The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xi

For some weeks the Rev. Theron Ware saw nothing of either the priest or the doctor, or the interesting Miss Madden.

There were, indeed, more urgent matters to think about. June had come; and every succeeding day brought closer to hand the ordeal of his first Quarterly Conference in Octavius. The waters grew distinctly rougher as his pastoral bark neared this difficult passage.

He would have approached the great event with an easier mind if he could have made out just how he stood with his congregation. Unfortunately nothing in his previous experiences helped him in the least to measure or guess at the feelings of these curious Octavians. Their Methodism seemed to be sound enough, and to stick quite to the letter of the Discipline, so long as it was expressed in formulae. It was its spirit which he felt to be complicated by all sorts of conditions wholly novel to him.

The existence of a line of street-cars in the town, for example, would not impress the casual thinker as likely to prove a rock in the path of peaceful religion. Theron, in his simplicity, had even thought, when he first saw these bobtailed cars bumping along the rails in the middle of the main street, that they must be a great convenience to people living in the outskirts, who wished to get in to church of a Sunday morning. He was imprudent enough to mention this in conversation with one of his new parishioners. Then he learned, to his considerable chagrin, that when this line was built, some years before, a bitter war of words had been fought upon the question of its being worked on the Sabbath day. The then occupant of the Methodist pulpit had so distinguished himself above the rest by the solemnity and fervor of his protests against this insolent desecration of God’s day that the Methodists of Octavius still felt themselves peculiarly bound to hold this horse-car line, its management, and everything connected with it, in unbending aversion. At least once a year they were accustomed to expect a sermon denouncing it and all its impious Sunday patrons. Theron made a mental resolve that this year they should be disappointed.

Another burning problem, which he had not been called upon before to confront, he found now entangled with the mysterious line which divided a circus from a menagerie. Those itinerant tent-shows had never come his way heretofore, and he knew nothing of that fine balancing proportion between ladies in tights on horseback and cages full of deeply educational animals, which, even as the impartial rain, was designed to embrace alike the just and the unjust. There had arisen inside the Methodist society of Octavius some painful episodes, connected with members who took their children “just to see the animals,” and were convicted of having also watched the Rose–Queen of the Arena, in her unequalled flying leap through eight hoops, with an ardent and unashamed eye. One of these cases still remained on the censorial docket of the church; and Theron understood that he was expected to name a committee of five to examine and try it. This he neglected to do.

He was no longer at all certain that the congregation as a whole liked his sermons. The truth was, no doubt, that he had learned enough to cease regarding the congregation as a whole. He could still rely upon carrying along with him in his discourses from the pulpit a large majority of interested and approving faces. But here, unhappily, was a case where the majority did not rule. The minority, relatively small in numbers, was prodigious in virile force.

More than twenty years had now elapsed since that minor schism in the Methodist Episcopal Church, the result of which was the independent body known as Free Methodists, had relieved the parent flock of its principal disturbing element. The rupture came fittingly at that time when all the “isms” of the argumentative fifties were hurled violently together into the melting-pot of civil war. The great Methodist Church, South, had broken bodily off on the question of State Rights. The smaller and domestic fraction of Free Methodism separated itself upon an issue which may be most readily described as one of civilization. The seceders resented growth in material prosperity; they repudiated the introduction of written sermons and organ-music; they deplored the increasing laxity in meddlesome piety, the introduction of polite manners in the pulpit and classroom, and the development of even a rudimentary desire among the younger people of the church to be like others outside in dress and speech and deportment. They did battle as long as they could, inside the fold, to restore it to the severely straight and narrow path of primitive Methodism. When the adverse odds became too strong for them, they quitted the church and set up a Bethel for themselves.

Octavius chanced to be one of the places where they were able to hold their own within the church organization. The Methodism of the town had gone along without any local secession. It still held in full fellowship the radicals who elsewhere had followed their unbridled bent into the strongest emotional vagaries — where excited brethren worked themselves up into epileptic fits, and women whirled themselves about in weird religious ecstasies, like dervishes of the Orient, till they fell headlong in a state of trance. Octavian Methodism was spared extravagances of this sort, it is true, but it paid a price for the immunity. The people whom an open split would have taken away remained to leaven and dominate the whole lump. This small advanced section, with its men of a type all the more aggressive from its narrowness, and women who went about solemnly in plain gray garments, with tight-fitting, unadorned, mouse-colored sunbonnets, had not been able wholly to enforce its views upon the social life of the church members, but of its controlling influence upon their official and public actions there could be no doubt.

The situation had begun to unfold itself to Theron from the outset. He had recognized the episodes of the forbidden Sunday milk and of the flowers in poor Alice’s bonnet as typical of much more that was to come. No week followed without bringing some new fulfilment of this foreboding. Now, at the end of two months, he knew well enough that the hitherto dominant minority was hostile to him and his ministry, and would do whatever it could against him.

