The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xii

The Rev. Mr. Ware found Levi Gorringe’s law-office readily enough, but its owner was not in. He probably would be back again, though, in a quarter of an hour or so, the boy said, and the minister at once decided to wait.

Theron was interested in finding that this office-boy was no other than Harvey — the lad who brought milk to the parsonage every morning. He remembered now that he had heard good things of this urchin, as to the hard work he did to help his mother, the Widow Semple, in her struggle to keep a roof over her head; and also bad things, in that he did not come regularly either to church or Sunday-school. The clergyman recalled, too, that Harvey had impressed him as a character.

“Well, sonny, are you going to be a lawyer?” he asked, as he seated himself by the window, and looked about him, first at the dusty litter of old papers, pamphlets, and tape-bound documents in bundles which crowded the stuffy chamber, and then at the boy himself.

Harvey was busy at a big box — a rough pine dry-goods box which bore the flaring label of an express company, and also of a well-known seed firm in a Western city, and which the boy had apparently just opened. He was lifting from it, and placing on the table after he had shaken off the sawdust and moss in which they were packed, small parcels of what looked in the fading light to be half-dried plants.

“Well, I don’t know — I rather guess not,” he made answer, as he pursued his task. “So far as I can make out, this wouldn’t be the place to start in at, if I WAS going to be a lawyer. A boy can learn here first-rate how to load cartridges and clean a gun, and braid trout-flies on to leaders, but I don’t see much law laying around loose. Anyway,” he went on, “I couldn’t afford to read law, and not be getting any wages. I have to earn money, you know.”

Theron felt that he liked the boy. “Yes,” he said, with a kindly tone; “I’ve heard that you are a good, industrious youngster. I daresay Mr. Gorringe will see to it that you get a chance to read law, and get wages too.”

“Oh, I can read all there is here and welcome,” the boy explained, stepping toward the window to decipher the label on a bundle of roots in his hand, “but that’s no good unless there’s regular practice coming into the office all the while. THAT’S how you learn to be a lawyer. But Gorringe don’t have what I call a practice at all. He just sees men in the other room there, with the door shut, and whatever there is to do he does it all himself.”

The minister remembered a stray hint somewhere that Mr. Gorringe was a money-lender — what was colloquially called a “note-shaver.” To his rustic sense, there was something not quite nice about that occupation. It would be indecorous, he felt, to encourage further talk about it from the boy.

“What are you doing there?” he inquired, to change the subject.

“Sorting out some plants,” replied Harvey. “I don’t know what’s got into Gorringe lately. This is the third big box he’s had since I’ve been here — that is, in six weeks — besides two baskets full of rose-bushes. I don’t know what he does with them. He carries them off himself somewhere. I’ve had kind of half a notion that he’s figurin’ on getting married. I can’t think of anything else that would make a man spend money like water — just for flowers and bushes. They do get foolish, you know, when they’ve got marriage on the brain.”

Theron found himself only imperfectly following the theories of the young philosopher. It was his fact that monopolized the minister’s attention.

“But as I understand it,” he remarked hesitatingly, “Brother Gorringe — or rather Mr. Gorringe — gets all the plants he wants, everything he likes, from a big garden somewhere outside. I don’t know that it is exactly his; but I remember hearing something to that effect.”

The boy slapped the last litter off his hands, and, as he came to the window, shook his head. “These don’t come from no garden outside,” he declared. “They come from the dealers’, and he pays solid cash for ’em. The invoice for this lot alone was thirty-one dollars and sixty cents. There it is on the table. You can see it for yourself.”

Mr. Ware did not offer to look. “Very likely these are for the garden I was speaking of,” he said. “Of course you can’t go on taking plants out of a garden indefinitely without putting others in.”

“I don’t know anything about any garden that he takes plants out of,” answered Harvey, and looked meditatively for a minute or two out upon the street below. Then he turned to the minister. “Your wife’s doing a good deal of gardening this spring, I notice,” he said casually. “You’d hardly think it was the same place, she’s fixed it up so. If she wants any extra hoeing done, I can always get off Saturday afternoons.”

“I will remember,” said Theron. He also looked out of the window; and nothing more was said until, a few moments later, Mr. Gorringe himself came in.

The lawyer seemed both surprised and pleased at discovering the identity of his visitor, with whom he shook hands in almost an excess of cordiality. He spread a large newspaper over the pile of seedling plants on the table, pushed the packing-box under the table with his foot, and said almost peremptorily to the boy, “You can go now!” Then he turned again to Theron.

“Well, Mr. Ware, I’m glad to see you,” he repeated, and drew up a chair by the window. “Things are going all right with you, I hope.”

