The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxii

The annual camp-meeting of the combined Methodist districts of Octavius and Thessaly was held this year in the second half of September, a little later than usual. Of the nine days devoted to this curious survival of primitive Wesleyanism, the fifth fell upon a Saturday. On the noon of that day the Rev. Theron Ware escaped for some hours from the burden of work and incessant observation which he shared with twenty other preachers, and walked alone in the woods.

The scene upon which he turned his back was one worth looking at. A spacious, irregularly defined clearing in the forest lay level as a tennis-court, under the soft haze of autumn sunlight. In the centre was a large, roughly constructed frame building, untouched by paint, but stained and weather-beaten with time. Behind it were some lines of horse-sheds, and still further on in that direction, where the trees began, the eye caught fragmentary glimpses of low roofs and the fronts of tiny cottages, withdrawn from full view among the saplings and underbrush. At the other side of the clearing, fully fourscore tents were pitched, some gray and mended, others dazzlingly white in their newness. The more remote of these tents fell into an orderly arrangement of semi-circular form, facing that part of the engirdling woods where the trees were largest, and their canopy of overhanging foliage was lifted highest from the ground. Inside this half-ring of tents were many rounded rows of benches, which followed in narrowing lines the idea of an amphitheatre cut in two. In the centre, just under the edge of the roof of boughs, rose a wooden pagoda, in form not unlike an open-air stand for musicians. In front of this, and leading from it on the level of its floor, there projected a platform, railed round with aggressively rustic woodwork. The nearest benches came close about this platform.

At the hour when Theron started away, there were few enough signs of life about this encampment. The four or five hundred people who were in constant residence were eating their dinners in the big boarding-house, or the cottages or the tents. It was not the time of day for strangers. Even when services were in progress by daylight, the regular attendants did not make much of a show, huddled in a gray-black mass at the front of the auditorium, by comparison with the great green and blue expanses of nature about them.

The real spectacle was in the evening when, as the shadows gathered, big clusters of kerosene torches, hung on the trees facing the audience were lighted. The falling darkness magnified the glow of the lights, and the size and importance of what they illumined. The preacher, bending forward over the rails of the platform, and fastening his eyes upon the abashed faces of those on the “anxious seat” beneath him, borrowed an effect of druidical mystery from the wall of blackness about him, from the flickering reflections on the branches far above, from the cool night air which stirred across the clearing. The change was in the blood of those who saw and heard him, too. The decorum and half-heartedness of their devotions by day deepened under the glare of the torches into a fervent enthusiasm, even before the services began. And if there was in the rustic pulpit a man whose prayers or exhortations could stir their pulses, they sang and groaned and bellowed out their praises with an almost barbarous license, such as befitted the wilderness.

But in the evening not all were worshippers. For a dozen miles round on the country-side, young farm-workers and their girls regarded the camp-meeting as perhaps the chief event of the year — no more to be missed than the country fair or the circus, and offering, from many points of view, more opportunities for genuine enjoyment than either. Their behavior when they came was pretty bad — not the less so because all the rules established by the Presiding Elders for the regulation of strangers took it for granted that they would act as viciously as they knew how. These sight-seers sometimes ventured to occupy the back benches where the light was dim. More often they stood outside, in the circular space between the tents and the benches, and mingled cat-calls, drovers’ yelps, and all sorts of mocking cries and noises with the “Amens” of the earnest congregation. Their rough horse-play on the fringe of the sanctified gathering was grievous enough; everybody knew that much worse things went on further out in the surrounding darkness. Indeed, popular report gave to these external phases of the camp-meeting an even more evil fame than attached to the later moonlight husking-bees, or the least reputable of the midwinter dances at Dave Randall’s low halfway house.

Cynics said that the Methodists found consolation for this scandal in the large income they derived from their unruly visitors’ gate-money. This was unfair. No doubt the money played its part, but there was something else far more important. The pious dwellers in the camp, intent upon reviving in their poor modern way the character and environment of the heroic early days, felt the need of just this hostile and scoffing mob about them to bring out the spirit they sought. Theirs was preeminently a fighting religion, which languished in peaceful fair weather, but flamed high in the storm. The throng of loafers and light-minded worldlings of both sexes, with their jeering interruptions and lewd levity of conduct, brought upon the scene a kind of visible personal devil, with whom the chosen could do battle face to face. The daylight services became more and more perfunctory, as the sojourn in the woods ran its course, and interest concentrated itself upon the night meetings, for the reason that THEN came the fierce wrestle with a Beelzebub of flesh and blood. And it was not so one-sided a contest, either!

