’THERE is no God. There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. There is only ignorance. The speaker stood on a soap box on the east side of Madison Square. He was short of stature, medium weight; the face was round, with the forehead low and projecting. He was past middle age but not old. His eyes were black as was his hair, which he wore after the manner of an impresario. The accent, though faint, suggested Southern Europe.
His constantly shifting audience gave him but casual attention. New Yorkers will stop to look at, to listen to — almost nothing. Down in their hearts is the country general-store-and-postoffice habit, though they pride themselves on their cosmopolitanism. There were messenger boys, there was a policeman, there were taxi-drivers, there were real business men, there were loafers, there were foreignand nativeborn. There was also a tall man who looked the stranger even in so motley a group. He did not belong. He was from the country; that much was evident to any New Yorker. Therefore he was queer and to be smiled upon. He wore a squarish goatee — that also was provocative of laughter; but there were little tufts of hair protruding from his ears and that was something to call forth a fullthroated laugh. However, no one had laughed as yet. for there was a dignity about the rustic that gave pause. Dressed for the part he might have posed for the standardized caricature of Uncle Sam. However he wore a slouch hat; a rough tan suit, and his face though kindly did not invite familiarity. The hair was gray and black, the eyes gray, the nose Roman, and the mouth wide and firm. He was listening intently to the foreign orator. His first sensation had been shock, surprise, and pain. Then came confusion of mind and doubt as to the sincerity of the speaker. Presently resistance began to assemble within him and he edged nearer to the soap box, listening, waiting — a born fighter from a land of fighting men.
The orator was gaining headway and he had caught his audience. They were listening. ‘And as for Jonah, nobody, not even your church-going hypocrites themselves, believe in Jonah — ‘
‘I believe in Jonah.’ It was the tall man with the square goatee.
Ah, this was going to be good. A sensation at last. Hush, let the old boy have his way. Look at him. He does n’t need a soap box to stand on. Watch him wag his head.
‘Shut up, you fool,’ snapped the orator. ‘When I finish you can have your say, if anybody will listen to a man who believes in Jonah. As I was saying — '
‘I believe in Jonah.’ It was a voice not to be hushed. The soap-box orator glowered his hate but the believer in Jonah rolled on. ‘I reckon yo’-all are men an’ I reckon I’m one. Jonah was a pesky mean cuss jes like we-all. God give Jonah a job. He said “Go to Nineveh an’ tell ‘em they ‘re hell-bent, an’ if they don’t quit in fo’ty days or less I’ll wipe ‘em off the slate an’ that’s that.”’ The speaker paused. The soapbox orator opened his mouth as though to recapture his lecture, but the crowd had forgotten him. Here was something new. ‘Go on Whiskers!’ called a voice, while other voices echoed, ‘Go on.’
‘Did Jonah obey orders? I’ll say he did not. He piked it for Joppa, bought a ferry-ticket for Tarshish, tryin’ to lose Jehovah, but that’s where he smashed his molasses jug. Yo’-all can’t sidestep God that away. Jehovah jest messed up them waves till the old tub layover on her beams’ ends, an’ was like to bust in two. The sailors lost their nerve an’ chucked over everything that was n’t nailed down. Presently they came to Jonah, who was sleepin’ comfortable-like down in the hold. The captain give him a call-down and told him to git busy an’ pray his god an’ see if it would do any good. Everybody had his own particular god them days.
‘Nothin’ doin’, an’ the storm gittin’ worse every minute. Them heathen had to blame somebody—so they throwed dice an’ lit on Jonah.
‘Jonah knew he was a quitter an’ made no bones about it. Fact is he stood up for his god like a man. The sailors liked that and asked him what to do, and Jonah braced up an’ says “chuck me overboard an’ the sea will flatten out.” Just the same them sailors rowed for all there was in it, tryin’ to make the shore. Nothin’ doin’. Then they prayed to Jonah’s god. Nothin’ doin’. Then they chucked Jonah overboard, an’ they did n’t like the job either. Then the sea flattened out into a calm, an’ the sailors admitted as how Jonah had a regular god.
' But God were n’t through with Jonah yet. Yo’-all can’t beat out God by jest kickin’ off. There’s more to it yet. A fish comes along wit h a mouth like a cellar door. Open an’ shut; an’ Jonah had a reservation for three days an’ three nights.’
‘Listen to that!’ screeched the soapbox orator.
‘ Go on, go on,’ yelled the crowd.
