The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxi

Deliberate as his progress was, the diminishing number of store-fronts along the sidewalk, and the increasing proportion of picket-fences enclosing domestic lawns, forced upon Theron’s attention the fact that he was nearing home. It was a trifle past the hour for his midday meal. He was not in the least hungry; still less did he feel any desire just now to sit about in that library living-room of his. Why should he go home at all? There was no reason whatever — save that Alice would be expecting him. Upon reflection, that hardly amounted to a reason. Wives, with their limited grasp of the realities of life, were always expecting their husbands to do things which it turned out not to be feasible for them to do. The customary male animal spent a considerable part of his life in explaining to his mate why it had been necessary to disappoint or upset her little plans for his comings and goings. It was in the very nature of things that it should be so.

Sustained by these considerations, Mr. Ware slackened his steps, then halted irresolutely, and after a minute’s hesitation, entered the small temperance restaurant before which, as by intuition, he had paused. The elderly woman who placed on the tiny table before him the tea and rolls he ordered, was entirely unknown to him, he felt sure, yet none the less she smiled at him, and spoke almost familiarly —“I suppose Mrs. Ware is at the seaside, and you are keeping bachelor’s hall?”

“Not quite that,” he responded stiffly, and hurried through the meagre and distasteful repast, to avoid any further conversation.

There was an idea underlying her remark, however, which recurred to him when he had paid his ten cents and got out on the street again. There was something interesting in the thought of Alice at the seaside. Neither of them had ever laid eyes on salt water, but Theron took for granted the most extravagant landsman’s conception of its curative and invigorating powers. It was apparent to him that he was going to pay much greater attention to Alice’s happiness and well-being in the future than he had latterly done. He had bought her, this very day, a superb new piano. He was going to simply insist on her having a hired girl. And this seaside notion — why, that was best of all.

His fancy built up pleasant visions of her feasting her delighted eyes upon the marvel of a great ocean storm, or roaming along a beach strewn with wonderful marine shells, exhibiting an innocent joy in their beauty. The fresh sea-breeze blew through her hair, as he saw her in mind’s eye, and brought the hardy flush of health back upon her rather pallid cheeks. He was prepared already hardly to know her, so robust and revivified would she have become, by the time he went down to the depot to meet her on her return.

For his imagination stopped short of seeing himself at the seaside. It sketched instead pictures of whole weeks of solitary academic calm, alone with his books and his thoughts. The facts that he had no books, and that nobody dreamed of interfering with his thoughts, subordinated themselves humbly to his mood. The prospect, as he mused fondly upon it, expanded to embrace the priest’s and the doctor’s libraries; the thoughts which he longed to be alone with involved close communion with their thoughts. It could not but prove a season of immense mental stimulation and ethical broadening. It would have its lofty poetic and artistic side as well; the languorous melodies of Chopin stole over his revery, as he dwelt upon these things, and soft azure and golden lights modelled forth the exquisite outlines of tall marble forms.

He opened the gate leading to Dr. Ledsmar’s house. His walk had brought him quite out of the town, and up, by a broad main highway which yet took on all sorts of sylvan charms, to a commanding site on the hillside. Below, in the valley, lay Octavius, at one end half-hidden in factory smoke, at the other, where narrow bands of water gleamed upon the surface of a broad plain piled symmetrically with lumber, presenting an oddly incongruous suggestion of forest odors and the simplicity of the wilderness. In the middle distance, on gradually rising ground, stretched a wide belt of dense, artificial foliage, peeping through which tiled turrets and ornamented chimneys marked the polite residences of those who, though they neither stoked the furnace fires to the west, nor sawed the lumber on the east, lived in purple and fine linen from the profits of this toil. Nearer at hand, pastures with grazing cows on the one side of the road, and the nigh, weather-stained board fence of the race-course on the other, completed the jumble of primitive rusticity and urban complications characterizing the whole picture.

Dr. Ledsmar’s house, toward which Theron’s impulses had been secretly leading him ever since Celia’s parting remark about the rheumatism, was of that spacious and satisfying order of old-fashioned houses which men of leisure and means built for themselves while the early traditions of a sparse and contented homogeneous population were still strong in the Republic. There was a hospitable look about its wide veranda, its broad, low bulk, and its big, double front door, which did not fit at all with the sketch of a man-hating recluse that the doctor had drawn of himself.

