The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter x

“Well, what did you think of Dr. Ledsmar?”

The girl’s abrupt question came as a relief to Theron. They were walking along in a darkness so nearly complete that he could see next to nothing of his companion. For some reason, this seemed to suggest a sort of impropriety. He had listened to the footsteps of the man ahead — whom he guessed to be a servant — and pictured him as intent upon getting up early next morning to tell everybody that the Methodist minister had stolen into the Catholic church at night to walk home with Miss Madden. That was going to be very awkward — yes, worse than awkward! It might mean ruin itself. She had mentioned aloud that she had matters to talk over with him: that of course implied confidences, and the man might put heaven only knew what construction on that. It was notorious that servants did ascribe the very worst motives to those they worked for. The bare thought of the delight an Irish servant would have in also dragging a Protestant clergyman into the thing was sickening. And what could she want to talk to him about, anyway? The minute of silence stretched itself out upon his nerves into an interminable period of anxious unhappiness. Her mention of the doctor at last somehow, seemed to lighten the situation.

“Oh, I thought he was very smart.” he made haste to answer. “Wouldn’t it be better — to — keep close to your man? He — may — think we’ve gone some other way.”

“It wouldn’t matter if he did,” remarked Celia. She appeared to comprehend his nervousness and take pity on it, for she added, “It is my brother Michael, as good a soul as ever lived. He is quite used to my ways.”

The Rev. Mr. Ware drew a long comforting breath. “Oh, I see! He went with you to — bring you home.”

“To blow the organ,” said the girl in the dark, correctingly. “But about that doctor; did you like him?”

“Well,” Theron began, “‘like’ is rather a strong word for so short an acquaintance. He talked very well; that is, fluently. But he is so different from any other man I have come into contact with that —”

“What I wanted you to say was that you hated him,” put in Celia, firmly.

“I don’t make a practice of saying that of anybody,” returned Theron, so much at his ease again that he put an effect of gentle, smiling reproof into the words. “And why specially should I make an exception for him?”

“Because he’s a beast!”

Theron fancied that he understood. “I noticed that he seemed not to have much of an ear for music,” he commented, with a little laugh. “He shut down the window when you began to play. His doing so annoyed me, because I— I wanted very much to hear it all. I never heard such music before. I— I came into the church to hear more of it; but then you stopped!”

“I will play for you some other time,” Celia said, answering the reproach in his tone. “But tonight I wanted to talk with you instead.”

She kept silent, in spite of this, so long now that Theron was on the point of jestingly asking when the talk was to begin. Then she put a question abruptly —

“It is a conventional way of putting it, but are you fond of poetry, Mr. Ware?”

“Well, yes, I suppose I am,” replied Theron, much mystified. “I can’t say that I am any great judge; but I like the things that I like — and —”

“Meredith,” interposed Celia, “makes one of his women, Emilia in England, say that poetry is like talking on tiptoe; like animals in cages, always going to one end and back again. Does it impress you that way?”

“I don’t know that it does,” said he, dubiously. It seemed, however, to be her whim to talk literature, and he went on: “I’ve hardly read Meredith at all. I once borrowed his ‘Lucile,’ but somehow I never got interested in it. I heard a recitation of his once, though — a piece about a dead wife, and the husband and another man quarrelling as to whose portrait was in the locket on her neck, and of their going up to settle the dispute, and finding that it was the likeness of a third man, a young priest — and though it was very striking, it didn’t give me a thirst to know his other poems. I fancied I shouldn’t like them. But I daresay I was wrong. As I get older, I find that I take less narrow views of literature — that is, of course, of light literature — and that — that —”

Celia mercifully stopped him. “The reason I asked you was —” she began, and then herself paused. “Or no — never mind that — tell me something else. Are you fond of pictures, statuary, the beautiful things of the world? Do great works of art, the big achievements of the big artists, appeal to you, stir you up?”

“Alas! that is something I can only guess at myself,” answered Theron, humbly. “I have always lived in little places. I suppose, from your point of view, I have never seen a good painting in my life. I can only say this, though — that it has always weighed on my mind as a great and sore deprivation, this being shut out from knowing what others mean when they talk and write about art. Perhaps that may help you to get at what you are after. If I ever went to New York, I feel that one of the first things I should do would be to see all the picture galleries; is that what you meant? And — would you mind telling me — why you —?”

“Why I asked you?” Celia supplied his halting question. “No, I DON’T mind. I have a reason for wanting to know — to satisfy myself whether I had guessed rightly or not — about the kind of man you are. I mean in the matter of temperament and bent of mind and tastes.”

