The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xiii

Though time lagged in passing with a slowness which seemed born of studied insolence, there did arrive at last a day which had something definitive about it to Theron’s disturbed and restless mind. It was a Thursday, and the prayer-meeting to be held that evening would be the last before the Quarterly Conference, now only four days off.

For some reason, the young minister found himself dwelling upon this fact, and investing it with importance. But yesterday the Quarterly Conference had seemed a long way ahead. Today brought it alarmingly close to hand. He had not heretofore regarded the weekly assemblage for prayer and song as a thing calling for preparation, or for any preliminary thought. Now on this Thursday morning he went to his desk after breakfast, which was a sign that he wanted the room to himself, quite as if he had the task of a weighty sermon before him. He sat at the desk all the forenoon, doing no writing, it is true, but remembering every once in a while, when his mind turned aside from the book in his hands, that there was that prayer-meeting in the evening.

Sometimes he reached the point of vaguely wondering why this strictly commonplace affair should be forcing itself thus upon his attention. Then, with a kind of mental shiver at the recollection that this was Thursday, and that the great struggle came on Monday, he would go back to his book.

There were a half-dozen volumes on the open desk before him. He had taken them out from beneath a pile of old “Sunday–School Advocates” and church magazines, where they had lain hidden from Alice’s view most of the week. If there had been a locked drawer in the house, he would have used it instead to hold these books, which had come to him in a neat parcel, which also contained an amiable note from Dr. Ledsmar, recalling a pleasant evening in May, and expressing the hope that the accompanying works would be of some service. Theron had glanced at the backs of the uppermost two, and discovered that their author was Renan. Then he had hastily put the lot in the best place he could think of to escape his wife’s observation.

He realized now that there had been no need for this secrecy. Of the other four books, by Sayce, Budge, Smith, and Lenormant, three indeed revealed themselves to be published under religious auspices. As for Renan, he might have known that the name would be meaningless to Alice. The feeling that he himself was not much wiser in this matter than his wife may have led him to pass over the learned text-books on Chaldean antiquity, and even the volume of Renan which appeared to be devoted to Oriental inscriptions, and take up his other book, entitled in the translation, “Recollections of my Youth.” This he rather glanced through, at the outset, following with a certain inattention the introductory sketches and essays, which dealt with an unfamiliar, and, to his notion, somewhat preposterous Breton racial type. Then, little by little, it dawned upon him that there was a connected story in all this; and suddenly he came upon it, out in the open, as it were. It was the story of how a deeply devout young man, trained from his earliest boyhood for the sacred office, and desiring passionately nothing but to be worthy of it, came to a point where, at infinite cost of pain to himself and of anguish to those dearest to him, he had to declare that he could no longer believe at all in revealed religion.

Theron Ware read this all with an excited interest which no book had ever stirred in him before. Much of it he read over and over again, to make sure that he penetrated everywhere the husk of French habits of thought and Catholic methods in which the kernel was wrapped. He broke off midway in this part of the book to go out to the kitchen to dinner, and began the meal in silence. To Alice’s questions he replied briefly that he was preparing himself for the evening’s prayer-meeting. She lifted her brows in such frank surprise at this that he made a further and somewhat rambling explanation about having again taken up the work on his book — the book about Abraham.

“I thought you said you’d given that up altogether,” she remarked.

“Well,” he said, “I WAS discouraged about it for a while. But a man never does anything big without getting discouraged over and over again while he’s doing it. I don’t say now that I shall write precisely THAT book — I’m merely reading scientific works about the period, just now — but if not that, I shall write some other book. Else how will you get that piano?” he added, with an attempt at a smile.

“I thought you had given that up, too!” she replied ruefully. Then before he could speak, she went on: “Never mind the piano; that can wait. What I’ve got on my mind just now isn’t piano; it’s potatoes. Do you know, I saw some the other day at Rasbach’s, splendid potatoes — these are some of them — and fifteen cents a bushel cheaper than those dried-up old things Brother Barnum keeps, and so I bought two bushels. And Sister Barnum met me on the street this morning, and threw it in my face that the Discipline commands us to trade with each other. Is there any such command?”

“Yes,” said the husband. “It’s Section 33. Don’t you remember? I looked it up in Tyre. We are to ‘evidence our desire of salvation by doing good, especially to them that are of the household of faith, or groaning so to be; by employing them preferably to others; buying one of another; helping each other in business’— and so on. Yes, it’s all there.”