‘Friends,’ said the southern farmer, ‘yo’-all can see what I am. I ain’t got enough theology about me to fill a toad’s pocket-book, but they’s somethin’ so darn human about this here Jonah I can’t stand no reflections on his character, a-tall. In fact, he’s jest like me an’ maybe like you, I don’t know. An’ here’s this fish that come along so opportune. I don’t know about that fish an’ I don’t care; the only thing I do understand is Jonah, an’ that’s because he’s so tar nal human. Look here, now, look at this Jonah, down an’out. What’s he do? Cries to God jest like you an’ me. God gives him a chance to do somethin’ worthwhile. Jonah chucks the job an’ then, first minute he’s in trouble, he calls on his god. I done the same, mebby yo’-all can remember somethin’ like it. What’s Jonah say? He’s down, way down, death would look good to him but he can’t die. He’s lost his chance an’ he’s a failure in his own eyes. He’s down an’ can’t raise himself out o’ it all. But he calls on his god an’ tells him where he is — down there on the bottom of the mountains under the sea among the weeds, under the bars o’ the world and lost forever. An’ look here! Jonah’s prayer came into the holy temple right befo’ Jehovah; an’ Jehovah saw it, and Jehovah spoke to the fish, an’ it lifted Jonah up, up from the black hole at the bottom o’ the sea where we all git, an’ let him out on dry land. As I said befo’ I ain’t no theologian, an’ I don’t know a thing about big fish an’ not much about little fish. All I know is Jonah. He’s so darn human.
‘ Now here’s Jonah on dry land ag’in. What next? First, what’s Jehovah goin’ do, an’ second, what’s Jonah goin’ do? First Jehovah gives Jonah a second chance. That’s what we all want — a second chance. Then Jonah, jest back from the blackness down there at the bottom o’ the sea, jest back from cryin’ an’ prayin’, Jonah grabs off his second chance jest like I want to do an’ jest like yo’-all want to do an’ Jonah beats it, hot foot, fo’ Nineveh. An’ he parades up an’ down Main Street shoutin’ to them foreign sinners that they is on their last laigs, an’ that in fo’ty days they ‘ll be plum destroyed.
‘Jonah had done his job this time an’ done it good an’ plenty, but he did n’t reckon nobody would pay no attention, an’ he had a sneakin’ idea he’d like to see the grand finish when the fo’ty days was up accordin’ to his prophesyin’; an’ he kep a-thinkin’, “What s the use o’ bein’ a phophet if nothin’ happens when yo’-all prophesy?” Fire an’ brimstone in forty days accordin’ to schedule was his way o’ thinkin’.
‘But the Nineveh folks surprised Jonah by listenin’ to him an’ quit bein’ rotten. They covered themselves with potato sackin’ an’ ashes accordin’ to their idea o’ repentin’ an’ wantin’ to do better. Yo’ see they wanted a second chance jest like Jonah did when he was down an’ out. They was like Jonah, an’ me, an’ yo’-all.
‘An’ Jehovah give them a second chance jest as he did to Jonah. Did that make Jonah glad? No, he got peevish. It spoiled him as a prophet. He had told them the finish was set fo’ fo’ty days, an’ now accordin’ to the new ruling it was all off.
‘Jonah turned on Jehovah an’ said, “I told yo’ so. I kmev yo’-all would n’t do nothin’ to them Nineveh folks. Here I ‘ve prophesied destruction in fo’ty days an’ now there’s nothin’ doin’. I’m through. I wish I was dead.”
‘Just the same he went outside the city to a safe distance, in case there might be fireworks, an’ made him a comfortable seat. He figured he’d watch an’ see if somethin’ would n’t happen to the city after all, an’ prove to the people he was a regular prophet. Jonah was so darn human.
‘But Jehovah was n’t through with Jonah. He made a plant with big leaves sprout up an’ grow mighty fast so that next day, which was a hot one, it shaded Jonah. And Jonah liked it.
‘Now I ain’t argufyin’ about a plant growin’ that fast. I admit it was right quick maturin’. That ain’t it. The plant growin’ all out o’ proportion ain’t neither here nor there. It’s Jonah that I believe in; not the big fish and not the fast growin’ plant — only Jonah. But Jehovah ain’t through with Jonah yet. A cut-worm got busy, so that next day the plant that made a comfortable shade fo’ Jonah wilted right dowm in the hot sun flat as a flannel cake. Then Jonah got peeved again, an’ did the baby-act an’ said he wanted to die same as befo’. Brave one minute, childish the next, an’ allus thinkin’ too much o’ what the Nineveh folks might think.
‘Then Jehovah asks Jonah has he any honest-to-god excuse fo’ bein’ peeved. An’ Jonah let on he had; an’ then Jehovah said, “Yo’-all can make a great fuss about that weed that grew up in the night without yo’ doin’ a hand’s turn to make it grow — jest a weed, that’s all; an’ yo’-all can get mighty peeved about it dyin’. How about me an’ all them people in Nineveh —all so poor an’ ignorant? How about all them, Jonah?”
’I reckon Jehovah was right, givin’ Jonah a second chance; an’ I reckon he was right givin’ them Nineveh cusses a second chance; an’ I hope he gives me a second chance. An’ as fer Jonah, I believe in him, pesky mean as he was, because he’s so darn human. Now friends, do yo’-all believe in Jonah?’
‘Sure, sure,’ came from the crowd.
The southern farmer who looked like Uncle Sam turned to find his soap-box orator but he was not there.