No evening passed without its victories for the pulpit. Careless or mischievous young people who were pushed into the foremost ranks of the mockers, and stood grinning and grimacing under the lights, would of a sudden feel a spell clamped upon them. They would hear a strange, quavering note in the preacher’s voice, catch the sense of a piercing, soul-commanding gleam in his eye — not at all to be resisted. These occult forces would take control of them, drag them forward as in a dream to the benches under the pulpit, and abase them there like worms in the dust. And then the preacher would descend, and the elders advance, and the torch-fires would sway and dip before the wind of the mighty roar that went up in triumph from the brethren.

These combats with Satan at close quarters, if they made the week-day evenings exciting, reacted with an effect of crushing dulness upon the Sunday services. The rule was to admit no strangers to the grounds from Saturday night to Monday morning. Every year attempts were made to rescind or modify this rule, and this season at least three-fourths of the laymen in attendance had signed a petition in favor of opening the gates. The two Presiding Elders, supported by a dozen of the older preachers, resisted the change, and they had the backing of the more bigoted section of the congregation from Octavius. The controversy reached a point where Theron’s Presiding Elder threatened to quit the grounds, and the leaders of the open-Sunday movement spoke freely of the ridiculous figure which its cranks and fanatics made poor Methodism cut in the eyes of modern go-ahead American civilization. Then Theron Ware saw his opportunity, and preached an impromptu sermon upon the sanctity of the Sabbath, which ended all discussion. Sometimes its arguments seemed to be on one side, sometimes on the other, but always they were clothed with so serene a beauty of imagery, and moved in such a lofty and rarefied atmosphere of spiritual exaltation, that it was impossible to link them to so sordid a thing as this question of gate-money. When he had finished, nobody wanted the gates opened. The two factions found that the difference between them had melted out of existence. They sat entranced by the charm of the sermon; then, glancing around at the empty benches, glaringly numerous in the afternoon sunlight, they whispered regrets that ten thousand people had not been there to hear that marvellous discourse. Theron’s conquest was of exceptional dimensions. The majority, whose project he had defeated, were strangers who appreciated and admired his effort most. The little minority of his own flock, though less susceptible to the influence of graceful diction and delicately balanced rhetoric, were proud of the distinction he had reflected upon them, and delighted with him for having won their fight. The Presiding Elders wrung his hand with a significant grip. The extremists of his own charge beamed friendship upon him for the first time. He was the veritable hero of the week.

The prestige of this achievement made it the easier for Theron to get away by himself next day, and walk in the woods. A man of such power had a right to solitude. Those who noted his departure from the camp remembered with pleasure that he was to preach again on the morrow. He was going to commune with God in the depths of the forest, that the Message next day might be clearer and more luminous still.

Theron strolled for a little, with an air of aimlessness, until he was well outside the more or less frequented neighborhood of the camp. Then he looked at the sun and the lay of the land with that informing scrutiny of which the farm-bred boy never loses the trick, turned, and strode at a rattling pace down the hillside. He knew nothing personally of this piece of woodland — a spur of the great Adirondack wilderness thrust southward into the region of homesteads and dairies and hop-fields — but he had prepared himself by a study of the map, and he knew where he wanted to go. Very Soon he hit upon the path he had counted upon finding, and at this he quickened his gait.

Three months of the new life had wrought changes in Theron. He bore himself more erectly, for one thing; his shoulders were thrown back, and seemed thicker. The alteration was even more obvious in his face. The effect of lank, wistful, sallow juvenility had vanished. It was the countenance of a mature, well-fed, and confident man, firmer and more rounded in its outlines, and with a glow of health on its whole surface. Under the chin were the suggestions of fulness which bespeak an easy mind. His clothes were new; the frock-coat fitted him, and the thin, dark-colored autumn overcoat, with its silk lining exposed at the breast, gave a masculine bulk and shape to his figure. He wore a shining tall hat, and, in haste though he was, took pains not to knock it against low-hanging branches.

