However impatient he was with Frank, Philip McGarry’s last wish was to set Elmer Gantry piously baying on Frank’s trail. It was rather an accident. Philip sat next to Elmer at a dinner to discuss missionary funds; he remembered that Frank and Elmer had been classmates; and with a sincerely affectionate “It’s too bad the poor boy worries so over what are really matters for Faith,” he gave away to Elmer most of Frank’s heresies.
Now in the bustle of raising funds to build a vast new church, Elmer had forgotten his notion of saving the renowned hardware impresario, Mr. William Dollinger Styles, and his millions from contamination by Frank’s blasphemies.
“We could use old Styles, and you could get some fine publicity by attacking Shallard’s attempt to steal Jesus and even Hell away from us,” said Elmer’s confidant, Mr. T. J. Rigg, when he was consulted.
“Say, that’s great. How liberalism leads to theism. Fine! Wait till Mr. Frank Shallard opens his mouth and puts his foot in it again!” said the Reverend Elmer Gantry. “Say, I wonder how we could get a report of his sermons? The poor fish isn’t important enough so’s they very often report his junk in the papers.”
“I’ll take care of that. I’ve got a girl in my office, good fast worker, that I’ll have go and take down all his sermons. They’ll just think she’s practising stenography.”
“Well, by golly, that’s one good use for sermons. Ha, ha, ha!” said Elmer.
“Yes, sir, by golly, found at last. Ha, ha, ha!” said Mr. T. J. Rigg.
In less than a month Frank maddened the citizens of Zenith by asserting, in the pulpit, that though he was in favor of temperance, he was not for Prohibition; that the methods of the Anti–Saloon League were those of a lumber lobby.
Elmer had his chance.
He advertised that he would speak on “Fake Preachers — and Who They Are.”
In his sermon he said that Frank Shallard (by name) was a liar, a fool, an ingrate whom he had tried to help in seminary, a thief who was trying to steal Christ from an ailing world.
Elmer saw to it — T. J. Rigg arranged a foursome — that he played golf with William Dollinger Styles that week.
“I was awfully sorry, Mr. Styles,” he said, “to feel it my duty to jump on your pastor, Mr. Shallard, last Sunday, but when a fellow stands up and makes fun of Jesus Christ — well, it’s time to forget mercy!”
“I thought you were kind of hard on him. I didn’t hear his sermon myself — I’m a church-member, but it does seem like things pile up so at the office that I have to spend almost every Sunday morning there. But from what they’ve told me, he wasn’t so wild.”
“Then you don’t think Shallard is practically an atheist?”
“Why, no! Nice decent fellow —”
“Mr. Styles, do you realize that all over town people are wondering how a man like you can give his support to a man like Shallard? Do you realize that not only the ministers but also laymen are saying that Shallard is secretly both an agnostic and a socialist, though he’s afraid to come out and admit it? I hear it everywhere. People are afraid to tell you. Jiminy, I’m kind of scared of you myself! Feel I’ve got a lot of nerve!”
“Well, I ain’t so fierce,” said Mr. Styles, very pleased.
“Anyway, I’d hate to have you think I was sneaking around damning Shallard behind his back. Why don’t you do this? You and some of the other Dorchester deacons have Shallard for lunch or dinner, and have me there, and let me put a few questions to him. I’ll talk to the fellow straight! Do you feel you can afford to be known as tolerating an infidel in your church? Oughtn’t you to make him come out from under cover and admit what he thinks? If I’m wrong, I’ll apologize to you and to him, and you can call me all the kinds of nosey, meddling, cranky, interfering fool you want to!”
“Well — He seems kind of a nice fellow.” Mr. Styles was uncomfortable. “But if you’re right about him being really an infidel, don’t know’s I could stand that.”
“How’d it be if you and some of your deacons and Shallard came and had dinner with me in a private room at the Athletic Club next Friday evening?”
“Well, all right —”
Frank was so simple as to lose his temper when Elmer had bullied him, roared at him, bulked at him, long enough, with Frank’s own deacons accepting Elmer as an authority. He was irritated out of all caution, and he screamed back at Elmer that he did not accept Jesus Christ as divine; that he was not sure of a future life; that he wasn’t even certain of a personal God.
