A Marriage Below Zero/Chapter XXI
We went to a quiet hotel, "on" Broadway, but far from the noise and bewildering traffic of that turbulent thoroughfare. It was a comfortable, unostentatious little house, not startlingly impressive, like some of the caravansaries miles above us, nor gloomily monotonous like the socalled family hotels where women who are too disgracefully lazy to attend to household duties, and men who are too idiotically weak-willed to protest against this, abide in stupid sloth.
We had a dainty little suite of three rooms. There was a small, prettily furnished parlor, from one side of which Arthur's room opened, while from the other side my own chamber could be entered. It was a tiny, kitchenless flat, and—as the colored handmaiden who attended to our wants, expressed it—it was "just as cute as could be."
No more complete diversion from the painful events of the past could have been desired than this visit to New York, where everything was new to us; where suggestion from associations was out of the question; where we were unlikely to meet a soul whom we knew; where even the English newspapers, when they reached us, were ten days old, and consequently uninteresting, and where no social claims could form an excuse for separation.
The programme of our first few days in America was as follows: Breakfast at ten o'clock in that dear little parlor, which, I reflected, was gradually becoming all that separated us the one from the other; a glance though the American newspapers, so that no one could accuse us of living entirely out of the world; a drive, either through that magnificent park, which does not boast what I have always wilfully considered an intolerable nuisance, a "Rotten Row," upon what New Yorkers call "the road;" then dinner in the big dining-room. After dinner we retired to our own little parlor and I read from some popular novel to my husband. I did not weary him with instructive books, because I thought he needed recreation, and because I hate instructive books myself. I recollect how I used to have Smiles' "Self-Help," thrust upon me by an enterprising governess, because she said it was "the most instructive, and at the same time the most amusing book," she could find.
I read to Arthur some good modern novels. When I saw that the dose was sufficient, I desisted, quickly closed my book, kissed him, and departed into my room.
And this treatment, I flattered myself, was most efficacious. I do not believe I gave a thought to my unknown rival during all those pleasant, happy days. I am sure I should have known it if I had. I loved my husband so dearly in this voluntary exile, that I was quick to notice his every look and expression, to account for them, to understand them.
He was gratified. Slowly but surely I was able to recognize in his manner a change from the wooed to the wooer. Alas! that a woman should ever be forced to woo a man. Still, when that man is her own husband, there are extenuating circumstances to be placed to her credit, as I think you will readily agree. My attentions did not weary him. Once or twice I grew tired of reading aloud, and he noticed it before I did. Then quietly but firmly he took the book from my unwilling hands, closed it, and laid it gently on the sofa. The slight but embarrassing pause which followed that action was broken by comments he made upon the story in question, that led to an amiable discussion of its merits, its probabilities, its characters. I gave my views with my usual flippant recklessness, and at last had the delight of knowing that I entertained him.
I believe I have called my married life unhappy. Ah! why should I say that, with the memory of those few sunny days vividly before me? Nothing can take that memory away from me. Those days were mine; I had worked for them laboriously, and they came simply as the reward of labor. I earned them. They were not the fullest joy that could have been given me, but they were inexpressibly dear, and as I think of them my eyes moisten and my lips tremble.
At the dinner-table, one night, we heard a very spirited discussion upon the merits of a sensational preacher, who was attracting large audiences—yes, "audiences" is the correct word—to his church, and exciting a good deal of newspaper comment at the same time. The majority of those who took part in the discussion were inclined to the opinion that the reverend gentleman was far too secular in his pulpit addresses; while the minority contended that he struck bravely at the root of crying evils from the very best place where it was possible for a man to strike at them. What was a pulpit for, said they, if not to redress evils by ventilating them? They, for their part, did not care to listen to the old-fashioned sermons that pleased generations past. The sermons might not be orthodox in the accepted meaning of the word, but they were interesting, clever and virile.
"Let us go to-morrow and hear this much-talked-about gentleman, Arthur," I said to my husband as we returned to our parlor after dinner. "We can then pass upon his merits or demerits in our own particularly learned way. What say you?"
"We will go, Elsie," he said. "You shall pass upon his merits or de-merits as usual, and I will simply curb your impetuosity in whatever direction you may argue—also, as usual."
So the following morning, which happened to be Sunday, instead of casting our eyes through the voluminous newspapers, we disposed ourselves to thoughts of church, a novelty to both of us, I am sorry, though obliged, to confess.
This home of sensationalism was a very modem-looking building—as, of course, was appropriate. I was surprised when I found that it was a church, so extremely secular was its appearance.
It was situated a long way from our hotel, but in what street I cannot remember, though I am quite sure it was above Fortieth Street and below Fiftieth.