All had gone well — more than well — with him. The second Quarterly Conference had passed without a ripple. Both the attendance and the collections at his church were larger than ever before, and the tone of the congregation toward him was altered distinctly for the better. As for himself, he viewed with astonished delight the progress he had made in his own estimation. He had taken Sister Soulsby’s advice, and the results were already wonderful. He had put aside, once and for all, the thousand foolish trifles and childish perplexities which formerly had racked his brain, and worried him out of sleep and strength. He borrowed all sorts of books boldly now from the Octavius public library, and could swim with a calm mastery and enjoyment upon the deep waters into which Draper and Lecky and Laing and the rest had hurled him. He dallied pleasurably, a little languorously, with a dozen aspects of the case against revealed religion, ranging from the mild heterodoxy of Andover’s qualms to the rude Ingersoll’s rollicking negation of God himself, as a woman of coquetry might play with as many would-be lovers. They amused him; they were all before him to choose; and he was free to postpone indefinitely the act of selection. There was a sense of the luxurious in this position which softened bodily as well as mental fibres. He ceased to grow indignant at things below or outside his standards, and he bought a small book which treated of the care of the hand and finger nails.

Alice had accepted with deference his explanation that shapely hands played so important a part in pulpit oratory. For that matter, she now accepted whatever he said or did with admirable docility. It was months since he could remember her venturing upon a critical attitude toward him.

She had not wished to leave home, for the seaside or any other resort, during the summer, but had worked outside in her garden more than usual. This was inexpensive, and it seemed to do her as much good as a holiday could have done. Her new devotional zeal was now quite an odd thing; it had not slackened at all from the revival pitch. At the outset she had tried several times to talk with her husband upon this subject. He had discouraged conversation about her soul and its welfare, at first obliquely, then, under compulsion, with some directness. His thoughts were absorbed, he said, by the contemplation of vast, abstract schemes of creation and the government of the universe, and it only diverted and embarrassed his mind to try to fasten it upon the details of personal salvation. Thereafter the topic was not broached between them.

She bestowed a good deal of attention, too, upon her piano. The knack of a girlish nimbleness of touch had returned to her after a few weeks, and she made music which Theron supposed was very good — for her. It pleased him, at all events, when he sat and listened to it; but he had a far greater pleasure, as he listened, in dwelling upon the memories of the yellow and blue room which the sounds always brought up. Although three months had passed, Thurston’s had never asked for the first payment on the piano, or even sent in a bill. This impressed him as being peculiarly graceful behavior on his part, and he recognized its delicacy by not going near Thurston’s at all.

An hour’s sharp walk, occasionally broken by short cuts across open pastures, but for the most part on forest paths, brought Theron to the brow of a small knoll, free from underbrush, and covered sparsely with beech-trees. The ground was soft with moss and the powdered remains of last year’s foliage; the leaves above him were showing the first yellow stains of autumn. A sweet smell of ripening nuts was thick upon the air, and busy rustlings and chirpings through the stillness told how the chipmunks and squirrels were attending to their harvest.

Theron had no ears for these noises of the woodland. He had halted, and was searching through the little vistas offered between the stout gray trunks of the beeches for some sign of a more sophisticated sort. Yes! there were certainly voices to be heard, down in the hollow. And now, beyond all possibility of mistake, there came up to him the low, rhythmic throb of music. It was the merest faint murmur of music, made up almost wholly of groaning bass notes, but it was enough. He moved down the slope, swiftly at first, then with increasing caution. The sounds grew louder as he advanced, until he could hear the harmony of the other strings in its place beside the uproar of the big fiddles, and distinguish from both the measured noise of many feet moving as one.

He reached a place from which, himself unobserved, he could overlook much of what he had come to see.

The bottom of the glade below him lay out in the full sunshine, as flat and as velvety in its fresh greenness as a garden lawn. Its open expanse was big enough to accommodate several distinct crowds, and here the crowds were — one massed about an enclosure in which young men were playing at football, another gathered further off in a horse-shoe curve at the end of a baseball diamond, and a third thronging at a point where the shade of overhanging woods began, focussed upon a centre of interest which Theron could not make out. Closer at hand, where a shallow stream rippled along over its black-slate bed, some little boys, with legs bared to the thighs, were paddling about, under the charge of two men clad in long black gowns. There were others of these frocked monitors scattered here and there upon the scene — pallid, close-shaven, monkish figures, who none the less wore modern hats, and superintended with knowledge the games of the period. Theron remembered that these were the Christian Brothers, the semi-monastic teachers of the Catholic school.

