The Reverend Jacob Trosper, D. D., Ph. D., LL. D., dean and chief executive of Mizpah Theological Seminary, and Professor of Practical Theology and Homiletics, was a hard-faced active man with a large active voice. His cheeks were gouged with two deep channels. His eyebrows were heavy. His hair, now gray and bristly, must once have been rusty, like Eddie Fislinger’s. He would have made an excellent top-sergeant. He looked through the students and let them understand that he knew their sins and idlenesses before they confessed them.
Elmer was afraid of Dean Trosper. When he was summoned to the dean’s office, the morning after the spiritual conference in Frank Shallard’s room, he was uneasy.
He found Frank with the dean.
“God! Frank’s been tattling about my doings with women!”
“Brother Gantry,” said the dean.
“I have an appointment which should give you experience and a little extra money. It’s a country church down at Schoenheim, eleven miles from here, on the spur line of the Ontario, Omaha and Pittsburgh. You will hold regular Sunday morning services and Sunday School; if you are able to work up afternoon or evening services and prayer meeting, so much the better. The pay will be ten dollars a Sunday. If there’s to be anything extra for extra work — that’s up to you and your flock. I’d suggest that you go down there on a hand-car. I’m sure you can get the section-gang boss here to lend you one, as it’s for the Lord’s work, and the boss’ brother does a lot of gardening here. I’m going to send Brother Shallard with you to conduct the Sunday School and get some experience. He has a particularly earnest spirit — which it wouldn’t entirely hurt you to emulate, Brother Gantry — but he’s somewhat shy in contact with sin-hardened common people.
“Now, boys, this is just a small church, but never forget that it’s priceless souls that I’m entrusting to your keeping; and who knows but that you may kindle there such a fire as may some day illumine all the world . . . providing, Brother Gantry, you eliminate the worldly things I suspect you of indulging in!”
Elmer was delighted. It was his first real appointment. In Kansas, this summer, he had merely filled other people’s pulpits for two or three weeks at a time.
He’d show ’em! Some of these fellows that thought he was just a mouth-artist! Show ’em how he could build up a church membership, build up the collections, get ’em all going with his eloquence — and, of course, carry the message of salvation into darkened hearts.
It would be mighty handy to have the extra ten a week — and maybe more if he could kid the Schoenheim deacons properly.
His first church . . . his own . . . and Frank had to take his orders!
In the virginal days of 1905 section gangs went out to work on the railway line not by gasoline power but on a hand-car, a platform with two horizontal bars worked up and down like pump-handles.
On a hand-car Elmer and Frank Shallard set out for their first charge. They did not look particularly clerical as they sawed at the handles; it was a chilly November Sunday morning, and they wore shabby greatcoats. Elmer had a moth-eaten plush cap over his ears, Frank exhibited absurd ear-muffs under a more absurd derby, and both had borrowed red flannel mittens from the section gang.
The morning was icily brilliant. Apple orchards glistened in the frost, and among the rattling weed-stalks by the worm-fences quail were whistling.
Elmer felt his lungs free of library dust as he pumped. He broadened his shoulders, rejoiced in sweating, felt that his ministry among real men and living life was begun. He pitied the pale Frank a little, and pumped the harder . . . and made Frank pump the harder . . . up and down, up and down, up and down. It was agony to the small of his back and shoulders, now growing soft, to labor on the up-grade, where the shining rails toiled round the curves through gravel cuts. But downhill, swooping toward frosty meadows and the sound of cowbells in the morning sun, he whooped with exhilaration, and struck up a boisterous:
There is power, power, wonder-working power
In the blood
Of the Lamb —
The Schoenheim church was a dingy brown box with a toy steeple, in a settlement consisting of the church, the station, a blacksmith shop, two stores, and half a dozen houses. But at least thirty buggies were gathered along the rutty street or in the carriage-sheds behind the church; at least seventy people had come to inspect their new pastor; and they stood in gaping circles, staring between frosty damp mufflers and visored fur caps.
“I’m scared to death!” murmured Frank, as they strode up the one street from the station, but Elmer felt healthy, proud, expansive. His own church, small but somehow — somehow different from these ordinary country meeting-houses — quite a nice-shaped steeple — not one of those shacks with no steeple at all! And his people, waiting for him, their attention flowing into him and swelling him —
He threw open his overcoat, held it back with his hand imperially poised on his left hip, and let them see not only the black broadcloth suit bought this last summer for his ordination but something choice he had added since — elegant white piping at the opening of his vest.
A red-faced moustached man swaggered up to greet them, “Brother Gantry? And Brother Shallard? I’m Barney Bains, one of the deacons. Pleased to meet you. The Lord give power to your message. Some time since we had any preachin’ here, and I guess we’re all pretty hungry for spiritual food and the straight gospel. Bein’ from Mizpah, I guess there’s no danger you boys believe in this open communion!”
