The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xv

A love-feast at nine in the morning opened the public services of a Sunday still memorable in the annals of Octavius Methodism.

This ceremony, which four times a year preceded the sessions of the Quarterly Conference, was not necessarily an event of importance. It was an occasion upon which the brethren and sisters who clung to the old-fashioned, primitive ways of the itinerant circuit-riders, let themselves go with emphasized independence, putting up more vehement prayers than usual, and adding a special fervor of noise to their “Amens!” and other interjections — and that was all.

It was Theron’s first love-feast in Octavius, and as the big class-room in the church basement began to fill up, and he noted how the men with ultra radical views and the women clad in the most ostentatious drabs and grays were crowding into the front seats, he felt his spirits sinking. He had literally to force himself from sentence to sentence, when the time came for him to rise and open the proceedings with an exhortation. He had eagerly offered this function to the Presiding Elder, the Rev. Aziel P. Larrabee, who sat in severe silence on the little platform behind him, but had been informed that the dignitary would lead off in giving testimony later on. So Theron, feeling all the while the hostile eyes of the Elder burning holes in his back, dragged himself somehow through the task. He had never known any such difficulty of speech before. The relief was almost overwhelming when he came to the customary part where all are adjured to be as brief as possible in witnessing for the Lord, because the time belongs to all the people, and the Discipline forbids the feast to last more than ninety minutes. He delivered this injunction to brevity with marked earnestness, and then sat down abruptly.

There was some rather boisterous singing, during which the stewards, beginning with the platform, passed plates of bread cut in small cubes, and water in big plated pitchers and tumblers, about among the congregation, threading their way between the long wooden benches ordinarily occupied at this hour by the children of the Sunday-school, and helping each brother and sister in turn. They held by the old custom, here in Octavius, and all along the seats the sexes alternated, as they do at a polite dinner-table.

Theron impassively watched the familiar scene. The early nervousness had passed away. He felt now that he was not in the least afraid of these people, even with the Presiding Elder thrown in. Folks who sang with such unintelligence, and who threw themselves with such undignified fervor into this childish business of the bread and water, could not be formidable antagonists for a man of intellect. He had never realized before what a spectacle the Methodist love-feast probably presented to outsiders. What must they think of it!

He had noticed that the Soulsbys sat together, in the centre and toward the front. Next to Brother Soulsby sat Alice. He thought she looked pale and preoccupied, and set it down in passing to her innate distaste for the somber garments she was wearing, and for the company she perforce found herself in. Another head was in the way, and for a time Theron did not observe who sat beside Alice on the other side. When at last he saw that it was Levi Gorringe, his instinct was to wonder what the lawyer must be saying to himself about these noisy and shallow enthusiasts. A recurring emotion of loyalty to the simple people among whom, after all, he had lived his whole life, prompted him to feel that it wasn’t wholly nice of Gorringe to come and enjoy this revelation of their foolish side, as if it were a circus. There was some vague memory in his mind which associated Gorringe with other love-feasts, and with a cynical attitude toward them. Oh, yes! he had told how he went to one just for the sake of sitting beside the girl he admired — and was pursuing.

The stewards had completed their round, and the loud, discordant singing came to an end. There ensued a little pause, during which Theron turned to the Presiding Elder with a gesture of invitation to take charge of the further proceedings. The Elder responded with another gesture, calling his attention to something going on in front.

Brother and Sister Soulsby, to the considerable surprise of everybody, had risen to their feet, and were standing in their places, quite motionless, and with an air of professional self-assurance dimly discernible under a large show of humility. They stood thus until complete silence had been secured. Then the woman, lifting her head, began to sing. The words were “Rock of Ages,” but no one present had heard the tune to which she wedded them. Her voice was full and very sweet, and had in it tender cadences which all her hearers found touching. She knew how to sing, and she put forth the words so that each was distinctly intelligible. There came a part where Brother Soulsby, lifting his head in turn, took up a tuneful second to her air. Although the two did not, as one could hear by listening closely, sing the same words at the same time, they produced none the less most moving and delightful harmonies of sound.

