The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xvi

When Theron woke next morning, Alice seemed to have dressed and left the room — a thing which had never happened before.

This fact connected itself at once in his brain with the recollection of her having made an exhibition of herself the previous evening — going forward before all eyes to join the unconverted and penitent sinners, as if she were some tramp or shady female, instead of an educated lady, a professing member from her girlhood, and a minister’s wife. It crossed his mind that probably she had risen and got away noiselessly, for very shame at looking him in the face, after such absurd behavior.

Then he remembered more, and grasped the situation. He had fainted in church, and had been brought home and helped to bed. Dim memories of unaccustomed faces in the bedroom, of nauseous drugs and hushed voices, came to him out of the night-time. Now that he thought of it, he was a sick man. Having settled this, he went off to sleep again, a feverish and broken sleep, and remained in this state most of the time for the following twenty-four hours. In the brief though numerous intervals of waking, he found certain things clear in his mind. One was that he was annoyed with Alice, but would dissemble his feelings. Another was that it was much pleasanter to be ill than to be forced to attend and take part in those revival meetings. These two ideas came and went in a lazy, drowsy fashion, mixing themselves up with other vagrant fancies, yet always remaining on top.

In the evening the singing from the church next door filled his room. The Soulsbys’ part of it was worth keeping awake for. He turned over and deliberately dozed when the congregation sang.

Alice came up a number of times during the day to ask how he felt, and to bring him broth or toast-water. On several occasions, when he heard her step, the perverse inclination mastered him to shut his eyes, and pretend to be asleep, so that she might tip-toe out again. She had a depressed and thoughtful air, and spoke to him like one whose mind was on something else. Neither of them alluded to what had happened the previous evening. Toward the close of the long day, she came to ask him whether he would prefer her to remain in the house, instead of attending the meeting.

“Go, by all means,” he said almost curtly.

The Presiding Elder and the Sunday-school superintendent called early Tuesday morning at the parsonage to make brotherly inquiries, and Theron was feeling so much better that he himself suggested their coming upstairs to see him. The Elder was in good spirits; he smiled approvingly, and even put in a jocose word or two while the superintendent sketched for the invalid in a cheerful way the leading incidents of the previous evening.

There had been an enormous crowd, even greater than that of Sunday night, and everybody had been looking forward to another notable and exciting season of grace. These expectations were especially heightened when Sister Soulsby ascended the pulpit stairs and took charge of the proceedings. She deferred to Paul’s views about women preachers on Sundays, she said; but on weekdays she had just as much right to snatch brands from the burning as Paul, or Peter, or any other man. She went on like that, in a breezy, off-hand fashion which tickled the audience immensely, and led to the liveliest anticipations of what would happen when she began upon the evening’s harvest of souls.

But it was something else that happened. At a signal from Sister Soulsby the steward got up, and, in an unconcerned sort of way, went through the throng to the rear of the church, locked the doors, and put the keys in their pockets. The sister dryly explained now to the surprised congregation that there was a season for all things, and that on the present occasion they would suspend the glorious work of redeeming fallen human nature, and take up instead the equally noble task of raising some fifteen hundred dollars which the church needed in its business. The doors would only be opened again when this had been accomplished.

The brethren were much taken aback by this trick, and they permitted themselves to exchange a good many scowling and indignant glances, the while their professional visitors sang another of their delightfully novel sacred duets. Its charm of harmony for once fell upon unsympathetic ears. But then Sister Soulsby began another monologue, defending this way of collecting money, chaffing the assemblage with bright-eyed impudence on their having been trapped, and scoring, one after another, neat and jocose little personal points on local characteristics, at which everybody but the individual touched grinned broadly. She was so droll and cheeky, and withal effective in her talk, that she quite won the crowd over. She told a story about a woodchuck which fairly brought down the house.

“A man,” she began, with a quizzical twinkle in her eye, “told me once about hunting a woodchuck with a pack of dogs, and they chased it so hard that it finally escaped only by climbing a butternut-tree. ‘But, my friend,’ I said to him, ‘woodchucks can’t climb trees — butternut-trees or any other kind — and you know it!’ All he said in reply to me was: ‘This woodchuck had to climb a tree!’ And that’s the way with this congregation. You think you can’t raise $1,500, but you’ve GOT to.”