Theron had prepared his mind for the effect of being admitted by a Chinaman, and was taken somewhat aback when the door was opened by the doctor himself. His reception was pleasant enough, almost cordial, but the sense of awkwardness followed him into his host’s inner room and rested heavily upon his opening speech.

“I heard, quite by accident, that you were ill,” he said, laying aside his hat.

“It’s nothing at all,” replied Ledsmar. “Merely a stiff shoulder that I wear from time to time in memory of my father. It ought to be quite gone by nightfall. It was good of you to come, all the same. Sit down if you can find a chair. As usual, we are littered up to our eyes here. That’s it — throw those things on the floor.”

Mr. Ware carefully deposited an armful of pamphlets on the rug at his feet, and sat down. Litter was indeed the word for what he saw about him. Bookcases, chairs, tables, the corners of the floor, were all buried deep under disorderly strata of papers, diagrams, and opened books. One could hardly walk about without treading on them. The dust which danced up into the bar of sunshine streaming in from the window, as the doctor stepped across to another chair, gave Theron new ideas about the value of Chinese servants.

“I must thank you, first of all, doctor,” he began, “for your kindness in coming when I was ill. ‘I was sick, and ye visited me.’”

“You mustn’t think of it that way,” said Ledsmar; “your friend came for me, and of course I went; and gladly too. There was nothing that I could do, or that anybody could do. Very interesting man, that friend of yours. And his wife, too — both quite out of the common. I don’t know when I’ve seen two such really genuine people. I should like to have known more of them. Are they still here?”

“They went yesterday,” Theron replied. His earlier shyness had worn off, and he felt comfortably at his ease. “I don’t know,” he went on, “that the word ‘genuine’ is just what would have occurred to me to describe the Soulsbys. They are very interesting people, as you say — MOST interesting — and there was a time, I dare say, when I should have believed in their sincerity. But of course I saw them and their performance from the inside — like one on the stage of a theatre, you know, instead of in the audience, and — well, I understand things better than I used to.”

The doctor looked over his spectacles at him with a suggestion of inquiry in his glance, and Theron continued: “I had several long talks with her; she told me very frankly the whole story of her life — and and it was decidedly queer, I can assure you! I may say to you — you will understand what I mean — that since my talk with you, and the books you lent me, I see many things differently. Indeed, when I think upon it sometimes my old state of mind seems quite incredible to me. I can use no word for my new state short of illumination.”

Dr. Ledsmar continued to regard his guest with that calm, interrogatory scrutiny of his. He did not seem disposed to take up the great issue of illumination. “I suppose,” he said after a little, “no woman can come in contact with a priest for any length of time WITHOUT telling him the ‘story of her life,’ as you call it. They all do it. The thing amounts to a law.”

The young minister’s veins responded with a pleasurable thrill to the use of the word “priest” in obvious allusion to himself. “Perhaps in fairness I ought to explain,” he said, “that in her case it was only done in the course of a long talk about myself. I might say that it was by way of kindly warning to me. She saw how I had become unsettled in many — many of my former views — and she was nervous lest this should lead me to — to —”

“To throw up the priesthood,” the doctor interposed upon his hesitation. “Yes, I know the tribe. Why, my dear sir, your entire profession would have perished from the memory of mankind, if it hadn’t been for women. It is a very curious subject. Lots of thinkers have dipped into it, but no one has gone resolutely in with a search-light and exploited the whole thing. Our boys, for instance, traverse in their younger years all the stages of the childhood of the race. They have terrifying dreams of awful monsters and giant animals of which they have never so much as heard in their waking hours; they pass through the lust for digging caves, building fires, sleeping out in the woods, hunting with bows and arrows — all remote ancestral impulses; they play games with stones, marbles, and so on at regular stated periods of the year which they instinctively know, just as they were played in the Bronze Age, and heaven only knows how much earlier. But the boy goes through all this, and leaves it behind him — so completely that the grown man feels himself more a stranger among boys of his own place who are thinking and doing precisely the things he thought and did a few years before, than he would among Kurds or Esquimaux. But the woman is totally different. She is infinitely more precocious as a girl. At an age when her slow brother is still stubbing along somewhere in the neolithic period, she has flown way ahead to a kind of mediaeval stage, or dawn of mediaevalism, which is peculiarly her own. Having got there, she stays there; she dies there. The boy passes her, as the tortoise did the hare. He goes on, if he is a philosopher, and lets her remain in the dark ages, where she belongs. If he happens to be a fool, which is customary, he stops and hangs around in her vicinity.”