“Well, I told her I didn’t believe it was,” put in Alice, “and I said that even if it was, there ought to be another section about selling potatoes to their minister for more than they’re worth — potatoes that turn all green when you boil them, too. I believe I’ll read up that old Discipline myself, and see if it hasn’t got some things that I can talk back with.”

“The very section before that, Number 32, enjoins members against ‘uncharitable or unprofitable conversation — particularly speaking evil of magistrates or ministers.’ You’d have ’em there, I think.” Theron had begun cheerfully enough, but the careworn, preoccupied look returned now to his face. “I’m sorry if we’ve fallen out with the Barnums,” he said. “His brother-inlaw, Davis, the Sunday-school superintendent, is a member of the Quarterly Conference, you know, and I’ve been hoping that he was on my side. I’ve been taking a good deal of pains to make up to him.”

He ended with a sigh, the pathos of which impressed Alice. “If you think it will do any good,” she volunteered, “I’ll go and call on the Davises this very afternoon. I’m sure to find her at home — she’s tied hand and foot with that brood of hers — and you’d better give me some of that candy for them.”

Theron nodded his approval and thanks, and relapsed into silence. When the meal was over, he brought out the confectionery to his wife, and without a word went back to that remarkable book.

When Alice returned toward the close of day, to prepare the simple tea which was always laid a half-hour earlier on Thursdays and Sundays, she found her husband where she had left him, still busy with those new scientific works. She recounted to him some incidents of her call upon Mrs. Davis, as she took off her hat and put on the big kitchen apron — how pleased Mrs. Davis seemed to be; how her affection for her sister-inlaw, the grocer’s wife, disclosed itself to be not even skin-deep; how the children leaped upon the candy as if they had never seen any before; and how, in her belief, Mr. Davis would be heart and soul on Theron’s side at the Conference.

To her surprise, the young minister seemed not at all interested. He hardly looked at her during her narrative, but reclined in the easy-chair with his head thrown back, and an abstracted gaze wandering aimlessly about the ceiling. When she avowed her faith in the Sunday-school superintendent’s loyal partisanship, which she did with a pardonable pride in having helped to make it secure, her husband even closed his eyes, and moved his head with a gesture which plainly bespoke indifference.

“I expected you’d be tickled to death,” she remarked, with evident disappointment.

“I’ve a bad headache,” he explained, after a minute’s pause.

“No wonder!” Alice rejoined, sympathetically enough, but with a note of reproof as well. “What can you expect, staying cooped up in here all day long, poring over those books? People are all the while remarking that you study too much. I tell them, of course, that you’re a great hand for reading, and always were; but I think myself it would be better if you got out more, and took more exercise, and saw people. You know lots and slathers more than THEY do now, or ever will, if you never opened another book.”

Theron regarded her with an expression which she had never seen on his face before. “You don’t realize what you are saying,” he replied slowly. He sighed as he added, with increased gravity, “I am the most ignorant man alive!”

Alice began a little laugh of wifely incredulity, and then let it die away as she recognized that he was really troubled and sad in his mind. She bent over to kiss him lightly on the brow, and tiptoed her way out into the kitchen.

“I believe I will let you make my excuses at the prayer-meeting this evening,” he said all at once, as the supper came to an end. He had eaten next to nothing during the meal, and had sat in a sort of brown-study from which Alice kindly forbore to arouse him. “I don’t know — I hardly feel equal to it. They won’t take it amiss — for once — if you explain to them that I— I am not at all well.”

“Oh, I do hope you’re not coming down with anything!” Alice had risen too, and was gazing at him with a solicitude the tenderness of which at once comforted, and in some obscure way jarred on his nerves. “Is there anything I can do — or shall I go for a doctor? We’ve got mustard in the house, and senna — I think there’s some senna left — and Jamaica ginger.”

Theron shook his head wearily at her. “Oh, no — no!” he expostulated. “It isn’t anything that needs drugs, or doctors either. It’s just mental worry and fatigue, that’s all. An evening’s quiet rest in the big chair, and early to bed — that will fix me up all right.”

“But you’ll read; and that will make your head worse,” said Alice.

“No, I won’t read any more,” he promised her, walking slowly into the sitting-room, and settling himself in the big chair, the while she brought out a pillow from the adjoining best bedroom, and adjusted it behind his head. “That’s nice! I’ll just lie quiet here, and perhaps doze a little till you come back. I feel in the mood for the rest; it will do me all sorts of good.”

He closed his eyes; and Alice, regarding his upturned face anxiously, decided that already it looked more at peace than awhile ago.