Crowds of people were entering the building as we reached it—exquisitely dressed women, black clad respectable looking men, and comely children in all their Sunday finery. I was told that this was a distinctly American congregation. It was certainly a most refined and intelligent looking gathering of men and women.
We took our seats in a pew, from which we had an excellent view of the presiding minister. He was a tall, thin, dignified, quiet looking man. At the first glance one might have expected an orthodox, prosy, soporific sermon, but a more careful inspection of the man revealed a pair of keen, bead-like eyes, which seemed to "take in" every man or woman present in a most unusual manner; tightly compressed lips, and fingers that spasmodically clutched the book they held.
"He doesn't look sensational," I whispered conclusively to my husband.
"He looks very sensational," was the reply.
The preliminary service was a short one, and at the close of a hymn, exquisitely sung, suddenly looking up I saw the minister in the pulpit ready to begin. He made none of those prefatory announcements which are death to the artistic impressiveness of a sermon. Standing in his pulpit, he waited till the last deliciously tuneful strain of the choir had died away, and then gave out his text, clearly and deliberately. Before he had reached the end of the text, he had rivetted my attention, and during the entire sermon I listened to him spell-bound, unconscious of my surroundings.
This was the text:
"Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of Heaven;
"And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grow upon the ground.
"And he (Abraham) looked towards Sodom and Gomorrah, and toward all the land of the plain, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the country went up as the smoke of a furnace."
He spoke of the optimists who flatter themselves that the sins of the earlier ages are unknown to-day; who believe that civilization has dealt out death to the evils that corrupted a younger world. He tried to show that optimism was the natural sequence of ignorance; that all sin was the result of human weakness, inherited, or by some physiological freak, innate; that there was not a solitary vice recorded in the times gone by that did not exist to-day, magnified and multiplied. Sin could take no new shape, and no one could assert after a careful study of humanity, that it had forgotten any of its old forms. Men were the same now as they were when we first heard of them. Their lives, shortened slightly perhaps by civilization, were identical; their death, as inevitable; their physical sufferings synonymous; their joys similar.
He alluded to those who knew of the existence of hateful sins, and who from misplaced scruple, failed to mention them.
"Do not call me illogical," he said, "I do not believe that sin could be abolished by all the sermons in the world. But at least it should be diligently pointed out that it may not gather increased victims. Its spread can be avoided; its contagion diminished. Men will sin as long as the world exists; but many sin voluntarily, won over by those with whom vice is natural."
The pessimism of the sermon frightened me. With him there was no hope of eradicating evil; merely of lessening its influence upon those with whom it was forced to come in contact. It was a very deep, obtuse lecture—too deep for me, I am afraid. I did not understand it thoroughly, though its gist was perfectly clear to me. The methods of the man would have attracted attention anywhere, but I never want to hear another such sermon. I do not believe it could do good. People do not want to be thrilled on Sunday. They need to be comforted and taught to hope for the best. As his last words were uttered, and the congregation, which had listened breathlessly, eagerly, to every word, watched the speaker descend from his pulpit, I looked for the first time since the beginning of the discourse at my husband.
His face was as white as death. His eyes, widely open, were staring fixedly at the pulpit, which was now empty, as though he expected further utterances. His hands hung limp and nerveless at his side.
I touched his arm. He started violently, and turned a face from which every expression of good-fellowship, trust and hope seemed to have fled.
"Arthur," I said, seriously alarmed, "what is the matter? Are you ill? Don't—don't look at me like that."
He tried to smile.
"I wonder if he has delivered that lecture before," he said huskily.
His strange tone surprised me—accustomed as I was, by this time, to surprise.
"Probably not," I said. "Popular preachers, as a rule, do not deliver old sermons, I should think,—for their own sakes."
"Let us go home," he said. "I can't sit through the rest of the service."
As we were going out Arthur asked one of the ushers anxiously if the Doctor were going to speak again that night. The usher smiled.
"No," he said. "One lecture is all he can manage. He exhausts himself. He's as weak as a rat after one of his talks."
My ideas upon the weakness of rats being decidedly limited, I could only infer from the context that it was extreme. We passed out into the street.
"I did not want to hear him again," said Arthur presently, as we walked homewards, "but if he had spoken to-night I feel I must have gone. What an awful sermon!"
"It was indeed," I assented, "we are surely not such hopeless cases as that man wants to make out."
"Do you think so?" he asked.
I looked at him, wondering.
"I am sure of it," I said, with the beautiful certainty of one who never studies any question except upon the surface.
"You are a dear little girl," he said suddenly, with what I considered absolute irrelevance, "and I would believe you rather than—than him. Let us go home and talk. Do you know, dear, I am beginning to feel so happy in your society—No, no" (hastily), "not as I used to be, Elsie. You are doing so much good. I bless the day when we left London."
I looked up at him gladly; could any words have been sweeter than these to me? I doubt it.