The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xix

Theron Ware looked about him with frankly undisguised astonishment.

The room in which he found himself was so dark at first that it yielded little to the eye, and that little seemed altogether beyond his comprehension. His gaze helplessly followed Celia and her candle about as she busied herself in the work of illumination. When she had finished, and pinched out the taper, there were seven lights in the apartment — lights beaming softly through half-opaque alternating rectangles of blue and yellow glass. They must be set in some sort of lanterns around against the wall, he thought, but the shape of these he could hardly make out.

Gradually his sight adapted itself to this subdued light, and he began to see other things. These queer lamps were placed, apparently, so as to shed a special radiance upon some statues which stood in the corners of the chamber, and upon some pictures which were embedded in the walls. Theron noted that the statues, the marble of which lost its aggressive whiteness under the tinted lights, were mostly of naked men and women; the pictures, four or five in number, were all variations of a single theme — the Virgin Mary and the Child.

A less untutored vision than his would have caught more swiftly the scheme of color and line in which these works of art bore their share. The walls of the room were in part of flat upright wooden columns, terminating high above in simple capitals, and they were all painted in pale amber and straw and primrose hues, irregularly wavering here and there toward suggestions of white. Between these pilasters were broader panels of stamped leather, in gently varying shades of peacock blue. These contrasted colors vaguely interwove and mingled in what he could see of the shadowed ceiling far above. They were repeated in the draperies and huge cushions and pillows of the low, wide divan which ran about three sides of the room. Even the floor, where it revealed itself among the scattered rugs, was laid in a mosaic pattern of matched woods, which, like the rugs, gave back these same shifting blues and uncertain yellows.

The fourth side of the apartment was broken in outline at one end by the door through which they had entered, and at the other by a broad, square opening, hung with looped-back curtains of a thin silken stuff. Between the two apertures rose against the wall what Theron took at first glance to be an altar. There were pyramidal rows of tall candles here on either side, each masked with a little silken hood; below, in the centre, a shelf-like projection supported what seemed a massive, carved casket, and in the beautiful intricacies of this, and the receding canopy of delicate ornamentation which depended above it, the dominant color was white, deepening away in its shadows, by tenderly minute gradations, to the tints which ruled the rest of the room.

Celia lighted some of the high, thick tapers in these candelabra, and opened the top of the casket. Theron saw with surprise that she had uncovered the keyboard of a piano. He viewed with much greater amazement her next proceeding — which was to put a cigarette between her lips, and, bending over one of the candles with it for an instant, turn to him with a filmy, opalescent veil of smoke above her head.

“Make yourself comfortable anywhere,” she said, with a gesture which comprehended all the divans and pillows in the place. “Will you smoke?”

“I have never tried since I was a little boy,” said Theron, “but I think I could. If you don’t mind, I should like to see.”

Lounging at his ease on the oriental couch, Theron experimented cautiously upon the unaccustomed tobacco, and looked at Celia with what he felt to be the confident quiet of a man of the world. She had thrown aside her hat, and in doing so had half released some of the heavy strands of hair coiled at the back of her head. His glance instinctively rested upon this wonderful hair of hers. There was no mistaking the sudden fascination its disorder had for his eye.

She stood before him with the cigarette poised daintily between thumb and finger of a shapely hand, and smiled comprehendingly down on her guest.

“I suffered the horrors of the damned with this hair of mine when I was a child,” she said. “I daresay all children have a taste for persecuting red-heads; but it’s a specialty with Irish children. They get hold somehow of an ancient national superstition, or legend, that red hair was brought into Ireland by the Danes. It’s been a term of reproach with us since Brian Boru’s time to call a child a Dane. I used to be pursued and baited with it every day of my life, until the one dream of my ambition was to get old enough to be a Sister of Charity, so that I might hide my hair under one of their big beastly white linen caps. I’ve got rather away from that ideal since, I’m afraid,” she added, with a droll downward curl of her lip.

“Your hair is very beautiful,” said Theron, in the calm tone of a connoisseur.

“I like it myself,” Celia admitted, and blew a little smoke-ring toward him. “I’ve made this whole room to match it. The colors, I mean,” she explained, in deference to his uplifted brows. “Between us, we make up what Whistler would call a symphony. That reminds me — I was going to play for you. Let me finish the cigarette first.”

