The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xx

It was apparent to the Rev. Theron Ware, from the very first moment of waking next morning, that both he and the world had changed over night. The metamorphosis, in the harsh toils of which he had been laboring blindly so long, was accomplished. He stood forth, so to speak, in a new skin, and looked about him, with perceptions of quite an altered kind, upon what seemed in every way a fresh existence. He lacked even the impulse to turn round and inspect the cocoon from which he had emerged. Let the past bury the past. He had no vestige of interest in it.

The change was not premature. He found himself not in the least confused by it, or frightened. Before he had finished shaving, he knew himself to be easily and comfortably at home in his new state, and master of all its requirements.

It seemed as if Alice, too, recognized that he had become another man, when he went down and took his chair at the breakfast table. They had exchanged no words since their parting in the depot-yard the previous evening — an event now faded off into remote vagueness in Theron’s mind. He smiled brilliantly in answer to the furtive, half-sullen, half-curious glance she stole at him, as she brought the dishes in.

“Ah! potatoes warmed up in cream!” he said, with hearty pleasure in his tone. “What a mind-reader you are, to be sure!”

“I’m glad you’re feeling so much better,” she said briefly, taking her seat.

“Better?” he returned. “I’m a new being!”

She ventured to look him over more freely, upon this assurance. He perceived and catalogued, one by one, the emotions which the small brain was expressing through those shallow blue eyes of hers. She was turning over this, that, and the other hostile thought and childish grievance — most of all she was dallying with the idea of asking him where he had been till after midnight. He smiled affably in the face of this scattering fire of peevish glances, and did not dream of resenting any phase of them all.

“I am going down to Thurston’s this morning, and order that piano sent up today,” he announced presently, in a casual way.

“Why, Theron, can we afford it?” the wife asked, regarding him with surprise.

“Oh, easily enough,” he replied light-heartedly. “You know they’ve increased my salary.”

She shook her head. “No, I didn’t. How should I? You don’t realize it,” she went on, dolefully, “but you’re getting so you don’t tell me the least thing about your affairs nowadays.”

Theron laughed aloud. “You ought to be grateful — such melancholy affairs as mine have been till now,” he declared —“that is, if it weren’t absurd to think such a thing.” Then, more soberly, he explained: “No, my girl, it is you who don’t realize. I am carrying big projects in my mind — big, ambitious thoughts and plans upon which great things depend. They no doubt make me seem preoccupied and absent-minded; but it is a wife’s part to understand, and make allowances, and not intrude trifles which may throw everything out of gear. Don’t think I’m scolding, my girl. I only speak to reassure you and — and help you to comprehend. Of course I know that you wouldn’t willingly embarrass my — my career.”

“Of course not,” responded Alice, dubiously; “but — but —”

“But what? Theron felt compelled by civility to say, though on the instant he reproached himself for the weakness of it.

“Well — I hardly know how to say it,” she faltered, “but it was nicer in the old days, before you bothered your head about big projects, and your career, as you call it, and were just a good, earnest, simple young servant of the Lord. Oh, Theron!” she broke forth suddenly, with tearful zeal, “I get sometimes lately almost scared lest you should turn out to be a — a BACKSLIDER!”

The husband sat upright, and hardened his countenance. But yesterday the word would have had in it all sorts of inherited terrors for him. This morning’s dawn of a new existence revealed it as merely an empty and stupid epithet.

“These are things not to be said,” he admonished her, after a moment’s pause, and speaking with carefully measured austerity. “Least of all are they to be said to a clergyman — by his wife.”

It was on the tip of Alice’s tongue to retort, “Better by his wife than by outsiders!” but she bit her lips, and kept the gibe back. A rebuke of this form and gravity was a novelty in their relations. The fear that it had been merited troubled, even while it did not convince, her mind, and the puzzled apprehension was to be read plainly enough on her face.