Frank had begun to worry, “Well, what I feel is —” when Elmer interrupted him with a very painful bunt in the side, and chanted with holy joy:
“Pleased meet you, Brother Bains. Oh, Brother Shallard and I are absolutely sound both on immersion and close communion. We trust you will pray for us, Brother, that the Holy Ghost may be present in this work today, and that all the brethren may rejoice in a great awakening and a bountiful harvest!”
Deacon Bains and all who heard him muttered, saint to saint, “He’s pretty young yet, but he’s got the right idee. I’m sure we’re going to have real rousing preaching. Don’t think much of Brother Shallard, though. Kind of a nice-looking young fella, but dumm in the head. Stands there like a bump on a log. Well, he’s good enough to teach the kids in Sunday School.”
Brother Gantry was shaking hands all round. His sanctifying ordination, or it might have been his summer of bouncing from pulpit to pulpit, had so elevated him that he could greet them as impressively and fraternally as a sewing-machine agent. He shook hands with a good grip, he looked at all the more aged sisters as though he were moved to give them a holy kiss, he said the right things about the weather, and by luck or inspiration it was to the most acidly devout man in Boone County that he quoted a homicidal text from Malachi.
As he paraded down the aisle, leading his flock, he panted:
“Got ’em already! I can do something to wake these hicks up, where gas-bags like Frank or Carp would just chew the rag. How could I of felt so down in the mouth and so — uh — so carnal last week? Lemme at that pulpit!”
They faced him in hard straight pews, rugged heads seen against the brown wall and the pine double doors grained to mimic oak; they gratifyingly crowded the building, and at the back stood shuffling young men with unshaven chins and pale blue neckties.
He felt power over them while he trolled out the chorus of “The Church in the Wildwood.”
His text was from Proverbs: “Hatred stirreth up strifes: but love covereth all sins.”
He seized the sides of the pulpit with his powerful hands, glared at the congregation, decided to look benevolent after all, and exploded:
“In the hustle and bustle of daily life I wonder how many of us stop to think that in all that is highest and best we are ruled not by even our most up-and-coming efforts but by Love? What is Love — the divine Love of which the — the great singer teaches us in Proverbs? It is the rainbow that comes after the dark cloud. It is the morning star and it is also the evening star, those being, as you all so well know, the brightest stars we know. It shines upon the cradle of the little one and when life has, alas, departed, to come no more, you find it still around the quiet tomb. What is it inspires all great men — be they preachers or patriots or great business men? What is it, my brethren, but Love? Ah, it fills the world with melody, with such sacred melodies as we have just indulged in together, for what is music? What, my friends, is music? Ah, what indeed is music but the voice of Love!”
He explained that hatred was low.
However, for the benefit of the more leathery and zealous deacons down front, he permitted them to hate all Catholics, all persons who failed to believe in hell and immersion, and all rich mortgage-holders, wantoning in the betraying smiles of scarlet women, each of whom wore silk and in her bejeweled hand held a ruby glass of perfidious wine.
He closed by lowering his voice to a maternal whisper and relating a totally imaginary but most improving experience with a sinful old gentleman who on his bed of pain had admitted, to Elmer’s urging, that he ought to repent immediately, but who put it off too long, died amid his virtuous and grief-stricken daughters, and presumably went straight to the devil.
When Elmer had galloped down to the door to shake hands with such as did not remain for Sabbath School, sixteen several auditors said in effect, “Brother, that was a most helpful sermon and elegantly expressed,” and he wrung their hands with a boyish gratitude beautiful to see.
Deacon Bains patted his shoulder. “I’ve never heard so young a preacher hand out such fine doctrine, Brother. Meet my daughter Lulu.”
And she was there, the girl for whom he had been looking ever since he had come to Mizpah.
Lulu Bains was a gray-and-white kitten with a pink ribbon. She had sat at the back of the church, behind the stove, and he had not seen her. He looked down at her thirstily. His excitement at having played his sermon to such applause was nothing beside his excitement over the fact that he would have her near him in his future clerical labors. Life was a promising and glowing thing as he held her hand and tried not to sound too insistently affectionate. “Such a pleasure to meet you, Sister Lulu.”
Lulu was nineteen or twenty. She had a diminutive class of twelve-year-old boys in the Sunday School. Elmer had intended to sneak out during Sunday School, leaving Frank Shallard responsible, and find a place where he could safely smoke a Pittsburgh stogie, but in view of this new spiritual revelation he hung about, beaming with holy approbation of the good work and being manly and fraternal with the little boys in Lulu’s class.
“If you want to grow up and be big fellows, regular sure-enough huskies, you just listen to what Miss Bains has to tell you about how Solomon built that wonderful big ole temple,” he crooned at them; and if they twisted and giggled in shyness, at least Lulu smiled at him . . . gray-and-white kitten with sweet kitten eyes . . . small soft kitten, who purred, “Oh, now, Brother Gantry, I’m just so scared I don’t hardly dare teach” . . . big eyes that took him into their depths, till he heard her lisping as the voice of angels, larks, and whole orchestras of flutes.
He could not let her go at the end of Sunday School. He must hold her —
“Oh, Sister Lulu, come see the hand-car Frank and I— Brother Shallard and I— came down on. The FUN-niest! Just laugh your head off!”