Though Theron at once decided to show fight, and did not at all waver in that resolve, his courage was in the main of a despondent sort. Sometimes it would flutter up to the point of confidence, or at least hopefulness, when he met with substantial men of the church who obviously liked him, and whom he found himself mentally ranging on his side, in the struggle which was to come. But more often it was blankly apparent to him that, the moment flags were flying and drums on the roll, these amiable fair-weather friends would probably take to their heels.

Still, such as they were, his sole hope lay in their support. He must make the best of them. He set himself doggedly to the task of gathering together all those who were not his enemies into what, when the proper time came, should be known as the pastor’s party. There was plenty of apostolic warrant for this. If there had not been, Theron felt that the mere elementary demands of self-defence would have justified his use of strategy.

The institution of pastoral calling, particularly that inquisitorial form of it laid down in the Discipline, had never attracted Theron. He and Alice had gone about among their previous flocks in quite a haphazard fashion, without thought of system, much less of deliberate purpose. Theron made lists now, and devoted thought and examination to the personal tastes and characteristics of the people to be cultivated. There were some, for example, who would expect him to talk pretty much as the Discipline ordained — that is, to ask if they had family prayer, to inquire after their souls, and generally to minister grace to his hearers — and these in turn subdivided themselves into classes, ranging from those who would wish nothing else to those who needed only a mild spiritual flavor. There were others whom he would please much better by not talking shop at all. Although he could ill afford it, he subscribed now for a daily paper that he might have a perpetually renewed source of good conversational topics for these more worldly calls. He also bought several pounds of candy, pleasing in color, but warranted to be entirely harmless, and he made a large mysterious mark on the inside of his new silk hat to remind him not to go out calling without some of this in his pocket for the children.

Alice, he felt, was not helping him in this matter as effectively as he could have wished. Her attitude toward the church in Octavius might best be described by the word “sulky.” Great allowance was to be made, he realized, for her humiliation over the flowers in her bonnet. That might justify her, fairly enough, in being kept away from meeting now and again by headaches, or undefined megrims. But it ought not to prevent her from going about and making friends among the kindlier parishioners who would welcome such a thing, and whom he from time to time indicated to her. She did go to some extent, it is true, but she produced, in doing so, an effect of performing a duty. He did not find traces anywhere of her having created a brilliant social impression. When they went out together, he was peculiarly conscious of having to do the work unaided.

This was not at all like the Alice of former years, of other charges. Why, she had been, beyond comparison, the most popular young woman in Tyre. What possessed her to mope like this in Octavius?

Theron looked at her attentively nowadays, when she was unaware of his gaze, to try if her face offered any answer to the riddle. It could not be suggested that she was ill. Never in her life had she been looking so well. She had thrown herself, all at once, and with what was to him an unaccountable energy, into the creation and management of a flower-garden. She was out the better part of every day, rain or shine, digging, transplanting, pruning, pottering generally about among her plants and shrubs. This work in the open air had given her an aspect of physical well-being which it was impossible to be mistaken about.

Her husband was glad, of course, that she had found some occupation which at once pleased her and so obviously conduced to health. This was so much a matter of course, in fact, that he said to himself over and over again that he was glad. Only — only, sometimes the thought WOULD force itself upon his attention that if she did not spend so much of her time in her own garden, she would have more time to devote to winning friends for them in the Garden of the Lord — friends whom they were going to need badly.

The young minister, in taking anxious stock of the chances for and against him, turned over often in his mind the fact that he had already won rank as a pulpit orator. His sermons had attracted almost universal attention at Tyre, and his achievement before the Conference at Tecumseh, if it did fail to receive practical reward, had admittedly distanced all the other preaching there. It was a part of the evil luck pursuing him that here in this perversely enigmatic Octavius his special gift seemed to be of no use whatever. There were times, indeed, when he was tempted to think that bad preaching was what Octavius wanted.

Somewhere he had heard of a Presbyterian minister, in charge of a big city church, who managed to keep well in with a watchfully Orthodox congregation, and at the same time establish himself in the affections of the community at large, by simply preaching two kinds of sermons. In the morning, when almost all who attended were his own communicants, he gave them very cautious and edifying doctrinal discourses, treading loyally in the path of the Westminster Confession. To the evening assemblages, made up for the larger part of outsiders, he addressed broadly liberal sermons, literary in form, and full of respectful allusions to modern science and the philosophy of the day. Thus he filled the church at both services, and put money in its treasury and his own fame before the world. There was of course the obvious danger that the pious elders who in the forenoon heard infant damnation vigorously proclaimed, would revolt when they heard after supper that there was some doubt about even adults being damned at all. But either because the same people did not attend both services, or because the minister’s perfect regularity in the morning was each week regarded as a retraction of his latest vagaries of an evening, no trouble ever came.

Theron had somewhat tentatively tried this on in Octavius. It was no good. His parishioners were of the sort who would have come to church eight times a day on Sunday, instead of two, if occasion offered. The hope that even a portion of them would stop away, and that their places would be taken in the evening by less prejudiced strangers who wished for intellectual rather than theological food, fell by the wayside. The yearned-for strangers did not come; the familiar faces of the morning service all turned up in their accustomed places every evening. They were faces which confused and disheartened Theron in the daytime. Under the gaslight they seemed even harder and more unsympathetic. He timorously experimented with them for an evening or two, then abandoned the effort.

