The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xviii

When the lingering dusk finally settled down upon this long summer evening, the train bearing the Soulsbys homeward was already some score of miles on its way, and the Methodists of Octavius had nearly finished their weekly prayer-meeting.

After the stirring events of the revival, it was only to be expected that this routine, home-made affair should suffer from a reaction. The attendance was larger than usual, perhaps, but the proceedings were spiritless and tame. Neither the pastor nor his wife was present at the beginning, and the class-leader upon whom control devolved made but feeble headway against the spell of inertia which the hot night-air laid upon the gathering. Long pauses intervened between the perfunctory praise-offerings and supplications, and the hymns weariedly raised from time to time fell again in languor by the wayside.

Alice came in just as people were beginning to hope that some one would start the Doxology, and bring matters to a close. Her appearance apparently suggested this to the class-leader, for in a few moments the meeting had been dismissed, and some of the members, on their way out, were shaking hands with their minister’s wife, and expressing the polite hope that he was better. The worried look in her face, and the obvious stains of recent tears upon her cheeks imparted an added point and fervor to these inquiries, but she replied to all in tones of studied tranquillity that, although not feeling well enough to attend prayer-meeting, Brother Ware was steadily recovering strength, and confidently expected to be in complete health by Sunday. They left her, and could hardly wait to get into the vestibule to ask one another in whispers what on earth she could have been crying about.

Meanwhile Brother Ware improved his convalescent state by pacing slowly up and down under the elms on the side of the street opposite the Catholic church. There were no houses here for a block and more; the sidewalk was broken in many places, so that passers-by avoided it; the overhanging boughs shrouded it all in obscurity; it was preeminently a place to be alone in.

Theron had driven to the depot with his guests an hour before, and after a period of pleasant waiting on the platform, had said good-bye to them as the train moved away. Then he turned to Alice, who had also accompanied them in the carriage, and was conscious of a certain annoyance at her having come. That long familiar talk of the afternoon had given him the feeling that he was entitled to bid farewell to Sister Soulsby — to both the Soulsbys — by himself.

“I am afraid folks will think it strange — neither of us attending the prayer-meeting,” he said, with a suggestion of reproof in his tone, as they left the station-yard.

“If we get back in time, I’ll run in for a minute,” answered Alice, with docility.

“No — no,” he broke in. “I’m not equal to walking so fast. You run on ahead, and explain matters, and I will come along slowly.”

“The hack we came in is still there in the yard,” the wife suggested. “We could drive home in that. I don’t believe it would cost more than a quarter — and if you’re feeling badly —”

“But I am NOT feeling badly,” Theron replied, with frank impatience. “Only I feel — I feel that being alone with my thoughts would be good for me.”

“Oh, certainly — by all means!” Alice had said, and turned sharply on her heel.

Being alone with these thoughts, Theron strolled aimlessly about, and did not think at all. The shadows gathered, and fireflies began to disclose their tiny gleams among the shrubbery in the gardens. A lamp-lighter came along, and passed him, leaving in his wake a straggling double line of lights, glowing radiantly against the black-green of the trees. This recalled to Theron that he had heard that the town council lit the street lamps by the almanac, and economized gas when moonshine was due. The idea struck him as droll, and he dwelt upon it in various aspects, smiling at some of its comic possibilities. Looking up in the middle of one of these whimsical conceits, the sportive impulse died suddenly within him. He realized that it was dark, and that the massive black bulk reared against the sky on the other side of the road was the Catholic church. The other fact, that he had been there walking to and fro for some time, was borne in upon him more slowly. He turned, and resumed the pacing up and down with a still more leisurely step, musing upon the curious way in which people’s minds all unconsciously follow about where instincts and intuitions lead.

No doubt it was what Sister Soulsby had said about Catholics which had insensibly guided his purposeless stroll in this direction. What a woman that was! Somehow the purport of her talk — striking, and even astonishing as he had found it — did not stand out so clearly in his memory as did the image of the woman herself. She must have been extremely pretty once. For that matter she still was a most attractive-looking woman. It had been a genuine pleasure to have her in the house — to see her intelligent responsive face at the table — to have it in one’s power to make drafts at will upon the fund of sympathy and appreciation, of facile mirth and ready tenderness in those big eyes of hers. He liked that phrase she had used about herself —“a good fellow.” It seemed to fit her to a “t.” And Soulsby was a good fellow too. All at once it occurred to him to wonder whether they were married or not.

But really that was no affair of his, he reflected. A citizen of the intellectual world should be above soiling his thoughts with mean curiosities of that sort, and he drove the impertinent query down again under the surface of his mind. He refused to tolerate, as well, sundry vagrant imaginings which rose to cluster about and literalize the romance of her youth which Sister Soulsby had so frankly outlined. He would think upon nothing but her as he knew her — the kindly, quick-witted, capable and charming woman who had made such a brilliant break in the monotony of life at that dull parsonage of his. The only genuine happiness in life must consist in having bright, smart, attractive women like that always about.