As the section gang passed through Schoenheim at least ten times a week, hand-cars could have been no astounding novelty to Lulu, but she trotted beside him, and stared prettily, and caroled, “Oh, hon-est! Did you come down on THAT? Well, I never!”
She shook hands cheerfully with both of them. He thought jealously that she was as cordial to Frank as to himself.
“He better watch out and not go fooling round MY girl!” Elmer reflected, as they pumped back toward Babylon.
He did not congratulate Frank on having overcome his dread of stolid country audiences (Frank had always lived in cities) or on having made Solomon’s temple not merely a depressing object composed of a substance called “cubits” but an actual shrine in which dwelt an active and terrifying god.
For two Sundays now Elmer had striven to impress Lulu not only as an efficient young prophet but as a desirable man. There were always too many people about. Only once did he have her alone. They walked half a mile then to call on a sick old woman. On their way Lulu had fluttered at him (gray-and-white kitten in a close bonnet of soft fuzzy gray, which he wanted to stroke).
“I suppose you’re just bored to death by my sermons,” he fished.
“Oh, nnnno! I think they’re just wonderful!”
“Do you, honest?”
“Honest, I do!”
He looked down at her childish face till he had caught her eyes, then, jocularly:
“My, but this wind is making the little cheeks and the cute lips awful’ red! Or I guess maybe some fella must of been kissing ’em before church!”
“Oh, no —”
She looked distressed, almost frightened.
“Whoa up!” he counseled himself. “You’ve got the wrong track. Golly, I don’t believe she’s as much of a fusser as I thought she was. Really is kinda innocent. Poor kid, shame to get her all excited. Oh, thunder, won’t hurt her a bit to have a little educated love-making!”
He hastily removed any possible blots on his clerical reputation:
“Oh, I was joking. I just meant — be a shame if as lovely a girl as you weren’t engaged. I suppose you are engaged, of course?”
“No. I liked a boy here awfully, but he went to Cleveland to work, and I guess he’s kind of forgotten me.”
“Oh, that is really too bad!”
Nothing could be stronger, more dependable, more comforting, than the pressure of his fingers on her arm. She looked grateful; and when she came to the sick-room and heard Brother Gantry pray, long, fervently, and with the choicest words about death not really mattering nor really hurting (the old woman had cancer) then Lulu also looked worshipful.
On their way back he made his final probe:
“But even if you aren’t engaged, Sister Lulu, I’ll bet there’s a lot of the young fellows here that’re crazy about you.”
“No, honest there aren’t. Oh, I go round some with a second cousin of mine — Floyd Naylor — but, my! he’s so slow, he’s no fun.”
The Rev. Mr. Gantry planned to provide fun.
Elmer and Frank had gone down on Saturday afternoon to decorate the church for the Thanksgiving service. To save the trip to Babylon and back, they were to spend Saturday night in the broad farmhouse of Deacon Bains, and Lulu Bains and her spinster cousin, Miss Baldwin, were assisting in the decoration — in other words doing it. They were stringing pine boughs across the back of the hall, and arranging a harvest feast of pumpkins, yellow corn, and velvety sumach in front of the pulpit.
“I want your advice, Lulu — Sister Lulu. Don’t you think in my sermon tomorrow it might be helpful to explain —”
(They stood side by side. How sweet were her little shoulders, her soft pussy-cat cheeks! He had to kiss them! He had to! He swayed toward her. Damn Frank and that Baldwin female! Why didn’t they get out?)
“— to explain that all these riches of the harvest, priceless though they are in themselves and necessary for grub — for the festal board, yet they are but symbols and indications of the — Do sit down, Lulu; you look a little tired. — of the deeper spiritual blessings which he also showers on us and not just at harvest time, and this is a very important point —”
(Her hand dropped against his knee; lay, so white, on the drab pew. Her breasts were young and undrained under her plaid blouse. He had to touch her hand. His fingers crept toward it, touched it by accident, surely by accident, while she looked devotion and he intoned sublimity.)
“— a very important point indeed; all the year round we receive those greater inner blessings, and it is for them more than for any material, uh, material gains that we should lift our voices in Thanksgiving. Don’t you think it might be valuable to all of us if I brought that out?”
“Oh, yes! Indeed I do! I think that’s a lovely thought!”
(His arms tingled. He HAD to slip them about her.)
Frank and Miss Baldwin had sat down, and they were in an intolerably long discussion as to what ought to be done about that terrible little Cutler boy who said that he didn’t believe that the ravens brought any bread and meat to Elijah, not if he knew anything about these ole crows! Frank explained that he did not wish to rebuke honest doubt; but when this boy went and made a regular business of cutting up and asking foolish questions —
“Lulu!” Elmer urged. “Skip back in the other room with me a second. There’s something about the church work I want to ask you, and I don’t want them to hear.”
There were two rooms in the Schoenheim church: the auditorium and a large closet for the storage of hymn-books, mops, brooms, folding chairs, communion cups. It was lighted by a dusty window.
