The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xvii

“Well, I did what you told me to do,” Theron Ware remarked to Sister Soulsby, when at last they found themselves alone in the sitting-room after the midday meal.

It had taken not a little strategic skirmishing to secure the room to themselves for the hospitable Alice, much touched by the thought of her new friend’s departure that very evening had gladly proposed to let all the work stand over until night, and devote herself entirely to Sister Soulsby. When, finally, Brother Soulsby conceived and deftly executed the coup of interesting her in the budding of roses, and then leading her off into the garden to see with her own eyes how it was done, Theron had a sense of being left alone with a conspirator. The notion impelled him to plunge at once into the heart of their mystery.

“I did what you told me to do,” he repeated, looking up from his low easy-chair to where she sat by the desk; “and I dare say you won’t be surprised when I add that I have no respect for myself for doing it.”

“And yet you would go and do it right over again, eh?” the woman said, in bright, pert tones, nodding her head, and smiling at him with roguish, comprehending eyes. “Yes, that’s the way we’re built. We spend our lives doing that sort of thing.”

“I don’t know that you would precisely grasp my meaning,” said the young minister, with a polite effort in his words to mask the untoward side of the suggestion. “It is a matter of conscience with me; and I am pained and shocked at myself.”

Sister Soulsby drummed for an absent moment with her thin, nervous fingers on the desk-top. “I guess maybe you’d better go and lie down again,” she said gently. “You’re a sick man, still, and it’s no good your worrying your head just now with things of this sort. You’ll see them differently when you’re quite yourself again.”

“No, no,” pleaded Theron. “Do let us have our talk out! I’m all right. My mind is clear as a bell. Truly, I’ve really counted on this talk with you.”

“But there’s something else to talk about, isn’t there, besides — besides your conscience?” she asked. Her eyes bent upon him a kindly pressure as she spoke, which took all possible harshness from her meaning.

Theron answered the glance rather than her words. “I know that you are my friend,” he said simply.

Sister Soulsby straightened herself, and looked down upon him with a new intentness. “Well, then,” she began, “let’s thrash this thing out right now, and be done with it. You say it’s hurt your conscience to do just one little hundredth part of what there was to be done here. Ask yourself what you mean by that. Mind, I’m not quarrelling, and I’m not thinking about anything except just your own state of mind. You think you soiled your hands by doing what you did. That is to say, you wanted ALL the dirty work done by other people. That’s it, isn’t it?”

“The Rev. Mr. Ware sat up, in turn, and looked doubtingly into his companion’s face.

“Oh, we were going to be frank, you know,” she added, with a pleasant play of mingled mirth and honest liking in her eyes.

“No,” he said, picking his words, “my point would rather be that — that there ought not to have been any of what you yourself call this — this ‘dirty work.’ THAT is my feeling.”

“Now we’re getting at it,” said Sister Soulsby, briskly. “My dear friend, you might just as well say that potatoes are unclean and unfit to eat because manure is put into the ground they grow in. Just look at the case. Your church here was running behind every year. Your people had got into a habit of putting in nickels instead of dimes, and letting you sweat for the difference. That’s a habit, like tobacco, or biting your fingernails, or anything else. Either you were all to come to smash here, or the people had to be shaken up, stood on their heads, broken of their habit. It’s my business — mine and Soulsby’s — to do that sort of thing. We came here and we did it — did it up brown, too. We not only raised all the money the church needs, and to spare, but I took a personal shine to you, and went out of my way to fix up things for you. It isn’t only the extra hundred dollars, but the whole tone of the congregation is changed toward you now. You’ll see that they’ll be asking to have you back here, next spring. And you’re solid with your Presiding Elder, too. Well, now, tell me straight — is that worth while, or not?”

“I’ve told you that I am very grateful,” answered the minister, “and I say it again, and I shall never be tired of repeating it. But — but it was the means I had in mind.”

“Quite so,” rejoined the sister, patiently. “If you saw the way a hotel dinner was cooked, you wouldn’t be able to stomach it. Did you ever see a play? In a theatre, I mean. I supposed not. But you’ll understand when I say that the performance looks one way from where the audience sit, and quite a different way when you are behind the scenes. THERE you see that the trees and houses are cloth, and the moon is tissue paper, and the flying fairy is a middle-aged woman strung up on a rope. That doesn’t prove that the play, out in front, isn’t beautiful and affecting, and all that. It only shows that everything in this world is produced by machinery — by organization. The trouble is that you’ve been let in on the stage, behind the scenes, so to speak, and you’re so green — if you’ll pardon me — that you want to sit down and cry because the trees ARE cloth, and the moon IS a lantern. And I say, don’t be such a goose!”