Mr. William Dollinger Styles snapped, “Then just why, Mr. Shallard, don’t you get out of the ministry before you’re kicked out?”
“Because I’m not yet sure — Though I do think our present churches are as absurd as a belief in witchcraft, yet I believe there could be a church free of superstition, helpful to the needy, and giving people that mystic something stronger than reason, that sense of being uplifted in common worship of an unknowable power for good. Myself, I’d be lonely with nothing but bleak debating-societies. I think — at least I still think — that for many souls there is this need of worship, even of beautiful ceremonial —”
“‘Mystic need of worship!’ ‘Unknowable power for good!’ Words, words, words! Milk and water! THAT, when you have the glorious and certain figure of Christ Jesus to worship and follow!” bellowed Elmer. “Pardon me, gentlemen, for intruding, but it makes me, not as a preacher but just as a humble and devout Christian, sick to my stomach to hear a fellow feel that he knows so blame’ much he’s able to throw out of the window the Christ that the whole civilized world has believed in for countless centuries! And try to replace him with a lot of gassy phrases! Excuse me, Mr. Styles, but after all, religion is a serious business, and if we’re going to call ourselves Christians at all, we have to bear testimony to the proven fact of God. Forgive me.”
“It’s quite all right, Dr. Gantry. I know just how you feel,” said Styles. “And while I’m no authority on religion, I feel the same way you do, and I guess these other gentlemen do, too. . . . Now, Shallard, you’re entitled to your own views, but not in our pulpit! Why don’t you just resign before we kick you out?”
“You can’t kick me out! It takes the whole church to do that!”
“The whole church’ll damn well do it, you watch ’em!” said Deacon William Dollinger Styles.
“What are we going to do, dear?” Bess said wearily. “I’ll stand by you, of course, but let’s be practical. Don’t you think it would make less trouble if you did resign?”
“I’ve done nothing for which to resign! I’ve led a thoroughly decent life. I haven’t lied or been indecent or stolen. I’ve preached imagination, happiness, justice, seeking for the truth. I’m no sage, Heaven knows, but I’ve given my people a knowledge that there are such things as ethnology and biology, that there are books like ‘Ethan Frome’ and ‘Père Goriot’ and Tono–Bungay’ and Renan’s ‘Jesus,’ that there is nothing wicked in looking straight at life —”
“Dear, I said PRACTICAL!”
“Oh, thunder, I don’t know. I think I can get a job in the Charity Organization Society here — the general secretary happens to be pretty liberal.”
“I hate to have us leave the church entirely. I’m sort of at home there. Why not see if they’d like to have you in the Unitarian Church?”
“Too respectable. Scared. Same old sanctified phrases I’m trying to get rid of — and won’t ever quite get rid of, I’m afraid.”
A meeting of the church body had been called to decide on Frank’s worthiness, and the members had been informed by Styles that Frank was attacking all religion. Instantly a number of the adherents who had been quite unalarmed by what they themselves had heard in the pulpit perceived that Frank was a dangerous fellow and more than likely to injure omnipotent God.
Before the meeting, one woman, who remained fond of him, fretted to Frank, “Oh, can’t you understand what a dreadful thing you’re doing to question the divinity of Christ and all? I’m afraid you’re going to hurt religion permanently. If you could open your eyes and see — if you could only understand what my religion has meant to me in times of despair! I don’t know what I would have done during my typhoid without that consolation! You’re a bright, smart man when you let yourself be. If you’d only go and have a good talk with Dr. G. Prosper Edwards. He’s an older man than you, and he’s a doctor of divinity, and he has such huge crowds at Pilgrim Church, and I’m sure he could show you where you’re wrong and make everything perfectly clear to you.”
Frank’s sister, married now to an Akron lawyer, came to stay with them. They had been happy, Frank and she, in the tepid but amiable house of their minister-father; they had played at church, with dolls and salt-cellars for congregation; books were always about them, natural to them; and at their father’s table they had heard doctors, preachers, lawyers, politicians, talk of high matters.
The sister bubbled to Bess, “You know, Frank doesn’t believe half he says! He just likes to show off. He’s a real good Christian at heart, if he only knew it. Why, he was such a good Christian boy — he led the B.Y.P.U. — he COULDN’T have drifted away from Christ into all this nonsense that nobody takes seriously except a lot of long-haired dirty cranks! And he’ll break his father’s heart! I’m going to have a good talk with that young man, and bring him to his senses!”