The experience was so novel and charming that listeners ran ahead in their minds to fix the number of verses there were in the hymn, and to hope that none would be left out. Toward the end, when some of the intolerably self-conceited local singers, fancying they had caught the tune, started to join in, they were stopped by an indignant “sh-h!” which rose from all parts of the class-room; and the Soulsbys, with a patient and pensive kindliness written on their uplifted faces, gave that verse over again.

What followed seemed obviously restrained and modified by the effect of this unlooked-for and tranquillizing overture. The Presiding Elder was known to enjoy visits to old-fashioned congregations like that of Octavius, where he could indulge to the full his inner passion for high-pitched passionate invocations and violent spiritual demeanor, but this time he spoke temperately, almost soothingly. The most tempestuous of the local witnesses for the Lord gave in their testimony in relatively pacific tones, under the influence of the spell which good music had laid upon the gathering. There was the deepest interest as to what the two visitors would do in this way. Brother Soulsby spoke first, very briefly and in well rounded and well-chosen, if conventional, phrases. His wife, following him, delivered in a melodious monotone some equally hackneyed remarks. The assemblage, listening in rapt attention, felt the suggestion of reserved power in every sentence she uttered, and burst forth, as she dropped into her seat, in a loud chorus of approving ejaculations. The Soulsbys had captured Octavius with their first outer skirmish line.

Everything seemed to move forward now with a new zest and spontaneity. Theron had picked out for the occasion the best of those sermons which he had prepared in Tyre, at the time when he was justifying his ambition to be accounted a pulpit orator. It was orthodox enough, but had been planned as the framework for picturesque and emotional rhetoric rather than doctrinal edification. He had never dreamed of trying it on Octavius before, and only on the yesterday had quavered at his own daring in choosing it now. Nothing but the desire to show Sister Soulsby what was in him had held him to the selection.

Something of this same desire no doubt swayed and steadied him now in the pulpit. The labored slowness of his beginning seemed to him to be due to nervous timidity, until suddenly, looking down into those big eyes of Sister Soulsby’s, which were bent gravely upon him from where she sat beside Alice in the minister’s pew, he remembered that it was instead the studied deliberation which art had taught him. He went on, feeling more and more that the skill and histrionic power of his best days were returning to him, were as marked as ever — nay, had never triumphed before as they were triumphing now. The congregation watched and listened with open, steadfast eyes and parted lips. For the first time in all that weary quarter, their faces shone. The sustaining sparkle of their gaze lifted him to a peroration unrivalled in his own recollection of himself.

He sat down, and bent his head forward upon the open Bible, breathing hard, but suffused with a glow of satisfaction. His ears caught the music of that sighing rustle through the audience which bespeaks a profound impression. He could scarcely keep the fingers of his hands, covering his bowed face in a devotional posture as they were, from drumming a jubilant tattoo. His pulses did this in every vein, throbbing with excited exultation. The insistent whim seized him, as he still bent thus before his people, to whisper to his own heart, “At last! — The dogs!”

The announcement that in the evening a series of revival meetings was to be inaugurated, had been made at the love-feast, and it was repeated now from the pulpit, with the added statement that for the once the class-meetings usually following this morning service would be suspended. Then Theron came down the steps, conscious after a fashion that the Presiding Elder had laid a propitiatory hand on his shoulder and spoken amiably about the sermon, and that several groups of more or less important parishioners were waiting in the aisle and the vestibule to shake hands and tell him how much they had enjoyed the sermon. His mind perversely kept hold of the thought that all this came too late. He politely smiled his way along out, and, overtaking the Soulsbys and his wife near the parsonage gate, went in with them.

At the cold, picked-up noonday meal which was the Sunday rule of the house, Theron rather expected that his guests would talk about the sermon, or at any rate about the events of the morning. A Sabbath chill seemed to have settled upon both their tongues. They ate almost in silence, and their sparse remarks touched upon topics far removed from church affairs. Alice too, seemed strangely disinclined to conversation. The husband knew her face and its varying moods so well that he could see she was laboring under some very powerful and deep emotion. No doubt it was the sermon, the oratorical swing of which still tingled in his own blood, that had so affected her. If she had said so, it would have pleased him, but she said nothing.