Theron felt grateful for her reticence about the fact that he had laid his own aside. “I have never seen a room at all like this,” he remarked. “You are right; it does fit you perfectly.”

She nodded her sense of his appreciation. “It is what I like,” she said. “It expresses ME. I will not have anything about me — or anybody either — that I don’t like. I suppose if an old Greek could see it, it would make him sick, but it represents what I mean by being a Greek. It is as near as an Irishman can get to it.”

“I remember your puzzling me by saying that you were a Greek.”

Celia laughed, and tossed the cigarette-end away. “I’d puzzle you more, I’m afraid, if I tried to explain to you what I really meant by it. I divide people up into two classes, you know — Greeks and Jews. Once you get hold of that principle, all other divisions and classifications, such as by race or language or nationality, seem pure foolishness. It is the only true division there is. It is just as true among negroes or wild Indians who never heard of Greece or Jerusalem, as it is among white folks. That is the beauty of it. It works everywhere, always.”

“Try it on me,” urged Theron, with a twinkling eye. “Which am I?”

“Both,” said the girl, with a merry nod of the head. “But now I’ll play. I told you you were to hear Chopin. I prescribe him for you. He is the Greekiest of the Greeks. THERE was a nation where all the people were artists, where everybody was an intellectual aristocrat, where the Philistine was as unknown, as extinct, as the dodo. Chopin might have written his music for them.”

“I am interested in Shopang,” put in Theron, suddenly recalling Sister Soulsby’s confidences as to the source of her tunes. “He lived with — what’s his name — George something. We were speaking about him only this afternoon.”

Celia looked down into her visitor’s face at first inquiringly, then with a latent grin about her lips. “Yes — George something,” she said, in a tone which mystified him.

The Rev. Mr. Ware was sitting up, a minute afterward, in a ferment of awakened consciousness that he had never heard the piano played before. After a little, he noiselessly rearranged the cushions, and settled himself again in a recumbent posture. It was beyond his strength to follow that first impulse, and keep his mind abreast with what his ears took in. He sighed and lay back, and surrendered his senses to the mere unthinking charm of it all.

It was the Fourth Prelude that was singing in the air about him — a simple, plaintive strain wandering at will over a surface of steady rhythmic movement underneath, always creeping upward through mysteries of sweetness, always sinking again in cadences of semi-tones. With only a moment’s pause, there came the Seventh Waltz — a rich, bold confusion which yet was not confused. Theron’s ears dwelt with eager delight upon the chasing medley of swift, tinkling sounds, but it left his thoughts free.

From where he reclined, he turned his head to scrutinize, one by one, the statues in the corners. No doubt they were beautiful — for this was a department in which he was all humility — and one of them, the figure of a broad-browed, stately, though thick-waisted woman, bending slightly forward and with both arms broken off, was decently robed from the hips downward. The others were not robed at all. Theron stared at them with the erratic, rippling jangle of the waltz in his ears, and felt that he possessed a new and disturbing conception of what female emancipation meant in these later days. Roving along the wall, his glance rested again upon the largest of the Virgin pictures — a full-length figure in sweeping draperies, its radiant, aureoled head upturned in rapt adoration, its feet resting on a crescent moon which shone forth in bluish silver through festooned clouds of cherubs. The incongruity between the unashamed statues and this serene incarnation of holy womanhood jarred upon him for the instant. Then his mind went to the piano.

Without a break the waltz had slowed and expanded into a passage of what might be church music, an exquisitely modulated and gently solemn chant, through which a soft, lingering song roved capriciously, forcing the listener to wonder where it was coming out, even while it caressed and soothed to repose.

He looked from the Madonna to Celia. Beyond the carelessly drooping braids and coils of hair which blazed between the candles, he could see the outline of her brow and cheek, the noble contour of her lifted chin and full, modelled throat, all pink as the most delicate rose leaf is pink, against the cool lights of the altar-like wall. The sight convicted him in the court of his own soul as a prurient and mean-minded rustic. In the presence of such a face, of such music, there ceased to be any such thing as nudity, and statues no more needed clothes than did those slow, deep, magnificent chords which came now, gravely accumulating their spell upon him.