On the street Frank met the great Dr. McTiger, pastor of the Royal Ridge Presbyterian Church.
Dr. McTiger had been born in Scotland, graduated at Edinburgh, and he secretly — not too secretly — despised all American universities and seminaries and their alumni. He was a large, impatient, brusque man, renowned for the length of his sermons.
“I hear, young man,” he shouted at Frank, “that you have read one whole book on the pre-Christian mysteries and decided that our doctrines are secondhand and that you are now going to destroy the church. You should have more pity! With the loss of a profound intellect like yours, my young friend, I should doubt if the church can stagger on! It’s a pity that after discovering scholarship you didn’t go on and get enough of that same scholarship to perceive that by the wondrous beneficence of God’s mercy the early church was led to combine many alien factors in the one perfection of the Christian brotherhood! I don’t know whether it’s ignorance of church history or lack of humor that chiefly distinguishes you, my young friend! Go and sin no more!”
From Andrew Pengilly came a scrawled, shaky letter begging Frank to stand true and not deliver his appointed flock to the devil. That hurt.
The first church business meeting did not settle the question of Frank’s remaining. He was questioned about his doctrines, and he shocked them by being candid, but the men whom he had helped, the women whom he had consoled in sickness, the fathers who had gone to him when their daughters “had gotten into trouble,” stood by him for all the threats of Styles.
A second meeting would have to be called before they took a vote.
When Elmer read of this, he galloped to T. J. Rigg. “Here’s our chance!” he gloated. “If the first meeting had kicked Frank out, Styles might have stayed with their church, though I do think he likes my brand of theology and my Republican politics. But why don’t you go to him now, T. J., and hint around about how his church has insulted him?”
“All right, Elmer. Another soul saved. Brother Styles has still got the first dollar he ever earned, but maybe we can get ten cents of it away from him for the new church. Only — Him being so much richer than I, I hope you won’t go to him for spiritual advice and inspiration, instead of me.”
“You bet I won’t, T. J.! Nobody has ever accused Elmer Gantry of being disloyal to his friends! My only hope is that your guidance of this church has been of some value to you yourself.”
“Well — yes — in a way. I’ve had three brother Methodist clients from Wellspring come to me — two burglary and one forgery. But it’s more that I just like to make the wheels go round.”
Mr. Rigg was saying, an hour later, to Mr. William Dollinger Styles, “If you came and joined us, I know you’d like it — you’ve seen what a fine, upstanding, two-fisted, one-hundred-percent he-man Dr. Gantry is. Absolutely sound about business. And it would be a swell rebuke to your church for not accepting your advice. But we hate to invite you to come over to us — in fact Dr. Gantry absolutely forbade me to see you — for fear you’ll think it was just because you’re rich.”
For three days Styles shied, then he was led, trembling, up to the harness.
Afterward, Dr. G. Prosper Edwards of Pilgrim Congregational said to his spouse, “Why on earth didn’t WE think of going right after Styles and inviting him to join us? It was so simple we never even thought of it. I really do feel quite cross. Why didn’t YOU think of it?”
The second church meeting was postponed. It looked to Elmer as though Frank would be able to stay on at Dorchester Congregational and thus defy Elmer as the spiritual and moral leader of the city.
Elmer acted fearlessly.
In sermon after sermon he spoke of “that bunch of atheists out there at Dorchester.” Frank’s parishioners were alarmed. They were forced to explain (only they were never quite sure what they were explaining) to customers, to neighbors, to fellow lodge-members. They felt disgraced, and so it was that a second meeting was called.
Now Frank had fancied a spectacular resignation. He heard himself, standing before a startled audience, proclaiming, “I have decided that no one in this room, including your pastor, believes in the Christian religion. Not one of us would turn the other cheek. Not one of us would sell all that he has and give to the poor. Not one of us would give his coat to some man who took his overcoat. Every one of us lays up all the treasure he can. We don’t practise the Christian religion. We don’t intend to practise it. Therefore, we don’t believe in it. Therefore I resign, and I advise you to quit lying and disband.”
He saw himself, then, tramping down the aisle among his gaping hearers, and leaving the church forever.