After dinner, Brother Soulsby disappeared in his bedroom, with the remark that he guessed he would lie down awhile. Sister Soulsby put on her bonnet, and, explaining that she always prepared herself for an evening’s work by a long solitary walk, quitted the house. Alice, after she had put the dinner things away, went upstairs, and stayed there. Left to himself, Theron spent the afternoon in the easy-chair, and, in the intervals of confused introspection, read “Recollections of my Youth” through again from cover to cover.

He went through the remarkable experiences attending the opening of the revival, when evening came, as one in a dream. Long before the hour for the service arrived, the sexton came in to tell him that the church was already nearly full, and that it was going to be impossible to present any distinction in the matter of pews. When the party from the parsonage went over — after another cold and mostly silent meal — it was to find the interior of the church densely packed, and people being turned away from the doors.

Theron was supposed to preside over what followed, and he did sit on the central chair in the pulpit, between the Presiding Elder and Brother Soulsby, and on the several needful occasions did rise and perfunctorily make the formal remarks required of him. The Elder preached a short, but vigorously phrased sermon. The Soulsbys sang three or four times — on each occasion with familiar hymnal words set to novel, concerted music — and then separately exhorted the assemblage. The husband’s part seemed well done. If his speech lacked some of the fire of the divine girdings which older Methodists recalled, it still led straight, and with kindling fervency, up to a season of power. The wife took up the word as he sat down. She had risen from one of the side-seats; and, speaking as she walked, she moved forward till she stood within the altar-rail, immediately under the pulpit, and from this place, facing the listening throng, she delivered her harangue. Those who watched her words most intently got the least sense of meaning from them. The phrases were all familiar enough —“Jesus a very present help,” “Sprinkled by the Blood,” “Comforted by the Word,” “Sanctified by the Spirit,” “Born into the Kingdom,” and a hundred others — but it was as in the case of her singing: the words were old; the music was new.

What Sister Soulsby said did not matter. The way she said it — the splendid, searching sweep of her great eyes; the vibrating roll of her voice, now full of tears, now scornful, now boldly, jubilantly triumphant; the sympathetic swaying of her willowy figure under the stress of her eloquence — was all wonderful. When she had finished, and stood, flushed and panting, beneath the shadow of the pulpit, she held up a hand deprecatingly as the resounding “Amens!” and “Bless the Lords!” began to well up about her.

“You have heard us sing,” she said, smiling to apologize for her shortness of breath. “Now we want to hear you sing!”

Her husband had risen as she spoke, and on the instant, with a far greater volume of voice than they had hitherto disclosed, the two began “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” in the old, familiar tune. It did not need Sister Soulsby’s urgent and dramatic gesture to lift people to their feet. The whole assemblage sprang up, and, under the guidance of these two powerful leading voices, thundered the hymn out as Octavius had never heard it before.

While its echoes were still alive, the woman began speaking again. “Don’t sit down!” she cried. “You would stand up if the President of the United States was going by, even if he was only going fishing. How much more should you stand up in honor of living souls passing forward to find their Saviour!”

The psychological moment was upon them. Groans and cries arose, and a palpable ferment stirred the throng. The exhortation to sinners to declare themselves, to come to the altar, was not only on the revivalist’s lips: it seemed to quiver in the very air, to be borne on every inarticulate exclamation in the clamor of the brethren. A young woman, with a dazed and startled look in her eyes, rose in the body of the church tremblingly hesitated for a moment, and then, with bowed head and blushing cheeks, pressed her way out from the end of a crowded pew and down the aisle to the rail. A triumphant outburst of welcoming ejaculations swelled to the roof as she knelt there, and under its impetus others followed her example. With interspersed snatches of song and shouted encouragements the excitement reached its height only when twoscore people, mostly young, were tightly clustered upon their knees about the rail, and in the space opening upon the aisle. Above the confusion of penitential sobs and moans, and the hysterical murmurings of members whose conviction of entire sanctity kept them in their seats, could be heard the voices of the Presiding Elder, the Soulsbys, and the elderly deacons of the church, who moved about among the kneeling mourners, bending over them and patting their shoulders, and calling out to them: “Fasten your thoughts on Jesus!” “Oh, the Precious Blood!” “Blessed be His Name!” “Seek Him, and you shall find Him!” “Cling to Jesus, and Him Crucified!”