“It is all singing!” the player called out to him over her shoulder, in a minute of rest. “That is what Chopin does — he sings!”

She began, with an effect of thinking of something else, the Sixth Nocturne, and Theron at first thought she was not playing anything in particular, so deliberately, haltingly, did the chain of charm unwind itself into sequence. Then it came closer to him than the others had done. The dreamy, wistful, meditative beauty of it all at once oppressed and inspired him. He saw Celia’s shoulders sway under the impulse of the RUBATO license — the privilege to invest each measure with the stress of the whole, to loiter, to weep, to run and laugh at will — and the music she made spoke to him as with a human voice. There was the wooing sense of roses and moonlight, of perfumes, white skins, alluring languorous eyes, and then —

“You know this part, of course,” he heard her say.

On the instant they had stepped from the dark, scented, starlit garden, where the nightingale sang, into a great cathedral. A sombre and lofty anthem arose, and filled the place with the splendor of such dignified pomp of harmony and such suggestions of measureless choral power and authority that Theron sat abruptly up, then was drawn resistlessly to his feet. He stood motionless in the strange room, feeling most of all that one should kneel to hear such music.

“This you’ll know too — the funeral march from the Second Sonata,” she was saying, before he realized that the end of the other had come. He sank upon the divan again, bending forward and clasping his hands tight around his knees. His heart beat furiously as he listened to the weird, mediaeval processional, with its wild, clashing chords held down in the bondage of an orderly sadness. There was a propelling motion in the thing — a sense of being borne bodily along — which affected him like dizziness. He breathed hard through the robust portions of stern, vigorous noise, and rocked himself to and fro when, as rosy morn breaks upon a storm-swept night, the drums are silenced for the sweet, comforting strain of solitary melody. The clanging minor harmonies into which the march relapses came to their abrupt end. Theron rose once more, and moved with a hesitating step to the piano.

“I want to rest a little,” he said, with his hand on her shoulder.

“Whew! so do I,” exclaimed Celia, letting her hands fall with an exaggerated gesture of weariness. “The sonatas take it out of one! They are hideously difficult, you know. They are rarely played.”

“I didn’t know,” remarked Theron. She seemed not to mind his hand upon her shoulder, and he kept it there. “I didn’t know anything about music at all. What I do know now is that — that this evening is an event in my life.”

She looked up at him and smiled. He read unsuspected tendernesses and tolerances of friendship in the depths of her eyes, which emboldened him to stir the fingers of that audacious hand in a lingering, caressing trill upon her shoulder. The movement was of the faintest, but having ventured it, he drew his hand abruptly away.

“You are getting on,” she said to him. There was an enigmatic twinkle in the smile with which she continued to regard him. “We are Hellenizing you at a great rate.”

A sudden thought seemed to strike her. She shifted her eyes toward vacancy with a swift, abstracted glance, reflected for a moment, then let a sparkling half-wink and the dimpling beginnings of an almost roguish smile mark her assent to the conceit, whatever it might be.

“I will be with you in a moment,” he heard her say; and while the words were still in his ears she had risen and passed out of sight through the broad, open doorway to the right. The looped curtains fell together behind her. Presently a mellow light spread over their delicately translucent surface — a creamy, undulating radiance which gave the effect of moving about among the myriad folds of the silk.

Theron gazed at these curtains for a little, then straightened his shoulders with a gesture of decision, and, turning on his heel, went over and examined the statues in the further corners minutely.

“If you would like some more, I will play you the Berceuse now.”

Her voice came to him with a delicious shock. He wheeled round and beheld her standing at the piano, with one hand resting, palm upward, on the keys. She was facing him. Her tall form was robed now in some shapeless, clinging drapery, lustrous and creamy and exquisitely soft, like the curtains. The wonderful hair hung free and luxuriant about her neck and shoulders, and glowed with an intensity of fiery color which made all the other hues of the room pale and vague. A fillet of faint, sky-like blue drew a gracious span through the flame of red above her temples, and from this there rose the gleam of jewels. Her head inclined gently, gravely, toward him — with the posture of that armless woman in marble he had been studying — and her brown eyes, regarding him from the shadows, emitted light.

