Elmer gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk. He leaned against the bar of the Old Home Sample Room, the most gilded and urbane saloon in Cato, Missouri, and requested the bartender to join him in "The Good Old Summer Time," the waltz of the day.
Blowing on a glass, polishing it and glancing at Elmer through its flashing rotundity, the bartender remarked that he wasn't much of a hand at this here singing business. But he smiled. No bartender could have done other than smile on Elmer, so inspired and full of gallantry and hell-raising was he, and so dominating was his beefy grin.
"All right, old socks," agreed Elmer. "Me and my roommate'll show you some singing as is singing! Meet roommate. Jim Lefferts. Bes' roommate in world. Wouldn't live with him if wasn't! Bes' quarterback in Milwest. Meet roommate."
The bartender again met Mr. Lefferts, with protestations of distinguished pleasure.
Elmer and Jim Lefferts retired to a table to nourish the long, rich, chocolate strains suitable to drunken melody. Actually, they sang very well. Jim had a resolute tenor, and as to Elmer Gantry, even more than his bulk, his thick black hair, his venturesome black eyes, you remembered that arousing barytone. He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously. He could make "Good morning" seem profound as Kant, welcoming as a brass band, and uplifting as a cathedral organ. It was a 'cello, his voice, and in the enchantment of it you did not hear his slang, his boasting, his smut, and the dreadful violence which (at this period) he performed on singulars and plurals.
Luxuriously as a wayfarer drinking cool beer they caressed the phrases in linked sweetness long drawn out:
Strolling through the shaaaaady lanes, with your baby-mine,
You hold her hand and she holds yours, and that's a very good sign
That she's your tootsey-wootsey in the good old summer time.
Elmer wept a little, and blubbered, "Lez go out and start a scrap. You're lil squirt, Jim. You get somebody to pick on you, and I'll come along and knock his block off. I'll show 'em!" His voice flared up. He was furious at the wrong about to be suffered. He arched his paws with longing to grasp the non-existent scoundrel. "By God, I'll knock the tar out of um! Nobody can touch my roommate! Know who I am? Elmer Gantry! Thash me! I'll show um!"
The bartender was shuffling toward them, amiably ready for homicide.
"Shut up, Hell-cat. What you need is 'nother drink. I'll get 'nother drink," soothed Jim, and Elmer slid into tears, weeping over the ancient tragic sorrows of one whom he remembered as Jim Lefferts.
Instantly, by some tricky sort of magic, there were two glasses in front of him. He tasted one, and murmured foolishly, " 'Scuse me." It was the chaser, the water. But they couldn't fool him! The whisky would certainly be in that other lil sawed-off glass. And it was. He was right, as always. With a smirk of self-admiration he sucked in the raw Bourbon. It tickled his throat and made him feel powerful, and at peace with every one save that fellow—he could not recall who, but it was some one whom he would shortly chastise, and after that float into an Elysium of benevolence.
The barroom was deliriously calming. The sour invigorating stench of beer made him feel healthy. The bar was one long shimmer of beauty—glowing mahogany, exquisite marble rail, dazzling glasses, curiously shaped bottles of unknown liqueurs, piled with a craftiness which made him very happy. The light was dim, completely soothing, coming through fantastic windows such as are found only in churches, saloons, jewelry shops, and other retreats from reality. On the brown plaster walls were sleek naked girls.
He turned from them. He was empty now of desire for women.
"That damn' Juanita. Jus' wants to get all she can out of you. That's all," he grumbled.
But there was an interesting affair beside him. A piece of newspaper sprang up, apparently by itself, and slid along the floor. That was a very funny incident, and he laughed greatly.
He was conscious of a voice which he had been hearing for centuries, echoing from a distant point of light and flashing through ever-widening corridors of a dream.
"We'll get kicked out of here, Hell-cat. Come on!"
He floated up. It was exquisite. His legs moved by themselves, without effort. They did a comic thing once—they got twisted and the right leg leaped in front of the left when, so far as he could make out, it should have been behind. He laughed, and rested against some one's arm, an arm with no body attached to it, which had come out of the Ewigkeit to assist him.
Then unknown invisible blocks, miles of them, his head clearing, and he made grave announcement to a Jim Lefferts who suddenly seemed to be with him:
"I gotta lick that fellow."
"All right, all right. You might as well go find a nice little fight and get it out of your system!"
Elmer was astonished; he was grieved. His mouth hung open and he drooled with sorrow. But still, he was to be allowed one charming fight, and he revived as he staggered industriously in search of it.
Oh, he exulted, it was a great party. For the first time in weeks he was relieved from the boredom of Terwillinger College.