So it went on. She set them all laughing; and then, with a twist of the eyes and a change of voice, lo, and behold, she had them nearly crying in the same breath. Under the pressure of these jumbled emotions, brethren began to rise up in their pews and say what they would give. The wonderful woman had something smart and apt to say about each fresh contribution, and used it to screw up the general interest a notch further toward benevolent hysteria. With songs and jokes and impromptu exhortations and prayers she kept the thing whirling, until a sort of duel of generosity began between two of the most unlikely men — Erastus Winch and Levi Gorringe. Everybody had been surprised when Winch gave his first $50; but when he rose again, half an hour afterward, and said that, owing to the high public position of some of the new members on probation, he foresaw a great future for the church, and so felt moved to give another $25, there was general amazement. Moved by a common instinct, all eyes were turned upon Levi Gorringe, and he, without the slightest hesitation, stood up and said he would give $100. There was something in his tone which must have annoyed Brother Winch, for he shot up like a dart, and called out, “Put me down for fifty more;” and that brought Gorringe to his feet with an added $50, and then the two went on raising each other till the assemblage was agape with admiring stupefaction.

This gladiatorial combat might have been going on till now, the Sunday-school superintendent concluded, if Winch hadn’t subsided. The amount of the contributions hadn’t been figured up yet, for Sister Soulsby kept the list; but there had been a tremendous lot of money raised. Of that there could be no doubt.

The Presiding Elder now told Theron that the Quarterly Conference had been adjourned yesterday till today. He and Brother Davis were even now on their way to attend the session in the church next door. The Elder added, with an obvious kindly significance, that though Theron was too ill to attend it, he guessed his absence would do him no harm. Then the two men left the room, and Theron went to sleep again.

Another almost blank period ensued, this time lasting for forty-eight hours. The young minister was enfolded in the coils of a fever of some sort, which Brother Soulsby, who had dabbled considerably in medicine, admitted that he was puzzled about. Sometimes he thought that it was typhoid, and then again there were symptoms which looked suspiciously like brain fever. The Methodists of Octavius counted no physician among their numbers, and when, on the second day, Alice grew scared, and decided, with Brother Soulsby’s assent, to call in professional advice, the only doctor’s name she could recall was that of Ledsmar. She was conscious of an instinctive dislike for the vague image of him her fancy had conjured up, but the reflection that he was Theron’s friend, and so probably would be more moderate in his charges, decided her.

Brother Soulsby showed a most comforting tact and swiftness of apprehension when Alice, in mentioning Dr. Ledsmar’s name, disclosed by her manner a fear that his being sent for would create talk among the church people. He volunteered at once to act as messenger himself, and, with no better guide than her dim hints at direction, found the doctor and brought him back to the parsonage.

Dr. Ledsmar expressly disclaimed to Soulsby all pretence of professional skill, and made him understand that he went along solely because he liked Mr. Ware, and was interested in him, and in any case would probably be of as much use as the wisest of strange physicians — a view which the little revivalist received with comprehending nods of tacit acquiescence. Ledsmar came, and was taken up to the sick-room. He sat on the bedside and talked with Theron awhile, and then went downstairs again. To Alice’s anxious inquiries, he replied that it seemed to him merely a case of over-work and over-worry, about which there was not the slightest occasion for alarm.

“But he says the strangest things,” the wife put in. “He has been quite delirious at times.”

“That means only that his brain is taking a rest as well as his body,” remarked Ledsmar. “That is Nature’s way of securing an equilibrium of repose — of recuperation. He will come out of it with his mind all the fresher and clearer.”

“I don’t believe he knows shucks!” was Alice’s comment when she closed the street door upon Dr. Ledsmar. “Anybody could have come in and looked at a sick man and said, ‘Leave him alone.’ You expect something more from a doctor. It’s his business to say what to do. And I suppose he’ll charge two dollars for just telling me that my husband was resting!”

“No,” said Brother Soulsby, “he said he never practised, and that he would come only as a friend.”

“Well, it isn’t my idea of a friend — not to prescribe a single thing,” protested Alice.

Yet it seemed that no prescription was needed, after all. The next morning Theron woke to find himself feeling quite restored in spirits and nerves. He sat up in bed, and after an instant of weakly giddiness, recognized that he was all right again. Greatly pleased, he got up, and proceeded to dress himself. There were little recurring hints of faintness and vertigo, while he was shaving, but he had the sense to refer these to the fact that he was very, very hungry. He went downstairs, and smiled with the pleased pride of a child at the surprise which his appearance at the door created. Alice and the Soulsbys were at breakfast. He joined them, and ate voraciously, declaring that it was worth a month’s illness to have things taste so good once more.