Theron noted again the waving black hair, the dark skin, and the carefully trimmed mustache and chin-tuft which gave the lawyer’s face a combined effect of romance and smartness. No; it was the eyes, cool, shrewd, dark-gray eyes, which suggested this latter quality. The recollection of having seen one of them wink, in deliberate hostility of sarcasm, when those other trustees had their backs turned, came mercifully at the moment to recall the young minister to his errand.

“I thought I would drop in and have a chat with you,” he said, getting better under way as he went on. “Quarterly Conference is only a fortnight off, and I am a good deal at sea about what is going to happen.”

“I’m not a church member, you know,” interposed Gorringe. “That shuts me out of the Quarterly Conference.”

“Alas, yes!” said Theron. “I wish it didn’t. I’m afraid I’m not going to have any friends to spare there.”

“What are you afraid of?” asked the lawyer, seeming now to be wholly at his ease again “They can’t eat you.”

“No, they keep me too lean for that,” responded Theron, with a pensive smile. “I WAS going to ask, you know, for an increase of salary, or an extra allowance. I don’t see how I can go on as it is. The sum fixed by the last Quarterly Conference of the old year, and which I am getting now, is one hundred dollars less than my predecessor had. That isn’t fair, and it isn’t right. But so far from its looking as if I could get an increase, the prospect seems rather that they will make me pay for the gas and that sidewalk. I never recovered more than about half of my moving expenses, as you know, and — and, frankly, I don’t know which way to turn. It keeps me miserable all the while.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Mr. Gorringe. “If you let things like that worry you, you’ll keep a sore skin all your life. You take my advice and just go ahead your own gait, and let other folks do the worrying. They ARE pretty close-fisted here, for a fact, but you can manage to rub along somehow. If you should get into any real difficulties, why, I guess —” the lawyer paused to smile in a hesitating, significant way —“I guess some road out can be found all right. The main thing is, don’t fret, and don’t allow your wife to — to fret either.”

He stopped abruptly. Theron nodded in recognition of his amiable tone, and the found the nod lengthening itself out into almost a bow as the thought spread through his mind that this had been nothing more nor less than a promise to help him with money if worst came to worst. He looked at Levi Gorringe, and said to himself that the intuition of women was wonderful. Alice had picked him out as a friend of theirs merely by seeing him pass the house.

“Yes,” he said; “I am specially anxious to keep my wife from worrying. She was surrounded in her girlhood by a good deal of what, relatively, we should call luxury, and that makes it all the harder for her to be a poor minister’s wife. I had quite decided to get her a hired girl, come what might, but she thinks she’d rather get on without one. Her health is better, I must admit, than it was when we came here. She works out in her garden a great deal, and that seems to agree with her.”

“Octavius is a healthy place — that’s generally admitted,” replied the lawyer, with indifference. He seemed not to be interested in Mrs. Ware’s health, but looked intently out through the window at the buildings opposite, and drummed with his fingers on the arms of his chair.

Theron made haste to revert to his errand. “Of course, your not being in the Quarterly Conference,” he said, “renders certain things impossible. But I didn’t know but you might have some knowledge of how matters are going, what plans the officials of the church had; they seem to have agreed to tell me nothing.”

“Well, I HAVE heard this much,” responded Gorringe. “They’re figuring on getting the Soulsbys here to raise the debt and kind o’ shake things up generally. I guess that’s about as good as settled. Hadn’t you heard of it?”

“Not a breath!” exclaimed Theron, mournfully. “Well,” he added upon reflection, “I’m sorry, downright sorry. The debt-raiser seems to me about the lowest-down thing we produce. I’ve heard of those Soulsbys; I think I saw HIM indeed once at Conference, but I believe SHE is the head of the firm.”

“Yes; she wears the breeches, I understand,” said Gorringe sententiously.

“I HAD hoped,” the young minister began with a rueful sigh, “in fact, I felt quite confident at the outset that I could pay off this debt, and put the church generally on a new footing, by giving extra attention to my pulpit work. It is hardly for me to say it, but in other places where I have been, my preaching has been rather — rather a feature in the town itself I have always been accustomed to attract to our services a good many non-members, and that, as you know, helps tremendously from a money point of view. But somehow that has failed here. I doubt if the average congregations are a whit larger now than they were when I came in April. I know the collections are not.”

“No,” commented the lawyer, slowly; “you’ll never do anything in that line in Octavius. You might, of course, if you were to stay here and work hard at it for five or six years —”

“Heaven forbid!” groaned Mr. Ware.

