The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xiv

The ensuing week went by with a buzz and whirl, circling about Theron Ware’s dizzy consciousness like some huge, impalpable teetotum sent spinning under Sister Soulsby’s resolute hands. Whenever his vagrant memory recurred to it, in after months, he began by marvelling, and ended with a shudder of repulsion.

It was a week crowded with events, which seemed to him to shoot past so swiftly that in effect they came all of a heap. He never essayed the task, in retrospect, of arranging them in their order of sequence. They had, however, a definite and interdependent chronology which it is worth the while to trace.

Mrs. Soulsby brought her trunk round to the parsonage bright and early on Friday morning, and took up her lodgement in the best bedroom, and her headquarters in the house at large, with a cheerful and business-like manner. She desired nothing so much, she said, as that people should not put themselves out on her account, or allow her to get in their way. She appeared to mean this, too, and to have very good ideas about securing its realization.

During both Friday and the following day, indeed, Theron saw her only at the family meals. There she displayed a hearty relish for all that was set before her which quite won Mrs. Ware’s heart, and though she talked rather more than Theron found himself expecting from a woman, he could not deny that her conversation was both seemly and entertaining. She had evidently been a great traveller, and referred to things she had seen in Savannah or Montreal or Los Angeles in as matter-of-fact fashion as he could have spoken of a visit to Tecumseh. Theron asked her many questions about these and other far-off cities, and her answers were all so pat and showed so keen and clear an eye that he began in spite of himself to think of her with a certain admiration.

She in turn plied him with inquiries about the principal pew-holders and members of his congregation — their means, their disposition, and the measure of their devotion. She put these queries with such intelligence, and seemed to assimilate his replies with such an alert understanding, that the young minister was spurred to put dashes of character in his descriptions, and set forth the idiosyncrasies and distinguishing earmarks of his flock with what he felt afterward might have been too free a tongue. But at the time her fine air of appreciation led him captive. He gossiped about his parishioners as if he enjoyed it. He made a specially happy thumb-nail sketch for her of one of his trustees, Erastus Winch, the loud-mouthed, ostentatiously jovial, and really cold-hearted cheese-buyer. She was particularly interested in hearing about this man. The personality of Winch seemed to have impressed her, and she brought the talk back to him more than once, and prompted Theron to the very threshold of indiscretion in his confidences on the subject.

Save at meal-times, Sister Soulsby spent the two days out around among the Methodists of Octavius. She had little or nothing to say about what she thus saw and heard, but used it as the basis for still further inquiries. She told more than once, however, of how she had been pressed here or there to stay to dinner or supper, and how she had excused herself. “I’ve knocked about too much,” she would explain to the Wares, “not to fight shy of random country cooking. When I find such a born cook as you are — well I know when I’m well off.” Alice flushed with pleased pride at this, and Theron himself felt that their visitor showed great good sense. By Saturday noon, the two women were calling each other by their first names. Theron learned with a certain interest that Sister Soulsby’s Christian name was Candace.

It was only natural that he should give even more thought to her than to her quaint and unfamiliar old Ethiopian name. She was undoubtedly a very smart woman. To his surprise she had never introduced in her talk any of the stock religious and devotional phrases which official Methodists so universally employed in mutual converse. She might have been an insurance agent, or a school-teacher, visiting in a purely secular household, so little parade of cant was there about her.

He caught himself wondering how old she was. She seemed to have been pretty well over the whole American continent, and that must take years of time. Perhaps, however, the exertion of so much travel would tend to age one in appearance. Her eyes were still youthful — decidedly wise eyes, but still juvenile. They had sparkled with almost girlish merriment at some of his jokes. She turned them about a good deal when she spoke, making their glances fit and illustrate the things she said. He had never met any one whose eyes played so constant and prominent a part in their owner’s conversation. Theron had never seen a play; but he had encountered the portraits of famous queens of the drama several times in illustrated papers or shop windows, and it occurred to him that some of the more marked contortions of Sister Soulsby’s eyes — notably a trick she had of rolling them swiftly round and plunging them, so to speak, into an intent, yearning, one might almost say devouring, gaze at the speaker — were probably employed by eminent actresses like Ristori and Fanny Davenport.

The rest of Sister Soulsby was undoubtedly subordinated in interest to those eyes of hers. Sometimes her face seemed to be reviving temporarily a comeliness which had been constant in former days; then again it would look decidedly, organically, plain. It was the worn and loose-skinned face of a nervous, middle-aged woman, who had had more than her share of trouble, and drank too much tea. She wore the collar of her dress rather low; and Theron found himself wondering at this, because, though long and expansive, her neck certainly showed more cords and cavities than consorted with his vague ideal of statuesque beauty. Then he wondered at himself for thinking about it, and abruptly reined up his fancy, only to find that it was playing with speculations as to whether her yellowish complexion was due to that tea-drinking or came to her as a legacy of Southern blood.

