The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxiv

Theron and Celia walked in silence for some minutes, until the noises of the throng they had left behind were lost. The path they followed had grown indefinite among the grass and creepers of the forest carpet; now it seemed to end altogether in a little copse of young birches, the delicately graceful stems of which were clustered about a parent stump, long since decayed and overgrown with lichens and layers of thick moss.

As the two paused, the girl suddenly sank upon her knees, then threw herself face forward upon the soft green bark which had formed itself above the roots of the ancient mother-tree. Her companion looked down in pained amazement at what he saw. Her body shook with the violence of recurring sobs, or rather gasps of wrath and grief Her hands, with stiffened, claw-like fingers, dug into the moss and tangle of tiny vines, and tore them by the roots. The half-stifled sounds of weeping that arose from where her face grovelled in the leaves were terrible to his ears. He knew not what to say or do, but gazed in resourceless suspense at the strange figure she made. It seemed a cruelly long time that she lay there, almost at his feet, struggling fiercely with the fury that was in her.

All at once the paroxysms passed away, the sounds of wild weeping ceased. Celia sat up, and with her handkerchief wiped the tears and leafy fragments from her face. She rearranged her hat and the braids of her hair with swift, instinctive touches, brushed the woodland debris from her front, and sprang to her feet.

“I’m all right now,” she said briskly. There was palpable effort in her light tone, and in the stormy sort of smile which she forced upon her blotched and perturbed countenance, but they were only too welcome to Theron’s anxious mood.

“Thank God!” he blurted out, all radiant with relief. “I feared you were going to have a fit — or something.”

Celia laughed, a little artificially at first, then with a genuine surrender to the comic side of his visible fright. The mirth came back into the brown depths of her eyes again, and her face cleared itself of tear-stains and the marks of agitation. “I AM a nice quiet party for a Methodist minister to go walking in the woods with, am I not?” she cried, shaking her skirts and smiling at him.

“I am not a Methodist minister — please!” answered Theron —“at least not today — and here — with you! I am just a man — nothing more — a man who has escaped from lifelong imprisonment, and feels for the first time what it is to be free!”

“Ah, my friend,” Celia said, shaking her head slowly, “I’m afraid you deceive yourself. You are not by any means free. You are only looking out of the window of your prison, as you call it. The doors are locked, just the same.”

“I will smash them!” he declared, with confidence. “Or for that matter, I HAVE smashed them — battered them to pieces. You don’t realize what progress I have made, what changes there have been in me since that night, you remember that wonderful night! I am quite another being, I assure you! And really it dates from way beyond that — why, from the very first evening, when I came to you in the church. The window in Father Forbes’ room was open, and I stood by it listening to the music next door, and I could just faintly see on the dark window across the alley-way a stained-glass picture of a woman. I suppose it was the Virgin Mary. She had hair like yours, and your face, too; and that is why I went into the church and found you. Yes, that is why.”

Celia regarded him with gravity. “You will get yourself into great trouble, my friend,” she said.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” put in Theron. “Not that I’d mind any trouble in this wide world, so long as you called me ‘my friend,’ but I’m not going to get into any at all. I know a trick worth two of that. I’ve learned to be a showman. I can preach now far better than I used to, and I can get through my work in half the time, and keep on the right side of my people, and get along with perfect smoothness. I was too green before. I took the thing seriously, and I let every mean-fisted curmudgeon and crazy fanatic worry me, and keep me on pins and needles. I don’t do that any more. I’ve taken a new measure of life. I see now what life is really worth, and I’m going to have my share of it. Why should I deliberately deny myself all possible happiness for the rest of my days, simply because I made a fool of myself when I was in my teens? Other men are not eternally punished like that, for what they did as boys, and I won’t submit to it either. I will be as free to enjoy myself as — as Father Forbes.”

Celia smiled softly, and shook her head again. “Poor man, to call HIM free!” she said: “why, he is bound hand and foot. You don’t in the least realize how he is hedged about, the work he has to do, the thousand suspicious eyes that watch his every movement, eager to bring the Bishop down upon him. And then think of his sacrifice — the great sacrifice of all — to never know what love means, to forswear his manhood, to live a forlorn, celibate life — you have no idea how sadly that appeals to a woman.”