The Rev. Theron Ware did not, with the others, descend from the pulpit. Seated where he could not see Sister Soulsby, he had failed utterly to be moved by the wave of enthusiasm she had evoked. What he heard her say disappointed him. He had expected from her more originality, more spice of her own idiomatic, individual sort. He viewed with a cold sense of aloofness the evidences of her success when they began to come forward and abase themselves at the altar. The instant resolve that, come what might, he would not go down there among them, sprang up ready-made in his mind. He saw his two companions pass him and descend the pulpit stairs, and their action only hardened his resolution. If an excuse were needed, he was presiding, and the place to preside in was the pulpit. But he waived in his mind the whole question of an excuse.

After a little, he put his hand over his face, leaning the elbow forward on the reading-desk. The scene below would have thrilled him to the marrow six months — yes, three months ago. He put a finger across his eyes now, to half shut it out. The spectacle of these silly young “mourners”— kneeling they knew not why, trembling at they could not tell what, pledging themselves frantically to dogmas and mysteries they knew nothing of, under the influence of a hubbub of outcries as meaningless in their way, and inspiring in much the same way, as the racket of a fife and drum corps — the spectacle saddened and humiliated him now. He was conscious of a dawning sense of shame at being even tacitly responsible for such a thing. His fancy conjured up the idea of Dr. Ledsmar coming in and beholding this maudlin and unseemly scene, and he felt his face grow hot at the bare thought.

Looking through his fingers, Theron all at once saw something which caught at his breath with a sharp clutch. Alice had risen from the minister’s pew — the most conspicuous one in the church — and was moving down the aisle toward the rail, her uplifted face chalk-like in its whiteness, and her eyes wide-open, looking straight ahead.

The young pastor could scarcely credit his sight. He thrust aside his hand, and bent forward, only to see his wife sink upon her knees among the rest, and to hear this notable accession to the “mourners” hailed by a tumult of approving shouts. Then, remembering himself, he drew back and put up his hand, shutting out the strange scene altogether. To see nothing at all was a relief, and under cover he closed his eyes, and bit his teeth together.

A fresh outburst of thanksgivings, spreading noisily through the congregation, prompted him to peer through his fingers again. Levi Gorringe was making his way down the aisle — was at the moment quite in front. Theron found himself watching this man with the stern composure of a fatalist. The clamant brethren down below were stirred to new excitement by the thought that the sceptical lawyer, so long with them, yet not of them, had been humbled and won by the outpourings of the Spirit. Theron’s perceptions were keener. He knew that Gorringe was coming forward to kneel beside Alice; The knowledge left him curiously undisturbed. He saw the lawyer advance, gently insinuate himself past the form of some kneeling mourner who was in his way, and drop on his knees close beside the bowed figure of Alice. The two touched shoulders as they bent forward beneath Sister Soulsby’s outstretched hands, held over them as in a blessing. Theron looked fixedly at them, and professed to himself that he was barely interested.

A little afterward, he was standing up in his place, and reading aloud a list of names which one of the stewards had given him. They were the names of those who had asked that evening to be taken into the church as members on probation. The sounds of the recent excitement were all hushed now, save as two or three enthusiasts in a corner raised their voices in abrupt greeting of each name in its turn, but Theron felt somehow that this noise had been transferred to the inside of his head. A continuous buzzing went on there, so that the sound of his voice was far-off and unfamiliar in his ears.

He read through the list — comprising some fifteen items — and pronounced the names with great distinctness. It was necessary to take pains with this, because the only name his blurred eyes seemed to see anywhere on the foolscap sheet was that of Levi Gorringe. When he had finished and was taking his seat, some one began speaking to him from the body of the church. He saw that this was the steward, who was explaining to him that the most important name of the lot — that of Brother Gorringe — had not been read out.

Theron smiled and shook his head. Then, when the Presiding Elder touched him on the arm, and assured him that he had not mentioned the name in question, he replied quite simply, and with another smile, “I thought it was the only name I did read out.”

Then he sat down abruptly, and let his head fall to one side. There were hurried movements inside the pulpit, and people in the audience had begun to stand up wonderingly, when the Presiding Elder, with uplifted hands, confronted them.

“We will omit the Doxology, and depart quietly after the benediction,” he said. “Brother Ware seems to have been overcome by the heat.”

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