The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxiii

At the command of Father Forbes, a lad who was loitering near them went down through the throng to the bar, and returned with three glasses of beer. It pleased the Rev. Mr. Ware that the priest should have taken it for granted that he would do as the others did. He knocked his glass against theirs in compliance with a custom strange to him, but which they seemed to understand very well. The beer itself was not so agreeable to the taste as he had expected, but it was cold and refreshing.

When the boy had returned with the glasses, the three stood for a moment in silence, meditatively watching the curious scene spread below them. Beyond the bar, Theron could catch now through the trees regularly recurring glimpses of four or five swings in motion. These were nearest him, and clearest to the vision as well, at the instant when they reached their highest forward point. The seats were filled with girls, some of them quite grown young women, and their curving upward sweep through the air was disclosing at its climax a remarkable profusion of white skirts and black stockings. The sight struck him as indecorous in the extreme, and he turned his eyes away. They met Celia’s; and there was something latent in their brown depths which prompted him, after a brief dalliance of interchanging glances, to look again at the swings.

“That old maid Curran is really too ridiculous, with those white stockings of hers,” remarked Celia; “some friend ought to tell her to dye them.”

“Or pad them,” suggested Father Forbes, with a gay little chuckle. “I daresay the question of swings and ladies’ stockings hardly arises with you, over at the camp-meeting, Mr. Ware?”

Theron laughed aloud at the conceit. “I should say not!” he replied.

“I’m just dying to see a camp-meeting!” said Celia. “You hear such racy accounts of what goes on at them.”

“Don’t go, I beg of you!” urged Theron, with doleful emphasis. “Don’t let’s even talk about them. I should like to feel this afternoon as if there was no such thing within a thousand miles of me as a camp-meeting. Do you know, all this interests me enormously. It is a revelation to me to see these thousands of good, decent, ordinary people, just frankly enjoying themselves like human beings. I suppose that in this whole huge crowd there isn’t a single person who will mention the subject of his soul to any other person all day long.”

“I should think the assumption was a safe one,” said the priest, smilingly, “unless,” he added on afterthought, “it be by way of a genial profanity. There used to be some old Clare men who said ‘Hell to my soul!’ when they missed at quoits, but I haven’t heard it for a long time. I daresay they’re all dead.”

“I shall never forget that death-bed — where I saw you first,” remarked Theron, musingly. “I date from that experience a whole new life. I have been greatly struck lately, in reading our ‘Northern Christian Advocate’ to see in the obituary notices of prominent Methodists how over and over again it is recorded that they got religion in their youth through being frightened by some illness of their own, or some epidemic about them. The cholera year of 1832 seems to have made Methodists hand over fist. Even to this day our most successful revivalists, those who work conversions wholesale wherever they go, do it more by frightful pictures of hell-fire surrounding the sinner’s death-bed than anything else. You could hear the same thing at our camp-meeting tonight, if you were there.”

“There isn’t so much difference as you think,” said Father Forbes, dispassionately. “Your people keep examining their souls, just as children keep pulling up the bulbs they have planted to see are there any roots yet. Our people are more satisfied to leave their souls alone, once they have been planted, so to speak, by baptism. But fear of hell governs them both, pretty much alike. As I remember saying to you once before, there is really nothing new under the sun. Even the saying isn’t new. Though there seem to have been the most tremendous changes in races and civilizations and religions, stretching over many thousands of years, yet nothing is in fact altered very much. Where religions are concerned, the human race are still very like savages in a dangerous wood in the dark, telling one another ghost stories around a camp-fire. They have always been like that.”

“What nonsense!” cried Celia. “I have no patience with such gloomy rubbish. The Greeks had a religion full of beauty and happiness and light-heartedness, and they weren’t frightened of death at all. They made the image of death a beautiful boy, with a torch turned down. Their greatest philosophers openly preached and practised the doctrine of suicide when one was tired of life. Our own early Church was full of these broad and beautiful Greek ideas. You know that yourself! And it was only when your miserable Jeromes and Augustines and Cyrils brought in the abominable meannesses and cruelties of the Jewish Old Testament, and stamped out the sane and lovely Greek elements in the Church, that Christians became the poor, whining, cowardly egotists they are, troubling about their little tin-pot souls, and scaring themselves in their churches by skulls and crossbones.”

