Monday, April 21, 2014

gwendolyn gets religion

by horace p sternwall

illustrated by danny delacroix

editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo

part one of three

for previous Gwendolyn story, click here

to begin the Gwendolyn stories, click here

it was a dull day, neither bright nor overcast.

but it was saturday.

gwendolyn did not have to go to school, or beg off going to school.

the lobby of the venerable hotel st crispian was quiet and empty, as it often was on saturday morning. grownups, even those like auntie margaret and her friends serge and pierre who did not have "jobs", often slept later on saturday after staying out later than usual on friday night.

serge had not even shown up at the apartment for his usual morning coffee and perusal of the newspaper.

in fact the only other people in the lobby were the day desk clerk james - a particularly nondescript fellow who knew his place and never made familiar comments, at least not to the regular guests -

and the house detective mister nolan, sitting like an ugly old toad in his usual chair on the other side of the lobby. he looked like he might be asleep, but gwendolyn knew that he almost certainly was not.

but gwendolyn was content. the book she had brought down to the lobby with her - no name, by mister wilkie collins - was quite the best she had ever read, and she became quite engrossed in it, and virtually oblivious to her surroundings.

eventually her attention was diverted by the growling voice of mister nolan, quite distinct from across the lobby.

"you again! what did i tell you when i caught you in here before? hey?"

gwendolyn looked up. she did a double take.

for she recognized the person mister nolan was standing over.

it was a small girl she recognized from school - she had never seen a schoolmate in the hotel before, and the sight was, for a moment, somewhat dreamlike and disconcerting.

the girl had been in the fifth grade the year before, when gwendolyn had been in the sixth grade at the john t hoffman public grammar school. (gwendolyn was now in the seventh grade at miss churchill's school for girls, auntie margaret's old school)

so she was presumably a year younger than gwendolyn, and very small for her age. she was immediately recognizable by two long braids that hung all the way down her back. what was her name? pippi, tippi, sippi - something uncouth like that.

now she was saying in a surprisingly loud voice to nolan - "sir! america was founded on the principle of religious freedom! i have a constitutional right to spread the light of the gospel!"

now gwendolyn noticed that the girl had a stack of pamphlets - with sickly green covers - in her hand.

nolan gave a barking laugh. "well, missy, so now you are a lawyer as well as a preacher, hey?" he waved his unlit cigar at the girl. "that is quite a lot to pack into so small a frame, don't you think, james?"

james, who was leaning on the front desk listening to the conversation, just nodded with his wistful little smile.

the girl raised her voice again. "sir! consider the decision of the supreme court and judge felix frankfurter in the case of the west virginia state board of education vs barnette, in 1943, clearly upholding the principle of religious freedom!"

"oh, my," nolan replied. "well, i tell you what, missy, you go find judge felix frankfurter and bring him back here, and i will hear what he has to say, how does that sound?"

now the girl changed her tune. in a lower, little girl voice, she asked, "oh, please, sir, what is the harm? i just want to slip my pamphlets under the doors, i will not even knock on them. if people don't want to read them, they can just toss them away, so where is the harm? "

"the harm, miss, is that we can't have people wandering the halls night and day knocking on doors and shoving things under them. the tenants - even the more easygoing ones - and some of them are far from easygoing - do not take kindly to such proceedings." nolan smiled. "as i believe i explained to you before."

"oh, sir, just this once - since i am already here." the girl sniffled, as if she were about to start crying.

"no. i will tell you something else - the real reason the tenants, and the owners of the hotel do not want such activity going on."

"and what is that, sir?"

"that they think the people who do such things are actually looking for open doors so that they can sneak into them and rob the rooms."

"oh! that's terrible!" the girl exclaimed.

"yes" nolan continued, "it's a suspicious world, missy, and not everyone in it is filled with the light of charity."

"all the more reason, then, for their hardened souls to be reached out to."

at this point, gwendolyn, who had been listening to the whole conversation, was beginning to be impressed by pippi or tippi's tenacity. could she have stood up to mister nolan so boldly herself?

"no," nolan answered emphatically. "so i'll thank you to be on your way."

"at least you can take one of my booklets yourself." the girl held one out to nolan. "if you don't want the souls of the other people in the hotel to be saved , perhaps you might like to save your own."

nolan laughed, a real laugh. "ha, ha! you know, missy, i've had women saving my soul my whole life. first it was my mother and my aunts and my sisters.

then it was the nuns in school. and then my wife and her sisters and my daughters. all saving my soul from the day i was born. so i say to you, welcome to the congregation." but he took the pamphlet.

with a final glance at him, the girl turned and headed for the door.

"and don't let me catch you in here again!" nolan called after her.

the girl swerved away toward the front desk and offered one of the pamphlets to james the desk clerk, who took it with his insipid little smile.

and then she was out the door.

on an impulse, gwendolyn decided to follow her. as much as she was enjoying it, no name by wilkie collins could wait.

she got up and went up to the front desk and handed her book to james.

"could you please hold this for me until i get back?"

"certainly, miss."

gwendolyn pushed through the front door.

she took a deep breath of fresh air. it almost never ceased to surprise her, just how stuffy the hotel was - you did not really notice it until you went outside.

it was quite a nice day. pleasantly warm, though slightly cloudy.

the girl with the pamphlets had taken a right, toward morton street.

gwendolyn had wondered how quickly she should follow her. or if she should try to catch up with her right away.

but the decision was made for her.

for after a slight hesitation, the girl went into the automat.


part 2

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