But: “I’m too tired. Too miserable. And why hurt the poor bewildered souls? And — I am so tired.”
He stood up at the beginning of the second meeting and said gently, “I had refused to resign. I still feel I have an honest right to an honest pulpit. But I am setting brother against brother. I am not a Cause — I am only a friend. I have loved you and the work, the sound of friends singing together, the happiness of meeting on leisurely Sunday mornings. This I give up. I resign, and I wish I could say, ‘God be with you and bless you all.’ But the good Christians have taken God and made him into a menacing bully, and I cannot even say ‘God bless you,’ during this last moment, in a life given altogether to religion, when I shall ever stand in a pulpit.”
Elmer Gantry, in his next sermon, said that he was so broad-minded that he would be willing to receive an Infidel Shallard in his church, providing he repented.
When he found that he liked the Charity Organization Society and his work in that bleak institution no better than his work in the church, Frank laughed.
“As Bess said! A consistent malcontent! Well, I AM consistent, anyway. And the relief not to be a preacher any more! Not to have to act sanctimonious! Not to have men consider you an old woman in trousers! To be able to laugh without watching its effect!”
Frank was given charge, at the C. O. S., of a lodging-house, a woodyard at which hoboes worked for two hours daily to pay for lodging and breakfast, and an employment bureau. He knew little about Scientific Charity, so he was shocked by the icy manner in which his subordinates — the aged virgin at the inquiry desk, the boss of the woodyard, the clerk at the lodging-house, the young lady who asked the applicants about their religion and vices — treated the shambling unfortunates as criminals who had deliberately committed the crime of poverty.
They were as efficient and as tender as vermin-exterminators.
In this acid perfection, Frank longed for the mystery that clings to even the dourest or politest tabernacle. He fell in the way of going often to the huge St. Dominic’s Catholic Church, of which the eloquent Father de Pinna was pastor, with Father Matthew Smeesby, the new sort of American, state-university-bred priest, as assistant pastor and liaison officer.
St. Dominic’s was, for Zenith, an ancient edifice, and the coal-smoke from the South Zenith factories had aged the gray stone to a semblance of historic centuries. The interior, with its dim irregularity, its lofty roof, the curious shrines, the mysterious door at the top of a flight of stone steps, unloosed Frank’s imagination. It touched him to see the people kneeling at any hour. He had never known a church to which the plain people came for prayer. Despite its dusky magnificence, they seemed to find in the church their home. And when he saw the gold and crimson of solemn high mass blazing at the end of the dark aisle, with the crush of people visibly believing in the presence of God, he wondered if he had indeed found the worship he had fumblingly sought.
He knew that to believe literally in Purgatory and the Immaculate Conception, the Real Presence and the authority of the hierarchy, was as impossible for him as to believe in Zeus.
“But,” he pondered, “isn’t it possible that the whole thing is so gorgeous a fairy-tale that to criticize it would be like trying to prove that Jack did not kill the giant? No sane priest could expect a man of some education to think that saying masses had any effect on souls in Purgatory; they’d expect him to take the whole thing as one takes a symphony. And, oh, I am lonely for the fellowship of the church!”
He sought a consultation with Father Matthew Smeesby. They had met, as fellow ministers, at many dinners.
The good father sat at a Grand Rapids desk, in a room altogether business-like save for a carved Bavarian cupboard and a crucifix on the barren plaster wall. Smeesby was a man of forty, a crisper Philip McGarry.
“You were an American university man, weren’t you, Father?” Frank asked.
“Yes. University of Indiana. Played half-back.”
“Then I think I can talk to you. It seems to me that so many of your priests are not merely foreign by birth, Poles and whatnot, but they look down on American mores and want to mold us to their ideas and ways. But you — Tell me: Would it be conceivable for an — I won’t say an intelligent, but at least a reasonably well-read man like myself, who finds it quite impossible to believe one word of your doctrines —”
“— but who is tremendously impressed by your ritual and the spirit of worship — could such a man be received into the Roman Catholic Church, honestly, with the understanding that to him your dogmas are nothing but symbols?”
“Most certainly not!”
“Don’t you know any priests who love the Church but don’t literally believe all the doctrines?”
