It Can't Happen Here

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Chapter 14

I joined the Christian, or as some call it, the Campbellite Church as a mere boy, not yet dry behind the ears. But I wished then and I wish now that it were possible for me to belong to the whole glorious brotherhood; to be one in Communion at the same time with the brave Presbyterians that fight the pusillanimous, mendacious, destructive, tom-fool Higher Critics, so-called; and with the Methodists who so strongly oppose war yet in war-time can always be counted upon for Patriotism to the limit; and with the splendidly tolerant Baptists, the earnest Seventh-Day Adventists, and I guess I could even say a kind word for the Unitarians, as that great executive William Howard Taft belonged to them, also his wife.

Zero Hour, Berzelius Windrip.

 

Officially, Doremus belonged to the Universalist Church, his wife and children to the Episcopal—a natural American transition. He had been reared to admire Hosea Ballou, the Universalist St. Augustine who, from his tiny parsonage in Barnard, Vermont, had proclaimed his faith that even the wickedest would have, after earthly death, another chance of salvation. But now, Doremus could scarce enter the Fort Beulah Universalist Church. It had too many memories of his father, the pastor, and it was depressing to see how the old-time congregations, in which two hundred thick beards would wag in the grained pine benches every Sunday morning, and their womenfolks and children line up beside the patriarchs, had dwindled to aged widows and farmers and a few schoolteachers.

But in this time of seeking, Doremus did venture there. The church was a squat and gloomy building of granite, not particularly enlivened by the arches of colored slate above the windows, yet as a boy Doremus had thought it and its sawed-off tower the superior of Chartres. He had loved it as in Isaiah College he had loved the Library which, for all its appearance of being a crouching red-brick toad, had meant to him freedom for spiritual discovery—still cavern of a reading room where for hours one could forget the world and never be nagged away to supper.

He found, on his one attendance at the Universalist church, a scattering of thirty disciples, being addressed by a "supply," a theological student from Boston, monotonously shouting his well-meant, frightened, and slightly plagiaristic eloquence in regard to the sickness of Abijah, the son of Jeroboam. Doremus looked at the church walls, painted a hard and glistening green, unornamented, to avoid all the sinful trappings of papistry, while he listened to the preacher's hesitant droning:

"Now, uh, now what so many of us fail to realize is how, uh, how sin, how any sin that we, uh, we ourselves may commit, any sin reflects not on ourselves but on those that we, uh, that we hold near and dear—"

He would have given anything, Doremus yearned, for a sermon which, however irrational, would passionately lift him to renewed courage, which would bathe him in consolation these beleagured months. But with a shock of anger he saw that that was exactly what he had been condemning just a few days ago: the irrational dramatic power of the crusading leader, clerical or political.

Very well then—sadly. He'd just have to get along without the spiritual consolation of the church that he had known in college days.

No, first he'd try the ritual of his friend Mr. Falck—the Padre, Buck Titus sometimes called him.

In the cozy Anglicanism of St. Crispin's P. E. Church, with its imitation English memorial brasses and imitation Celtic font and brass-eagle reading desk and dusty-smelling maroon carpet, Doremus listened to Mr. Falck: "Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live; and hath given power and commandment to his Ministers, to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the Absolution and Remission of their sins—"

Doremus glanced at the placidly pious façade of his wife, Emma. The lovely, familiar old ritual seemed meaningless to him now, with no more pertinence to a life menaced by Buzz Windrip and his Minute Men, no more comfort for having lost his old deep pride in being an American, than a stage revival of an equally lovely and familiar Elizabethan play. He looked about nervously. However exalted Mr. Falck himself might be, most of the congregation were Yorkshire pudding. The Anglican Church was, to them, not the aspiring humility of Newman nor the humanity of Bishop Brown (both of whom left it!) but the sign and proof of prosperity—an ecclesiastical version of owning a twelve-cylinder Cadillac—or even more, of knowing that one's grandfather owned his own surrey and a respectable old family horse.