He knew that she was born in the South because she said so. From the same source he learned that her father had been a wealthy planter, who was ruined by the war, and sank into a premature grave under the weight of his accumulated losses. The large dark rings around her eyes grew deeper still in their shadows when she told about this, and her ordinarily sharp voice took on a mellow cadence, with a soft, drawling accent, turning U’s into O’s, and having no R’s to speak of. Theron had imbibed somewhere in early days the conviction that the South was the land of romance, of cavaliers and gallants and black eyes flashing behind mantillas and outspread fans, and somehow when Sister Soulsby used this intonation she suggested all these things.

But almost all her talk was in another key — a brisk, direct, idiomatic manner of speech, with an intonation hinting at no section in particular. It was merely that of the city-dweller as distinguished from the rustic. She was of about Alice’s height, perhaps a shade taller. It did not escape the attention of the Wares that she wore clothes of a more stylish cut and a livelier arrangement of hues than any Alice had ever dared own, even in lax-minded Tyre. The two talked of this in their room on Friday night; and Theron explained that congregations would tolerate things of this sort with a stranger which would be sharply resented in the case of local folk whom they controlled. It was on this occasion that Alice in turn told Theron she was sure Mrs. Soulsby had false teeth — a confidence which she immediately regretted as an act of treachery to her sex.

On Saturday afternoon, toward evening, Brother Soulsby arrived, and was guided to the parsonage by his wife, who had gone to the depot to meet him. They must have talked over the situation pretty thoroughly on the way, for by the time the new-comer had washed his face and hands and put on a clean collar, Sister Soulsby was ready to announce her plan of campaign in detail.

Her husband was a man of small stature and, like herself, of uncertain age. He had a gentle, if rather dry, clean-shaven face, and wore his dust-colored hair long behind. His little figure was clad in black clothes of a distinctively clerical fashion, and he had a white neck-cloth neatly tied under his collar. The Wares noted that he looked clean and amiable rather than intellectually or spiritually powerful, as he took the vacant seat between theirs, and joined them in concentrating attention upon Mrs. Soulsby.

This lady, holding herself erect and alert on the edge of the low, big easy-chair had the air of presiding over a meeting.

“My idea is,” she began, with an easy implication that no one else’s idea was needed, “that your Quarterly Conference, when it meets on Monday, must be adjourned to Tuesday. We will have the people all out tomorrow morning to love-feast, and announcement can be made there, and at the morning service afterward, that a series of revival meetings are to be begun that same evening. Mr. Soulsby and I can take charge in the evening, and we’ll see to it that THAT packs the house — fills the church to overflowing Monday evening. Then we’ll quietly turn the meeting into a debt-raising convention, before they know where they are, and we’ll wipe off the best part of the load. Now, don’t you see,” she turned her eyes full upon Theron as she spoke, “you want to hold your Quarterly Conference AFTER this money’s been raised, not before.”

“I see what you mean,” Mr. Ware responded gravely. “But —”

“But what!” Sister Soulsby interjected, with vivacity.

“Well,” said Theron, picking his words, “in the first place, it rests with the Presiding Elder to say whether an adjournment can be made until Tuesday, not with me.”

“That’s all right. Leave that to me,” said the lady.

“In the second place,” Theron went on, still more hesitatingly, “there seems a certain — what shall I say? — indirection in-in-”

“In getting them together for a revival, and springing a debt-raising on them?” Sister Soulsby put in. “Why, man alive, that’s the best part of it. You ought to be getting some notion by this time what these Octavius folks of yours are like. I’ve only been here two days, but I’ve got their measure down to an allspice. Supposing you were to announce tomorrow that the debt was to be raised Monday. How many men with bank-accounts would turn up, do you think? You could put them all in your eye, sir — all in your eye!”

“Very possibly you’re right,” faltered the young minister.

“Right? Why, of course I’m right,” she said, with placid confidence. “You’ve got to take folks as you find them; and you’ve got to find them the best way you can. One place can be worked, managed, in one way, and another needs quite a different way, and both ways would be dead frosts — complete failures — in a third.”

Brother Soulsby coughed softly here, and shuffled his feet for an instant on the carpet. His wife resumed her remarks with slightly abated animation, and at a slower pace.

“My experience,” she said, “has shown me that the Apostle was right. To properly serve the cause, one must be all things to all men. I have known very queer things indeed turn out to be means of grace. You simply CAN’T get along without some of the wisdom of the serpent. We are commanded to have it, for that matter. And now, speaking of that, do you know when the Presiding Elder arrives in town today, and where he is going to eat supper and sleep?”