Theron smiled. “We priests,” he said, and paused again to enjoy the words —“I suppose I oughtn’t to inquire too closely just where we belong in the procession.”

“We are considering the question impersonally,” said the doctor. “First of all, what you regard as religion is especially calculated to attract women. They remain as superstitious today, down in the marrow of their bones, as they were ten thousand years ago. Even the cleverest of them are secretly afraid of omens, and respect auguries. Think of the broadest women you know. One of them will throw salt over her shoulder if she spills it. Another drinks money from her cup by skimming the bubbles in a spoon. Another forecasts her future by the arrangement of tea-grounds. They make the constituency to which an institution based on mysteries, miracles, and the supernatural generally, would naturally appeal. Secondly, there is the personality of the priest.”

“Yes,” assented Ware. There rose up before him, on the instant, the graceful, portly figure and strong, comely face of Father Forbes.

“Women are not a metaphysical people. They do not easily follow abstractions. They want their dogmas and religious sentiments embodied in a man, just as they do their romantic fancies. Of course you Protestants, with your married clergy, see less of the effects of this than celibates do, but even with you there is a great deal in it. Why, the very institution of celibacy itself was forced upon the early Christian Church by the scandal of rich Roman ladies loading bishops and handsome priests with fabulous gifts until the passion for currying favor with women of wealth, and marrying them or wheedling their fortunes from them, debauched the whole priesthood. You should read your Jerome.”

“I will — certainly,” said the listener, resolving to remember the name and refer it to the old bookseller.

“Well, whatever laws one sect or another makes, the woman’s attitude toward the priest survives. She desires to see him surrounded by flower-pots and candles, to have him smelling of musk. She would like to curl his hair, and weave garlands in it. Although she is not learned enough to have ever heard of such things, she intuitively feels in his presence a sort of backwash of the old pagan sensuality and lascivious mysticism which enveloped the priesthood in Greek and Roman days. Ugh! It makes one sick!”

Dr. Ledsmar rose, as he spoke, and dismissed the topic with a dry little laugh. “Come, let me show you round a bit,” he said. “My shoulder is easier walking than sitting.”

“Have you never written a book yourself?” asked Theron, getting to his feet.

“I have a thing on serpent-worship,” the scientist replied —“written years ago.”

“I can’t tell you how I should enjoy reading it,” urged the other.

The doctor laughed again. “You’ll have to learn German, then, I ‘m afraid. It is still in circulation in Germany, I believe, on its merits as a serious book. I haven’t a copy of the edition in English. THAT was all exhausted by collectors who bought it for its supposed obscenity, like Burton’s ‘Arabian Nights.’ Come this way, and I will show you my laboratory.”

They moved out of the room, and through a passage, Ledsmar talking as he led the way. “I took up that subject, when I was at college, by a curious chance. I kept a young monkey in my rooms, which had been born in captivity. I brought home from a beer hall — it was in Germany — some pretzels one night, and tossed one toward the monkey. He jumped toward it, then screamed and ran back shuddering with fright. I couldn’t understand it at first. Then I saw that the curled pretzel, lying there on the floor, was very like a little coiled-up snake. The monkey had never seen a snake, but it was in his blood to be afraid of one. That incident changed my whole life for me. Up to that evening, I had intended to be a lawyer.”

Theron did not feel sure that he had understood the point of the anecdote. He looked now, without much interest, at some dark little tanks containing thick water, a row of small glass cases with adders and other lesser reptiles inside, and a general collection of boxes, jars, and similar receptacles connected with the doctor’s pursuits. Further on was a smaller chamber, with a big empty furnace, and shelves bearing bottles and apparatus like a drugstore.

It was pleasanter in the conservatory — a low, spacious structure with broad pathways between the plants, and an awning over the sunny side of the roof. The plants were mostly orchids, he learned. He had read of them, but never seen any before. No doubt they were curious; but he discovered nothing to justify the great fuss made about them. The heat grew oppressive inside, and he was glad to emerge into the garden. He paused under the grateful shade of a vine-clad trellis, took off his hat, and looked about him with a sigh of relief. Everything seemed old-fashioned and natural and delightfully free from pretence in the big, overgrown field of flowers and shrubs.