“Well, I hope you’ll be better when I get back,” she said, as she began preparations for the evening service. These consisted in combing stiffly back the strands of light-brown hair which, during the day, had exuberantly loosened themselves over her temples into something almost like curls; in fastening down upon this rebellious hair a plain brown-straw bonnet, guiltless of all ornament save a binding ribbon of dull umber hue; and in putting on a thin dark-gray shawl and a pair of equally subdued lisle-thread gloves. Thus attired, she made a mischievous little grimace of dislike at her puritanical image in the looking-glass over the mantel, and then turned to announce her departure.

“Well, I’m off,” she said. Theron opened his eyes to take in this figure of his wife dressed for prayer-meeting, and then closed them again abruptly. “All right,” he murmured, and then he heard the door shut behind her.

Although he had been alone all day, there seemed to be quite a unique value and quality in this present solitude. He stretched out his legs on the opposite chair, and looked lazily about him, with the feeling that at last he had secured some leisure, and could think undisturbed to his heart’s content. There were nearly two hours of unbroken quiet before him; and the mere fact of his having stepped aside from the routine of his duty to procure it; marked it in his thoughts as a special occasion, which ought in the nature of things to yield more than the ordinary harvest of mental profit.

Theron’s musings were broken in upon from time to time by rumbling outbursts of hymn-singing from the church next door. Surely, he said to himself, there could be no other congregation in the Conference, or in all Methodism, which sang so badly as these Octavians did. The noise, as it came to him now and again, divided itself familiarly into a main strain of hard, high, sharp, and tinny female voices, with three or four concurrent and clashing branch strains of part-singing by men who did not know how. How well he already knew these voices! Through two wooden walls he could detect the conceited and pushing note of Brother Lovejoy, who tried always to drown the rest out, and the lifeless, unmeasured weight of shrill clamor which Sister Barnum hurled into every chorus, half closing her eyes and sticking out her chin as she did so. They drawled their hymns too, these people, till Theron thought he understood that injunction in the Discipline against singing too slowly. It had puzzled him heretofore; now he felt that it must have been meant in prophecy for Octavius.

It was impossible not to recall in contrast that other church music he had heard, a month before, and the whole atmosphere of that other pastoral sitting room, from which he had listened to it. The startled and crowded impressions of that strange evening had been lying hidden in his mind all this while, driven into a corner by the pressure of more ordinary, everyday matters. They came forth now, and passed across his brain — no longer confusing and distorted, but in orderly and intelligible sequence. Their earlier effect had been one of frightened fascination. Now he looked them over calmly as they lifted themselves, one by one, and found himself not shrinking at all, or evading anything, but dwelling upon each in turn as a natural and welcome part of the most important experience of his life.

The young minister had arrived, all at once, at this conclusion. He did not question at all the means by which he had reached it. Nothing was clearer to his mind than the conclusion itself — that his meeting, with the priest and the doctor was the turning-point in his career. They had lifted him bodily out of the slough of ignorance, of contact with low minds and sordid, narrow things, and put him on solid ground. This book he had been reading — this gentle, tender, lovable book, which had as much true piety in it as any devotional book he had ever read, and yet, unlike all devotional books, put its foot firmly upon everything which could not be proved in human reason to be true — must be merely one of a thousand which men like Father Forbes and Dr. Ledsmar knew by heart. The very thought that he was on the way now to know them, too, made Theron tremble. The prospect wooed him, and he thrilled in response, with the wistful and delicate eagerness of a young lover.

Somehow, the fact that the priest and the doctor were not religious men, and that this book which had so impressed and stirred him was nothing more than Renan’s recital of how he, too, ceased to be a religious man, did not take a form which Theron could look square in the face. It wore the shape, instead, of a vague premise that there were a great many different kinds of religions — the past and dead races had multiplied these in their time literally into thousands — and that each no doubt had its central support of truth somewhere for the good men who were in it, and that to call one of these divine and condemn all the others was a part fit only for untutored bigots. Renan had formally repudiated Catholicism, yet could write in his old age with the deepest filial affection of the Mother Church he had quitted. Father Forbes could talk coolly about the “Christ-myth” without even ceasing to be a priest, and apparently a very active and devoted priest. Evidently there was an intellectual world, a world of culture and grace, of lofty thoughts and the inspiring communion of real knowledge, where creeds were not of importance, and where men asked one another, not “Is your soul saved?” but “Is your mind well furnished?” Theron had the sensation of having been invited to become a citizen of this world. The thought so dazzled him that his impulses were dragging him forward to take the new oath of allegiance before he had had time to reflect upon what it was he was abandoning.