“I see what you mean,” Theron said, with an answering smile. He added, more gravely, “All the same, the Winch business seems to me —”

“Now the Winch business is my own affair,” Sister Soulsby broke in abruptly. “I take all the responsibility for that. You need know nothing about it. You simply voted as you did on the merits of the case as he presented them — that’s all.”

“But —” Theron began, and then paused. Something had occurred to him, and he knitted his brows to follow its course of expansion in his mind. Suddenly he raised his head. “Then you arranged with Winch to make those bogus offers — just to lead others on?” he demanded.

Sister Soulsby’s large eyes beamed down upon him in reply, at first in open merriment, then more soberly, till their regard was almost pensive.

“Let us talk of something else,” she said. “All that is past and gone. It has nothing to do with you, anyway. I’ve got some advice to give you about keeping up this grip you’ve got on your people.”

The young minister had risen to his feet while she spoke. He put his hands in his pockets, and with rounded shoulders began slowly pacing the room. After a turn or two he came to the desk, and leaned against it.

“I doubt if it’s worth while going into that,” he said, in the solemn tone of one who feels that an irrevocable thing is being uttered. She waited to hear more, apparently. “I think I shall go away — give up the ministry,” he added.

Sister Soulsby’s eyes revealed no such shock of consternation as he, unconsciously, had looked for. They remained quite calm; and when she spoke, they deepened, to fit her speech, with what he read to be a gaze of affectionate melancholy — one might say pity. She shook her head slowly.

“No — don’t let any one else hear you say that,” she replied. “My poor young friend, it’s no good to even think it. The real wisdom is to school yourself to move along smoothly, and not fret, and get the best of what’s going. I’ve known others who felt as you do — of course there are times when every young man of brains and high notions feels that way — but there’s no help for it. Those who tried to get out only broke themselves. Those who stayed in, and made the best of it — well, one of them will be a bishop in another ten years.”

Theron had started walking again. “But the moral degradation of it!” he snapped out at her over his shoulder. “I’d rather earn the meanest living, at an honest trade, and be free from it.”

“That may all be,” responded Sister Soulsby. “But it isn’t a question of what you’d rather do. It’s what you can do. How could you earn a living? What trade or business do you suppose you could take up now, and get a living out of? Not one, my man, not one.”

Theron stopped and stared at her. This view of his capabilities came upon him with the force and effect of a blow.

“I don’t discover, myself,” he began stumblingly, “that I’m so conspicuously inferior to the men I see about me who do make livings, and very good ones, too.”

“Of course you’re not,” she replied with easy promptness; “you’re greatly the other way, or I shouldn’t be taking this trouble with you. But you’re what you are because you’re where you are. The moment you try on being somewhere else, you’re done for. In all this world nobody else comes to such unmerciful and universal grief as the unfrocked priest.”

The phrase sent Theron’s fancy roving. “I know a Catholic priest,” he said irrelevantly, “who doesn’t believe an atom in-in things.”

“Very likely,” said Sister Soulsby. “Most of us do. But you don’t hear him talking about going and earning his living, I’ll bet! Or if he does, he takes powerful good care not to go, all the same. They’ve got horse-sense, those priests. They’re artists, too. They know how to allow for the machinery behind the scenes.”

“But it’s all so different,” urged the young minister; “the same things are not expected of them. Now I sat the other night and watched those people you got up around the altar-rail, groaning and shouting and crying, and the others jumping up and down with excitement, and Sister Lovejoy — did you see her? — coming out of her pew and regularly waltzing in the aisle, with her eyes shut, like a whirling dervish — I positively believe it was all that made me ill. I couldn’t stand it. I can’t stand it now. I won’t go back to it! Nothing shall make me!”

“Oh-h, yes, you will,” she rejoined soothingly. “There’s nothing else to do. Just put a good face on it, and make up your mind to get through by treading on as few corns as possible, and keeping your own toes well in, and you’ll be surprised how easy it’ll all come to be. You were speaking of the revival business. Now that exemplifies just what I was saying — it’s a part of our machinery. Now a church is like everything else — it’s got to have a boss, a head, an authority of some sort, that people will listen to and mind. The Catholics are different, as you say. Their church is chuck-full of authority — all the way from the Pope down to the priest — and accordingly they do as they’re told. But the Protestants — your Methodists most of all — they say ‘No, we won’t have any authority, we won’t obey any boss.’ Very well, what happens? We who are responsible for running the thing, and raising the money and so on — we have to put on a spurt every once in a while, and work up a general state of excitement; and while it’s going, don’t you see that THAT is the authority, the motive power, whatever you like to call it, by which things are done? Other denominations don’t need it. We do, and that’s why we’ve got it.”