Theron recalled with some surprise Celia’s indictment of the doctor as a man with no poetry in his soul. “You must be extremely fond of flowers,” he remarked.

Dr. Ledsmar shrugged his well shoulder. “They have their points,” he said briefly. “These are all dioecious here. Over beyond are monoecious species. My work is to test the probabilities for or against Darwin’s theory that hermaphroditism in plants is a late by-product of these earlier forms.”

“And is his theory right?” asked Mr. Ware, with a polite show of interest.

“We may know in the course of three or four hundred years,” replied Ledsmar. He looked up into his guest’s face with a quizzical half-smile. “That is a very brief period for observation when such a complicated question as sex is involved,” he added. “We have been studying the female of our own species for some hundreds of thousands of years, and we haven’t arrived at the most elementary rules governing her actions.”

They had moved along to a bed of tall plants, the more forward of which were beginning to show bloom. “Here another task will begin next month,” the doctor observed. “These are salvias, pentstemons, and antirrhinums, or snapdragons, planted very thick for the purpose. Humble-bees bore holes through their base, to save the labor of climbing in and out of the flowers, and we don’t quite know yet why some hive-bees discover and utilize these holes at once, while others never do. It may be merely the old-fogy conservatism of the individual, or there may be a law in it.”

These seemed very paltry things for a man of such wisdom to bother his head about. Theron looked, as he was bidden, at the rows of hives shining in the hot sun on a bench along the wall, but offered no comment beyond a casual, “My mother was always going to keep bees, but somehow she never got around to it. They say it pays very well, though.”

“The discovery of the reason why no bee will touch the nectar of the EPIPACTIS LATIFOLIA, though it is sweet to our taste, and wasps are greedy for it, WOULD pay,” commented the doctor. “Not like a blue rhododendron, in mere money, but in recognition. Lots of men have achieved a half-column in the ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ on a smaller basis than that.”

They stood now at the end of the garden, before a small, dilapidated summer-house. On the bench inside, facing him, Theron saw a strange recumbent figure stretched at full length, apparently sound asleep, or it might be dead. Looking closer, with a startled surprise, he made out the shaven skull and outlandish garb of a Chinaman. He turned toward his guide in the expectation of a scene.

The doctor had already taken out a note-book and pencil, and was drawing his watch from his pocket. He stepped into the summer-house, and, lifting the Oriental’s limp arm, took account of his pulse. Then, with head bowed low, side-wise, he listened for the heart-action. Finally, he somewhat brusquely pushed back one of the Chinaman’s eyelids, and made a minute inspection of what the operation disclosed. Returning to the light, he inscribed some notes in his book, put it back in his pocket, and came out. In answer to Theron’s marvelling stare, he pointed toward a pipe of odd construction lying on the floor beneath the sleeper.

“This is one of my regular afternoon duties,” he explained, again with the whimsical half-smile. “I am increasing his dose monthly by regular stages, and the results promise to be rather remarkable. Heretofore, observations have been made mostly on diseased or morbidly deteriorated subjects. This fellow of mine is strong as an ox, perfectly nourished, and watched over intelligently. He can assimilate opium enough to kill you and me and every other vertebrate creature on the premises, without turning a hair, and he hasn’t got even fairly under way yet.”

The thing was unpleasant, and the young minister turned away. They walked together up the path toward the house. His mind was full now of the hostile things which Celia had said about the doctor. He had vaguely sympathized with her then, upon no special knowledge of his own. Now he felt that his sentiments were vehemently in accord with hers. The doctor WAS a beast.

And yet — as they moved slowly along through the garden the thought took sudden shape in his mind — it would be only justice for him to get also the doctor’s opinion of Celia. Even while they offended and repelled him, he could not close his eyes to the fact that the doctor’s experiments and occupations were those of a patient and exact man of science — a philosopher. And what he had said about women — there was certainly a great deal of acumen and shrewd observation in that. If he would only say what he really thought about Celia, and about her relations with the priest! Yes, Theron recognized now there was nothing else that he so much needed light upon as those puzzling ties between Celia and Father Forbes.

He paused, with a simulated curiosity, about one of the flower-beds. “Speaking of women and religion”— he began, in as casual a tone as he could command —“I notice curiously enough in my own case, that as I develop in what you may call the — the other direction, my wife, who formerly was not especially devote, is being strongly attracted by the most unthinking and hysterical side of — of our church system.”