“You still look white as a sheet,” said Alice, warningly. “If I were you, I’d be careful in my diet for a spell yet.”

For answer, Theron let Sister Soulsby help him again to ham and eggs. He talked exclusively to Sister Soulsby, or rather invited her by his manner to talk to him, and listened and watched her with indolent content. There was a sort of happy and purified languor in his physical and mental being, which needed and appreciated just this — to sit next a bright and attractive woman at a good breakfast, and be ministered to by her sprightly conversation, by the flash of her informing and inspiring eyes, and the nameless sense of support and repose which her near proximity exhaled. He felt himself figuratively leaning against Sister Soulsby’s buoyant personality, and resting.

Brother Soulsby, like the intelligent creature he was, ate his breakfast in peace; but Alice would interpose remarks from time to time. Theron was conscious of a certain annoyance at this, and knew that he was showing it by an exaggerated display of interest in everything Sister Soulsby said, and persisted in it. There trembled in the background of his thoughts ever and again the recollection of a grievance against his wife — an offence which she had committed — but he put it aside as something to be grappled and dealt with when he felt again like taking up the serious and disagreeable things of life. For the moment, he desired only to be amused by Sister Soulsby. Her casual mention of the fact that she and her husband were taking their departure that very day, appealed to him as an added reason for devoting his entire attention to her.

“You mustn’t forget that famous talking-to you threatened me with — that ‘regular hoeing-over,’ you know,” he reminded her, when he found himself alone with her after breakfast. He smiled as he spoke, in frank enjoyment of the prospect.

Sister Soulsby nodded, and aided with a roll of her eyes the effect of mock-menace in her uplifted forefinger. “Oh, never fear,” she cried. “You’ll catch it hot and strong. But that’ll keep till afternoon. Tell me, do you feel strong enough to go in next door and attend the trustees’ meeting this forenoon? It’s rather important that you should be there, if you can spur yourself up to it. By the way, you haven’t asked what happened at the Quarterly Conference yesterday.”

Theron sighed, and made a little grimace of repugnance. “If you knew how little I cared!” he said. “I did hope you’d forget all about mentioning that — and everything else connected with — the next door. You talk so much more interestingly about other things.”

“Here’s gratitude for you!” exclaimed Sister Soulsby, with a gay simulation of despair. “Why, man alive, do you know what I’ve done for you? I got around on the Presiding Elder’s blind side, I captured old Pierce, I wound Winch right around my little finger, I worked two or three of the class-leaders — all on your account. The result was you went through as if you’d had your ears pinned back, and been greased all over. You’ve got an extra hundred dollars added to your salary; do you hear? On the sixth question of the order of business the Elder ruled that the recommendation of the last conference’s estimating committee could be revised (between ourselves he was wrong, but that doesn’t matter), and so you’re in clover. And very friendly things were said about you, too.”

“It was very kind of you,” said Theron. “I am really extremely grateful to you.” He shook her by the hand to make up for what he realized to be a lack of fervor in his tones.

“Well, then,” Sister Soulsby replied, “you pull yourself together, and take your place as chairman of the trustees’ meeting, and see to it that, whatever comes up, you side with old Pierce and Winch.”

“Oh, THEY’RE my friends now, are they?” asked Theron, with a faint play of irony about his lips.

“Yes, that’s your ticket this election,” she answered briskly, “and mind you vote it straight. Don’t bother about reasons now. Just take it from me, as the song says, ‘that things have changed since Willie died.’ That’s all. And then come back here, and this afternoon we’ll have a good old-fashioned jaw.”

The Rev. Mr. Ware, walking with ostentatious feebleness, and forcing a conventional smile upon his wan face, duly made his unexpected appearance at the trustees’ meeting in one of the smaller classrooms. He received their congratulations gravely, and shook hands with all three. It required an effort to do this impartially, because, upon sight of Levi Gorringe, there rose up suddenly within him an emotion of fierce dislike and enmity. In some enigmatic way his thoughts had kept themselves away from Gorringe ever since Sunday evening. Now they concentrated with furious energy and swiftness upon him. Theron seemed able in a flash of time to coordinate many recollections of Gorringe — the early liking Alice had professed for him, the mystery of those purchased plants in her garden, the story of the girl he had lost in church, his offer to lend him money, the way in which he had sat beside Alice at the love-feast and followed her to the altar-rail in the evening. These raced abreast through the young minister’s brain, yet with each its own image, and its relation to the others clearly defined.