The lights were visible now in the upper rooms of Father Forbes’ pastorate across the way. Theron paused for a second to consider whether he wanted to go over and call on the priest. He decided that mentally he was too fagged and flat for such an undertaking. He needed another sort of companionship — some restful, soothing human contact, which should exact nothing from him in return, but just take charge of him, with soft, wise words and pleasant plays of fancy, and jokes and — and — something of the general effect created by Sister Soulsby’s eyes. The thought expanded itself, and he saw that he had never realized before — nay, never dreamt before — what a mighty part the comradeship of talented, sweet-natured and beautiful women must play in the development of genius, the achievement of lofty aims, out in the great world of great men. To know such women — ah, that would never fall to his hapless lot.

The priest’s lamps blinked at him through the trees. He remembered that priests were supposed to be even further removed from the possibilities of such contact than he was himself. His memory reverted to that horribly ugly old woman whom Father Forbes had spoken of as his housekeeper. Life under the same roof with such a hag must be even worse than — worse than —

The young minister did not finish the comparison, even in the privacy of his inner soul. He stood instead staring over at the pastorate, in a kind of stupor of arrested thought. The figure of a woman passed in view at the nearest window — a tall figure with pale summer clothes of some sort, and a broad summer hat — a flitting effect of diaphanous shadow between him and the light which streamed from the casement.

Theron felt a little shiver run over him, as if the delicate coolness of the changing night-air had got into his blood. The window was open, and his strained hearing thought it caught the sound of faint laughter. He continued to gaze at the place where the vision had appeared, the while a novel and strange perception unfolded itself upon his mind.

He had come there in the hope of encountering Celia Madden.

Now that he looked this fact in the face, there was nothing remarkable about it. In truth, it was simplicity itself. He was still a sick man, weak in body and dejected in spirits. The thought of how unhappy and unstrung he was came to him now with an insistent pathos that brought tears to his eyes. He was only obeying the universal law of nature — the law which prompts the pallid spindling sprout of the potato in the cellar to strive feebly toward the light.

From where he stood in the darkness he stretched out his hands in the direction of that open window. The gesture was his confession to the overhanging boughs, to the soft night-breeze, to the stars above — and it bore back to him something of the confessional’s vague and wistful solace. He seemed already to have drawn down into his soul a taste of the refreshment it craved. He sighed deeply, and the hot moisture smarted again upon his eyelids, but this time not all in grief. With his tender compassion for himself there mingled now a flutter of buoyant prescience, of exquisite expectancy.

Fate walked abroad this summer night. The street door of the pastorate opened, and in the flood of illumination which spread suddenly forth over the steps and sidewalk, Theron saw again the tall form, with the indefinitely light-hued flowing garments and the wide straw hat. He heard a tuneful woman’s voice call out “Good-night, Maggie,” and caught no response save the abrupt closing of the door, which turned everything black again with a bang. He listened acutely for another instant, and then with long, noiseless strides made his way down his deserted side of the street. He moderated his pace as he turned to cross the road at the corner, and then, still masked by the trees, halted altogether, in a momentary tumult of apprehension. No — yes — it was all right. The girl sauntered out from the total darkness into the dim starlight of the open corner.

“Why, bless me, is that you, Miss Madden?”

Celia seemed to discern readily enough, through the accents of surprise, the identity of the tall, slim man who addressed her from the shadows.

“Good-evening, Mr. Ware,” she said, with prompt affability. “I’m so glad to find you out again. We heard you were ill.”

“I have been very ill,” responded Theron, as they shook hands and walked on together. He added, with a quaver in his voice, “I am still far from strong. I really ought not to be out at all. But — but the longing for — for — well, I COULDN’T stay in any longer. Even if it kills me, I shall be glad I came out tonight.”

“Oh, we won’t talk of killing,” said Celia. “I don’t believe in illnesses myself.”

“But you believe in collapses of the nerves,” put in Theron, with gentle sadness, “in moral and spiritual and mental breakdowns. I remember how I was touched by the way you told me YOU suffered from them. I had to take what you said then for granted. I had had no experience of it myself. But now I know what it is.” He drew a long, pathetic sigh. “Oh, DON’T I know what it is!” he repeated gloomily.

“Come, my friend, cheer up,” Celia purred at him, in soothing tones. He felt that there was a deliciously feminine and sisterly intuition in her speech, and in the helpful, nurse-like way in which she drew his arm through hers. He leaned upon this support, and was glad of it in every fibre of his being.

“Do you remember? You promised — that last time I saw you — to play for me,” he reminded her. They were passing the little covered postern door at the side and rear of the church as he spoke, and he made a half halt to point the coincidence.

“Oh, there’s no one to blow the organ,” she said, divining his suggestion. “And I haven’t the key — and, besides, the organ is too heavy and severe for an invalid. It would overwhelm you tonight.”

“Not as you would know how to play it for me,” urged Theron, pensively. “I feel as if good music to-night would make me well again. I am really very ill and weak — and unhappy!”