Once there had seemed the beginning of a chance. The richest banker in Octavius — a fat, sensual, hog-faced old bachelor — surprised everybody one evening by entering the church and taking a seat. Theron happened to know who he was; even if he had not known, the suppressed excitement visible in the congregation, the way the sisters turned round to look, the way the more important brethren put their heads together and exchanged furtive whispers — would have warned him that big game was in view. He recalled afterward with something like self-disgust the eager, almost tremulous pains he himself took to please this banker. There was a part of the sermon, as it had been written out, which might easily give offence to a single man of wealth and free notions of life. With the alertness of a mental gymnast, Theron ran ahead, excised this portion, and had ready when the gap was reached some very pretty general remarks, all the more effective and eloquent, he felt, for having been extemporized. People said it was a good sermon; and after the benediction and dispersion some of the officials and principal pew-holders remained to talk over the likelihood of a capture having been effected. Theron did not get away without having this mentioned to him, and he was conscious of sharing deeply the hope of the brethren — with the added reflection that it would be a personal triumph for himself into the bargain. He was ashamed of this feeling a little later, and of his trick with the sermon. But this chastening product of introspection was all the fruit which the incident bore. The banker never came again.

Theron returned one afternoon, a little earlier than usual, from a group of pastoral calls. Alice, who was plucking weeds in a border at the shady side of the house, heard his step, and rose from her labors. He was walking slowly, and seemed weary. He took off his high hat, as he saw her, and wiped his brow. The broiling June sun was still high overhead. Doubtless it was its insufferable heat which was accountable for the worn lines in his face and the spiritless air which the wife’s eye detected. She went to the gate, and kissed him as he entered.

“I believe if I were you,” she said, “I’d carry an umbrella such scorching days as this. Nobody’d think anything of it. I don’t see why a minister shouldn’t carry one as much as a woman carries a parasol.”

Theron gave her a rueful, meditative sort of smile. “I suppose people really do think of us as a kind of hybrid female,” he remarked. Then, holding his hat in his hand, he drew a long breath of relief at finding himself in the shade, and looked about him.

“Why, you’ve got more posies here, on this one side of the house alone, than mother had in her whole yard,” he said, after a little. “Let’s see — I know that one: that’s columbine, isn’t it? And that’s London pride, and that’s ragged robin. I don’t know any of the others.”

Alice recited various unfamiliar names, as she pointed out the several plants which bore them, and he listened with a kindly semblance of interest.

They strolled thus to the rear of the house, where thick clumps of fragrant pinks lined both sides of the path. She picked some of these for him, and gave him more names with which to label the considerable number of other plants he saw about him.

“I had no idea we were so well provided as all this,” he commented at last. “Those Van Sizers must have been tremendous hands for flowers. You were lucky in following such people.”

“Van Sizers!” echoed Alice, with contempt. “All they left was old tomato cans and clamshells. Why, I’ve put in every blessed one of these myself, all except those peonies, there, and one brier on the side wall.”

“Good for you!” exclaimed Theron, approvingly. Then it occurred to him to ask, “But where did you get them all? Around among our friends?”

“Some few,” responded Alice, with a note of hesitation in her voice. “Sister Bult gave me the verbenas, there, and the white pinks were a present from Miss Stevens. But most of them Levi Gorringe was good enough to send me — from his garden.”

“I didn’t know that Gorringe had a garden,” said Theron. “I thought he lived over his law-office, in the brick block, there.”

“Well, I don’t know that it’s exactly HIS,” explained Alice; “but it’s a big garden somewhere outside, where he can have anything he likes.” She went on with a little laugh: “I didn’t like to question him too closely, for fear he’d think I was looking a gift horse in the mouth — or else hinting for more. It was quite his own offer, you know. He picked them all out for me, and brought them here, and lent me a book telling me just what to do with each one. And in a few days, now, I am to have another big batch of plants — dahlias and zinnias and asters and so on; I’m almost ashamed to take them. But it’s such a change to find some one in this Octavius who isn’t all self!”

“Yes, Gorringe is a good fellow,” said Theron. “I wish he was a professing member.” Then some new thought struck him. “Alice,” he exclaimed, “I believe I’ll go and see him this very afternoon. I don’t know why it hasn’t occurred to me before: he’s just the man whose advice I need most. He knows these people here; he can tell me what to do.”

“Aren’t you too tired now?” suggested Alice, as Theron put on his hat.

“No, the sooner the better,” he replied, moving now toward the gate.

“Well,” she began, “if I were you, I wouldn’t say too much about — that is, I— but never mind.”

“What is it?” asked her husband.

“Nothing whatever,” replied Alice, positively. “It was only some nonsense of mine;” and Theron, placidly accepting the feminine whim, went off down the street again.

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