“My dear Celia,” interposed the priest, patting her shoulder gently, “we will have no Greek debate today. Mr. Ware has been permitted to taboo camp-meetings, and I claim the privilege to cry off on Greeks. Look at those fellows down there, trampling over one another to get more beer. What have they to do with Athens, or Athens with them? I take it, Mr. Ware,” he went on, with a grave face but a twinkling eye, “that what we are observing here in front of us is symbolical of a great ethical and theological revolution, which in time will modify and control the destiny of the entire American people. You see those young Irishmen there, struggling like pigs at a trough to get their fill of German beer. That signifies a conquest of Teuton over Kelt more important and far-reaching in its results than the landing of Hengist and Horsa. The Kelt has come to grief heretofore — or at least been forced to play second fiddle to other races — because he lacked the right sort of a drink. He has in his blood an excess of impulsive, imaginative, even fantastic qualities. It is much easier for him to make a fool of himself, to begin with, than it is for people of slower wits and more sluggish temperaments. When you add whiskey to that, or that essence of melancholia which in Ireland they call ‘porther,’ you get the Kelt at his very weakest and worst. These young men down there are changing all that. They have discovered lager. Already many of them can outdrink the Germans at their own beverage. The lager-drinking Irishman in a few generations will be a new type of humanity — the Kelt at his best. He will dominate America. He will be THE American. And his church — with the Italian element thrown clean out of it, and its Pope living, say, in Baltimore or Georgetown — will be the Church of America.”

“Let us have some more lager at once,” put in Celia. “This revolution can’t be hurried forward too rapidly.”

Theron could not feel sure how much of the priest’s discourse was in jest, how much in earnest. “It seems to me,” he said, “that as things are going, it doesn’t look much as if the America of the future will trouble itself about any kind of a church. The march of science must very soon produce a universal scepticism. It is in the nature of human progress. What all intelligent men recognize today, the masses must surely come to see in time.”

Father Forbes laughed outright this time. “My dear Mr. Ware,” he said, as they touched glasses again, and sipped the fresh beer that had been brought them, “of all our fictions there is none so utterly baseless and empty as this idea that humanity progresses. The savage’s natural impression is that the world he sees about him was made for him, and that the rest of the universe is subordinated to him and his world, and that all the spirits and demons and gods occupy themselves exclusively with him and his affairs. That idea was the basis of every pagan religion, and it is the basis of the Christian religion, simply because it is the foundation of human nature. That foundation is just as firm and unshaken today as it was in the Stone Age. It will always remain, and upon it will always be built some kind of a religious superstructure. ‘Intelligent men,’ as you call them, really have very little influence, even when they all pull one way. The people as a whole soon get tired of them. They give too much trouble. The most powerful forces in human nature are self-protection and inertia. The middle-aged man has found out that the chief wisdom in life is to bend to the pressures about him, to shut up and do as others do. Even when he thinks he has rid his own mind of superstitions, he sees that he will best enjoy a peaceful life by leaving other peoples’ superstitions alone. That is always the ultimate view of the crowd.”

“But I don’t see,” observed Theron, “granting that all this is true, how you think the Catholic Church will come out on top. I could understand it of Unitarianism, or Universalism, or the Episcopal Church, where nobody seems to have to believe particularly in anything except the beauty of its burial service, but I should think the very rigidity of the Catholic creed would make it impossible. There everything is hard and fast; nothing is elastic; there is no room for compromise.”

“The Church is always compromising,” explained the priest, “only it does it so slowly that no one man lives long enough to quite catch it at the trick. No; the great secret of the Catholic Church is that it doesn’t debate with sceptics. No matter what points you make against it, it is never betrayed into answering back. It simply says these things are sacred mysteries, which you are quite free to accept and be saved, or reject and be damned. There is something intelligible and fine about an attitude like that. When people have grown tired of their absurd and fruitless wrangling over texts and creeds which, humanly speaking, are all barbaric nonsense, they will come back to repose pleasantly under the Catholic roof, in that restful house where things are taken for granted. There the manners are charming, the service excellent, the decoration and upholstery most acceptable to the eye, and the music”— he made a little mock bow here to Celia —“the music at least is divine. There you have nothing to do but be agreeable, and avoid scandal, and observe the convenances. You are no more expected to express doubts about the Immaculate Conception than you are to ask the lady whom you take down to dinner how old she is. Now that is, as I have said, an intelligent and rational church for people to have. As the Irish civilize themselves — you observe them diligently engaged in the process down below there — and the social roughness of their church becomes softened and ameliorated, Americans will inevitably be attracted toward it. In the end, it will embrace them all, and be modified by them, and in turn influence their development, till you will have a new nation and a new national church, each representative of the other.”

