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BABBITT (16)

2006-09-08 13:49

    CHAPTER XVI

    THE certainty that he was not going to be accepted by the McKelveys made Babbitt feel guilty and a little absurd. But he went more regularly to the Elks; at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon he was oratorical regarding the wickedness of strikes; and again he saw himself as a Prominent Citizen.

    His clubs and associations were food comfortable to his spirit.

    Of a decent man in Zenith it was required that he should belong to one, preferably two or three, of the innumerous "lodges" and prosperity-boosting lunch-clubs; to the Rotarians, the Kiwanis, or the Boosters; to the Oddfellows, Moose, Masons, Red Men, Woodmen, Owls, Eagles, Maccabees, Knights of Pythias, Knights of Columbus, and other secret orders characterized by a high degree of heartiness, sound morals, and reverence for the Constitution. There were four reasons for joining these orders: It was the thing to do. It was good for business, since lodge-brothers frequently became customers. It gave to Americans unable to become Geheimrate or Commendatori such unctuous honorifics as High Worthy Recording Scribe and Grand Hoogow to add to the commonplace distinctions of Colonel, Judge, and Professor. And it permitted the swaddled American husband to stay away from home for one evening a week. The lodge was his piazza, his pavement cafe. He could shoot pool and talk man-talk and be obscene and valiant.

    Babbitt was what he called a "joiner" for all these reasons.

    Behind the gold and scarlet banner of his public achievements was the dun background of office-routine: leases, sales-contracts, lists of properties to rent. The evenings of oratory and committees and lodges stimulated him like brandy, but every morning he was sandy-tongued. Week by week he accumulated nervousness. He was in open disagreement with his outside salesman, Stanley Graff; and once, though her charms had always kept him nickeringly polite to her, he snarled at Miss McGoun for changing his letters.

    But in the presence of Paul Riesling he relaxed. At least once a week they fled from maturity. On Saturday they played golf, jeering, "As a golfer, you're a fine tennis-player," or they motored all Sunday afternoon, stopping at village lunchrooms to sit on high stools at a counter and drink coffee from thick cups. Sometimes Paul came over in the evening with his violin, and even Zilla was silent as the lonely man who had lost his way and forever crept down unfamiliar roads spun out his dark soul in music.

    II

    Nothing gave Babbitt more purification and publicity than his labors for the Sunday School.

    His church, the Chatham Road Presbyterian, was one of the largest and richest, one of the most oaken and velvety, in Zenith. The pastor was the Reverend John Jennison Drew, M.A., D.D., LL.D. (The M.A. and the D.D. were from Elbert University, Nebraska, the LL.D. from Waterbury College, Oklahoma.) He was eloquent, efficient, and versatile. He presided at meetings for the denunciation of unions or the elevation of domestic service, and confided to the audiences that as a poor boy he had carried newspapers. For the Saturday edition of the Evening Advocate he wrote editorials on "The Manly Man's Religion" and "The Dollars and Sense Value of Christianity," which were printed in bold type surrounded by a wiggly border. He often said that he was "proud to be known as primarily a business man" and that he certainly was not going to "permit the old Satan to monopolize all the pep and punch." He was a thin, rustic-faced young man with gold spectacles and a bang of dull brown hair, but when he hurled himself into oratory he glowed with power. He admitted that he was too much the scholar and poet to imitate the evangelist, Mike Monday, yet he had once awakened his fold to new life, and to larger collections, by the challenge, "My brethren, the real cheap skate is the man who won't lend to the Lord!"

    He had made his church a true community center. It contained everything but a bar. It had a nursery, a Thursday evening supper with a short bright missionary lecture afterward, a gymnasium, a fortnightly motion-picture show, a library of technical books for young workmen——though, unfortunately, no young workman ever entered the church except to wash the windows or repair the furnace——and a sewing-circle which made short little pants for the children of the poor while Mrs. Drew read aloud from earnest novels.

    Though Dr. Drew's theology was Presbyterian, his church-building was gracefully Episcopalian. As he said, it had the "most perdurable features of those noble ecclesiastical monuments of grand Old England which stand as symbols of the eternity of faith, religious and civil." It was built of cheery iron-spot brick in an improved Gothic style, and the main auditorium had indirect lighting from electric globes in lavish alabaster bowls.

    On a December morning when the Babbitts went to church, Dr. John Jennison Drew was unusually eloquent. The crowd was immense. Ten brisk young ushers, in morning coats with white roses, were bringing folding chairs up from the basement. There was an impressive musical program, conducted by Sheldon Smeeth, educational director of the Y.M.C.A., who also sang the offertory. Babbitt cared less for this, because some misguided person had taught young Mr. Smeeth to smile, smile, smile while he was singing, but with all the appreciation of a fellow-orator he admired Dr. Drew's sermon. It had the intellectual quality which distinguished the Chatham Road congregation from the grubby chapels on Smith Street.