“Sister Bains and I are going to look over the Sunday School lesson-charts,” Elmer called largely and brightly.
The fact that she did not deny it bound them together in secrecy. He sat on an upturned bucket; she perched on a step-ladder. It was pleasant to be small in her presence and look up to her.
What the “something about church work” which he was going to ask her was, he had no notion, but Elmer was a very ready talker in the presence of young women. He launched out:
“I need your advice. I’ve never met anybody that combined common sense and spiritual values like what you do.”
“Oh, my, you’re just flattering me, Brother Gantry!”
“No, I’m not. Honest, I ain’t! You don’t appreciate yourself. That’s because you’ve always lived in this little burg, but if you were in Chicago or some place like that, believe me, they’d appreciate your, uh, that wonderful sense of spiritual values and everything.”
“Oh — Chicago! My! I’d be scared to death!”
“Well, I’ll have to take you there some day and show you the town! Guess folks would talk about their bad old preacher THEN!”
They both laughed heartily.
“But seriously, Lulu, what I want to know is — uh — Oh! What I wanted to ask you: Do you think I ought to come down here and hold Wednesday prayer-meetings?”
“Why, I think that’d be awfully nice.”
“But you see, I’d have to come down on that ole hand-car.”
“And you can’t know how hard I got to study every evening at the Seminary.”
“Oh, yes, I can imagine!”
They both sighed in sympathy, and he laid his hand on hers, and they sighed again, and he removed his hand almost prudishly.
“But of course I wouldn’t want to spare myself in any way. It’s a pastor’s privilege to spend himself for his congregation.”
“Yes, that’s so.”
“But on the other hand, with the roads the way they are here, especially in winter and all, and most of the congregation living way out on farms and all — hard for ’em to get in, eh?”
“That’s so. The roads do get bad. Yes, I think you’re right, Brother Gantry.”
“Oh! Lulu! And here I’ve been calling you by your first name! You’re going to make me feel I been acting terrible if you rebuke me that way and don’t call me Elmer!”
“But then you’re the preacher, and I’m just nobody.”
“Oh, yes, you are!”
“Oh, no, I’m not!”
They laughed very much.
“Listen, Lulu, honey. Remember I’m really still a kid — just twenty-five this month — only ‘bout five or six years older’n you are. Now try calling me Elmer, and see how it sounds.”
“Oh, my! I wouldn’t dare!”
“Well, try it!”
“Oh, I couldn’t! Imagine!”
“I am not so.”
“Yes, you are!”
“No, I’m not!”
“I dare you!”
“Well — Elmer then! So there now!”
They laughed intimately, and in the stress of their merriment he picked up her hand squeezed it, rubbed it against his arm. He did not release it, but it was only with the friendliest and least emphatic pressure that he held it while he crooned:
“You aren’t really scared of poor old Elmer?”
“Yes, I am, a tiny bit!”
“Oh, you’re big and strong and dignified, like you were lots older, and you have such a boom-boom voice — my, I love to listen to it, but it scares me — I feel like you’d turn on me and say, ‘You bad little girl,’ and then I’d have to ‘fess. My! And then you’re so terribly educated — you know such long words, and you can explain all these things about the Bible that I never can understand. And of course you are a real ordained Baptist clergyman.”
“Um, uh — But does that keep me from being a man, too?”
“Yes, it does! Sort of!”
Then there was no playfulness, but a grim urgency in his voice:
“Then you couldn’t imagine me kissing you? . . . Look at me! . . . Look at me, I tell you! . . . There! . . . No, don’t look away now. Why, you’re blushing! You dear, poor, darling kid! You CAN imagine me kissing —”
“Well, I oughtn’t to!”
“Yes, I am!”
“Listen, dear. You think of me as so awfully grown-up, and of course I have to impress all these folks when I’m in the pulpit, but you can see through it and — I’m really just a big bashful kid, and I need your help so. Do you know, dear, you remind me of my mother —”
Frank Shallard turned on Elmer in their bedroom, while they were washing for supper — their first moment alone since Lulu and Miss Baldwin had driven them to the Bains farm to spend the night before the Thanksgiving service.
“Look here, Gantry — Elmer. I don’t think it looked well, the way you took Miss Bains in the back room at the church and kept her there — must have been half an hour — and when I came in you two jumped and looked guilty.”
“Uh-huh, so our little friend Franky is a real rubber-necking old woman!”
It was a spacious dusky cavern under the eaves, the room where they were to stay the night. The pitcher on the black walnut washstand was stippled in gold, riotous with nameless buds. Elmer stood glaring, his big forearms bare and dripping, shaking his fingers over the carpet before he reached for the towel.
“I am not a ‘rubber-neck,’ and you know it, Gantry. But you’re the preacher here, and it’s our duty, for the effect on others, to avoid even the appearance of evil.”
“Evil to him that evil thinks. Maybe you’ve heard that, too!”
“Oh, yes, Elmer, I think perhaps I have!”
“Suspicious, dirty-minded Puritan, that’s what you are, seeing evil where there ain’t any meant.”