Theron shook his head. “All I know is he isn’t likely to come here,” he said, and added sadly, “I’m afraid he’s not an admirer of mine.”

“Perhaps that’s not all his fault,” commented Sister Soulsby. “I’ll tell you something. He came in on the same train as my husband, and that old trustee Pierce of yours was waiting for him with his buggy, and I saw like a flash what was in the wind, and the minute the train stopped I caught the Presiding Elder, and invited him in your name to come right here and stay; told him you and Alice were just set on his coming — wouldn’t take no for an answer. Of course he couldn’t come — I knew well enough he had promised old Pierce — but we got in our invitation anyway, and it won’t do you any harm. Now, that’s what I call having some gumption — wisdom of the serpent, and so on.”

“I’m sure,” remarked Alice, “I should have been mortified to death if he had come. We lost the extension-leaf to our table in moving, and four is all it’ll seat decently.”

Sister Soulsby smiled winningly into the wife’s honest face. “Don’t you see, dear,” she explained patiently, “I only asked him because I knew he couldn’t come. A little butter spreads a long way, if it’s only intelligently warmed.”

“It was certainly very ingenious of you,” Theron began almost stiffly. Then he yielded to the humanities, and with a kindling smile added, “And it was as kind as kind could be. I’m afraid you’re wrong about it’s doing me any good, but I can see how well you meant it, and I’m grateful.”

“We COULD have sneaked in the kitchen table, perhaps, while he was out in the garden, and put on the extra long tablecloth,” interjected Alice, musingly.

Sister Soulsby smiled again at Sister Ware, but without any words this time; and Alice on the instant rose, with the remark that she must be going out to see about supper.

“I’m going to insist on coming out to help you,” Mrs. Soulsby declared, “as soon as I’ve talked over one little matter with your husband. Oh, yes, you must let me this time. I insist!”

As the kitchen door closed behind Mrs. Ware, a swift and apparently significant glance shot its way across from Sister Soulsby’s roving, eloquent eyes to the calmer and smaller gray orbs of her husband. He rose to his feet, made some little explanation about being a gardener himself, and desiring to inspect more closely some rhododendrons he had noticed in the garden, and forthwith moved decorously out by the other door into the front hall. They heard his footsteps on the gravel beneath the window before Mrs. Soulsby spoke again.

“You’re right about the Presiding Elder, and you’re wrong,” she said. “He isn’t what one might call precisely in love with you. Oh, I know the story — how you got into debt at Tyre, and he stepped in and insisted on your being denied Tecumseh and sent here instead.”

“HE was responsible for that, then, was he?” broke in Theron, with contracted brows.

“Why, don’t you make any effort to find out anything at ALL?” she asked pertly enough, but with such obvious good-nature that he could not but have pleasure in her speech. “Why, of course he did it! Who else did you suppose?”

“Well,” said the young minister, despondently, “if he’s as much against me as all that, I might as well hang up my fiddle and go home.”

Sister Soulsby gave a little involuntary groan of impatience. She bent forward, and, lifting her eyes, rolled them at him in a curve of downward motion which suggested to his fancy the image of two eagles in a concerted pounce upon a lamb.

“My friend,” she began, with a new note of impressiveness in her voice, “if you’ll pardon my saying it, you haven’t got the spunk of a mouse. If you’re going to lay down, and let everybody trample over you just as they please, you’re right! You MIGHT as well go home. But now here, this is what I wanted to say to you: Do you just keep your hands off these next few days, and leave this whole thing to me. I’ll pull it into shipshape for you. No — wait a minute — don’t interrupt now. I have taken a liking to you. You’ve got brains, and you’ve got human nature in you, and heart. What you lack is SABE— common-sense. You’ll get that, too, in time, and meanwhile I’m not going to stand by and see you cut up and fed to the dogs for want of it. I’ll get you through this scrape, and put you on your feet again, right-side-up-with care, because, as I said, I like you. I like your wife, too, mind. She’s a good, honest little soul, and she worships the very ground you tread on. Of course, as long as people WILL marry in their teens, the wrong people will get yoked up together. But that’s neither here nor there. She’s a kind sweet little body, and she’s devoted to you, and it isn’t every intellectual man that gets even that much. But now it’s a go, is it? You promise to keep quiet, do you, and leave the whole show absolutely to me? Shake hands on it.”

Sister Soulsby had risen, and stood now holding out her hand in a frank, manly fashion. Theron looked at the hand, and made mental notes that there were a good many veins discernible on the small wrist, and that the forearm seemed to swell out more than would have been expected in a woman producing such a general effect of leanness. He caught the shine of a thin bracelet-band of gold under the sleeve. A delicate, significant odor just hinted its presence in the air about this outstretched arm — something which was not a perfume, yet deserved as gracious a name.