Theron, noting it, saw a good deal more behind. Really, it was amazing how much wiser he had grown all at once. He had been married for years, and it was only this morning that he suddenly discovered how a wife ought to be handled. He continued to look sternly away into space for a little. Then his brows relaxed slowly and under the visible influence of melting considerations. He nodded his head, turned toward her abruptly, and broke the silence with labored amiability.

“Come, come — the day began so pleasantly — it was so good to feel well again — let us talk about the piano instead. That is,” he added, with an obvious overture to playfulness, “if the thought of having a piano is not too distasteful to you.”

Alice yielded almost effusively to his altered mood. They went together into the sitting-room, to measure and decide between the two available spaces which were at their disposal, and he insisted with resolute magnanimity on her settling this question entirely by herself. When at last he mentioned the fact that it was Friday, and he would look over some sermon memoranda before he went out, Alice retired to the kitchen in openly cheerful spirits.

Theron spread some old manuscript sermons before him on his desk, and took down his scribbling-book as well. But there his application flagged, and he surrendered himself instead, chin on hand, to staring out at the rhododendron in the yard. He recalled how he had seen Soulsby patiently studying this identical bush. The notion of Soulsby, not knowing at all how to sing, yet diligently learning those sixths, brought a smile to his mind; and then he seemed to hear Celia calling out over her shoulder, “That’s what Chopin does — he sings!” The spirit of that wonderful music came back to him, enfolded him in its wings. It seemed to raise itself up — a palpable barrier between him and all that he had known and felt and done before. That was his new birth — that marvellous night with the piano. The conceit pleased him — not the less because there flashed along with it the thought that it was a poet that had been born. Yes; the former country lout, the narrow zealot, the untutored slave groping about in the dark after silly superstitions, cringing at the scowl of mean Pierces and Winches, was dead. There was an end of him, and good riddance. In his place there had been born a Poet — he spelled the word out now unabashed — a child of light, a lover of beauty and sweet sounds, a recognizable brother to Renan and Chopin — and Celia!

Out of the soothing, tenderly grateful revery, a practical suggestion suddenly took shape. He acted upon it without a moment’s delay, getting out his letter-pad, and writing hurriedly —

“Dear Miss Madden — Life will be more tolerable to me if before nightfall I can know that there is a piano under my roof. Even if it remains dumb, it will be some comfort to have it here and look at it, and imagine how a great master might make it speak.

“Would it be too much to beg you to look in at Thurston’s, say at eleven this forenoon, and give me the inestimable benefit of your judgment in selecting an instrument?

“Do not trouble to answer this, for I am leaving home now, but shall call at Thurston’s at eleven, and wait.

“Thanking you in anticipation,

“I am-”

Here Theron’s fluency came to a sharp halt. There were adverbs enough and to spare on the point of his pen, but the right one was not easy to come at. “Gratefully,” “faithfully,” “sincerely,” “truly”— each in turn struck a false note. He felt himself not quite any of these things. At last he decided to write just the simple word “yours,” and then wavered between satisfaction at his boldness, dread lest he had been over-bold, and, worst of the lot, fear that she would not notice it one way or the other — all the while he sealed and addressed the letter, put it carefully in an inner pocket, and got his hat.

There was a moment’s hesitation as to notifying the kitchen of his departure. The interests of domestic discipline seemed to point the other way. He walked softly through the hall, and let himself out by the front door without a sound.

Down by the canal bridge he picked out an idle boy to his mind — a lad whose aspect appeared to promise intelligence as a messenger, combined with large impartiality in sectarian matters. He was to have ten cents on his return; and he might report himself to his patron at the bookstore yonder.

Theron was grateful to the old bookseller for remaining at his desk in the rear. There was a tacit compliment in the suggestion that he was not a mere customer, demanding instant attention. Besides, there was no keeping “Thurston’s” out of conversations in this place.

Loitering along the shelves, the young minister’s eye suddenly found itself arrested by a name on a cover. There were a dozen narrow volumes in uniform binding, huddled together under a cardboard label of “Eminent Women Series.” Oddly enough, one of these bore the title “George Sand.” Theron saw there must be some mistake, as he took the book down, and opened it. His glance hit by accident upon the name of Chopin. Then he read attentively until almost the stroke of eleven.