The whole place smelled to Doremus of stale muffins. Mrs. R. C. Crowley was wearing white gloves and on her bust—for a Mrs. Crowley, even in 1936, did not yet have breasts—was a tight bouquet of tuberoses. Francis Tasbrough had a morning coat and striped trousers and on the lilac-colored pew cushion beside him was (unique in Fort Beulah) a silk top-hat. And even the wife of Doremus's bosom, or at least of his breakfast coffee, the good Emma, had a pedantic expression of superior goodness which irritated him.

"Whole outfit stifles me!" he snapped. "Rather be at a yelling, jumping Holy Roller orgy—no—that's Buzz Windrip's kind of jungle hysterics. I want a church, if there can possibly be one, that's advanced beyond the jungle and beyond the chaplains of King Henry the Eighth. I know why, even though she's painfully conscientious, Lorinda never goes to church."

 

 

Lorinda Pike, on that sleety December afternoon, was darning a tea cloth in the lounge of her Beulah Valley Tavern, five miles up the river from the Fort. It wasn't, of course, a tavern: it was a super-boarding-house as regards its twelve guest bedrooms, and a slightly too arty tearoom in its dining facilities. Despite his long affection for Lorinda, Doremus was always annoyed by the Singhalese brass finger bowls, the North Carolina table mats, and the Italian ash trays displayed for sale on wabbly card tables in the dining room. But he had to admit that the tea was excellent, the scones light, the Stilton sound, Lorinda's private rum punches admirable, and that Lorinda herself was intelligent yet adorable—particularly when, as on this gray afternoon, she was bothered neither by other guests nor by the presence of that worm, her partner, Mr. Nipper, whose pleasing notion it was that because he had invested a few thousand in the Tavern he should have none of the work or responsibility and half the profits.

Doremus thrust his way in, patting off the snow, puffing to recover from the shakiness caused by skidding all the way from Fort Beulah. Lorinda nodded carelessly, dropped another stick on the fireplace, and went back to her darning with nothing more intimate than "Hullo. Nasty out."

"Yuh—fierce."

But as they sat on either side the hearth their eyes had no need of smiling for a bridge between them.

Lorinda reflected, "Well, my darling, it's going to be pretty bad. I guess Windrip & Co. will put the woman's struggle right back in the sixteen-hundreds, with Anne Hutchinson and the Antinomians."

"Sure. Back to the kitchen."

"Even if you haven't got one!"

"Any worse than us men? Notice that Windrip never mentioned free speech and the freedom of the press in his articles of faith? Oh, he'd 've come out for 'em strong and hearty if he'd even thought of 'em!"

"That's so. Tea, darling?"

"No. Linda, damn it, I feel like taking the family and sneaking off to Canada before I get nabbed—right after Buzz's inauguration."

"No. You mustn't. We've got to keep all the newspapermen that'll go on fighting him, and not go sniffling up to the garbage pail. Besides! What would I do without you?" For the first time Lorinda sounded importunate.

"You'll be a lot less suspect if I'm not around. But I guess you're right. I can't go till they put the skids under me. Then I'll have to vanish. I'm too old to stand jail."

"Not too old to make love, I hope! That would be hard on a girl!"

"Nobody ever is, except the kind that used to be too young to make love! Anyway, I'll stay—for a while."

He had, suddenly, from Lorinda, the resoluteness he had sought in church. He would go on trying to sweep back the ocean, just for his own satisfaction. It meant, however, that his hermitage in the Ivory Tower was closed with slightly ludicrous speed. But he felt strong again, and happy. His brooding was interrupted by Lorinda's curt:

"How's Emma taking the political situation?"

"Doesn't know there is one! Hears me croaking, and she heard Walt Trowbridge's warning on the radio, last evening—did you listen in?—and she says, 'Oh my, how dreadful!' and then forgets all about it and worries about the saucepan that got burnt! She's lucky! Oh well, she probably calms me down and keeps me from becoming a complete neurote! Probably that's why I'm so darned everlastingly fond of her. And yet I'm chump enough to wish you and I were together—uh—recognizedly together, all the time—and could fight together to keep some little light burning in this coming new glacial epoch. I do. All the time. I think that, at this moment, all things considered, I should like to kiss you."