“People don’t hate Puritans because they suspect unjustly, but because they suspect only too darned justly. Look here now, Elmer. I don’t want to be disagreeable —”
“Well, you are!”
“— but Miss Bains — she looks sort of cuddlesome and flirtatious, but I’m dead certain she’s straight as can be, and I’m not going to stand back and watch you try to, uh, to make love to her.”
“Well, smarty, suppose I wanted to marry her?”
“You know so blame’ much, you ought to know without asking!”
“I haven’t said I didn’t.”
“Your rhetoric is too complicated for me. I’ll take it that you do mean to. That’s fine! I’ll announce your intentions to Deacon Bains.”
“You will like hell! Now you look here, Shallard! I’m not going to have you poking your long nose into my business, and that’s all there is to it, see?”
“Yes, it would be if you were a layman and I had no official connection with this outfit. I don’t believe too much in going around being moral for other people. But you’re the preacher here — you’re an ordained minister — and I’m responsible with you for the welfare of this church, and I’m damned if I’m going to watch you seducing the first girl you get your big sweaty hands on — Oh, don’t go doubling up your fists. Of course you could lick me. But you won’t. Especially here in the deacon’s house. Ruin you in the ministry. . . . Great God, and you’re the kind we affably let into the Baptist ministry! I was saying: I don’t propose to see you trying to seduce —”
“Now, by God, if you think I’m going to stand — Let me tell you right now, you’ve got the filthiest mind I ever heard of, Shallard! Why you should think I intend for one single second to be anything but friendly and open and aboveboard with Lulu — with Miss Bains — Why, you fool, I was in there listening about how she was in love with a fellow and he’s gone off to Chicago and chucked her, and that was all, and why you should think —”
“Oh, don’t be so fat-headed, Gantry! You can’t get away with sitting in my room at the Sem boasting, you and Zenz boasting about how many affairs you’ve had —”
“Well, it’s the last time I’ll sit in your damned room!”
“Think what you want to. And go to the devil! And be sure and run tattling to Pop Trosper and the rest of the faculty!”
“Well, that’s a good come-back, Gantry. I may do just that. But this evening I’ll just watch Lulu — watch Miss Bains for you. Poor sweet kid that she is! Nice eyes!”
“Uh-huh, young Shallard, so you’ve been smelling around, too!”
“My God, Gantry, what a perfect specimen you are!”
Deacon and Mrs. Bains — an angry-faced, generous, grasping, horsy, black-mustached man he was, and she a dumpling — managed to treat Frank and Elmer simultaneously as professors of the sacred mysteries and as two hungry boys who were starved at Mizpah and who were going to catch up tonight. Fried chicken, creamed chipped beef, homemade sausages, pickles and mince pie in which Elmer suspected, and gratefully suspected, the presence of unrighteous brandy, were only part of the stout trencher-work required of the young prophets. Mr. Bains roared every three minutes at the swollen and suffering Frank, “Nonsense, nonsense, Brother, you haven’t begun to eat yet! What’s the matter with you? Pass up your plate for another helpin’.”
Miss Baldwin, the spinster, two other deacons and their wives and a young man from a near-by farm, one Floyd Naylor, were present, and the clergy were also expected to be instructive. The theories were that they cared to talk of nothing save theology and the church and, second, that such talk was somehow beneficial in the tricky business of enjoying your sleep and buggy-riding and vittles, and still getting into heaven.
“Say, Brother Gantry,” said Mr. Bains, “what Baptist paper do you like best for home reading? I tried the Watchman Examiner for a while, but don’t seem to me it lambastes the Campbellites like it ought to, or gives the Catholics what-for, like a real earnest Christian sheet ought to. I’ve started taking the Word and Way. Now there’s a mighty sound paper that don’t mince matters none, and written real elegant — just suits me. It tells you straight out from the shoulder that if you don’t believe in the virgin birth and the resurrection, atonement, and immersion, then it don’t make no difference about your so-called good works and charity and all that, because you’re doomed and bound to go straight to hell, and not no make-believe hell, either, but a real gosh-awful turble bed of sure-enough coals! Yes, sir!”
“Oh, look here now, Brother Bains!” Frank Shallard protested. “You don’t mean to say you think that the Lord Jesus isn’t going to save one single solitary person who isn’t an orthodox Baptist?”
“Well, I don’t perfess to know all these things myself, like I was a high-toned preacher. But way I see it: Oh, yes, maybe if a fellow ain’t ever had a chance to see the light — say he was brought up a Methodist or a Mormon, and never HEARD a real dyed-inthe-wool Baptist explain the complete truth, then maybe God might forgive him ‘cause he was ignorant. But one thing I do know, absolute: All these ‘advanced thinkers’ and ‘higher critics’ are going to the hottest pit of hell! What do you think about it, Brother Gantry?”