“But the mean dishonesty of it all!” Theron broke forth. He moved about again, his bowed face drawn as with bodily suffering. “The low-born tricks, the hypocrisies! I feel as if I could never so much as look at these people here again without disgust.”

“Oh, now that’s where you make your mistake,” Sister Soulsby put in placidly. “These people of yours are not a whit worse than other people. They’ve got their good streaks and their bad streaks, just like the rest of us. Take them by and large, they’re quite on a par with other folks the whole country through.”

“I don’t believe there’s another congregation in the Conference where — where this sort of thing would have been needed, or, I might say, tolerated,” insisted Theron.

“Perhaps you’re right,” the other assented; “but that only shows that your people here are different from the others — not that they’re worse. You don’t seem to realize: Octavius, so far as the Methodists are concerned, is twenty or thirty years behind the times. Now that has its advantages and its disadvantages. The church here is tough and coarse, and full of grit, like a grindstone; and it does ministers from other more niminy-piminy places all sorts of good to come here once in a while and rub themselves up against it. It scours the rust and mildew off from their piety, and they go back singing and shouting. But of course it’s had a different effect with you. You’re razor-steel instead of scythe-steel, and the grinding’s been too rough and violent for you. But you see what I mean. These people here really take their primitive Methodism seriously. To them the profession of entire sanctification is truly a genuine thing. Well, don’t you see, when people just know that they’re saved, it doesn’t seem to them to matter so much what they do. They feel that ordinary rules may well be bent and twisted in the interest of people so supernaturally good as they are. That’s pure human nature. It’s always been like that.”

Theron paused in his walk to look absently at her. “That thought,” he said, in a vague, slow way, “seems to be springing up in my path, whichever way I turn. It oppresses me, and yet it fascinates me — this idea that the dead men have known more than we know, done more than we do; that there is nothing new anywhere; that —”

“Never mind the dead men,” interposed Sister Soulsby. “Just you come and sit down here. I hate to have you straddling about the room when I’m trying to talk to you.”

Theron obeyed, and as he sank into the low seat, Sister Soulsby drew up her chair, and put her hand on his shoulder. Her gaze rested upon his with impressive steadiness.

“And now I want to talk seriously to you, as a friend,” she began. “You mustn’t breathe to any living soul the shadow of a hint of this nonsense about leaving the ministry. I could see how you were feeling — I saw the book you were reading the first time I entered this room — and that made me like you; only I expected to find you mixing up more worldly gumption with your Renan. Well, perhaps I like you all the better for not having it — for being so delightfully fresh. At any rate, that made me sail in and straighten your affairs for you. And now, for God’s sake, keep them straight. Just put all notions of anything else out of your head. Watch your chief men and women, and be friends with them. Keep your eye open for what they think you ought to do, and do it. Have your own ideas as much as you like, read what you like, say ‘Damn’ under your breath as much as you like, but don’t let go of your job. I’ve knocked about too much, and I’ve seen too many promising young fellows cut their own throats for pure moonshine, not to have a right to say that.”

Theron could not be insensible to the friendly hand on his shoulder, or to the strenuous sincerity of the voice which thus adjured him.

“Well,” he said vaguely, smiling up into her earnest eyes, “if we agree that it IS moonshine.”

“See here!” she exclaimed, with renewed animation, patting his shoulder in a brisk, automatic way, to point the beginnings of her confidences: “I’ll tell you something. It’s about myself. I’ve got a religion of my own, and it’s got just one plank in it, and that is that the time to separate the sheep from the goats is on Judgment Day, and that it can’t be done a minute before.”

The young minister took in the thought, and turned it about in his mind, and smiled upon it.

“And that brings me to what I’m going to tell you,” Sister Soulsby continued. She leaned back in her chair, and crossed her knees so that one well-shaped and artistically shod foot poised itself close to Theron’s hand. Her eyes dwelt upon his face with an engaging candor.

“I began life,” she said, “as a girl by running away from a stupid home with a man that I knew was married already. After that, I supported myself for a good many years — generally, at first, on the stage. I’ve been a front-ranker in Amazon ballets, and I’ve been leading lady in comic opera companies out West. I’ve told fortunes in one room of a mining-camp hotel where the biggest game of faro in the Territory went on in another. I’ve been a professional clairvoyant, and I’ve been a professional medium, and I’ve been within one vote of being indicted by a grand jury, and the money that bought that vote was put up by the smartest and most famous train-gambler between Omaha and ‘Frisco, a gentleman who died in his boots and took three sheriff’s deputies along with him to Kingdom–Come. Now, that’s MY record.”