The girl seemed to be speaking seriously, and without intent to offend. Theron did not find any comment ready, but walked along by her side, wondering much what it was all about.

“I daresay you think me ‘too familiar on short acquaintance,’” she continued, after a little.

“My dear Miss Madden!” he protested perfunctorily.

“No; it is a matter of a good deal of importance,” she went on. “I can see that you are going to be thrown into friendship, close contact, with Father Forbes. He likes you, and you can’t help liking him. There is nobody else in this raw, overgrown, empty-headed place for you and him TO like, nobody except that man, that Dr. Ledsmar. And if you like HIM, I shall hate you! He has done mischief enough already. I am counting on you to help undo it, and to choke him off from doing more. It would be different if you were an ordinary Orthodox minister, all encased like a terrapin in prejudices and nonsense. Of course, if you had been THAT kind, we should never have got to know you at all. But when I saw you in MacEvoy’s cottage there, it was plain that you were one of US— I mean a MAN, and not a marionette or a mummy. I am talking very frankly to you, you see. I want you on my side, against that doctor and his heartless, bloodless science.”

“I feel myself very heartily on your side,” replied Theron. She had set their progress at a slower pace, now that the lights of the main street were drawing near, as if to prolong their talk. All his earlier reservations had fled. It was almost as if she were a parishioner of his own. “I need hardly tell you that the doctor’s whole attitude toward — toward revelation — was deeply repugnant to me. It doesn’t make it any the less hateful to call it science. I am afraid, though,” he went on hesitatingly, “that there are difficulties in the way of my helping, as you call it. You see, the very fact of my being a Methodist minister, and his being a Catholic priest, rather puts my interference out of the question.”

“No; that doesn’t matter a button,” said Celia, lightly. “None of us think of that at all.”

“There is the other embarrassment, then,” pursued Theron, diffidently, “that Father Forbes is a vastly broader and deeper scholar — in all these matters — than I am. How could I possibly hope to influence him by my poor arguments? I don’t know even the alphabet of the language he thinks in-on these subjects, I mean.”

“Of course you don’t!” interposed the girl, with a confidence which the other, for all his meekness, rather winced under. “That wasn’t what I meant at all. We don’t want arguments from our friends: we want sympathies, sensibilities, emotional bonds. The right person’s silence is worth more for companionship than the wisest talk in the world from anybody else. It isn’t your mind that is needed here, or what you know; it is your heart, and what you feel. You are full of poetry, of ideals, of generous, unselfish impulses. You see the human, the warm-blooded side of things. THAT is what is really valuable. THAT is how you can help!”

“You overestimate me sadly,” protested Theron, though with considerable tolerance for her error in his tone. “But you ought to tell me something about this Dr. Ledsmar. He spoke of being an old friend of the pr — of Father Forbes.”

“Oh, yes, they’ve always known each other; that is, for many years. They were professors together in a college once, heaven only knows how long ago. Then they separated, I fancy they quarrelled, too, before they parted. The doctor came here, where some relative had left him the place he lives in. Then in time the Bishop chanced to send Father Forbes here — that was about three years ago — and the two men after a while renewed their old relations. They dine together; that is the doctor’s stronghold. He knows more about eating than any other man alive, I believe. He studies it as you would study a language. He has taught old Maggie, at the pastorate there, to cook like the mother of all the Delmonicos. And while they sit and stuff themselves, or loll about afterward like gorged snakes, they think it is smart to laugh at all the sweet and beautiful things in life, and to sneer at people who believe in ideals, and to talk about mankind being merely a fortuitous product of fermentation, and twaddle of that sort. It makes me sick!”

“I can readily see,” said Theron, with sympathy, “how such a cold, material, and infidel influence as that must shock and revolt an essentially religious temperament like yours.”

Miss Madden looked up at him. They had turned into the main street, and there was light enough for him to detect something startlingly like a grin on her beautiful face.

“But I’m not religious at all, you know,” he heard her say. “I’m as Pagan as — anything! Of course there are forms to be observed, and so on; I rather like them than otherwise. I can make them serve very well for my own system; for I am myself, you know, an out-an-out Greek.”

“Why, I had supposed that you were full blooded Irish,” the Rev. Mr. Ware found himself remarking, and then on the instant was overwhelmed by the consciousness that he had said a foolish thing. Precisely where the folly lay he did not know, but it was impossible to mistake the gesture of annoyance which his companion had instinctively made at his words. She had widened the distance between them now, and quickened her step. They went on in silence till they were within a block of her house. Several people had passed them who Theron felt sure must have recognized them both.