“Personally, I’m much inclined to agree with you,” Elmer gloated. “But, anyway, we can safely leave it to the mercy of God to take care of wobblers and cowards and gas-bags like these alleged advanced thinkers. When they treacherously weaken our efforts at soul-saving out here in the field, and go in for a lot of cussing and discussing and fussing around with a lot of fool speculation that don’t do anybody any practical good in the great work of bringing poor sufferin’ souls to peace, why then I’m too busy to waste MY time on ’em, that’s all, and I wouldn’t care one bit if they heard me and knew it! Fact, that’s the only trouble with Brother Shallard here — I know he has the grace of God in his heart, but he will waste time worrying over a lot of doctrines when everything’s set down in Baptist tradition, and that’s all you need to know. I want you to think about that, Frank —”
Elmer had recovered. He enjoyed defying lightning, provided it was lightning no more dynamic than Frank was likely to furnish. He looked at Frank squarely. . . . It was perhaps half an hour since their talk in the bedroom.
Frank opened his mouth twice, and closed it. Then it was too late. Deacon Bains was already overwhelming him with regeneration and mince pie.
Lulu was at the other end of the table from Elmer. He was rather relieved. He despised Frank’s weakness, but he was never, as with Eddie Fislinger, sure what Frank would do or say, and he determined to be cautious. Once or twice he glanced at Lulu intimately, but he kept all his conversation (which, for Lulu’s admiration, he tried to make learned yet virile) for Mr. Bains and the other deacons.
“There!” he reflected. “Now Shallard, the damned fool, ought to see that I’m not trying to grab off the kid. . . . If he makes any breaks about ‘what are my intentions’ to her, I’ll just be astonished, and get Mr. Frank Shallard in bad, curse him and his dirty sneaking suspicions!”
But: “God, I’ve GOT to have her!” said all the tumultuous smoky beings in the lowest layer of his mind, and he answered them only with an apprehensive, “Watch out! Be careful! Dean Trosper would bust you! Old Bains would grab his shotgun . . . . Be careful! . . . WAIT!”
Not till an hour after supper, when the others were bending over the corn-popper, did he have the chance to whisper to her:
“Don’t trust Shallard! Pretends to be a friend of mine — couldn’t trust him with a plugged nickel! Got to tell you about him. Got to! Listen! Slip down after the others go up t’ bed. I’ll be down here. Must!”
“Oh, I can’t! Cousin Adeline Baldwin is sleeping with me.”
“Well! Pretend to get ready to go to bed — start and do your hair or something — and then come down to see if the fire is all right. Will you?”
“You must! Please! Dear!”
“Maybe. But I can’t stay but just a second.”
Most virtuously, most ministerially: “Oh, of course.”
They all sat, after supper, in the sitting-room. The Bainses prided themselves on having advanced so far socially that they did not spend their evenings in the kitchen-dining room — always. The sitting-room had the homeliness of a New England farm-house, with hectically striped rag carpet, an amazing patent rocker with Corinthian knobs and brass dragon’s feet, crayon enlargements, a table piled with Farm and Fireside and Modern Priscilla, and the enormous volume of pictures of the Chicago World’s Fair. There was no fireplace, but the stove was a cheery monster of nickel and mica, with a jolly brass crown more golden than gold, and around the glaring belly a chain of glass sapphires, glass emeralds, and hot glass rubies.
Beside the stove’s gorgeous cheerfulness, Elmer turned on his spiritual faucet and worked at being charming.
“Now don’t you folks dare say one word about church affairs this evening! I’m not going to be a preacher — I’m just going to be a youngster and kick up my heels in the pasture, after that lovely supper, and I declare to goodness if I didn’t know she was a strict Mother in Zion, I’d make Mother Bains dance with me — bet she could shake a pretty pair of heels as any of these art dancers in the theater!”
And encircling that squashy and billowing waist, he thrice whirled her round, while she blushed, and giggled, “Why, the very idee!” The others applauded with unsparing plow-hardened hands, cracking the shy ears of Frank Shallard.
Always Frank had been known as an uncommonly amiable youth, but tonight he was sour as alum.
It was Elmer who told them stories of the pioneer Kansas he knew so well, from reading. It was Elmer who started them popping corn in the parlor-stove after their first uneasiness at being human in the presence of Men of God. During this festivity, when even the most decorous deacon chuckled and admonished Mr. Bains, “Hey, who you shovin’ there, Barney?” Elmer was able to evade publicity and make his rendezvous with Lulu.
More jolly than ever, then, and slightly shiny from buttered pop-corn, he herded them to the parlor-organ, on which Lulu operated with innocent glee and not much knowledge. Out of duty to the cloth, they had to begin with singing “Blessed Assurance,” but presently he had them basking in “Seeing Nelly Home,” and “Old Black Joe.”
All the while he was quivering with the promise of soft adventure to come.
It only added to his rapture that the young neighboring farmer, Floyd Naylor — kin of the Bains family, a tall young man but awkward — was also mooning at Lulu, longing but shy.
They wound up with “Beulah Land,” played by Lulu, and his voice was very soothing, very touching and tender:
O Beulah Land, sweet Beulah Land,
(You little darling!)
As on thy highest mount I stand,
(I wonder if I kinda looked pathetic, would she baby me?)
