C.S. Lewis has somewhere said that if a young man wants to remain an atheist he can’t be too careful what he reads. God has a way of sneaking up on you (as He sneaked up on CSL when he read G.K. Chesterton). The same is true of love in the form of compassion. If you want to stay cynical you have to be careful what you look at or listen to or read. But bolting all doors against love is more of a job than it appears—some I know personally and a great number I’ve read of found it impossible.
Short story novelist, O. Henry (died 1910), tells us that J. Pinkney Bloom was a swindler with a fifty-two inch waist and a really fat money belt. He bought some useless land at forty-five cents an acre and sub-divided it, on paper, into sections that sold for from five dollars to five hundred. He had parks, markets, trade-halls and a place for the public school all laid out. There was the “Exposition Hall” and a place for the “proposed” opera house. Investors saw the circulars, maps and such that Bloom mailed out and they sent their money into the Skyland Real Estate Company. Each of them got a deed and now owned a prime piece of desolate land on which lived a contingent of indigents whom Bloom had put up in some dirt-cheap box houses (so he could speak of “the population”).
He was going to make one final visit to Skyland aboard the Dixie Belle that was contracted to drop off mail at Skyland (though the bag was almost always empty). J. Pinkney knew the captain well, a fellow rapscallion. As the little boat was about to shove off the Blaylocks arrived, rattling up to the pier in a rickety, hired carriage, an elderly gentleman dressed in black, and his wife.
They hailed from Holly Springs, Georgia and were two throwbacks to the days of the old South. They adored each other and were heading up the lake on business. Their clothes were well-worn and so was the charm that simply poured from them. Her husband, said the delicate elderly wife, looking toward Colonel Blaylock with unworldly, childlike eyes, “Is so devoted to business. He has such a talent for financiering and markets and investments and those kinds of things.” She went on, “I think myself extremely fortunate in having secured him for a partner on life’s journey—I am so unversed in those formidable but very useful branches of learning.”
The Colonel rose and took a bow—the kind that belonged to the era of lace ruffles and silk stockings.
He told of his wife’s ill-health, of her home back in northern Georgia, of her gentle spirit and poetic giftedness and of her dependence on him to look after her in the practical areas of life. How pleased he was to be her champion and protector and how glad he was that he had expertise in the investments area. He had arranged a new home in a glorious area and with the little money they had left he would like to buy a book store that would bring in just enough money to support them.
All the while Mrs. Blaylock is looking rapturously at him, hanging on his every word. Colonel Blaylock was so competent and after carefully studying the field of opportunities had sold their property for eight hundred dollars, spent five hundred of it on a wonderful piece of property in a newly developed place called Skyland and that’s where they were heading.
“Did you pay five hundred dollars for a lot in Skyland?” J. Pinkney asked him. “I did, sir” said the Colonel with the air of a modest millionaire explaining his success. “A lot most excellently situated on the same square with the opera house…” He went on again to lay out their dreams; dreams he had mapped out with his vast experience in the financial world. The move would do Mrs. Blaylock good, restoring to her face, as the Colonel put it, “those roses that were once the hope and despair of Georgia cavaliers.” Then another bow as he touched the pale but girlishly blushing face of Mrs. Blaylock who gave him a gentle “what a silly boy you are” tap.
Bloom’s mind was now racing. This lovely old couple had sunk all their hopes in a parcel of waste ground at the back of nowhere, and their money was in J. Pinkney’s money belt that hung around his prodigious waist. Even this heathen was unzipped and thought frantically how this wrong could be righted.
He went to Captain McFarland and persuaded him to stop off at Cold Branch. About ten minutes later the little boat nosed into the lovely little community of Cold Branch and the captain announced it as Skyland! J. Pinkney helped them off, led them to a fine little hotel where they decided they’d rest and look at their purchases tomorrow. This suited Bloom perfectly and he footed the bill.
He found a lawyer, hired him, headed to the little community’s book-store and made the owner an offer he couldn’t refuse for his store and the house that went with it. Shooed him nicely off the property, paid the lawyer well for his trouble and had him deliver the deeds of the house and book-store to the Blaylocks when they would be up and around. Even a two-bit thimble-rigger like J. Pinkney Bloom knew what it was to see his prey as people in need of compassion. Even that ‘heathen’ felt costly pity. I like what he did!
(“But JPB was only a character in an event in a piece of fiction!” I’ve never had much patience with such a view. Great characters in great fiction are shaped by great characters or events in life itself.)
I read O. Henry’s story several times and more than once recognized the face of the Colonel as my own. Whatever impression I give to others, and whatever story I like to tell to myself, every now and then, however briefly, with shocking clarity I see the absurdity in my thinking that I’m in control. I’m so dependent on others. It’s true that I’m more experienced than a 10 year old boy and that there are some areas in which even I can be trusted to make a sensible decision but overall I’m a Colonel Blaylock who’s more to be pitied than laughed at because I’m just another “babe in the woods.” If only I could consistently live out that insight, but it’s a passing experience and I find myself back to believing I’m more than capable of handling the complex challenges of life. I’m not alone in this. I see it in the best-intentioned governments and populations.
The Blaylocks were no more out of their depths, no more conned and fleeced by JPB than we’ve all been by the god of this world. Somebody’s got to show us compassion!
Speaking as a sometimes perplexed Christian, maybe Christians will be out-talked, out-maneuvered or out-gunned but surely they shouldn’t be out-compassioned! Yes?
I would guess there aren’t many J. Pinkney Blooms in the fraternity of professional con-men, but maybe I’m wrong even in that. It’d be nice if I were. One has to be careful not to count God out. I’ve personally seen Him show up in people and places I didn’t expect Him to be. You too?