“What I meant was,” the girl all at once began, drawing nearer again, and speaking with patient slowness, “that I find myself much more in sympathy with the Greek thought, the Greek theology of the beautiful and the strong, the Greek philosophy of life, and all that, than what is taught nowadays. Personally, I take much more stock in Plato than I do in Peter. But of course it is a wholly personal affair; I had no business to bother you with it. And for that matter, I oughtn’t to have troubled you with any of our —”

“I assure you, Miss Madden!” the young minister began, with fervor.

“No,” she broke in, in a resigned and even downcast tone; “let it all be as if I hadn’t spoken. Don’t mind anything I have said. If it is to be, it will be. You can’t say more than that, can you?”

She looked into his face again, and her large eyes produced an impression of deep melancholy, which Theron found himself somehow impelled to share. Things seemed all at once to have become very sad indeed.

“It is one of my unhappy nights,” she explained, in gloomy confidence. “I get them every once in a while — as if some vicious planet or other was crossing in front of my good star — and then I’m a caution to snakes. I shut myself up — that’s the only thing to do — and have it out with myself I didn’t know but the organ-music would calm me down, but it hasn’t. I shan’t sleep a wink tonight, but just rage around from one room to another, piling all the cushions from the divans on to the floor, and then kicking them away again. Do YOU ever have fits like that?”

Theron was able to reply with a good conscience in the negative. It occurred to him to add, with jocose intent: “I am curious to know, do these fits, as you call them, occupy a prominent part in Grecian philosophy as a general rule?”

Celia gave a little snort, which might have signified amusement, but did not speak until they were upon her own sidewalk. “There is my brother, waiting at the gate,” she said then, briefly.

“Well, then, I will bid you good-night here, I think,” Theron remarked, coming to a halt, and offering his hand. “It must be getting very late, and my — that is — I have to be up particularly early tomorrow. So good-night; I hope you will be feeling ever so much better in spirits in the morning.”

“Oh, that doesn’t matter,” replied the girl, listlessly. “It’s a very paltry little affair, this life of ours, at the best of it. Luckily it’s soon done with — like a bad dream.”

“Tut! Tut! I won’t have you talk like that!” interrupted Theron, with a swift and smart assumption of authority. “Such talk isn’t sensible, and it isn’t good. I have no patience with it!”

“Well, try and have a little patience with ME, anyway, just for tonight,” said Celia, taking the reproof with gentlest humility, rather to her censor’s surprise. “I really am unhappy tonight, Mr. Ware, very unhappy. It seems as if all at once the world had swelled out in size a thousandfold, and that poor me had dwindled down to the merest wee little red-headed atom — the most helpless and forlorn and lonesome of atoms at that.” She seemed to force a sorrowful smile on her face as she added: “But all the same it has done me good to be with you — I am sure it has — and I daresay that by tomorrow I shall be quite out of the blues. Good-night, Mr. Ware. Forgive my making such an exhibition of myself I WAS going to be such a fine early Greek, you know, and I have turned out only a late Milesian — quite of the decadence. I shall do better next time. And good-night again, and ever so many thanks.”

She was walking briskly away toward the gate now, where the shadowy Michael still patiently stood. Theron strode off in the opposite direction, taking long, deliberate steps, and bowing his head in thought. He had his hands behind his back, as was his wont, and the sense of their recent contact with her firm, ungloved hands was, curiously enough, the thing which pushed itself uppermost in his mind. There had been a frank, almost manly vigor in her grasp; he said to himself that of course that came from her playing so much on the keyboard; the exercise naturally would give her large, robust hands.

Suddenly he remembered about the piano; he had quite forgotten to solicit her aid in selecting it. He turned, upon the impulse, to go back. She had not entered the gate as yet, but stood, shiningly visible under the street lamp, on the sidewalk, and she was looking in his direction. He turned again like a shot, and started homeward.

The front door of the parsonage was unlocked, and he made his way on tiptoe through the unlighted hall to the living-room. The stuffy air here was almost suffocating with the evil smell of a kerosene lamp turned down too low. Alice sat asleep in her old farmhouse rocking-chair, with an inelegant darning-basket on the table by her side. The whole effect of the room was as bare and squalid to Theron’s newly informed eye as the atmosphere was offensive to his nostrils. He coughed sharply, and his wife sat up and looked at the clock. It was after eleven.