Elmer Gantry, best known to classmates as Hell-cat, had, this autumn of 1902, been football captain and led the best team Terwillinger College had known in ten years. They had won the championship of the East-middle Kansas Conference, which consisted of ten denominational colleges, all of them with buildings and presidents and chapel services and yells and colors and a standard of scholarship equal to the best high-schools. But since the last night of the football season, with the glorious bonfire in which the young gentlemen had burned up nine tar barrels, the sign of the Jew tailor, and the president's tabby-cat, Elmer had been tortured by boredom.
He regarded basket-ball and gymnasium antics as light-minded for a football gladiator. When he had come to college, he had supposed he would pick up learnings of cash-value to a lawyer or doctor or insurance man—he had not known which he would become, and in his senior year, aged twenty-two this November, he still was doubtful. But this belief he found fallacious. What good would it be in the courtroom, or at the operating table, to understand trigonometry, or to know (as last spring, up to the examination on European History, he remembered having known) the date of Charlemagne? How much cash would it bring in to quote all that stuff—what the dickens was it now?—all that rot about "The world is too much around us, early and soon" from that old fool Wordsworth?
Punk, that's what it was. Better be out in business. But still, if his mother claimed she was doing so well with her millinery business and wanted him to be a college graduate, he'd stick by it. Lot easier than pitching hay or carrying two-by-fours anyway.
Despite his invaluable voice, Elmer had not gone out for debating, because of the irritating library-grinding, nor had he taken to prayer and moral eloquence in the Y. M. C. A., for with all the force of his simple and valiant nature he detested piety and admired drunkenness and profanity.
Once or twice in the class in Public Speaking, when he had repeated the splendors of other great thinkers, Dan'l Webster and Henry Ward Beecher and Chauncey M. Depew, he had known the intoxication of holding an audience with his voice as with his closed hand, holding it, shaking it, lifting it. The debating set urged him to join them, but they were rabbit-faced and spectacled young men, and he viewed as obscene the notion of digging statistics about immigration and the products of San Domingo out of dusty spotted books in the dusty spotted library.
He kept from flunking only because Jim Lefferts drove him to his books.
Jim was less bored by college. He had a relish for the flavor of scholarship. He liked to know things about people dead these thousand years, and he liked doing canned miracles in chemistry. Elmer was astounded that so capable a drinker, a man so deft at "handing a girl a swell spiel and getting her going" should find entertainment in Roman chariots and the unenterprising amours of sweet-peas. But himself—no. Not on your life. He'd get out and finish law school and never open another book—kid the juries along and hire some old coot to do the briefs.
To keep him from absolutely breaking under the burden of hearing the professors squeak, he did have the joy of loafing with Jim, illegally smoking the while; he did have researches into the lovability of co-eds and the baker's daughter; he did revere becoming drunk and world-striding. But he could not afford liquor very often and the co-eds were mostly ugly and earnest.
It was lamentable to see this broad young man, who would have been so happy in the prize-ring, the fish-market, or the stock exchange, poking through the cobwebbed corridors of Terwillinger.
Terwillinger College, founded and preserved by the more zealous Baptists, is on the outskirts of Gritzmacher Springs, Kansas. (The springs have dried up and the Gritzmachers have gone to Los Angeles, to sell bungalows and delicatessen.) It huddles on the prairie, which is storm-racked in winter, frying and dusty in summer, lovely only in the grass-rustling spring or drowsy autumn.
You would not be likely to mistake Terwillinger College for an Old Folks' Home, because on the campus is a large rock painted with class numerals.
Most of the faculty are ex-ministers.
There is a men's dormitory, but Elmer Gantry and Jim Lefferts lived together in the town, in a mansion once the pride of the Gritzmachers themselves: a square brick bulk with a white cupola. Their room was unchanged from the days of the original August Gritzmacher; a room heavy with a vast bed of carved black walnut, thick and perpetually dusty brocade curtains, and black walnut chairs hung with scarves that dangled gilt balls. The windows were hard to open. There was about the place the anxious propriety and all the dead hopes of a secondhand furniture shop.
In this museum, Jim had a surprising and vigorous youthfulness. There was a hint of future flabbiness in Elmer's bulk, but there would never be anything flabby about Jim Lefferts. He was slim, six inches shorter than Elmer, but hard as ivory and as sleek. Though he came from a prairie village, Jim had fastidiousness, a natural elegance. All the items of his wardrobe, the "ordinary suit," distinctly glossy at the elbows, and the dark-brown "best suit," were ready-made, with faltering buttons, and seams that betrayed rough ends of thread, but on him they were graceful. You felt that he would belong to any set in the world which he sufficiently admired. There was a romantic flare to his upturned overcoat collar; the darned bottoms of his trousers did not suggest poverty but a careless and amused ease; and his thoroughly commonplace ties hinted of clubs and regiments.
His thin face was resolute. You saw only its youthful freshness first, then behind the brightness a taut determination, and his brown eyes were amiably scornful.
Jim Lefferts was Elmer's only friend; the only authentic friend he had ever had.