“Let us sit down here for a little,” said Theron; “we seem at the end of the path.” She seated herself on the root-based mound, and he reclined at her side, with an arm carelessly extended behind her on the moss.

“I can see what you mean,” he went on, after a pause. “But to me, do you know, there is an enormous fascination in celibacy. You forget that I know the reverse of the medal. I know how the mind can be cramped, the nerves harassed, the ambitions spoiled and rotted, the whole existence darkened and belittled, by — by the other thing. I have never talked to you before about my marriage.”

“I don’t think we’d better talk about it now,” observed Celia. “There must be many more amusing topics.”

He missed the spirit of her remark. “You are right,” he said slowly. “It is too sad a thing to talk about. But there! it is my load, and I bear it, and there’s nothing more to be said.”

Theron drew a heavy sigh, and let his fingers toy abstractedly with a ribbon on the outer edge of Celia’s penumbra of apparel.

“No,” she said. “We mustn’t snivel, and we mustn’t sulk. When I get into a rage it makes me ill, and I storm my way through it and tear things, but it doesn’t last long, and I come out of it feeling all the better. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen your wife. I suppose she hasn’t got red hair?”

“I think it’s a kind of light brown,” answered Theron, with an effect of exerting his memory.

“It seems that you only take notice of hair in stained-glass windows,” was Celia’s comment.

“Oh-h!” he murmured reproachfully, “as if — as if — but I won’t say what I was going to.”

“That’s not fair!” she said. The little touch of whimsical mockery which she gave to the serious declaration was delicious to him. “You have me at such a disadvantage! Here am I rattling out whatever comes into my head, exposing all my lightest emotions, and laying bare my very heart in candor, and you meditate, you turn things over cautiously in your mind, like a second Machiavelli. I grow afraid of you; you are so subtle and mysterious in your reserves.”

Theron gave a tug at the ribbon, to show the joy he had in her delicate chaff. “No, it is you who are secretive,” he said. “You never told me about — about the piano.”

The word was out! A minute before it had seemed incredible to him that he should ever have the courage to utter it — but here it was. He laid firm hold upon the ribbon, which it appeared hung from her waist, and drew himself a trifle nearer to her. “I could never have consented to take it, I’m afraid,” he went on in a low voice, “if I had known. And even as it is, I fear it won’t be possible.”

“What are you afraid of?” asked Celia. “Why shouldn’t you take it? People in your profession never do get anything unless it’s given to them, do they? I’ve always understood it was like that. I’ve often read of donation parties — that’s what they’re called, isn’t it? — where everybody is supposed to bring some gift to the minister. Very well, then, I’ve simply had a donation party of my own, that’s all. Unless you mean that my being a Catholic makes a difference. I had supposed you were quite free from that kind of prejudice.”

“So I am! Believe me, I am!” urged Theron. “When I’m with you, it seems impossible to realize that there are people so narrow and contracted in their natures as to take account of such things. It is another atmosphere that I breathe near you. How could you imagine that such a thought — about our difference of creed — would enter my head? In fact,” he concluded with a nervous half-laugh, “there isn’t any such difference. Whatever your religion is, it’s mine too. You remember — you adopted me as a Greek.”

“Did I?” she rejoined. “Well, if that’s the case, it leaves you without a leg to stand on. I challenge you to find any instance where a Greek made any difficulties about accepting a piano from a friend. But seriously — while we are talking about it — you introduced the subject: I didn’t — I might as well explain to you that I had no such intention, when I picked the instrument out. It was later, when I was talking to Thurston’s people about the price, that the whim seized me. Now it is the one fixed rule of my life to obey my whims. Whatever occurs to me as a possibly pleasant thing to do, straight like a hash, I go and do it. It is the only way that a person with means, with plenty of money, can preserve any freshness of character. If they stop to think what it would be prudent to do, they get crusted over immediately. That is the curse of rich people — they teach themselves to distrust and restrain every impulse toward unusual actions. They get to feel that it is more necessary for them to be cautious and conventional than it is for others. I would rather work at a wash-tub than occupy that attitude toward my bank account. I fight against any sign of it that I detect rising in my mind. The instant a wish occurs to me, I rush to gratify it. That is my theory of life. That accounts for the piano; and I don’t see that you’ve anything to say about it at all.”