He found the nerve, all the same, to take this third trustee by the hand, and to thank him for his congratulations, and even to say, with a surface smile of welcome, “It is BROTHER Gorringe, now, I remember.”

The work before the meeting was chiefly of a routine kind. In most places this would have been transacted by the stewards; but in Octavius these minor officials had degenerated into mere ceremonial abstractions, who humbly ratified, or by arrangement anticipated, the will of the powerful, mortgage-owning trustees. Theron sat languidly at the head of the table while these common-place matters passed in their course, noting the intonations of Gorringe’s voice as he read from his secretary’s book, and finding his ear displeased by them. No issue arose upon any of these trivial affairs, and the minister, feeling faint and weary in the heat, wondered why Sister Soulsby had insisted on his coming.

All at once he sat up straight, with an instinctive warning in his mind that here was the thing. Gorringe had taken up the subject of the “debt-raising” evening, and read out its essentials as they had been embodied in a report of the stewards. The gross sum obtained, in cash and promises, was $1,860. The stewards had collected of this a trifle less than half, but hoped to get it all in during the ensuing quarter. There were, also, the bill of Mr. and Mrs. Soulsby for $150, and the increases of $100 in the pastor’s salary and $25 in the apportioned contribution of the charge toward the Presiding Elder’s maintenance, the two latter items of which the Quarterly Conference had sanctioned.

“I want to hear the names of the subscribers and their amounts read out,” put in Brother Pierce.

When this was done, it became apparent that much more than half of the entire amount had been offered by two men. Levi Gorringe’s $450 and Erastus Winch’s $425 left only $985 to be divided up among some seventy or eighty other members of the congregation.

Brother Pierce speedily stopped the reading of these subordinate names. “They’re of no concern whatever,” he said, despite the fact that his own might have been reached in time. “Those first names are what I was getting at. Have those two first amounts, the big ones, be’n paid?”

“One has — the other not,” replied Gorringe.

“PRE-cisely,” remarked the senior trustee. “And I’m goin’ to move that it needn’t be paid, either. When Brother Winch, here, began hollerin’ out those extra twenty-fives and fifties, that evening, it was under a complete misapprehension. He’d be’n on the Cheese Board that same Monday afternoon, and he’d done what he thought was a mighty big stroke of business, and he felt liberal according. I know just what that feelin’ is myself. If I’d be’n makin’ a mint o’ money, instead o’ losin’ all the while, as I do, I’d ‘a’ done just the same. But the next day, lo, and behold, Brother Winch found that it was all a mistake — he hadn’t made a single penny.”

“Fact is, I lost by the whole transaction,” put in Erastus Winch, defiantly.

“Just so,” Brother Pierce went on. “He lost money. You have his own word for it. Well, then, I say it would be a burning shame for us to consent to touch one penny of what he offered to give, in the fullness of his heart, while he was laborin’ under that delusion. And I move he be not asked for it. We’ve got quite as much as we need, without it. I put my motion.”

“That is, YOU don’t put it,” suggested Winch, correctingly. “You move it, and Brother Ware, whom we’re all so glad to see able to come and preside — he’ll put it.”

There was a moment’s silence. “You’ve heard the motion,” said Theron, tentatively, and then paused for possible remarks. He was not going to meddle in this thing himself, and Gorringe was the only other who might have an opinion to offer. The necessities of the situation forced him to glance at the lawyer inquiringly. He did so, and turned his eyes away again like a shot. Gorringe was looking him squarely in the face, and the look was freighted with satirical contempt.

The young minister spoke between clinched teeth. “All those in favor will say aye.”

Brothers Pierce and Winch put up a simultaneous and confident “Aye.”

“No, you don’t!” interposed the lawyer, with deliberate, sneering emphasis. “I decidedly protest against Winch’s voting. He’s directly interested, and he mustn’t vote. Your chairman knows that perfectly well.”

“Yes, I think Brother Winch ought not to vote,” decided Theron, with great calmness. He saw now what was coming, and underneath his surface composure there were sharp flutterings.

“Very well, then,” said Gorringe. “I vote no, and it’s a tie. It rests with the chairman now to cast the deciding vote, and say whether this interesting arrangement shall go through or not.”

“Me?” said Theron, eying the lawyer with a cool self-control which had come all at once to him. “Me? Oh, I vote Aye.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/frederic/harold/damnation-of-theron-ware/chapter16.html

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