“We have to make ourselves acquainted with all sorts of queer phases of life,” he explained in self-defence to the old bookseller, then counting out the money for the book from his lean purse. He smiled as he added, “There seems something almost wrong about taking advantage of the clergyman’s discount for a life of George Sand.”

“I don’t know,” answered the other, pleasantly. “Guess she wasn’t so much different from the rest of ’em-except that she didn’t mind appearances. We know about her. We don’t know about the others.”

“I must hurry,” said Theron, turning on his heel. The haste with which he strode out of the store, crossed the street, and made his way toward Thurston’s, did not prevent his thinking much upon the astonishing things he had encountered in this book. Their relation to Celia forced itself more and more upon his mind. He could recall the twinkle in her eye, the sub-mockery in her tone, as she commented with that half-contemptuous “Yes — George something!” upon his blundering ignorance. His mortification at having thus exposed his dull rusticity was swallowed up in conjectures as to just what her tolerant familiarity with such things involved. He had never before met a young unmarried woman who would have confessed to him any such knowledge. But then, of course, he had never known a girl who resembled Celia in any other way. He recognized vaguely that he must provide himself with an entire new set of standards by which to measure and comprehend her. But it was for the moment more interesting to wonder what her standards were. Did she object to George Sand’s behavior? Or did she sympathize with that sort of thing? Did those statues, and the loose-flowing diaphonous toga and unbound hair, the cigarettes, the fiery liqueur, the deliberately sensuous music — was he to believe that they signified —?

“Good-morning, Mr. Ware. You have managed by a miracle to hit on one of my punctual days,” said Celia.

She was standing on the doorstep, at the entrance to the musical department of Thurston’s. He had not noticed before the fact that the sun was shining. The full glare of its strong light, enveloping her figure as she stood, and drawing the dazzled eye for relief to the bower of softened color, close beneath her parasol of creamy silk and lace, was what struck him now first of all. It was as if Celia had brought the sun with her.

Theron shook hands with her, and found joy in the perception, that his own hand trembled. He put boldly into words the thought that came to him.

“It was generous of you,” he said, “to wait for me out here, where all might delight in the sight of you, instead of squandering the privilege on a handful of clerks inside.”

Miss Madden beamed upon him, and nodded approval.

“Alcibiades never turned a prettier compliment,” she remarked. They went in together at this, and Theron made a note of the name.

During the ensuing half-hour, the young minister followed about even more humbly than the clerks in Celia’s commanding wake. There were a good many pianos in the big show-room overhead, and Theron found himself almost awed by their size and brilliancy of polish, and the thought of the tremendous sum of money they represented altogether. Not so with the organist. She ordered them rolled around this way or that, as if they had been so many checkers on a draught-board. She threw back their covers with the scant ceremony of a dispensary dentist opening paupers’ mouths. She exploited their several capacities with masterful hands, not deigning to seat herself, but just slightly bending forward, and sweeping her fingers up and down their keyboards-able, domineering fingers which pounded, tinkled, meditated, assented, condemned, all in a flash, and amid what affected the layman’s ears as a hopelessly discordant hubbub.

Theron moved about in the group, nursing her parasol in his arms, and watching her. The exaggerated deference which the clerks and salesmen showed to her as the rich Miss Madden, seemed to him to be mixed with a certain assertion of the claims of good-fellowship on the score of her being a musician. There undoubtedly was a sense of freemasonry between them. They alluded continually in technical terms to matters of which he knew nothing, and were amused at remarks of hers which to him carried no meaning whatever. It was evident that the young men liked her, and that their liking pleased her. It thrilled him to think that she knew he liked her, too, and to recall what abundant proofs she had given that here, also, she had pleasure in the fact. He clung insistently to the memory of these evidences. They helped him to resist a disagreeable tendency to feel himself an intruder, an outsider, among these pianoforte experts.