“I do not! I know no such persons! Shallard, you can’t understand the authority and reasonableness of the Church. You’re not ready to. You think too much of your puerile powers of reasoning. You haven’t enough divine humility to comprehend the ages of wisdom that have gone to building up this fortress, and you stand outside its walls, one pitifully lonely little figure, blowing the trumpet of your egotism, and demanding of the sentry, ‘Take me to your commander. I am graciously inclined to assist him. Only he must understand that I think his granite walls are pasteboard, and I reserve the right to blow them down when I get tired of them.’ Man, if you were a prostitute or a murderer and came to me saying ‘Can I be saved?’ I’d cry ‘Yes!’ and give my life to helping you. But you’re obsessed by a worse crime than murder — pride of intellect! And yet you haven’t such an awfully overpowering intellect to be proud of, and I’m not sure but that’s the worst crime of all! Good-day!”
He added, as Frank ragingly opened the door, “Go home and pray for simplicity.”
“Go home and pray that I may be made like you? Pray to have your humility and your manners?” said Frank.
It was a fortnight later that for his own satisfaction Frank set down in the note-book which he had always carried for sermon ideas, which he still carried for the sermons they would never let him preach again, a conclusion:
“The Roman Catholic Church is superior to the militant Protestant Church. It does not compel you to give up your sense of beauty, your sense of humor, or your pleasant vices. It merely requires you to give up your honesty, your reason, your heart and soul.”
Frank had been with the Charity Organization Society for three years, and he had become assistant general secretary at the time of the Dayton evolution trial. It was at this time that the brisker conservative clergymen saw that their influence and oratory and incomes were threatened by any authentic learning. A few of them were so intelligent as to know that not only was biology dangerous to their positions, but also history — which gave no very sanctified reputation to the Christian church; astronomy — which found no convenient Heaven in the skies and snickered politely at the notion of making the sun stand still in order to win a Jewish border skirmish; psychology — which doubted the superiority of a Baptist preacher fresh from the farm to trained laboratory researchers; and all the other sciences of the modern university. They saw that a proper school should teach nothing but bookkeeping, agriculture, geometry, dead languages made deader by leaving out all the amusing literature, and the Hebrew Bible as interpreted by men superbly trained to ignore contradictions, men technically called “Fundamentalists.”
This perception the clergy and their most admired laymen expressed in quick action. They formed half a dozen competent and well-financed organizations to threaten rustic state legislators with political failure and bribe them with unctuous clerical praise, so that these back-street and backwoods Solons would forbid the teaching in all state-supported schools and colleges of anything which was not approved by the evangelists.
It worked edifyingly.
To oppose them there were organized a few groups of scholars. One of these organizations asked Frank to speak for them. He was delighted to feel an audience before him again, and he got leave from the Zenith Charity Organization Society for a lecture tour.
He came excitedly and proudly to his first assignment, in a roaring modern city in the Southwest. He loved the town; believed really that he came to it with a “message.” He tasted the Western air greedily, admired the buildings flashing up where but yesterday had been prairie. He smiled from the hotel ‘bus when he saw a poster which announced that the Reverend Frank Shallard would speak on “Are the Fundamentalists Witch Hunters?” at Central Labor Hall, auspices of the League for Free Science.
“Bully! Fighting again! I’ve found that religion I’ve been looking for!”
He peered out for other posters. . . . They were all defaced.
At his hotel was a note, typed, anonymous: “We don’t want you and your hellish atheism here. We can think for ourselves without any imported ‘liberals.’ If you enjoy life, you’d better be out of this decent Christian city before evening. God help you if you aren’t! We have enough mercy to give warning, but enough of God’s justice to see you get yours right if you don’t listen. Blasphemers get what they ask for. We wonder if you would like the feeling of a blacksnake across your lying face? The Committee.”
Frank had never known physical conflict more violent than boyhood wrestling. His hand shook. He tried to sound defiant with: “They can’t scare me!”
His telephone, and a voice: “This Shallard? Well this is a brother preacher speaking. Name don’t matter. I just want to tip you off that you’d better not speak tonight. Some of the boys are pretty rough.”
Then Frank began to know the joy of anger.
