up-to-date John Wesley.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:11