I look away across the sea,
(Oh, I’ll be good — won’t go too far.)
Where mansions are prepared for me,
(Her wrists while she plays — like to kiss ’em!)
And view the shining glory shore,
(Going to, by thunder! Tonight!)
My heav’n, my home for evermore.
(Wonder if she’ll come down-stairs in a wrapper?)
“I just wish I knew,” said the wife of one of the deacons, a sentimental and lively lady, “what you were thinking of while we sang, Brother Gantry?”
“Why — I was thinking how happy we’ll all be when we are purified and at rest in Beulah Land.”
“My, I knew it was something religious — you sang so sorta happy and inspired. Well! We must be going. It’s been SUCH a lovely evening, Sister Bains. We just don’t know how to thank you and Brother Bains, yes, and Brother Gantry, too, for such a fine time. Oh, and Brother Shallard, of course. Come, Charley.”
Charley, as well as the other deacons, had vanished into the kitchen after Brother Bains. There was a hollow noise, as of a jug mouth, while the ladies and the clergy talked loudly and looked tolerant. The men appeared at the door wiping their mouths with the hairy backs of their paws.
After the tremendous leave-taking, to a yawning host Elmer suggested, “If it won’t bother you and Sister Bains, I’m going to stay down here by the fire a few minutes and complete my notes for my sermon tomorrow. And then I won’t keep Brother Shallard awake.”
“Fine, fine — eaaaaah —‘scuse me — so sleepy. The house is yours, my boy — Brother. G’night.”
“Good night! Good night, Brother Bains. Good night, Sister Bains. Good night, Sister Lulu. . . . Night, Frank.”
The room was far more boisterous when he was left alone in it. It reeled and clamored. He paced, nervously smiting the palm of his left hand, stopping in fever to listen. . . . Time crawling forever. . . . She would not come.
Creep-mouse rustle on the stairs, reluctant tip-toe in the hall.
His whole torso swelled with longing. He threw back his arms, fists down by his side, chin up, like the statue of Nathan Hale. But when she edged in he was enacting the kindly burly pastor, an elbow on the corner of the parlor-organ, two fingers playing with his massy watch-chain, his expression benevolent and amused.
She was not in a dressing-gown; she wore her blue frock unaltered. But she had let down her hair and its pale silkiness shone round her throat. She looked at him beseechingly.
Instantly he changed his pose and dashed at her with a little boyish cry:
“Oh, Lu! I can’t tell you how Frank hurt me!”
Very naturally, as with unquestioning intimacy, he put his arm about her shoulder, and his finger-tips rejoiced in her hair.
“It’s terrible! Frank ought to know me, but what do you think he said? Oh, he didn’t dare come right out and say it — not to ME— but he hinted around and insinuated and suggested that you and I were misbehaving there in the church when we were talking. And you remember what we were talking about — about my moth-er! And how beautiful and lovely she used to be and how much you’re like her! Don’t you think that’s rotten of him?”
“Oh, I do! I think it’s just dreadful. I never did like him!”
In her sympathy she had neglected to slip out from under his arm.
“Come sit down beside me on the couch, dear.”
“Oh, I mustn’t.” Moving with him toward the couch. “I’ve got to go right back up-stairs. Cousin Adeline, she’s suspicious.”
“We’ll both go up, right away. But this thing upset me so! Wouldn’t think a big clumsy like me could be such a sensitive chump, would you!”
He drew her close. She snuggled beside him, unstruggling, sighing:
“Oh, I do understand, Elmer, and I think it’s dandy, I mean it’s lovely when a man can be so big and strong and still have fine feelings. But, honest, I MUST go.”
“Must go, DEAR.”
“Yes. Won’t let you, ‘less you say it.”
“Must go, dear!”
She had sprung up, but he held her hand, kissed her fingertips, looked up at her with plaintive affection.
“Poor boy! Did I make it all well?”
She had snatched away her hand, she had swiftly kissed his temple and fled. He tramped the floor quite daft, now soaringly triumphant, now blackly longing.
During their hand-car return to Babylon and the Seminary, Elmer and Frank had little to say.
“Don’t be such a grouch. Honest, I’m not trying to get funny with little Lulu,” Elmer grumbled, panting as he pumped the hand-car, grotesque in cap and muffler.
“All right. Forget it,” said Frank.
Elmer endured it till Wednesday. For two days he had been hag-ridden by plans to capture Lulu. They became so plain to him that he seemed to be living them, as he slumped on the edge of his cot, his fists clenched, his eyes absent. . . . In his dream he squandered a whole two dollars and a half for a “livery rig” for the evening, and drove to Schoenheim. He hitched it at that big oak, a quarter of a mile from the Bains farmhouse. In the moonlight he could see the rounded and cratered lump on the oak trunk where a limb had been cut off. He crept to the farmyard, hid by the corncrib, cold but excited. She came to the door with a dish-pan of water — stood sidewise in the light, her gingham work-dress molded to the curve from shoulder to breast. He whistled to her; she started; came toward him with doubtful feet, cried with gladness when she saw who it was.