“Where on earth have you been?” she asked, with a yawn, turning up the wick of her sewing-lamp again.

“You ought never to turn down a light like that,” said Theron, with a complaining note in his voice. “It smells up the whole place. I never dreamed of your sitting up for me like this. You ought to have gone to bed.”

“But how could I guess that you were going to be so late?,” she retorted. “And you haven’t told me where you were. Is this book of yours going to keep you up like this right along?”

The episode of the book was buried in the young minister’s mind beneath such a mass of subsequent experiences that it required an effort for him to grasp what she was talking about. It seemed as if months had elapsed since he was in earnest about that book; and yet he had left the house full of it only a few hours before. He shook his wits together, and made answer —

“Oh, bless you, no! Only there arose a very curious question. You have no idea, literally no conception, of the interesting and important problems which are raised by the mere fact of Abraham leaving the city of Ur. It’s amazing, I assure you. I hadn’t realized it myself.”

“Well,” remarked Alice, rising — and with good-humor and petulance struggling sleepily ill her tone —“all I’ve got to say is, that if Abraham hasn’t anything better to do than to keep young ministers of the gospel out, goodness knows where, till all hours of the night, I wish to gracious he’d stayed in the city of Ur right straight along.”

“You have no idea what a scholarly man Dr. Ledsmar is,” Theron suddenly found himself inspired to volunteer. “He has the most marvellous collection of books — a whole library devoted to this very subject — and he has put them all quite freely at my disposal. Extremely kind of him, isn’t it?”

“Ledsmar? Ledsmar?” queried Alice. “I don’t seem to remember the name. He isn’t the little man with the birthmark, who sits in the pew behind the Lovejoys, is he? I think some one said he was a doctor.”

“Yes, a horse doctor!” said Theron, with a sniff. “No; you haven’t seen this Dr. Ledsmar at all. I— I don’t know that he attends any church regularly. I scraped his acquaintance quite by accident. He is really a character. He lives in the big house, just beyond the race-course, you know — the one with the tower at the back —”

“No, I don’t know. How should I? I’ve hardly poked my nose outside of the yard since I have been here.”

“Well, you shall go,” said the husband, consolingly. “You HAVE been cooped up here too much, poor girl. I must take you out more, really. I don’t know that I could take you to the doctor’s place — without an invitation, I mean. He is very queer about some things. He lives there all alone, for instance, with only a Chinaman for a servant. He told me I was almost the only man he had asked under his roof for years. He isn’t a practising physician at all, you know. He is a scientist; he makes experiments with lizards — and things.”

“Theron,” the wife said, pausing lamp in hand on her way to the bedroom, “do you be careful, now! For all you know this doctor may be a loose man, or pretty near an infidel. You’ve got to be mighty particular in such matters, you know, or you’ll have the trustees down on you like a ‘thousand of bricks.’”

“I will thank the trustees to mind their own business,” said Theron, stiffly, and the subject dropped.

The bedroom window upstairs was open, and upon the fresh night air was borne in the shrill, jangling sound of a piano, being played off somewhere in the distance, but so vehemently that the noise imposed itself upon the silence far and wide. Theron listened to this as he undressed. It proceeded from the direction of the main street, and he knew, as by instinct, that it was the Madden girl who was playing. The incongruity of the hour escaped his notice. He mused instead upon the wild and tropical tangle of moods, emotions, passions, which had grown up in that strange temperament. He found something very pathetic in that picture she had drawn of herself in forecast, roaming disconsolate through her rooms the livelong night, unable to sleep. The woful moan of insomnia seemed to make itself heard in every strain from her piano.

Alice heard it also, but being unillumined, she missed the romantic pathos. “I call it disgraceful,” she muttered from her pillow, “for folks to be banging away on a piano at this time of night. There ought to be a law to prevent it.”

“It may be some distressed soul,” said Theron, gently, “seeking relief from the curse of sleeplessness.”

The wife laughed, almost contemptuously. “Distressed fiddlesticks!” was her only other comment.

The music went on for a long time — rising now to strident heights, now sinking off to the merest tinkling murmur, and broken ever and again by intervals of utter hush. It did not prevent Alice from at once falling sound asleep; but Theron lay awake, it seemed to him, for hours, listening tranquilly, and letting his mind wander at will through the pleasant antechambers of Sleep, where are more unreal fantasies than Dreamland itself affords.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:37