“It is a lullaby — the only one he wrote,” she said, as Theron, pale-faced and with tightened lips, approached her. “No — you mustn’t stand there,” she added, sinking into the seat before the instrument; “go back and sit where you were.”

The most perfect of lullabies, with its swaying abandonment to cooing rhythm, ever and again rising in ripples to the point of insisting on something, one knows not what, and then rocking, melting away once more, passed, so to speak, over Theron’s head. He leaned back upon the cushions, and watched the white, rounded forearm which the falling folds of this strange, statue-like drapery made bare.

There was more that appealed to his mood in the Third Ballade. It seemed to him that there were words going along with it — incoherent and impulsive yet very earnest words, appealing to him in strenuous argument and persuasion. Each time he almost knew what they said, and strained after their meaning with a passionate desire, and then there would come a kind of cuckoo call, and everything would swing dancing off again into a mockery of inconsequence.

Upon the silence there fell the pure, liquid, mellifluous melody of a soft-throated woman singing to her lover.

“It is like Heine — simply a love-poem,” said the girl, over her shoulder.

Theron followed now with all his senses, as she carried the Ninth Nocturne onward. The stormy passage, which she banged finely forth, was in truth a lover’s quarrel; and then the mild, placid flow of sweet harmonies into which the furore sank, dying languorously away upon a silence all alive with tender memories of sound — was that not also a part of love?

They sat motionless through a minute — the man on the divan, the girl at the piano — and Theron listened for what he felt must be the audible thumping of his heart.

Then, throwing back her head, with upturned face, Celia began what she had withheld for the last — the Sixteenth Mazurka. This strange foreign thing she played with her eyes closed, her head tilted obliquely so that Theron could see the rose-tinted, beautiful countenance, framed as if asleep in the billowing luxuriance of unloosed auburn hair. He fancied her beholding visions as she wrought the music — visions full of barbaric color and romantic forms. As his mind swam along with the gliding, tricksy phantom of a tune, it seemed as if he too could see these visions — as if he gazed at them through her eyes.

It could not be helped. He lifted himself noiselessly to his feet, and stole with caution toward her. He would hear the rest of this weird, voluptuous fantasy standing thus, so close behind her that he could look down upon her full, uplifted lace — so close that, if she moved, that glowing nimbus of hair would touch him.

There had been some curious and awkward pauses in this last piece, which Theron, by some side cerebration, had put down to her not watching what her fingers did. There came another of these pauses now — an odd, unaccountable halt in what seemed the middle of everything. He stared intently down upon her statuesque, dreaming face during the hush, and caught his breath as he waited. There fell at last a few faltering ascending notes, making a half-finished strain, and then again there was silence.

Celia opened her eyes, and poured a direct, deep gaze into the face above hers. Its pale lips were parted in suspense, and the color had faded from its cheeks.

“That is the end,” she said, and, with a turn of her lithe body, stood swiftly up, even while the echoes of the broken melody seemed panting in the air about her for completion.

Theron put his hands to his face, and pressed them tightly against eyes and brow for an instant. Then, throwing them aside with an expansive downward sweep of the arms, and holding them clenched, he returned Celia’s glance. It was as if he had never looked into a woman’s eyes before.

“It CAN’T be the end!” he heard himself saying, in a low voice charged with deep significance. He held her gaze in the grasp of his with implacable tenacity. There was a trouble about breathing, and the mosaic floor seemed to stir under his feet. He clung defiantly to the one idea of not releasing her eyes.

“How COULD it be the end?” he demanded, lifting an uncertain hand to his breast as he spoke, and spreading it there as if to control the tumultuous fluttering of his heart. “Things don’t end that way!”

A sharp, blinding spasm of giddiness closed upon and shook him, while the brave words were on his lips. He blinked and tottered under it, as it passed, and then backed humbly to his divan and sat down, gasping a little, and patting his hand on his heart. There was fright written all over his whitened face.

“We — we forgot that I am a sick man,” he said feebly, answering Celia’s look of surprised inquiry with a forced, wan smile. “I was afraid my heart had gone wrong.”

She scrutinized him for a further moment, with growing reassurance in her air. Then, piling up the pillows and cushions behind him for support, for all the world like a big sister again, she stepped into the inner room, and returned with a flagon of quaint shape and a tiny glass. She poured this latter full to the brim of a thick yellowish, aromatic liquid, and gave it him to drink.