    "At this abundant harvest-time of all the year," Dr. Drew chanted, "when, though stormy the sky and laborious the path to the drudging wayfarer, yet the hovering and bodiless spirit swoops back o'er all the labors and desires of the past twelve months, oh, then it seems to me there sounds behind all our apparent failures the golden chorus of greeting from those passed happily on; and lo! on the dim horizon we see behind dolorous clouds the mighty mass of mountains——mountains of melody, mountains of mirth, mountains of might!"

    "I certainly do like a sermon with culture and thought in it," meditated Babbitt.

    At the end of the service he was delighted when the pastor, actively shaking hands at the door, twittered, "Oh, Brother Babbitt, can you wait a jiffy? Want your advice."

    "Sure, doctor! You bet!"

    "Drop into my office. I think you'll like the cigars there." Babbitt did like the cigars. He also liked the office, which was distinguished from other offices only by the spirited change of the familiar wall-placard to "This is the Lord's Busy Day." Chum Frink came in, then William W. Eathorne.

    Mr. Eathorne was the seventy-year-old president of the First State Bank of Zenith. He still wore the delicate patches of side-whiskers which had been the uniform of bankers in 1870. If Babbitt was envious of the Smart Set of the McKelveys, before William Washington Eathorne he was reverent. Mr. Eathorne had nothing to do with the Smart Set. He was above it. He was the great-grandson of one of the five men who founded Zenith, in 1792, and he was of the third generation of bankers. He could examine credits, make loans, promote or injure a man's business. In his presence Babbitt breathed quickly and felt young.

    The Reverend Dr. Drew bounced into the room and flowered into speech:

    "I've asked you gentlemen to stay so I can put a proposition before you. The Sunday School needs bucking up. It's the fourth largest in Zenith, but there's no reason why we should take anybody's dust. We ought to be first. I want to request you, if you will, to form a committee of advice and publicity for the Sunday School; look it over and make any suggestions for its betterment, and then, perhaps, see that the press gives us some attention——give the public some really helpful and constructive news instead of all these murders and divorces."

    "Excellent," said the banker.

    Babbitt and Frink were enchanted to join him.

    III

    If you had asked Babbitt what his religion was, he would have answered in sonorous Boosters'-Club rhetoric, "My religion is to serve my fellow men, to honor my brother as myself, and to do my bit to make life happier for one and all." If you had pressed him for more detail, he would have announced, "I'm a member of the Presbyterian Church, and naturally, I accept its doctrines." If you had been so brutal as to go on, he would have protested, "There's no use discussing and arguing about religion; it just stirs up bad feeling."

    Actually, the content of his theology was that there was a supreme being who had tried to make us perfect, but presumably had failed; that if one was a Good Man he would go to a place called Heaven (Babbitt unconsciously pictured it as rather like an excellent hotel with a private garden), but if one was a Bad Man, that is, if he murdered or committed burglary or used cocaine or had mistresses or sold non-existent real estate, he would be punished. Babbitt was uncertain, however, about what he called "this business of Hell." He explained to Ted, "Of course I'm pretty liberal; I don't exactly believe in a fire-and-brimstone Hell. Stands to reason, though, that a fellow can't get away with all sorts of Vice and not get nicked for it, see how I mean?"

    Upon this theology he rarely pondered. The kernel of his practical religion was that it was respectable, and beneficial to one's business, to be seen going to services; that the church kept the Worst Elements from being still worse; and that the pastor's sermons, however dull they might seem at the time of taking, yet had a voodooistic power which "did a fellow good——kept him in touch with Higher Things."

    His first investigations for the Sunday School Advisory Committee did not inspire him.

    He liked the Busy Folks' Bible Class, composed of mature men and women and addressed by the old-school physician, Dr. T. Atkins Jordan, in a sparkling style comparable to that of the more refined humorous after-dinner speakers, but when he went down to the junior classes he was disconcerted. He heard Sheldon Smeeth, educational director of the Y.M.C.A. and leader of the church-choir, a pale but strenuous young man with curly hair and a smile, teaching a class of sixteen-year-old boys. Smeeth lovingly admonished them, "Now, fellows, I'm going to have a Heart to Heart Talk Evening at my house next Thursday. We'll get off by ourselves and be frank about our Secret Worries. You can just tell old Sheldy anything, like all the fellows do at the Y. I'm going to explain frankly about the horrible practises a kiddy falls into unless he's guided by a Big Brother, and about the perils and glory of Sex." Old Sheldy beamed damply; the boys looked ashamed; and Babbitt didn't know which way to turn his embarrassed eyes.