“And all this is to be done by lager beer!” Theron ventured to comment, jokingly. He was conscious of a novel perspiration around the bridge of his nose, which was obviously another effect of the drink.

The priest passed the pleasantry by. “No,” he said seriously; “what you must see is that there must always be a church. If one did not exist, it would be necessary to invent it. It is needed, first and foremost, as a police force. It is needed, secondly, so to speak, as a fire insurance. It provides the most even temperature and pure atmosphere for the growth of young children. It furnishes the best obtainable social machinery for marrying off one’s daughters, getting to know the right people, patching up quarrels, and so on. The priesthood earn their salaries as the agents for these valuable social arrangements. Their theology is thrown in as a sort of intellectual diversion, like the ritual of a benevolent organization. There are some who get excited about this part of it, just as one hears of Free–Masons who believe that the sun rises and sets to exemplify their ceremonies. Others take their duties more quietly, and, understanding just what it all amounts to, make the best of it, like you and me.”

Theron assented to the philosophy and the compliment by a grave bow. “Yes, that is the idea — to make the best of it,” he said, and fastened his regard boldly this time upon the swings.

“We were both ordained by our bishops,” continued the priest, “at an age when those worthy old gentlemen would not have trusted our combined wisdom to buy a horse for them.”

“And I was married,” broke in Theron, with an eagerness almost vehement, “when I had only just been ordained! At the worst, YOU had only the Church fastened upon your back, before you were old enough to know what you wanted. It is easy enough to make the best of THAT, but it is different with me.”

A marked silence followed this outburst. The Rev. Mr. Ware had never spoken of his marriage to either of these friends before; and something in their manner seemed to suggest that they did not find the subject inviting, now that it had been broached. He himself was filled with a desire to say more about it. He had never clearly realized before what a genuine grievance it was. The moisture at the top of his nose merged itself into tears in the corners of his eyes, as the cruel enormity of the sacrifice he had made in his youth rose before him. His whole life had been fettered and darkened by it. He turned his gaze from the swings toward Celia, to claim the sympathy he knew she would feel for him.

But Celia was otherwise engaged. A young man had come up to her — a tall and extremely thin young man, soberly dressed, and with a long, gaunt, hollow-eyed face, the skin of which seemed at once florid and pale. He had sandy hair and the rough hands of a workman; but he was speaking to Miss Madden in the confidential tones of an equal.

“I can do nothing at all with him,” this newcomer said to her. “He’ll not be said by me. Perhaps he’d listen to you!”

“It’s likely I’ll go down there!” said Celia. “He may do what he likes for all me! Take my advice, Michael, and just go your way, and leave him to himself. There was a time when I would have taken out my eyes for him, but it was love wasted and thrown away. After the warnings he’s had, if he WILL bring trouble on himself, let’s make it no affair of ours.”

Theron had found himself exchanging glances of inquiry with this young man. “Mr. Ware,” said Celia, here, “let me introduce you to my brother Michael — my full brother.”

Mr. Ware remembered him now, and began, in response to the other’s formal bow, to say something about their having met in the dark, inside the church. But Celia held up her hand. “I’m afraid, Mr. Ware,” she said hurriedly, “that you are in for a glimpse of the family skeleton. I will apologize for the infliction in advance.”

Wonderingly, Theron followed her look, and saw another young man who had come up the path from the crowd below, and was close upon them. The minister recognized in him a figure which had seemed to be the centre of almost every group about the bar that he had studied in detail. He was a small, dapper, elegantly attired youth, with dark hair, and the handsome, regularly carved face of an actor. He advanced with a smiling countenance and unsteady step — his silk hat thrust back upon his head, his frock-coat and vest unbuttoned, and his neckwear disarranged — and saluted the company with amiability.

“I saw you up here, Father Forbes,” he said, with a thickened and erratic utterance. “Whyn’t you come down and join us? I’m setting ’em up for everybody. You got to take care of the boys, you know. I’ll blow in the last cent I’ve got in the world for the boys, every time, and they know it. They’re solider for me than they ever were for anybody. That’s how it is. If you stand by the boys, the boys’ll stand by you. I’m going to the Assembly for this district, and they ain’t nobody can stop me. The boys are just red hot for me. Wish you’d come down, Father Forbes, and address a few words to the meeting — just mention that I’m a candidate, and say I’m bound to win, hands down. That’ll make you solid with the boys, and we’ll be all good fellows together. Come on down!”