The droning of the Doxology from the church outside stirred Theron suddenly out of his revery. It had grown quite dark, and he rose and lit the gas. “Blest be the Tie that Binds,” they were singing. He paused, with hand still in air, to listen. That well-worn phrase arrested his attention, and gave itself a new meaning. He was bound to those people, it was true, but he could never again harbor the delusion that the tie between them was blessed. There was vaguely present in his mind the consciousness that other ties were loosening as well. Be that as it might, one thing was certain. He had passed definitely beyond pretending to himself that there was anything spiritually in common between him and the Methodist Church of Octavius. The necessity of his keeping up the pretence with others rose on the instant like a looming shadow before his mental vision. He turned away from it, and bent his brain to think of something else.

The noise of Alice opening the front door came as a pleasant digression. A second later it became clear from the sound of voices that she had brought some one back with her, and Theron hastily stretched himself out again in the armchair, with his head back in the pillow, and his feet on the other chair. He had come mighty near forgetting that he was an invalid, and he protected himself the further now by assuming an air of lassitude verging upon prostration.

“Yes; there’s a light burning. It’s all right,” he heard Alice say. She entered the room, and Theron’s head was too bad to permit him to turn it, and see who her companion was.

“Theron dear,” Alice began, “I knew you’d be glad to see HER, even if you were out of sorts; and I persuaded her just to run in for a minute. Let me introduce you to Sister Soulsby. Sister Soulsby — my husband.”

The Rev. Mr. Ware sat upright with an energetic start, and fastened upon the stranger a look which conveyed anything but the satisfaction his wife had been so sure about. It was at the first blush an undisguised scowl, and only some fleeting memory of that reflection about needing now to dissemble, prevented him from still frowning as he rose to his feet, and perfunctorily held out his hand.

“Delighted, I’m sure,” he mumbled. Then, looking up, he discovered that Sister Soulsby knew he was not delighted, and that she seemed not to mind in the least.

“As your good lady said, I just ran in for a moment,” she remarked, shaking his limp hand with a brisk, business-like grasp, and dropping it. “I hate bothering sick people, but as we’re to be thrown together a good deal this next week or so, I thought I’d like to lose no time in saying ‘howdy.’ I won’t keep you up now. Your wife has been sweet enough to ask me to move my trunk over here in the morning, so that you’ll see enough of me and to spare.”

Theron looked falteringly into her face, as he strove for words which should sufficiently mask the disgust this intelligence stirred within him. A debt-raiser in the town was bad enough! A debt-raiser quartered in the very parsonage! — he ground his teeth to think of it.

Alice read his hesitation aright. “Sister Soulsby went to the hotel,” she hastily put in; “and Loren Pierce was after her to come and stay at his house, and I ventured to tell her that I thought we could make her more comfortable here.” She accompanied this by so daring a grimace and nod that her husband woke up to the fact that a point in Conference politics was involved.

He squeezed a doubtful smile upon his features. “We shall both do our best,” he said. It was not easy, but he forced increasing amiability into his glance and tone. “Is Brother Soulsby here, too?” he asked.

The debt-raiser shook her head — again the prompt, decisive movement, so like a busy man of affairs. “No,” she answered. “He’s doing supply down on the Hudson this week, but he’ll be here in time for the Sunday morning love-feast. I always like to come on ahead, and see how the land lies. Well, good-night! Your head will be all right in the morning.”

Precisely what she meant by this assurance, Theron did not attempt to guess. He received her adieu, noted the masterful manner in which she kissed his wife, and watched her pass out into the hall, with the feeling uppermost that this was a person who decidedly knew her way about. Much as he was prepared to dislike her, and much as he detested the vulgar methods her profession typified, he could not deny that she seemed a very capable sort of woman.

This mental concession did not prevent his fixing upon Alice, when she returned to the room, a glance of obvious disapproval.

“Theron,” she broke forth, to anticipate his reproach, “I did it for the best. The Pierces would have got her if I hadn’t cut in. I thought it would help to have her on our side. And, besides, I like her. She’s the first sister I’ve seen since we’ve been in this hole that’s had a kind word for me — or — or sympathized with me! And — and — if you’re going to be offended — I shall cry!”

There were real tears on her lashes, ready to make good the threat. “Oh, I guess I wouldn’t,” said Theron, with an approach to his old, half-playful manner. “If you like her, that’s the chief thing.”

Alice shook her tear-drops away. “No,” she replied, with a wistful smile; “the chief thing is to have her like you. She’s as smart as a steel trap — that woman is — and if she took the notion, I believe she could help get us a better place.”

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