And this was the picnic of the Catholics of Octavius. He gazed in mingled amazement and exhilaration upon the spectacle. There seemed to be literally thousands of people on the open fields before him, and apparently there were still other thousands in the fringes of the woods round about. The noises which arose from this multitude — the shouts of the lads in the water, the playful squeals of the girls in the swings, the fused uproar of the more distant crowds, and above all the diligent, ordered strains of the dance-music proceeding from some invisible distance in the greenwood — charmed his ears with their suggestion of universal merriment. He drew a long breath — half pleasure, half wistful regret — as he remembered that other gathering in the forest which he had left behind.

At any rate, it should be well behind him today, whatever the morrow might bring! Evidently he was on the wrong side of the circle for the headquarters of the festivities. He turned and walked to the right through the beeches, making a detour, under cover, of the crowds at play. At last he rounded the long oval of the clearing, and found himself at the very edge of that largest throng of all, which had been too far away for comprehension at the beginning. There was no mystery now. A rough, narrow shed, fully fifty feet in length, imposed itself in an arbitrary line across the face of this crowd, dividing it into two compact halves. Inside this shed, protected all round by a waist-high barrier of boards, on top of which ran a flat, table-like covering, were twenty men in their shirt-sleeves, toiling ceaselessly to keep abreast of the crowd’s thirst for beer. The actions of these bartenders greatly impressed Theron. They moved like so many machines, using one hand, apparently, to take money and give change, and with the other incessantly sweeping off rows of empty glasses, and tossing forward in their place fresh, foaming glasses five at a time. Hundreds of arms and hands were continually stretched out, on both sides of the shed, toward this streaming bar, and through the babel of eager cries rose without pause the racket of mallets tapping new kegs.

Theron had never seen any considerable number of his fellow-citizens engaged in drinking lager beer before. His surprise at the facility of those behind the bar began to yield, upon observation, to a profound amazement at the thirst of those before it. The same people seemed to be always in front, emptying the glasses faster than the busy men inside could replenish them, and clamoring tirelessly for more. Newcomers had to force their way to the bar by violent efforts, and once there they stayed until pushed bodily aside. There were actually women to be seen here and there in the throng, elbowing and shoving like the rest for a place at the front. Some of the more gallant young men fought their way outward, from time to time, carrying for safety above their heads glasses of beer which they gave to young and pretty girls standing on the fringe of the crowd, among the trees.

Everywhere a remarkable good-humor prevailed. Once a sharp fight broke out, just at the end of the bar nearest Theron, and one young man was knocked down. A rush of the onlookers confused everything before the minister’s eyes for a minute, and then he saw the aggrieved combatant up on his legs again, consenting under the kindly pressure of the crowd to shake hands with his antagonist, and join him in more beer. The incident caught his fancy. There was something very pleasingly human, he thought, in this primitive readiness to resort to fisticuffs, and this frank and genial reconciliation.

Perhaps there was something contagious in this wholesale display of thirst, for the Rev. Mr. Ware became conscious of a notion that he should like to try a glass of beer. He recalled having heard that lager was really a most harmless beverage. Of course it was out of the question that he should show himself at the bar. Perhaps some one would bring him out a glass, as if he were a pretty girl. He looked about for a possible messenger. Turning, he found himself face to face with two smiling people, into whose eyes he stared for an instant in dumfounded blankness. Then his countenance flashed with joy, and he held out both hands in greeting. It was Father Forbes and Celia.

“We stole down upon you unawares,” said the priest, in his cheeriest manner. He wore a brown straw hat, and loose clothes hardly at all clerical in form, and had Miss Madden’s arm drawn lightly within his own. “We could barely believe our eyes — that it could be you whom we saw, here among the sinners!”

“I am in love with your sinners,” responded Theron, as he shook hands with Celia, and trusted himself to look fully into her eyes. “I’ve had five days of the saints, over in another part of the woods, and they’ve bored the head off me.”

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