Theron looked earnestly at her, and said nothing.

“And now take Soulsby,” she went on. “Of course I take it for granted there’s a good deal that he has never felt called upon to mention. He hasn’t what you may call a talkative temperament. But there is also a good deal that I do know. He’s been an actor, too, and to this day I’d back him against Edwin Booth himself to recite ‘Clarence’s Dream.’ And he’s been a medium, and then he was a travelling phrenologist, and for a long time he was advance agent for a British Blondes show, and when I first saw him he was lecturing on female diseases — and he had HIS little turn with a grand jury too. In fact, he was what you may call a regular bad old rooster.”

Again Theron suffered the pause to lapse without comment — save for an amorphous sort of conversation which he felt to be going on between his eyes and those of Sister Soulsby.

“Well, then,” she resumed, “so much for us apart. Now about us together. We liked each other from the start. We compared notes, and we found that we had both soured on living by fakes, and that we were tired of the road, and wanted to settle down and be respectable in our old age. We had a little money — enough to see us through a year or two. Soulsby had always hungered and longed to own a garden and raise flowers, and had never been able to stay long enough in one place to see so much as a bean-pod ripen. So we took a little place in a quiet country village down on the Southern Tier, and he planted everything three deep all over the place, and I bought a roomful of cheap good books, and we started in. We took to it like ducks to water for a while, and I don’t say that we couldn’t have stood it out, just doing nothing, to this very day; but as luck would have it, during the first winter there was a revival at the local Methodist church, and we went every evening — at first just to kill time, and then because we found we liked the noise and excitement and general racket of the thing. After it was all over each of us found that the other had been mighty near going up to the rail and joining the mourners. And another thing had occurred to each of us, too — that is, what tremendous improvements there were possible in the way that amateur revivalist worked up his business. This stuck in our crops, and we figured on it all through the winter. — Well, to make a long story short, we finally went into the thing ourselves.”

“Tell me one thing,” interposed Theron. “I’m anxious to understand it all as we go along. Were you and he at any time sincerely converted? — that is, I mean, genuinely convicted of sin and conscious of — you know what I mean!”

“Oh, bless you, yes,” responded Sister Soulsby. “Not only once — dozens of times — I may say every time. We couldn’t do good work if we weren’t. But that’s a matter of temperament — of emotions.”

“Precisely. That was what I was getting at,” explained Theron.

“Well, then, hear what I was getting at,” she went on. “You were talking very loudly here about frauds and hypocrisies and so on, a few minutes ago. Now I say that Soulsby and I do good, and that we’re good fellows. Now take him, for example. There isn’t a better citizen in all Chemung County than he is, or a kindlier neighbor, or a better or more charitable man. I’ve known him to stay up a whole winter’s night in a poor Irishman’s stinking and freezing stable, trying to save his cart-horse for him, that had been seized with some sort of fit. The man’s whole livelihood, and his family’s, was in that horse; and when it died, Soulsby bought him another, and never told even ME about it. Now that I call real piety, if you like.”

“So do I,” put in Theron, cordially.

“And this question of fraud,” pursued his companion — “look at it in this light. You heard us sing. Well, now, I was a singer, of course, but Soulsby hardly knew one note from another. I taught him to sing, and he went at it patiently and diligently, like a little man. And I invented that scheme of finding tunes which the crowd didn’t know, and so couldn’t break in on and smother. I simply took Chopin — he is full of sixths, you know — and I got all sorts of melodies out of his waltzes and mazurkas and nocturnes and so on, and I trained Soulsby just to sing those sixths so as to make the harmony, and there you are. He couldn’t sing by himself any more than a crow, but he’s got those sixths of his down to a hair. Now that’s machinery, management, organization. We take these tunes, written by a devil-may-care Pole who was living with George Sand openly at the time, and pass ’em off on the brethren for hymns. It’s a fraud, yes; but it’s a good fraud. So they are all good frauds. I say frankly that I’m glad that the change and the chance came to help Soulsby and me to be good frauds.”

“And the point is that I’m to be a good fraud, too,” commented the young minister.

She had risen, and he got to his feet as well. He instinctively sought for her hand, and pressed it warmly, and held it in both his, with an exuberance of gratitude and liking in his manner.

Sister Soulsby danced her eyes at him with a saucy little shake of the head. “I’m afraid you’ll never make a really GOOD fraud,” she said. “You haven’t got it in you. Your intentions are all right, but your execution is hopelessly clumsy. I came up to your bedroom there twice while you were sick, just to say ‘howdy,’ and you kept your eyes shut, and all the while a blind horse could have told that you were wide awake.”

“I must have thought it was my wife,” said Theron.

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