It seemed very convincing, this theory of life. Somehow, the thought of Miss Madden’s riches had never before assumed prominence in Theron’s mind. Of course her father was very wealthy, but it had not occurred to him that the daughter’s emancipation might run to the length of a personal fortune. He knew so little of rich people and their ways!

He lifted his head, and looked up at Celia with an awakened humility and awe in his glance. The glamour of a separate banking-account shone upon her. Where the soft woodland light played in among the strands of her disordered hair, he saw the veritable gleam of gold. A mysterious new suggestion of power blended itself with the beauty of her face, was exhaled in the faint perfume of her garments. He maintained a timorous hold upon the ribbon, wondering at his hardihood in touching it, or being near her at all.

“What surprises me,” he heard himself saying, “is that you are contented to stay in Octavius. I should think that you would travel — go abroad — see the beautiful things of the world, surround yourself with the luxuries of big cities — and that sort of thing.”

Celia regarded the forest prospect straight in front of her with a pensive gaze. “Sometime — no doubt I will sometime,” she said abstractedly.

“One reads so much nowadays,” he went on, “of American heiresses going to Europe and marrying dukes and noblemen. I suppose you will do that too. Princes would fight one another for you.”

The least touch of a smile softened for an instant the impassivity of her countenance. Then she stared harder than ever at the vague, leafy distance. “That is the old-fashioned idea,” she said, in a musing tone, “that women must belong to somebody, as if they were curios, or statues, or race-horses. You don’t understand, my friend, that I have a different view. I am myself, and I belong to myself, exactly as much as any man. The notion that any other human being could conceivably obtain the slightest property rights in me is as preposterous, as ridiculous, as — what shall I say? — as the notion of your being taken out with a chain on your neck and sold by auction as a slave, down on the canal bridge. I should be ashamed to be alive for another day, if any other thought were possible to me.”

“That is not the generally accepted view, I should think,” faltered Theron.

“No more is it the accepted view that young married Methodist ministers should sit out alone in the woods with red-headed Irish girls. No, my friend, let us find what the generally accepted views are, and as fast as we find them set our heels on them. There is no other way to live like real human beings. What on earth is it to me that other women crawl about on all-fours, and fawn like dogs on any hand that will buckle a collar onto them, and toss them the leavings of the table? I am not related to them. I have nothing to do with them. They cannot make any rules for me. If pride and dignity and independence are dead in them, why, so much the worse for them! It is no affair of mine. Certainly it is no reason why I should get down and grovel also. No; I at least stand erect on my legs.”

Mr. Ware sat up, and stared confusedly, with round eyes and parted lips, at his companion. Instinctively his brain dragged forth to the surface those epithets which the doctor had hurled in bitter contempt at her —“mad ass, a mere bundle of egotism, ignorance, and red-headed lewdness.” The words rose in their order on his memory, hard and sharp-edged, like arrow-heads. But to sit there, quite at her side; to breathe the same air, and behold the calm loveliness of her profile; to touch the ribbon of her dress — and all the while to hold these poisoned darts of abuse levelled in thought at her breast — it was monstrous. He could have killed the doctor at that moment. With an effort, he drove the foul things from his mind — scattered them back into the darkness. He felt that he had grown pale, and wondered if she had heard the groan that seemed to have been forced from him in the struggle. Or was the groan imaginary?

Celia continued to sit unmoved, composedly looking upon vacancy. Theron’s eyes searched her face in vain for any sign of consciousness that she had astounded and bewildered him. She did not seem to be thinking of him at all. The proud calm of her thoughtful countenance suggested instead occupation with lofty and remote abstractions and noble ideals. Contemplating her, he suddenly perceived that what she had been saying was great, wonderful, magnificent. An involuntary thrill ran through his veins at recollection of her words. His fancy likened it to the sensation he used to feel as a youth, when the Fourth of July reader bawled forth that opening clause: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary,” etc. It was nothing less than another Declaration of Independence he had been listening to.

He sank again recumbent at her side, and stretched the arm behind her, nearer than before. “Apparently, then, you will never marry.” His voice trembled a little.

“Most certainly not!” said Celia.