Though Elmer was the athletic idol of the college, though his occult passion, his heavy good looks, caused the college girls to breathe quickly, though his manly laughter was as fetching as his resonant speech, Elmer was never really liked. He was supposed to be the most popular man in college; every one believed that every one else adored him; and none of them wanted to be with him. They were all a bit afraid, a bit uncomfortable, and more than a bit resentful.
It was not merely that he was a shouter, a pounder on backs, an overwhelming force, so that there was never any refuge of intimacy with him. It was because he was always demanding. Except with his widow mother, whom he vaguely worshiped, and with Jim Lefferts, Elmer assumed that he was the center of the universe and that the rest of the system was valuable only as it afforded him help and pleasure.
He wanted everything.
His first year, as the only Freshman who was playing on the college football team, as a large and smiling man who was expected to become a favorite, he was elected president. In that office, he was not much beloved. At class-meetings he cut speakers short, gave the floor only to pretty girls and lads who toadied to him, and roared in the midst of the weightiest debates, "Aw, come on, cut out this chewing the rag and let's get down to business!" He collected the class-fund by demanding subscriptions as arbitrarily as a Catholic priest assessing his parishioners for a new church.
"He'll never hold any office again, not if I can help it!" muttered one Eddie Fislinger, who, though he was a meager and rusty-haired youth with protruding teeth and an uneasy titter, had attained power in the class by always being present at everything, and by the piety and impressive intimacy of his prayers in the Y. M. C. A.
There was a custom that the manager of the Athletic Association should not be a member of any team. Elmer forced himself into the managership in Junior year by threatening not to play football if he were not elected. He appointed Jim Lefferts chairman of the ticket committee, and between them, by only the very slightest doctoring of the books, they turned forty dollars to the best of all possible uses.
At the beginning of Senior year, Elmer announced that he desired to be president again. To elect any one as class-president twice was taboo. The ardent Eddie Fislinger, now president of the Y. M. C. A. and ready to bring his rare talents to the Baptist ministry, asserted after an enjoyable private prayer-meeting in his room that he was going to face Elmer and forbid him to run.
"Gwan! You don't dare!" observed a Judas who three minutes before had been wrestling with God under Eddie's coaching.
"I don't, eh? Watch me! Why, everybody hates him, the darn' hog!" squeaked Eddie.
By scurrying behind trees he managed to come face to face with Elmer on the campus. He halted, and spoke of football, quantitative chemistry, and the Arkansas spinster who taught German.
Desperately, his voice shrill with desire to change the world, Eddie stammered:
"Say—say, Hell-cat, you hadn't ought to run for president again. Nobody's ever president twice!"
"Somebody's going to be."
"Ah, gee, Elmer, don't run for it. Ah, come on. Course all the fellows are crazy about you but— Nobody's ever been president twice. They'll vote against you."
"Let me catch 'em at it!"
"How can you stop it? Honest, Elm—Hell-cat—I'm just speaking for your own good. The voting's secret. You can't tell—"
"Huh! The nominations ain't secret! Now you go roll your hoop, Fissy, and let all the yellow coyotes know that anybody that nominates anybody except Uncle Hell-cat will catch it right where the chicken caught the ax. See? And if they tell me they didn't know about this, you'll get merry Hail Columbia for not telling 'em. Get me? If there's anything but an unanimous vote, you won't do any praying the rest of this year!"
Eddie remembered how Elmer and Jim had shown a Freshman his place in society by removing all his clothes and leaving him five miles in the country.
Elmer was elected president of the senior class—unanimously.
He did not know that he was unpopular. He reasoned that men who seemed chilly to him were envious and afraid, and that gave him a feeling of greatness.
Thus it happened that he had no friend save Jim Lefferts.
Only Jim had enough will to bully him into obedient admiration. Elmer swallowed ideas whole; he was a maelstrom of prejudices; but Jim accurately examined every notion that came to him. Jim was selfish enough, but it was with the selfishness of a man who thinks and who is coldly unafraid of any destination to which his thoughts may lead him. The little man treated Elmer like a large damp dog, and Elmer licked his shoes and followed.
He also knew that Jim, as quarter, was far more the soul of the team than himself as tackle and captain.
A huge young man, Elmer Gantry; six foot one, thick, broad, big handed; a large face, handsome as a Great Dane is handsome, and a swirl of black hair, worn rather long. His eyes were friendly, his smile was friendly—oh, he was always friendly enough; he was merely astonished when he found that you did not understand his importance and did not want to hand over anything he might desire. He was a barytone solo turned into portly flesh; he was a gladiator laughing at the comic distortion of his wounded opponent.
He could not understand men who shrank from blood, who liked poetry or roses, who did not casually endeavor to seduce every possibly seducible girl. In sonorous arguments with Jim he asserted that "these fellows that study all the time are just letting on like they're so doggone high and mighty, to show off to these doggone profs that haven't got anything but lemonade in their veins."