The girl seemed moved by the despairing note in his voice. She invited him by a sympathetic gesture to lean even more directly on her arm.

“Come home with me, and I’ll play Chopin to you,” she said, in compassionate friendliness. “He is the real medicine for bruised and wounded nerves. You shall have as much of him as you like.”

The idea thus unexpectedly thrown forth spread itself like some vast and inexpressibly alluring vista before Theron’s imagination. The spice of adventure in it fascinated his mind as well, but for a shrinking moment the flesh was weak.

“I’m afraid your people would — would think it strange,” he faltered — and began also to recall that he had some people of his own who would be even more amazed.

“Nonsense,” said Celia, in fine, bold confidence, and with a reassuring pressure on his arm. “I allow none of my people to question what I do. They never dream of such a preposterous thing. Besides, you will see none of them. Mrs. Madden is at the seaside, and my father and brother have their own part of the house. I shan’t listen for a minute to your not coming. Come, I’m your doctor. I’m to make you well again.”

There was further conversation, and Theron more or less knew that he was bearing a part in it, but his whole mind seemed concentrated, in a sort of delicious terror, upon the wonderful experience to which every footstep brought him nearer. His magnetized fancy pictured a great spacious parlor, such as a mansion like the Maddens’ would of course contain, and there would be a grand piano, and lace curtains, and paintings in gold frames, and a chandelier, and velvet easy-chairs, and he would sit in one of these, surrounded by all the luxury of the rich, while Celia played to him. There would be servants about, he presumed, and very likely they would recognize him, and of course they would talk about it to Tom, Dick and Harry afterward. But he said to himself defiantly that he didn’t care.

He withdrew his arm from hers as they came upon the well-lighted main street. He passed no one who seemed to know him. Presently they came to the Madden place, and Celia, without waiting for the gravelled walk, struck obliquely across the lawn. Theron, who had been lagging behind with a certain circumspection, stepped briskly to her side now. Their progress over the soft, close-cropped turf in the dark together, with the scent of lilies and perfumed shrubs heavy on the night air, and the majestic bulk of the big silent house rising among the trees before them, gave him a thrilling sense of the glory of individual freedom.

“I feel a new man already,” he declared, as they swung along on the grass. He breathed a long sigh of content, and drew nearer, so that their shoulders touched now and again as they walked. In a minute more they were standing on the doorstep, and Theron heard the significant jingle of a bunch of keys which his companion was groping for in her elusive pocket. He was conscious of trembling a little at the sound.

It seemed that, unlike other people, the Maddens did not have their parlor on the ground-floor, opening off the front hall. Theron stood in the complete darkness of this hall, till Celia had lit one of several candles which were in their hand-sticks on a sort of sideboard next the hat-rack. She beckoned him with a gesture of her head, and he followed her up a broad staircase, magnificent in its structural appointments of inlaid woods, and carpeted with what to his feet felt like down. The tiny light which his guide bore before her half revealed, as they passed in their ascent, tall lengths of tapestry, and the dull glint of armor and brazen discs in shadowed niches on the nearer wall. Over the stair-rail lay an open space of such stately dimensions, bounded by terminal lines of decoration so distant in the faint candle-flicker, that the young country minister could think of no word but “palatial” to fit it all.

At the head of the flight, Celia led the way along a wide corridor to where it ended. Here, stretched from side to side, and suspended from broad hoops of a copper-like metal, was a thick curtain, of a uniform color which Theron at first thought was green, and then decided must be blue. She pushed its heavy folds aside, and unlocked another door. He passed under the curtain behind her, and closed the door.

The room into which he had made his way was not at all after the fashion of any parlor he had ever seen. In the obscure light it was difficult to tell what it resembled. He made out what he took to be a painter’s easel, standing forth independently in the centre of things. There were rows of books on rude, low shelves. Against one of the two windows was a big, flat writing-table — or was it a drawing-table? — littered with papers. Under the other window was a carpenter’s bench, with a large mound of something at one end covered with a white cloth. On a table behind the easel rose a tall mechanical contrivance, the chief feature of which was a thick upright spiral screw. The floor was of bare wood stained brown. The walls of this queer room had photographs and pictures, taken apparently from illustrated papers, pinned up at random for their only ornament.

Celia had lighted three or four other candles on the mantel. She caught the dumfounded expression with which her guest was surveying his surroundings, and gave a merry little laugh.

“This is my workshop,” she explained. “I keep this for the things I do badly — things I fool with. If I want to paint, or model in clay, or bind books, or write, or draw, or turn on the lathe, or do some carpentering, here’s where I do it. All the things that make a mess which has to be cleaned up — they are kept out here — because this is as far as the servants are allowed to come.”

She unlocked still another door as she spoke — a door which was also concealed behind a curtain.

“Now,” she said, holding up the candle so that its reddish flare rounded with warmth the creamy fulness of her chin and throat, and glowed upon her hair in a flame of orange light —“now I will show you what is my very own.”

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