The doctor looked at him, nodded, and stooped to nip some buds from a stalk in the bed.

“And another case,” Theron went on —“of course it was all so new and strange to me — but the position which Miss Madden seems to occupy about the Catholic Church here — I suppose you had her in mind when you spoke.”

Ledsmar stood up. “My mind has better things to busy itself with than mad asses of that description,” he replied. “She is not worth talking about — a mere bundle of egotism, ignorance, and red-headed lewdness. If she were even a type, she might be worth considering; but she is simply an abnormal sport, with a little brain addled by notions that she is like Hypatia, and a large impudence rendered intolerable by the fact that she has money. Her father is a decent man. He ought to have her whipped.”

Mr. Ware drew himself erect, as he listened to these outrageous words. It would be unmanly, he felt, to allow such comments upon an absent friend to pass unrebuked. Yet there was the courtesy due to a host to be considered. His mind, fluttering between these two extremes, alighted abruptly upon a compromise. He would speak so as to show his disapproval, yet not so as to prevent his finding out what he wanted to know. The desire to hear Ledsmar talk about Celia and the priest seemed now to have possessed him for a long time, to have dictated his unpremeditated visit out here, to have been growing in intensity all the while he pretended to be interested in orchids and bees and the drugged Chinaman. It tugged passionately at his self-control as he spoke.

“I cannot in the least assent to your characterization of the lady,” he began with rhetorical dignity.

“Bless me!” interposed the doctor, with deceptive cheerfulness, “that is not required of you at all. It is a strictly personal opinion, offered merely as a contribution to the general sum of hypotheses.”

“But,” Theron went on, feeling his way, “of course, I gathered that evening that you had prejudices in the matter; but these are rather apart from the point I had in view. We were speaking, you will remember, of the traditional attitude of women toward priests — wanting to curl their hair and put flowers in it, you know, and that suggested to me some individual illustrations, and it occurred to me to wonder just what were the relations between Miss Madden and — and Father Forbes. She said this morning, for instance — I happened to meet her, quite by accident — that she was going to the church to practise a new piece, and that she could have Father Forbes to herself all day. Now that would be quite an impossible remark in our — that is, in any Protestant circles — and purely as a matter of comparison, I was curious to ask you just how much there was in it. I ask you, because going there so much you have had exceptional opportunities for —”

A sharp exclamation from his companion interrupted the clergyman’s hesitating monologue. It began like a high-pitched, violent word, but dwindled suddenly into a groan of pain. The doctor’s face, too, which had on the flash of Theron’s turning seemed given over to unmixed anger, took on an expression of bodily suffering instead.

“My shoulder has grown all at once excessively painful,” he said hastily. “I’m afraid I must ask you to excuse me, Mr. Ware.”

Carrying the afflicted side with ostentatious caution, he led the way without ado round the house to the front gate on the road. He had put his left hand under his coat to press it against his aching shoulder, and his right hung palpably helpless. This rendered it impossible for him to shake hands with his guest in parting.

“You’re sure there’s nothing I can do,” said Theron, lingering on the outer side of the gate. “I used to rub my father’s shoulders and back; I’d gladly —”

“Oh, not for worlds!” groaned the doctor. His anguish was so impressive that Theron, as he walked down the road, quite missed the fact that there had been no invitation to come again.

Dr. Ledsmar stood for a minute or two, his gaze meditatively following the retreating figure. Then he went in, opening the front door with his right hand, and carrying himself once more as if there were no such thing as rheumatism in the world. He wandered on through the hall into the laboratory, and stopped in front of the row of little tanks full of water.

Some deliberation was involved in whatever his purpose might be, for he looked from one tank to another with a pondering, dilatory gaze. At last he plunged his hand into the opaque fluid and drew forth a long, slim, yellowish-green lizard, with a coiling, sinuous tail and a pointed, evil head. The reptile squirmed and doubled itself backward around his wrist, darting out and in with dizzy swiftness its tiny forked tongue.

The doctor held the thing up to the light, and, scrutinizing it through his spectacles, nodded his head in sedate approval. A grim smile curled in his beard.

“Yes, you are the type,” he murmured to it, with evident enjoyment in the conceit. “Your name isn’t Johnny any more. It’s the Rev. Theron Ware.”

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