“You spoke so feelingly a little while ago,” he ventured along, with hesitation, “about how sadly the notion of a priest’s sacrificing himself — never knowing what love meant — appealed to a woman. I should think that the idea of sacrificing herself would seem to her even sadder still.”

“I don’t remember that we mentioned THAT,” she replied. “How do you mean — sacrificing herself?”

Theron gathered some of the outlying folds of her dress in his hand, and boldly patted and caressed them. “You, so beautiful and so free, with such fine talents and abilities,” he murmured; “you, who could have the whole world at your feet — are you, too, never going to know what love means? Do you call that no sacrifice? To me it is the most terrible that my imagination can conceive.”

Celia laughed — a gentle, amused little laugh, in which Theron’s ears traced elements of tenderness. “You must regulate that imagination of yours,” she said playfully. “It conceives the thing that is not. Pray, when”— and here, turning her head, she bent down upon his face a gaze of arch mock-seriousness —“pray, when did I describe myself in these terms? When did I say that I should never know what love meant?”

For answer Theron laid his head down upon his arm, and closed his eyes, and held his face against the draperies encircling her. “I cannot think!” he groaned.

The thing that came uppermost in his mind, as it swayed and rocked in the tempest of emotion, was the strange reminiscence of early childhood in it all. It was like being a little boy again, nestling in an innocent, unthinking transport of affection against his mother’s skirts. The tears he felt scalding his eyes were the spontaneous, unashamed tears of a child; the tremulous and exquisite joy which spread, wave-like, over him, at once reposeful and yearning, was full of infantile purity and sweetness. He had not comprehended at all before what wellsprings of spiritual beauty, what limpid depths of idealism, his nature contained.

“We were speaking of our respective religions,” he heard Celia say, as imperturbably as if there had been no digression worth mentioning.

“Yes,” he assented, and moved his head so that he looked up at her back hair, and the leaves high above, mottled against the sky. The wish to lie there, where now he could just catch the rose-leaf line of her under-chin as well, was very strong upon him. “Yes?” he repeated.

“I cannot talk to you like that,” she said; and he sat up again shamefacedly.

“Yes — I think we were speaking of religions — some time ago,” he faltered, to relieve the situation. The dreadful thought that she might be annoyed began to oppress him.

“Well, you said whatever my religion was, it was yours too. That entitles you at least to be told what the religion is. Now, I am a Catholic.”

Theron, much mystified, nodded his head. Could it be possible — was there coming a deliberate suggestion that he should become a convert? “Yes — I know,” he murmured.

“But I should explain that I am only a Catholic in the sense that its symbolism is pleasant to me. You remember what Schopenhauer said — you cannot have the water by itself: you must also have the jug that it is in. Very well; the Catholic religion is my jug. I put into it the things I like. They were all there long ago, thousands of years ago. The Jews threw them out; we will put them back again. We will restore art and poetry and the love of beauty, and the gentle, spiritual, soulful life. The Greeks had it; and Christianity would have had it too, if it hadn’t been for those brutes they call the Fathers. They loved ugliness and dirt and the thought of hell-fire. They hated women. In all the earlier stages of the Church, women were very prominent in it. Jesus himself appreciated women, and delighted to have them about him, and talk with them and listen to them. That was the very essence of the Greek spirit; and it breathed into Christianity at its birth a sweetness and a grace which twenty generations of cranks and savages like Paul and Jerome and Tertullian weren’t able to extinguish. But the very man, Cyril, who killed Hypatia, and thus began the dark ages, unwittingly did another thing which makes one almost forgive him. To please the Egyptians, he secured the Church’s acceptance of the adoration of the Virgin. It is that idea which has kept the Greek spirit alive, and grown and grown, till at last it will rule the world. It was only epileptic Jews who could imagine a religion without sex in it.”

“I remember the pictures of the Virgin in your room,” said Theron, feeling more himself again. “I wondered if they quite went with the statues.”

The remark won a smile from Celia’s lips.

“They get along together better than you suppose,” she answered. “Besides, they are not all pictures of Mary. One of them, standing on the moon, is of Isis with the infant Horus in her arms. Another might as well be Mahamie, bearing the miraculously born Buddha, or Olympias with her child Alexander, or even Perictione holding her babe Plato — all these were similar cases, you know. Almost every religion had its Immaculate Conception. What does it all come to, except to show us that man turns naturally toward the worship of the maternal idea? That is the deepest of all our instincts — love of woman, who is at once daughter and wife and mother. It is that that makes the world go round.”