“This Benedictine is all I happen to have,” she said. “Swallow it down. It will do you good.”

Theron obeyed her. It brought tears to his eyes; but, upon reflection, it was grateful and warming. He did feel better almost immediately. A great wave of comfort seemed to enfold him as he settled himself back on the divan. For that one flashing instant he had thought that he was dying. He drew a long grateful breath of relief, and smiled his content.

Celia had seated herself beside him, a little away. She sat with her head against the wall, and one foot curled under her, and almost faced him.

“I dare say we forced the pace a little,” she remarked, after a pause, looking down at the floor, with the puckers of a ruminating amusement playing in the corners of her mouth. “It doesn’t do for a man to get to be a Greek all of a sudden. He must work along up to it gradually.”

He remembered the music. “Oh, if I only knew how to tell you,” he murmured ecstatically, “what a revelation your playing has been to me! I had never imagined anything like it. I shall think of it to my dying day.”

He began to remember as well the spirit that was in the air when the music ended. The details of what he had felt and said rose vaguely in his mind. Pondering them, his eye roved past Celia’s white-robed figure to the broad, open doorway beyond. The curtains behind which she had disappeared were again parted and fastened back. A dim light was burning within, out of sight, and its faint illumination disclosed a room filled with white marbles, white silks, white draperies of varying sorts, which shaped themselves, as he looked, into the canopy and trappings of an extravagantly over-sized and sumptuous bed. He looked away again.

“I wish you would tell me what you really mean by that Greek idea of yours,” he said with the abruptness of confusion.

Celia did not display much enthusiasm in the tone of her answer. “Oh,” she said almost indifferently, “lots of things. Absolute freedom from moral bugbears, for one thing. The recognition that beauty is the only thing in life that is worth while. The courage to kick out of one’s life everything that isn’t worth while; and so on.”

“But,” said Theron, watching the mingled delicacy and power of the bared arm and the shapely grace of the hand which she had lifted to her face, “I am going to get you to teach it ALL to me.” The memories began crowding in upon him now, and the baffling note upon which the mazurka had stopped short chimed like a tuning-fork in his ears. “I want to be a Greek myself, if you’re one. I want to get as close to you — to your ideal, that is, as I can. You open up to me a whole world that I had not even dreamed existed. We swore our friendship long ago, you know: and now, after tonight — you and the music have decided me. I am going to put the things out of MY life that are not worthwhile. Only you must help me; you must tell me how to begin.”

He looked up as he spoke, to enforce the almost tender entreaty of his words. The spectacle of a yawn, only fractionally concealed behind those talented fingers, chilled his soft speech, and sent a flush over his face. He rose on the instant.

Celia was nothing abashed at his discovery. She laughed gayly in confession of her fault, and held her hand out to let him help her disentangle her foot from her draperies, and get off the divan. It seemed to be her meaning that he should continue holding her hand after she was also standing.

“You forgive me, don’t you?” she urged smilingly. “Chopin always first excites me, then sends me to sleep. You see how YOU sleep tonight!”

The brown, velvety eyes rested upon him, from under their heavy lids, with a languorous kindliness. Her warm, large palm clasped his in frank liking.

“I don’t want to sleep at all,” Mr. Ware was impelled to say. “I want to lie awake and think about — about everything all over again.”

She smiled drowsily. “And you’re sure you feel strong enough to walk home?”

“Yes,” he replied, with a lingering dilatory note, which deepened upon reflection into a sigh. “Oh, yes.”

He followed her and her candle down the magnificent stairway again. She blew the light out in the hall, and, opening the front door, stood with him for a silent moment on the threshold. Then they shook hands once more, and with a whispered good-night, parted.

Celia, returning to the blue and yellow room, lighted a cigarette and helped herself to some Benedictine in the glass which Theron had used. She looked meditatively at this little glass for a moment, turning it about in her fingers with a smile. The smile warmed itself suddenly into a joyous laugh. She tossed the glass aside, and, holding out her flowing skirts with both hands, executed a swinging pirouette in front of the gravely beautiful statue of the armless woman.

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