The hall of his lecture was half filled when he looked across the ice-water pitcher on the speaker’s table. At the front were the provincial intellectuals, most of them very eager, most of them dreadfully poor: a Jewish girl librarian with hungry eyes, a crippled tailor, a spectacled doctor sympathetic to radical disturbances but too good a surgeon to be driven out of town. There was a waste of empty seats, then, and at the back a group of solid, prosperous, scowling burghers, with a leonine man who was either an actor, a congressman, or a popular clergyman.
This respectable group grumbled softly, and hissed a little as Frank nervously began.
America, he said, in its laughter at the “monkey trial” at Dayton, did not understand the veritable menace of the Fundamentalists’ crusade. (“Outrageous!” from the leonine gentleman.) They were mild enough now; they spoke in the name of virtue; but give them rope, and there would be a new Inquisition, a new hunting of witches. We might live to see men burned to death for refusing to attend Protestant churches.
Frank quoted the Fundamentalist who asserted that evolutionists were literally murderers, because they killed orthodox faith, and ought therefore to be lynched; William Jennings Bryan, with his proposal that any American who took a drink outside the country should be exiled for life.
“That’s how these men speak, with so little power — as yet!” Frank pleaded. “Use your imaginations! Think how they would rule this nation, and compel the more easy-going half-liberal clergy to work with them, if they had the power!”
There were constant grunts of “That’s a lie!” and “They ought to shut him up!” from the back, and now Frank saw marching into the hall a dozen tough young men. They stood ready for action, looking expectantly toward the line of prosperous Christian Citizens.
“And you have here in your own city,” Frank continued, “a minister of the gospel who enjoys bellowing that any one who disagrees with him is a Judas.”
“That’s enough!” cried some one at the back, and the young toughs galloped down the aisle toward Frank, their eyes hot with cruelty, teeth like a fighting dog’s, hands working — he could feel them at his neck. They were met and held a moment by the sympathizers in front. Frank saw the crippled tailor knocked down by a man who stepped on the body as he charged on.
With a curious lassitude more than with any fear, Frank sighed, “Hang it, I’ve got to join the fight and get killed!”
He started down from the platform.
The chairman seized his shoulder. “No! Don’t! You’ll get beaten to death! We need you! Come here — come HERE! This back door!”
Frank was thrust through a door into a half-lighted alley.
A motor was waiting, and by it two men, one of whom cried, “Right in here, Brother.”
It was a large sedan; it seemed security, life. But as Frank started to climb in he noted the man at the wheel, then looked closer at the others. The man at the wheel had no lips but only a bitter dry line across his face — the mouth of an executioner. Of the other two, one was like an unreformed bartender, with curly mustache and a barber’s lock; one was gaunt, with insane eyes.
“Who are you fellows?” he demanded.
“Shut your damned trap and get t’ hell in there!” shrieked the bartender, pushing Frank into the back of the car, so that he fell with his head on the cushion.
The insane man scrambled in, and the car was off.
“We told you to get out of town. We gave you your chance. By God, you’ll learn something now, you God damned atheist — and probably a damn’ socialist or I. W. W. too!” the seeming bartender said. “See this gun?” He stuck it into Frank’s side, most painfully. “We may decide to let you live if you keep your mouth shut and do what we tell you to — and again we may not. You’re going to have a nice ride with us! Just think what fun you’re going to have when we get you in the country — alone — where it’s nice and dark and quiet!”
He placidly lifted his hands and gouged Frank’s cheek with his strong fingernails.
“I won’t stand it!” screamed Frank.
He rose, struggling. He felt the gaunt fanatic’s fingers — just two fingers, demon-strong — close on his neck, dig in with pain that made him sick. He felt the bartender’s fist smashing his jaw. As he slumped down, limp against the forward seat, half-fainting, he heard the bartender chuckle:
“That’ll give the blank, blank, blank of a blank some idea of the fun we’ll have watching him squirm bimeby!”
The gaunt one snapped, “The boss said not to cuss.”
“Cuss, hell! I don’t pretend to be any tin angel. I’ve done a lot of tough things. But, by God, when a fellow pretending to be a minister comes sneaking around trying to make fun of the Christian religion — the only chance us poor devils have got to become decent again — then, by God, it’s time to show we’ve got some guts and appreciation!”
The pseudo-bartender spoke with the smugly joyous tones of any crusader given a chance to be fiendish for a moral reason, and placidly raising his leg, he brought his heel down on Frank’s instep.