She could not stay with him till the work was done, but she insisted that he wait in the stable. There was the warmth of the cows, their sweet odor, and a scent of hay. He sat on a manger-edge in the darkness, enraptured yet so ardent that he trembled as with fear. The barn door edged open with a flash of moonlight; she came toward him, reluctant, fascinated. He did not stir. She moved, entranced, straight into his arms; they sat together on a pile of hay, taut with passion, unspeaking, and his hand smoothed her ankle. And again, in his fancies, it was at the church that she yielded; for some reason not quite planned, he was there without Frank, on a week-day evening, and she sat beside him on a pew. He could hear himself arguing that she was to trust him, that their love partook of the divine, even while he was fondling her.
But — Suppose it were Deacon Bains who came to his whistle, and found him sneaking in the barnyard? Suppose she declined to be romantic in cow-barns? And just what excuse had he for spending an evening with her at the church?
But — Over and over, sitting on his cot, lying half-asleep with the covers clutched desperately, he lived his imaginings till he could not endure it.
Not till Wednesday morning did it occur to the Reverend Elmer Gantry that he need not sneak and prowl, not necessarily, no matter what his custom had been, and that there was nothing to prevent his openly calling on her.
Nor did he spend any two dollars and a half for a carriage. Despite his florid magnificence, he was really a very poor young man. He walked to Schoenheim (not in vision now, but in reality), starting at five in the afternoon, carrying a ham sandwich for his supper; walked the railroad track, the cold ties echoing under his heavy tread.
He arrived at eight. He was certain that, coming so very late, her parents would not stay up to annoy him for more than an hour. They were likely to ask him to remain for the night, and there would be no snooping Cousin Adeline Baldwin about.
Mr. Bains opened to his knock.
“Well, well, well, Brother Gantry! What brings you down to this part of the world this time of night? Come in! Come in!”
“I sort of thought I needed a good long walk — been studying too hard — and I took a chance on your letting me stop in and warm myself.”
“Well, sir, by golly, Brother, I’d of been mad’s a wet hen if you HADN’T stopped! This is your house and there’s always an extra plate to slap on the table. Yes, sir! Had your supper? Sandwich? Enough? Foolishness! We’ll have the womenfolks fix you up something in two shakes. The woman and Lulu, they’re still out in the kitchen. LU-lu!”
“Oh, I mustn’t stop — so terribly far back to town, and so late — shouldn’t have walked so far.”
“You don’t step your foot out of this house tonight, Brother! You stay right here!”
When Lulu saw him, her tranced eyes said, “And did you come all this way for me?”
She was more softly desirable than he had fancied.
Warmed and swollen with fried eggs and admiration, he sat with them in the parlor narrating more or less possible incidents of his campaigns for righteousness in Kansas, till Mr. Bains began to yawn.
“By golly, ten minutes after nine! Don’t know how it got to be so late. Ma, guess it’s about time to turn in.”
Elmer lunged gallantly:
“Well, you can go to bed, but we young folks are going to sit up and tell each other our middle names! I’m no preacher on week days — I’m just a student, by Jiminy!”
“Well — If you call this a week day. Looks like a week night to me, Brother!”
She was in his arms, on the couch, before her father had yawned and coughed up the stairs; she was in his arms, limp, unreasoning, at midnight; after a long stillness in the chilling room, she sat up hastily at two, and fingered her rumpled hair.
“Oh, I’m frightened!” she whimpered.
He tried to pat her comfortingly, but there was not much heat in him now.
“But it doesn’t matter. When shall we be married?” she fluttered.
And then there was no heart in him at all, but only a lump of terror.
Once or twice in his visions he had considered that there might be danger of having to many her. He had determined that marriage now would cramp his advancement in the church and that, anyway, he didn’t want to marry this brainless little fluffy chick, who would be of no help in impressing rich parishioners. But that caution he had utterly forgotten in emotion, and her question was authentically a surprise, abominably a shock. Thus in whirling thought, even while he mumbled:
“Well — well — Don’t think we can decide yet. Ought to wait till I have time to look around after I graduate, and get settled in some good pastorate.”
“Yes, perhaps we ought,” she said meekly to her man, the best and most learned and strongest and much the most interesting person she had ever known.
“So you mustn’t mention it to anybody, Lu. Not ever to your folks. They might not understand, like you do, how hard it is for a preacher to get his first real church.”
“Yes, dear. Oh, kiss me!”
And he had to kiss her any number of times, in that ghastly cold room, before he could escape to his chamber.
He sat on his bed with an expression of sickness, complaining, “Hell, I oughtn’t to have gone so far! I thought she’d resist more. Aaah! It wasn’t worth all this risk. Aaaaah! She’s dumm as a cow. Poor little thing!” His charity made him feel beneficent again. “Sorry for her. But, good God, she is wishy-washy. Her fault, really, but — Aaah! I was a fool! Well, fellow has to stand right up and face his faults honestly. I do. I don’t excuse myself. I’m not afraid to admit my faults and repent.”
So he was able to go to bed admiring his own virtue and almost forgiving her.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:57