“Quite so,” put in the other. “The point is that the Methodists here are a little set by themselves. I don’t know that they like one another specially, but I do know that they are not what you might call popular with people outside. Now, a new preacher at the Presbyterian church, or even the Baptist — he might have a chance to create talk, and make a stir. But Methodist — no! People who don’t belong won’t come near the Methodist church here so long as there’s any other place with a roof on it to go to. Give a dog a bad name, you know. Well, the Methodists here have got a bad name; and if you could preach like Henry Ward Beecher himself you wouldn’t change it, or get folks to come and hear you.”

“I see what you mean,” Theron responded. “I’m not particularly surprised myself that Octavius doesn’t love us, or look to us for intellectual stimulation. I myself leave that pulpit more often than otherwise feeling like a wet rag — utterly limp and discouraged. But, if you don’t mind my speaking of it, YOU don’t belong, and yet YOU come.”

It was evident that the lawyer did not mind. He spoke freely in reply. “Oh, yes, I’ve got into the habit of it. I began going when I first came here, and — and so it grew to be natural for me to go. Then, of course, being the only lawyer you have, a considerable amount of my business is mixed up in one way or another with your membership; you see those are really the things which settle a man in a rut, and keep him there.”

“I suppose your people were Methodists,” said Theron, to fill in the pause, “and that is how you originally started with us.”

Levi Gorringe shook his head. He leaned back, half closed his eyes, put his finger-tips together, and almost smiled as if something in retrospect pleased and moved him.

“No,” he said; “I went to the church first to see a girl who used to go there. It was long before your time. All her family moved away years ago. You wouldn’t know any of them. I was younger then, and I didn’t know as much as I do now. I worshipped the very ground that girl walked on, and like a fool I never gave her so much as a hint of it. Looking back now, I can see that I might have had her if I’d asked her. But I went instead and sat around and looked at her at church and Sunday-school and prayer-meetings Thursday nights, and class-meetings after the sermon. She was devoted to religion and church work; and, thinking it would please her, I joined the church on probation. Men can fool themselves easier than they can other people. I actually believed at the time that I had experienced religion. I felt myself full of all sorts of awakenings of the soul and so forth. But it was really that girl. You see I’m telling you the thing just as it was. I was very happy. I think it was the happiest time of my life. I remember there was a love-feast while I was on probation; and I sat down in front, right beside her, and we ate the little square chunks of bread and drank the water together, and I held one corner of her hymn-book when we stood up and sang. That was the nearest I ever got to her, or to full membership in the church. That very next week, I think it was, we learned that she had got engaged to the minister’s son — a young man who had just become a minister himself. They got married, and went away — and I— somehow I never took up my membership when the six months’ probation was over. That’s how it was.”

“It is very interesting,” remarked Theron, softly, after a little silence —“and very full of human nature.”

“Well, now you see,” said the lawyer, “what I mean when I say that there hasn’t been another minister here since, that I should have felt like telling this story to. They wouldn’t have understood it at all. They would have thought it was blasphemy for me to say straight out that what I took for experiencing religion was really a girl. But you are different. I felt that at once, the first time I saw you. In a pulpit or out of it, what I like in a human being is that he SHOULD be human.”

“It pleases me beyond measure that you should like me, then” returned the young minister, with frank gratification shining on his face. “The world is made all the sweeter and more lovable by these — these elements of romance. I am not one of those who would wish to see them banished or frowned upon. I don’t mind admitting to you that there is a good deal in Methodism — I mean the strict practice of its letter which you find here in Octavius — that is personally distasteful to me. I read the other day of an English bishop who said boldly, publicly, that no modern nation could practise the principles laid down in the Sermon on the Mount and survive for twenty-four hours.”

“Ha, ha! That’s good!” laughed the lawyer.

“I felt that it was good, too,” pursued Theron. “I am getting to see a great many things differently, here in Octavius. Our Methodist Discipline is like the Beatitudes — very helpful and beautiful, if treated as spiritual suggestion, but more or less of a stumbling-block if insisted upon literally. I declare!” he added, sitting up in his chair, “I never talked like this to a living soul before in all my life. Your confidences were contagious.”

The Rev. Mr. Ware rose as he spoke, and took up his hat.

“Must you be going?” asked the lawyer, also rising. “Well, I’m glad I haven’t shocked you. Come in oftener when you are passing. And if you see anything I can help you in, always tell me.”

The two men shook hands, with an emphatic and lingering clasp.

“I am glad,” said Theron, “that you didn’t stop coming to church just because you lost the girl.”

Levi Gorringe answered the minister’s pleasantry with a smile which curled his mustache upward, and expanded in little wrinkles at the ends of his eyes. “No,” he said jestingly. “I’m death on collecting debts; and I reckon that the church still owes me a girl. I’ll have one yet.”

So, with merriment the echoes of which pleasantly accompanied Theron down the stairway, the two men parted.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/frederic/harold/damnation-of-theron-ware/chapter12.html

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