When the cloud of pain had cleared from his head, Frank sat rigid. . . . What would Bess and the kids do if these men killed him? . . . Would they beat him much before he died?
The car left the highway, followed a country road and ran along a lane, through what seemed to Frank to be a cornfield. It stopped by a large tree.
“Get out!” snapped the gaunt man.
Mechanically, his legs limp, Frank staggered out. He looked up at the moon. “It’s the last time I’ll ever see the moon — see the stars — hear voices. Never again to walk on a fresh morning!”
“What are you going to do?” he said, hating them too much to be afraid.
“Well, dearie,” said the driver, with a dreadful jocosity, “you’re going to take a little walk with us, back here in the fields a ways.”
“Hell!” said the bartender, “let’s hang him. Here’s a swell tree. Use the tow-rope.”
“No,” from the gaunt man. “Just hurt him enough so he’ll remember, and then he can go back and tell his atheist friends it ain’t healthy for ’em in real Christian parts. Move, you!”
Frank walked in front of them, ghastly silent. They followed a path through the cornfield to a hollow. The crickets were noisily cheerful; the moon serene.
“This’ll do,” snarled the gaunt one; then to Frank: “Now get ready to feel good.”
He set his pocket electric torch on a clod of earth. In its light Frank saw him draw from his pocket a coiled black leather whip, a whip for mules.
“Next time,” said the gaunt one, slowly, “next time you come back here, we’ll kill you. And any other yellow traitor and stinker and atheist like you. Tell ’em all that! This time we won’t kill you — not quite.”
“Oh, quit talking and let’s get busy!” said the bartender. “All right!”
The bartender caught Frank’s two arms behind, bending them back, almost breaking them, and suddenly with a pain appalling and unbelievable the whip slashed across Frank’s cheek, cutting it, and instantly it came again — again — in a darkness of reeling pain.
Consciousness returned waveringly as dawn crawled over the cornfield and the birds were derisive. Frank’s only clear emotion was a longing to escape from this agony by death. His whole face reeked with pain. He could not understand why he could scarce see. When he fumblingly raised his hand, he discovered that his right eye was a pulp of blind flesh, and along his jaw he could feel the exposed bone.
He staggered along the path through the cornfield, stumbling over hummocks, lying there sobbing, muttering, “Bess — oh, come — BESS!”
His strength lasted him just to the highroad, and he sloped to earth, lay by the road like a drunken beggar. A motor was coming, but when the driver saw Frank’s feebly uplifted arm he sped on. Pretending to be hurt was a device of holdup men.
“Oh, God, won’t anybody help me?” Frank whimpered, and suddenly he was laughing, a choking twisted laughter. “Yes, I said it, Philip — ‘God’ I said — I suppose it proves I’m a good Christian!”
He rocked and crawled along the road to a cottage. There was a light — a farmer at early breakfast. “At last!” Frank wept. When the farmer answered the knock, holding up a lamp, he looked once at Frank, then screamed and slammed the door.
An hour later a motorcycle policeman found Frank in the ditch, in half delirium.
“Another drunk!” said the policeman, most cheerfully, snapping the support in place on his cycle. But as he stooped and saw Frank’s half-hidden face, he whispered, “Good God Almighty!”
The doctors told him that though the right eye was gone completely, he might not entirely lose the sight of the other for perhaps a year.
Bess did not shriek when she saw him; she only stood with her hands shaky at her breast.
She seemed to hesitate before kissing what had been his mouth. But she spoke cheerfully:
“Don’t you worry about a single thing. I’ll get a job that’ll keep us going. I’ve already seen the general secretary at the C. O. S. And isn’t it nice that the kiddies are old enough now to read aloud to you.”
To be read aloud to, the rest of his life . . .
Elmer called and raged, “This is the most outrageous thing I’ve ever heard of in my life, Frank! Believe me, I’m going to give the fellows that did this to you the most horrible beating they ever got, right from my pulpit! Even though it may hinder me in getting money for my new church — say, we’re going to have a bang-up plant there, right up to date, cost over half a million dollars, seat over two thousand. But nobody can shut ME up! I’m going to denounce those fiends in a way THEY’LL never forget!”
And that was the last Elmer is known ever to have said on the subject, privately or publicly.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:52