When it was all over, Celia waved the others aside, and talked with Theron. “I suppose you want me to tell you the truth,” she said. “There’s nothing here really good. It is always much better to buy of the makers direct.”

“Do they sell on the instalment plan?” he asked. There was a wistful effect in his voice which caught her attention.

She looked away — out through the window on the street below — for a moment. Then her eyes returned to his, and regarded him with a comforting, friendly, half-motherly glance, recalling for all the world the way Sister Soulsby had looked at him at odd times.

“Oh, you want it at once — I see,” she remarked softly. “Well, this Adelberger is the best value for the money.”

Mr. Ware followed her finger, and beheld with dismay that it pointed toward the largest instrument in the room — a veritable leviathan among pianos. The price of this had been mentioned as $600. He turned over the fact that this was two-thirds his yearly salary, and found the courage to shake his head.

“It would be too large — much too large — for the room,” he explained. “And, besides, it is more than I like to pay — or CAN pay, for that matter.” It was pitiful to be explaining such details, but there was no help for it.

They picked out a smaller one, which Celia said was at least of fair quality. “Now leave all the bargaining to me,” she adjured him. “These prices that they talk about in the piano trade are all in the air. There are tremendous discounts, if one knows how to insist upon them. All you have to do is to tell them to send it to your house — you wanted it today, you said?”

“Yes — in memory of yesterday,” he murmured.

She herself gave the directions, and Thurston’s people, now all salesmen again, bowed grateful acquiescence. Then she sailed regally across the room and down the stairs, drawing Theron in her train. The hirelings made salaams to him as well; it would have been impossible to interpose anything so trivial and squalid as talk about terms and dates of payment.

“I am ever so much obliged to you,” he said fervently, in the comparative solitude of the lower floor. She had paused to look at something in the book-department.

“Of course I was entirely at your service; don’t mention it,” she replied, reaching forth her hand in an absent way for her parasol.

He held up instead the volume he had purchased. “Guess what that is! You never would guess in this wide world!” His manner was surcharged with a sense of the surreptitious.

“Well, then, there’s no good trying, IS there?” commented Celia, her glance roving again toward the shelves.

“It is a life of George Sand,” whispered Theron. “I’ve been reading it this morning — all the Chopin part — while I was waiting for you.”

To his surprise, there was an apparently displeased contraction of her brows as he made this revelation. For the instant, a dreadful fear of having offended her seized upon and sickened him. But then her face cleared, as by magic. She smiled, and let her eyes twinkle in laughter at him, and lifted a forefinger in the most winning mockery of admonition.

“Naughty! naughty!” she murmured back, with a roguishly solemn wink.

He had no response ready for this, but mutely handed her the parasol. The situation had suddenly grown too confused for words, or even sequent thoughts. Uppermost across the hurly-burly of his mind there scudded the singular reflection that he should never hear her play on that new piano of his. Even as it flashed by out of sight, he recognized it for one of the griefs of his life; and the darkness which followed seemed nothing but a revolt against the idea of having a piano at all. He would countermand the order. He would — but she was speaking again.

They had strolled toward the door, and her voice was as placidly conventional as if the talk had never strayed from the subject of pianos. Theron with an effort pulled himself together, and laid hold of her words.

“I suppose you will be going the other way,” she was saying. “I shall have to be at the church all day. We have just got a new Mass over from Vienna, and I’m head over heels in work at it. I can have Father Forbes to myself today, too. That bear of a doctor has got the rheumatism, and can’t come out of his cave, thank Heaven!”

And then she was receding from view, up the sunlit, busy sidewalk, and Theron, standing on the doorstep, ruefully rubbed his chin. She had said he was going the other way, and, after a little pause, he made her words good, though each step he took seemed all in despite of his personal inclinations. Some of the passers-by bowed to him, and one or two paused as if to shake hands and exchange greetings. He nodded responses mechanically, but did not stop. It was as if he feared to interrupt the process of lifting his reluctant feet and propelling them forward, lest they should wheel and scuttle off in the opposite direction.

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