Brave thoughts shaped themselves in Theron’s mind, and shone forth in a confident yet wistful smile on his face.

“It is a pity you cannot change estates with me for one minute,” he said, in steady, low tone. “Then you would realize the tremendous truth of what you have been saying. It is only your intellect that has reached out and grasped the idea. If you were in my place, you would discover that your heart was bursting with it as well.”

Celia turned and looked at him.

“I myself,” he went on, “would not have known, half an hour ago, what you meant by the worship of the maternal idea. I am much older than you. I am a strong, mature man. But when I lay down there, and shut my eyes — because the charm and marvel of this whole experience had for the moment overcome me — the strangest sensation seized upon me. It was absolutely as if I were a boy again, a good, pure-minded, fond little child, and you were the mother that I idolized.”

Celia had not taken her eyes from his face. “I find myself liking you better at this moment,” she said, with gravity, “than I have ever liked you before.”

Then, as by a sudden impulse, she sprang to her feet. “Come!” she cried, her voice and manner all vivacity once more, “we have been here long enough.”

Upon the instant, as Theron was more laboriously getting up, it became apparent to them both that perhaps they had been there too long.

A boy with a gun under his arm, and two gray squirrels tied by the tails slung across his shoulder, stood at the entrance to the glade, some dozen paces away, regarding them with undisguised interest. Upon the discovery that he was in turn observed, he resumed his interrupted progress through the woods, whistling softly as he went, and vanished among the trees.

“Heavens above!” groaned Theron, shudderingly.

“Know him?” he went on, in answer to the glance of inquiry on his companion’s face. “I should think I did! He spades my — my wife’s garden for her. He used to bring our milk. He works in the law office of one of my trustees — the one who isn’t friendly to me, but is very friendly indeed with my — with Mrs. Ware. Oh, what shall I do? It may easily mean my ruin!”

Celia looked at him attentively. The color had gone out of his face, and with it the effect of earnestness and mental elevation which, a minute before, had caught her fancy. “Somehow, I fear that I do not like you quite so much just now, my friend,” she remarked.

“In God’s name, don’t say that!” urged Theron. He raised his voice in agitated entreaty. “You don’t know what these people are — how they would leap at the barest hint of a scandal about me. In my position I am a thousand times more defenceless than any woman. Just a single whisper, and I am done for!”

“Let me point out to you, Mr. Ware,” said Celia, slowly, “that to be seen sitting and talking with me, whatever doubts it may raise as to a gentleman’s intellectual condition, need not necessarily blast his social reputation beyond all hope whatever.”

Theron stared at her, as if he had not grasped her meaning. Then he winced visibly under it, and put out his hands to implore her. “Forgive me! Forgive me!” he pleaded. “I was beside myself for the moment with the fright of the thing. Oh, say you do forgive me, Celia!” He made haste to support this daring use of her name. “I have been so happy today — so deeply, so vastly happy — like the little child I spoke of — and that is so new in my lonely life — that — the suddenness of the thing — it just for the instant unstrung me. Don’t be too hard on me for it! And I had hoped, too — I had had such genuine heartfelt pleasure in the thought — that, an hour or two ago, when you were unhappy, perhaps it had been some sort of consolation to you that I was with you.”

Celia was looking away. When he took her hand she did not withdraw it, but turned and nodded in musing general assent to what he had said. “Yes, we have both been unstrung, as you call it, today,” she said, decidedly out of pitch. “Let each forgive the other, and say no more about it.”

She took his arm, and they retraced their steps along the path, again in silence. The labored noise of the orchestra, as it were, returned to meet them. They halted at an intersecting footpath.

“I go back to my slavery — my double bondage,” said Theron, letting his voice sink to a sigh. “But even if I am put on the rack for it, I shall have had one day of glory.”

“I think you may kiss me, in memory of that one day — or of a few minutes in that day,” said Celia.

Their lips brushed each other in a swift, almost perfunctory caress.

Theron went his way at a hurried pace, the sobered tones of her “good-bye” beating upon his brain with every measure of the droning waltz-music.

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