"Is that so unusual a celebration?"

"Yes. Always. Always it's the first time again! Look, Linda, do you ever stop to think how curious it is, that with—everything between us—like that night in the hotel at Montreal—we neither one of us seem to feel any guilt, any embarrassment—can sit and gossip like this?"

"No, dear… . Darling! … It doesn't seem a bit curious. It was all so natural. So good!"

"And yet we're reasonably responsible people—"

"Of course. That's why nobody suspects us, not even Emma. Thank God she doesn't, Doremus! I wouldn't hurt her for anything, not even for your kind-hearted favors!"

"Beast!"

"Oh, you might be suspected, all by yourself. It's known that you sometimes drink likker and play poker and tell 'hot ones.' But who'd ever suspect that the local female crank, the suffragist, the pacifist, the anti-censorshipist, the friend of Jane Addams and Mother Bloor, could be a libertine! Highbrows! Bloodless reformers! Oh, and I've known so many women agitators, all dressed in Carrie Nation hatchets and modest sheets of statistics, that have been ten times as passionate, intolerably passionate, as any cream-faced plump little Kept Wife in chiffon step-ins!"

For a moment their embracing eyes were not merely friendly and accustomed and careless.

He fretted, "Oh I think of you all the time and want you and yet I think of Emma too—and I don't even have the fine novelistic egotism of feeling guilty and intolerably caught in complexities. Yes, it does all seem so natural, Dear Linda!"

He stalked restlessly to the casement window, looking back at her every second step. It was dusk now, and the roads smoking. He stared out inattentively—then very attentively indeed.

"That's curious. Curiouser and curiouser. Standing back behind that big bush, lilac bush I guess it is, across the road, there's a fellow watching this place. I can see him in the headlights whenever a car comes along. And I think it's my hired man, Oscar Ledue—Shad." He started to draw the cheerful red-and-white curtains.

"No! No! Don't draw them! He'll get suspicious."

"That's right. Funny, his watching there—if it is him. He's supposed to be at my house right now, looking after the furnace—winters, he only works for me couple of hours a day, works in the sash factory, rest of the time, but he ought to—A little light blackmail, I suppose. Well, he can publish everything he saw today, wherever he wants to!"

"Only what he saw today?"

"Anything! Any day! I'm awfully proud—old dish rag like me, twenty years older than you!—to be your lover!"

And he was proud, yet all the while he was remembering the warning in red chalk that he had found on his front porch after the election. Before he had time to become very complicated about it, the door vociferously banged open, and his daughter, Sissy, sailed in.

"Wot-oh, wot-oh, wot-oh! Toodle-oo! Good-morning, Jeeves! Mawnin', Miss Lindy. How's all de folks on de ole plantation everywhere I roam? Hello, Dad. No, it isn't cocktails—least, just one very small cocktail—it's youthful spirits! My God, but it's cold! Tea, Linda, my good woman—tea!"

They had tea. A thoroughly domestic circle.

"Race you home, Dad," said Sissy, when they were ready to go.

"Yes—no—wait a second! Lorinda: lend me a flashlight."

As he marched out of the door, marched belligerently across the road, in Doremus seethed all the agitated anger he had been concealing from Sissy. And part hidden behind bushes, leaning on his motorcycle, he did find Shad Ledue.

Shad was startled; for once he looked less contemptuously masterful than a Fifth Avenue traffic policeman, as Doremus snapped, "What you doing there?" and he stumbled in answering: "Oh I just—something happened to my motor-bike."

"So! You ought to be home tending the furnace, Shad."

"Well, I guess I got my machine fixed now. I'll hike along."

"No. My daughter is to drive me home, so you can put your motorcycle in the back of my car and drive it back." (Somehow, he had to talk privately to Sissy, though he was not in the least certain what it was he had to say.)

"Her? Rats! Sissy can't drive for sour apples! Crazy's a loon!"

"Ledue! Miss Sissy is a highly competent driver. At least she satisfies me, and if you really feel she doesn't quite satisfy your standard—"

"Her driving don't make a damn bit of difference to me one way or th' other! G'-night!"