The priest affably disengaged his arm from the clutch which the speaker had laid upon it, and shook his head in gentle deprecation. “No, no; you must excuse me, Theodore,” he said. “We mustn’t meddle in politics, you know.”

“Politics be damned!” urged Theodore, grabbing the priest’s other arm, and tugging at it stoutly to pull him down the path. “I say, boys” he shouted to those below, “here’s Father Forbes, and he’s going to come down and address the meeting. Come on, Father! Come down, and have a drink with the boys!”

It was Celia who sharply pulled his hand away from the priest’s arm this time. “Go away with you!” she snapped in low, angry tones at the intruder. “You should be ashamed of yourself! If you can’t keep sober yourself, you can at least keep your hands off the priest. I should think you’d have more decency, when you’re in such a state as this, than to come where I am. If you’ve no respect for yourself, you might have that much respect for me! And before strangers, too!

“Oh, I mustn’t come where YOU are, eh?” remarked the peccant Theodore, straightening himself with an elaborate effort. “You’ve bought these woods, have you? I’ve got a hundred friends here, all the same, for every one you’ll ever have in your life, Red-head, and don’t you forget it.”

“Go and spend your money with them, then, and don’t come insulting decent people,” said Celia.

“Before strangers, too!” the young man called out, with beery sarcasm. “Oh, we’ll take care of the strangers all right.” He had not seemed to be aware of Theron’s presence, much less his identity, before; but he turned to him now with a knowing grin. “I’m running for the Assembly, Mr. Ware,” he said, speaking loudly and with deliberate effort to avoid the drunken elisions and comminglings to which his speech tended, “and I want you to fix up the Methodists solid for me. I’m going to drive over to the camp-meeting tonight, me and some of the boys in a barouche, and I’ll put a twenty-dollar bill on their plate. Here it is now, if you want to see it.”

As the young man began fumbling in a vest-pocket, Theron gathered his wits together.

“You’d better not go this evening,” he said, as convincingly as he knew how; “because the gates will be closed very early, and the Saturday-evening services are of a particularly special nature, quite reserved for those living on the grounds.”

“Rats!” said Theodore, raising his head, and abandoning the search for the bill. “Why don’t you speak out like a man, and say you think I’m too drunk?”

“I don’t think that is a question which need arise between us, Mr. Madden,” murmured Theron, confusedly.

“Oh, don’t you make any mistake! A hell of a lot of questions arise between us, Mr. Ware,” cried Theodore, with a sudden accession of vigor in tone and mien. “And one of ’em is — go away from me, Michael! — one of ’em is, I say, why don’t you leave our girls alone? They’ve got their own priests to make fools of themselves over, without any sneak of a Protestant parson coming meddling round them. You’re a married man into the bargain; and you’ve got in your house this minute a piano that my sister bought and paid for. Oh, I’ve seen the entry in Thurston’s books! You have the cheek to talk to me about being drunk — why —”

These remarks were never concluded, for Father Forbes here clapped a hand abruptly over the offending mouth, and flung his free arm in a tight grip around the young man’s waist. “Come with me, Michael!” he said, and the two men led the reluctant and resisting Theodore at a sharp pace off into the woods.

Theron and Celia stood and watched them disappear among the undergrowth. “It’s the dirty Foley blood that’s in him,” he heard her say, as if between clenched teeth.

The girl’s big brown eyes, when Theron looked into them again, were still fixed upon the screen of foliage, and dilated like those of a Medusa mask. The blood had gone away, and left the fair face and neck as white, it seemed to him, as marble. Even her lips, fiercely bitten together, appeared colorless. The picture of consuming and powerless rage which she presented, and the shuddering tremor which ran over her form, as visible as the quivering track of a gust of wind across a pond, awed and frightened him.

Tenderness toward her helpless state came too, and uppermost. He drew her arm into his, and turned their backs upon the picnic scene.

“Let us walk a little up the path into the woods,” he said, “and get away from all this.”

“The further away the better,” she answered bitterly, and he felt the shiver run through her again as she spoke.

The methodical waltz-music from that unseen dancing platform rose again above all other sounds. They moved up the woodland path, their steps insensibly falling into the rhythm of its strains, and vanished from sight among the trees.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/frederic/harold/damnation-of-theron-ware/chapter23.html

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