    Less annoying but also much duller were the minor classes which were being instructed in philosophy and Oriental ethnology by earnest spinsters. Most of them met in the highly varnished Sunday School room, but there was an overflow to the basement, which was decorated with varicose water-pipes and lighted by small windows high up in the oozing wall. What Babbitt saw, however, was the First Congregational Church of Catawba. He was back in the Sunday School of his boyhood. He smelled again that polite stuffiness to be found only in church parlors; he recalled the case of drab Sunday School books: "Hetty, a Humble Heroine" and "Josephus, a Lad of Palestine;" he thumbed once more the high-colored text-cards which no boy wanted but no boy liked to throw away, because they were somehow sacred; he was tortured by the stumbling rote of thirty-five years ago, as in the vast Zenith church he listened to:

    "Now, Edgar, you read the next verse. What does it mean when it says it's easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye? What does this teach us? Clarence! Please don't wiggle so! If you had studied your lesson you wouldn't be so fidgety. Now, Earl, what is the lesson Jesus was trying to teach his disciples? The one thing I want you to especially remember, boys, is the words, 'With God all things are possible.' Just think of that always——Clarence, PLEASE pay attention——just say 'With God all things are possible' whenever you feel discouraged, and, Alec, will you read the next verse; if you'd pay attention you wouldn't lose your place!"

    Drone——drone——drone——gigantic bees that boomed in a cavern of drowsiness—— Babbitt started from his open-eyed nap, thanked the teacher for "the privilege of listening to her splendid teaching," and staggered on to the next circle.

    After two weeks of this he had no suggestions whatever for the Reverend Dr. Drew.

    Then he discovered a world of Sunday School journals, an enormous and busy domain of weeklies and monthlies which were as technical, as practical and forward-looking, as the real-estate columns or the shoe-trade magazines. He bought half a dozen of them at a religious book-shop and till after midnight he read them and admired.

    He found many lucrative tips on "Focusing Appeals," "Scouting for New Members," and "Getting Prospects to Sign up with the Sunday School." He particularly liked the word "prospects," and he was moved by the rubric:

    "The moral springs of the community's life lie deep in its Sunday Schools——its schools of religious instruction and inspiration. Neglect now means loss of spiritual vigor and moral power in years to come…… Facts like the above, followed by a straight-arm appeal, will reach folks who can never be laughed or jollied into doing their part."

    Babbitt admitted, "That's so. I used to skin out of the ole Sunday School at Catawba every chance I got, but same time, I wouldn't be where I am to-day, maybe, if it hadn't been for its training in——in moral power. And all about the Bible. (Great literature. Have to read some of it again, one of these days."

    How scientifically the Sunday School could be organized he learned from an article in the Westminster Adult Bible Class:

    "The second vice-president looks after the fellowship of the class. She chooses a group to help her. These become ushers. Every one who comes gets a glad hand. No one goes away a stranger. One member of the group stands on the doorstep and invites passers-by to come in."

    Perhaps most of all Babbitt appreciated the remarks by William H. Ridgway in the Sunday School Times:

    "If you have a Sunday School class without any pep and get-up-and-go in it, that is, without interest, that is uncertain in attendance, that acts like a fellow with the spring fever, let old Dr. Ridgway write you a prescription. Rx. Invite the Bunch for Supper."

    The Sunday School journals were as well rounded as they were practical. They neglected none of the arts. As to music the Sunday School Times advertised that C. Harold Lowden, "known to thousands through his sacred compositions," had written a new masterpiece, "entitled 'Yearning for You.' The poem, by Harry D. Kerr, is one of the daintiest you could imagine and the music is indescribably beautiful. Critics are agreed that it will sweep the country. May be made into a charming sacred song by substituting the hymn words, 'I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say.' "

    Even manual training was adequately considered. Babbitt noted an ingenious way of illustrating the resurrection of Jesus Christ:

    "Model for Pupils to Make. Tomb with Rolling Door.——Use a square covered box turned upside down. Pull the cover forward a little to form a groove at the bottom. Cut a square door, also cut a circle of cardboard to more than cover the door. Cover the circular door and the tomb thickly with stiff mixture of sand, flour and water and let it dry. It was the heavy circular stone over the door the women found 'rolled away' on Easter morning. This is the story we are to 'Go-tell.'"

    In their advertisements the Sunday School journals were thoroughly efficient. Babbitt was interested in a preparation which "takes the place of exercise for sedentary men by building up depleted nerve tissue, nourishing the brain and the digestive system." He was edified to learn that the selling of Bibles was a hustling and strictly competitive industry, and as an expert on hygiene he was pleased by the Sanitary Communion Outfit Company's announcement of "an improved and satisfactory outfit throughout, including highly polished beautiful mahogany tray. This tray eliminates all noise, is lighter and more easily handled than others and is more in keeping with the furniture of the church than a tray of any other material."

    IV

    He dropped the pile of Sunday School journals.

    He pondered, "Now, there's a real he-world. Corking!

    "Ashamed I haven't sat in more. Fellow that's an influence in the community——shame if he doesn't take part in a real virile hustling religion. Sort of Christianity Incorporated, you might say.

    "But with all reverence.

    "Some folks might claim these Sunday School fans are undignified and unspiritual and so on. Sure! Always some skunk to spring things like that! Knocking and sneering and tearing-down——so much easier than building up. But me, I certainly hand it to these magazines. They've brought ole George F. Babbitt into camp, and that's the answer to the critics!

    "The more manly and practical a fellow is, the more he ought to lead the enterprising Christian life. Me for it! Cut out this carelessness and boozing and——Rone! Where the devil you been? This is a fine time o' night to be coming in!"

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