Recrossing the road, Doremus rebuked himself, "That was childish of me. Trying to talk to him like a gent! But how I would enjoy murdering him!"

He informed Sissy, at the door, "Shad happened to come along—motorcycle in bad shape—let him take my Chrysler—I'll drive with you."

"Fine! Only six boys have had their hair turn gray, driving with me, this week."

"And I—I meant to say, I think I'd better do the driving. It's pretty slippery tonight."

"Wouldn't that destroy you! Why, my dear idiot parent, I'm the best driver in—"

"You can't drive for sour apples! Crazy, that's all! Get in! I'm driving, d'you hear? Night, Lorinda."

"All right, dearest Father," said Sissy with an impishness which reduced his knees to feebleness.

He assured himself, though, that this flip manner of Sissy, characteristic of even the provincial boys and girls who had been nursed on gasoline, was only an imitation of the nicer New York harlots and would not last more than another year or two. Perhaps this rattle-tongued generation needed a Buzz Windrip Revolution and all its pain.

 

 

"Beautiful, I know it's swell to drive carefully, but do you have to emulate the prudent snail?" said Sissy.

"Snails don't skid."

"No, they get run over. Rather skid!"

"So your father's a fossil!"

"Oh, I wouldn't—"

"Well, maybe he is, at that. There's advantages. Anyway: I wonder if there isn't a lot of bunk about Age being so cautious and conservative, and Youth always being so adventurous and bold and original? Look at the young Nazis and how they enjoy beating up the Communists. Look at almost any college class—the students disapproving of the instructor because he's iconoclastic and ridicules the sacred home-town ideas. Just this afternoon, I was thinking, driving out here—"

"Listen, Dad, do you go to Lindy's often?"

"Why—why, not especially. Why?"

"Why don't you—What are you two so scared of? You two wild-haired reformers—you and Lindy belong together. Why don't you—you know—kind of be lovers?"

"Good God Almighty! Cecilia! I've never heard a decent girl talk that way in all my life!"

"Tst! Tst! Haven't you? Dear, dear! So sorry!"

"Well, my Lord—At least you've got to admit that it's slightly unusual for an apparently loyal daughter to suggest her father's deceiving her mother! Especially a fine lovely mother like yours!"

"Is it? Well, maybe. Unusual to suggest it—aloud. But I wonder if lots of young females don't sometimes kind of think it, just the same, when they see the Venerable Parent going stale!"

"Sissy—"

"Hey, watch that telephone pole!"

"Hang it, I didn't go anywheres near it! Now you look here, Sissy: you simply must not be so froward—or forward, whichever it is; I always get those two words balled up. This is serious business. I've never heard of such a preposterous suggestion as Linda—Lorinda and I being lovers. My dear child, you simply can't be flip about such final things as that!"

"Oh, can't I! Oh, sorry, Dad. I just mean—About Mother Emma. Course I wouldn't have anybody hurt her, not even Lindy and you. But, why, bless you, Venerable, she'd never even dream of such a thing. You could have your nice pie and she'd never miss one single slice. Mother's mental grooves aren't, uh, well, they aren't so very sex-conditioned, if that's how you say it—more sort of along the new-vacuum-cleaner complex, if you know what I mean—page Freud! Oh, she's swell, but not so analytical and—"

"Are those your ethics, then?"

"Huh? Well for cat's sake, why not? Have a swell time that'll get you full of beans again and yet not hurt anybody's feelings? Why, say, that's the entire second chapter in my book on ethics!"

"Sissy! Have you, by any chance, any vaguest notion of what you're talking about, or think you're talking about? Of course—and perhaps we ought to be ashamed of our cowardly negligence—but I, and I don't suppose your mother, have taught you so very much about 'sex' and—"

"Thank heaven! You spared me the dear little flower and its simply shocking affair with that tough tomcat of a tiger lily in the next bed—excuse me—I mean in the next plot. I'm so glad you did. Pete's sake! I'd certainly hate to blush every time I looked at a garden!"