He rose to his feet, and took the proffered hand with a deliberate gesture, as if he had been cautiously weighing all the possible arguments for and against this momentous compact.

“I promise,” he said gravely, and the two palms squeezed themselves together in an earnest clasp.

“Right you are,” exclaimed the lady, once more with cheery vivacity. “Mind, when it’s all over, I’m going to give you a good, serious, downright talking to — a regular hoeing-over. I’m not sure I shan’t give you a sound shaking into the bargain. You need it. And now I’m going out to help Alice.”

The Reverend Mr. Ware remained standing after his new friend had left the room, and his meditative face wore an even unusual air of abstraction. He strolled aimlessly over, after a time, to the desk by the window, and stood there looking out at the slight figure of Brother Soulsby, who was bending over and attentively regarding some pink blossoms on a shrub through what seemed to be a pocket magnifying-glass.

What remained uppermost in his mind was not this interesting woman’s confident pledge of championship in his material difficulties. He found himself dwelling instead upon her remark about the incongruous results of early marriages. He wondered idly if the little man in the white tie, fussing out there over that rhododendron-bush, had figured in her thoughts as an example of these evils. Then he reflected that they had been mentioned in clear relation to talk about Alice.

Now that he faced this question, it was as if he had been consciously ignoring and putting it aside for a long time. How was it, he asked himself now, that Alice, who had once seemed so bright and keen-witted, who had in truth started out immeasurably his superior in swiftness of apprehension and readiness in humorous quips and conceits, should have grown so dull? For she was undoubtedly slow to understand things nowadays. Her absurd lugging in of the extension-table problem, when the great strategic point of that invitation foisted upon the Presiding Elder came up, was only the latest sample of a score of these heavy-minded exhibitions that recalled themselves to him. And outsiders were apparently beginning to notice it. He knew by intuition what those phrases, “good, honest little soul” and “kind, sweet little body” signified, when another woman used them to a husband about his wife. The very employment of that word “little” was enough, considering that there was scarcely more than a hair’s difference between Mrs. Soulsby and Alice, and that they were both rather tall than otherwise, as the stature of women went.

What she had said about the chronic misfortunes of intellectual men in such matters gave added point to those meaning phrases. Nobody could deny that geniuses and men of conspicuous talent had as a rule, all through history, contracted unfortunate marriages. In almost every case where their wives were remembered at all, it was on account of their abnormal stupidity, or bad temper, or something of that sort. Take Xantippe, for example, and Shakespeare’s wife, and — and — well, there was Byron, and Bulwer–Lytton, and ever so many others.

Of course there was nothing to be done about it. These things happened, and one could only put the best possible face on them, and live one’s appointed life as patiently and contentedly as might be. And Alice undoubtedly merited all the praise which had been so generously bestowed upon her. She was good and honest and kindly, and there could be no doubt whatever as to her utter devotion to him. These were tangible, solid qualities, which must always secure respect for her. It was true that she no longer seemed to be very popular among people. He questioned whether men, for instance, like Father Forbes and Dr. Ledsmar would care much about her. Visions of the wifeless and academic calm in which these men spent their lives — an existence consecrated to literature and knowledge and familiarity with all the loftiest and noblest thoughts of the past — rose and enveloped him in a cloud of depression. No such lot would be his! He must labor along among ignorant and spiteful narrow-minded people to the end of his days, pocketing their insults and fawning upon the harsh hands of jealous nonentities who happened to be his official masters, just to keep a roof over his head — or rather Alice’s. He must sacrifice everything to this, his ambitions, his passionate desires to do real good in the world on a large scale, his mental freedom, yes, even his chance of having truly elevating, intellectual friendships. For it was plain enough that the men whose friendship would be of genuine and stimulating profit to him would not like her. Now that he thought of it, she seemed latterly to make no friends at all.

Suddenly, as he watched in a blank sort of way Brother Soulsby take out a penknife, and lop an offending twig from a rose-bush against the fence, something occurred to him. There was a curious exception to that rule of Alice’s isolation. She had made at least one friend. Levi Gorringe seemed to like her extremely.

As if his mind had been a camera, Theron snapped a shutter down upon this odd, unbidden idea, and turned away from the window.

The sounds of an active, almost strenuous conversation in female voices came from the kitchen. Theron opened the door noiselessly, and put in his head, conscious of something furtive in his intention.

“You must dreen every drop of water off the spinach, mind, before you put it over, or else —”

It was Sister Soulsby’s sharp and penetrating tones which came to him. Theron closed the door again, and surrendered himself once more to the circling whirl of his thoughts.

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