"Sissy! Child! Please! You mustn't be so beastly cute! These are all weighty things—"

Penitently: "I know, Dad. I'm sorry. It's just—if you only knew how wretched I feel when I see you so wretched and so quiet and everything. This horrible Windrip, League of Forgodsakers business has got you down, hasn't it! If you're going to fight 'em, you've got to get some pep back into you—you've got to take off the lace mitts and put on the brass knuckles—and I got kind of a hunch Lorinda might do that for you, and only her. Heh! Her pretending to be so high-minded! (Remember that old wheeze Buck Titus used to love so—'If you're saving the fallen women, save me one'? Oh, not so good. I guess we'll take that line right out of the sketch!) But anyway, our Lindy has a pretty moist and hungry eye—"

"Impossible! Impossible! By the way, Sissy! What do you know about all of this? Are you a virgin?"

"Dad! Is that your idea of a question to—Oh, I guess I was asking for it. And the answer is: Yes. So far. But not promising one single thing about the future. Let me tell you right now, if conditions in this country do get as bad as you've been claiming they will, and Julian Falck is threatened with having to go to war or go to prison or some rotten thing like that, I'm most certainly not going to let any maidenly modesty interfere between me and him, and you might just as well be prepared for that!"

"It is Julian then, not Malcolm?"

"Oh, I think so. Malcolm gives me a pain in the neck. He's getting all ready to take his proper place as a colonel or something with Windrip's wooden soldiers. And I am so fond of Julian! Even if he is the doggonedest, most impractical soul—like his grandfather—or you! He's a sweet thing. We sat up purring pretty nothings till about two, last night, I guess."

"Sissy! But you haven't—Oh, my little girl! Julian is probably decent enough—not a bad sort—but you—You haven't let Julian take any familiarities with you?"

"Dear quaint old word! As if anything could be so awfully much more familiar than a good, capable, 10,000 h.p. kiss! But darling, just so you won't worry—no. The few times, late nights, in our sitting room, when I've slept with Julian—well, we've slept!"

"I'm glad, but—Your apparent—probably only apparent—information on a variety of delicate subjects slightly embarrasses me."

"Now you listen to me! And this is something you ought to be telling me, not me you, Mr. Jessup! Looks as if this country, and most of the world—I am being serious, now, Dad; plenty serious, God help us all!—it looks as if we're headed right back into barbarism. It's war! There's not going to be much time for coyness and modesty, any more than there is for a base-hospital nurse when they bring in the wounded. Nice young ladies—they're out! It's Lorinda and me that you men are going to want to have around, isn't it—isn't it—now isn't it?"

"Maybe—perhaps," Doremus sighed, depressed at seeing a little more of his familiar world slide from under his feet as the flood rose.

They were coming into the Jessup driveway. Shad Ledue was just leaving the garage.

"Skip in the house, quick, will you!" said Doremus to his girl.

"Sure. But do be careful, hon!" She no longer sounded like his little daughter, to be protected, adorned with pale blue ribbons, slyly laughed at when she tried to show off in grown-up ways. She was suddenly a dependable comrade, like Lorinda.

Doremus slipped resolutely out of his car and said calmly:

"Shad!"

"Yuh?"

"D'you take the car keys into the kitchen?"

"Huh? No. I guess I left 'em in the car."

"I've told you a hundred times they belong inside."

"Yuh? Well, how'd you like Miss Cecilia's driving? Have a good visit with old Mrs. Pike?"

He was derisive now, beyond concealment.

"Ledue, I rather think you're fired—right now!"

"Well! Just feature that! O.K., Chief! I was just going to tell you that we're forming a second chapter of the League of Forgotten Men in the Fort, and I'm to be the secretary. They don't pay much—only about twice what you pay me—pretty tight-fisted—but it'll mean something in politics. Good-night!"

Afterward, Doremus was sorry to remember that, for all his longshoreman clumsiness, Shad had learned a precise script in his red Vermont schoolhouse, and enough mastery of figures so that probably he would be able to keep this rather bogus secretaryship. Too bad!

 

 

When, as League secretary, a fortnight later, Shad wrote to him demanding a donation of two hundred dollars to the League, and Doremus refused, the Informer began to lose circulation within twenty-four hours.

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