The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxv

The memory of the kiss abode with Theron. Like Aaron’s rod, it swallowed up one by one all competing thoughts and recollections, and made his brain its slave.

Even as he strode back through the woods to the camp-meeting, it was the kiss that kept his feet in motion, and guided their automatic course. All along the watches of the restless night, it was the kiss that bore him sweet company, and wandered with him from one broken dream of bliss to another. Next day, it was the kiss that made of life for him a sort of sunlit wonderland. He preached his sermon in the morning, and took his appointed part in the other services of afternoon and evening, apparently to everybody’s satisfaction: to him it was all a vision.

When the beautiful full moon rose, this Sunday evening, and glorified the clearing and the forest with its mellow harvest radiance, he could have groaned with the burden of his joy. He went out alone into the light, and bared his head to it, and stood motionless for a long time. In all his life, he had never been impelled as powerfully toward earnest and soulful thanksgiving. The impulse to kneel, there in the pure, tender moonlight, and lift up offerings of praise to God, kept uppermost in his mind. Some formless resignation restrained him from the act itself, but the spirit of it hallowed his mood. He gazed up at the broad luminous face of the satellite. “You are our God,” he murmured. “Hers and mine! You are the most beautiful of heavenly creatures, as she is of the angels on earth. I am speechless with reverence for you both.”

It was not until the camp-meeting broke up, four days later, and Theron with the rest returned to town, that the material aspects of what had happened, and might be expected to happen, forced themselves upon his mind. The kiss was a child of the forest. So long as Theron remained in the camp, the image of the kiss, which was enshrined in his heart and ministered to by all his thoughts, continued enveloped in a haze of sylvan mystery, like a dryad. Suggestions of its beauty and holiness came to him in the odors of the woodland, at the sight of wild flowers and water-lilies. When he walked alone in unfamiliar parts of the forest, he carried about with him the half-conscious idea of somewhere coming upon a strange, hidden pool which mortal eye had not seen before — a deep, sequestered mere of spring-fed waters, walled in by rich, tangled growths of verdure, and bearing upon its virgin bosom only the shadows of the primeval wilderness, and the light of the eternal skies. His fancy dwelt upon some such nook as the enchanted home of the fairy that possessed his soul. The place, though he never found it, became real to him. As he pictured it, there rose sometimes from among the lily-pads, stirring the translucent depths and fluttering over the water’s surface drops like gems, the wonderful form of a woman, with pale leaves wreathed in her luxuriant red hair, and a skin which gave forth light.

With the homecoming to Octavius, his dreams began to take more account of realities. In a day or two he was wide awake, and thinking hard. The kiss was as much as ever the ceaseless companion of his hours, but it no longer insisted upon shrouding itself in vines and woodland creepers, or outlining itself in phosphorescent vagueness against mystic backgrounds of nymph-haunted glades. It advanced out into the noonday, and assumed tangible dimensions and substance. He saw that it was related to the facts of his daily life, and had, in turn, altered his own relations to all these facts.

What ought he to do? What COULD he do? Apparently, nothing but wait. He waited for a week — then for another week. The conclusion that the initiative had been left to him began to take shape in his mind. From this it seemed but a step to the passionate resolve to act at once.

Turning the situation over and over in his anxious thoughts, two things stood out in special prominence. One was that Celia loved him. The other was that the boy in Gorringe’s law office, and possibly Gorringe, and heaven only knew how many others besides, had reasons for suspecting this to be true.

And what about Celia? Side by side with the moving rapture of thinking about her as a woman, there rose the substantial satisfaction of contemplating her as Miss Madden. She had kissed him, and she was very rich. The things gradually linked themselves before his eyes. He tried a thousand varying guesses at what she proposed to do, and each time reined up his imagination by the reminder that she was confessedly a creature of whims, who proposed to do nothing, but was capable of all things.

And as to the boy. If he had blabbed what he saw, it was incredible that somebody should not take the subject up, and impart a scandalous twist to it, and send it rolling like a snowball to gather up exaggeration and foul innuendo till it was big enough to overwhelm him. What would happen to him if a formal charge were preferred against him? He looked it up in the Discipline. Of course, if his accusers magnified their mean suspicions and calumnious imaginings to the point of formulating a charge, it would be one of immorality. They could prove nothing; there was nothing to prove. At the worst, it was an indiscretion, which would involve his being admonished by his Presiding Elder. Or if these narrow bigots confused slanders with proofs, and showed that they intended to convict him, then it would be open to him to withdraw from the ministry, in advance of his condemnation. His relation to the church would be the same as if he had been expelled, but to the outer world it would be different. And supposing he did withdraw from the ministry?

Yes; this was the important point. What if he did abandon this mistaken profession of his? On its mental side the relief would be prodigious, unthinkable. But on the practical side, the bread-and-butter side? For some days Theron paused with a shudder when he reached this question. The thought of the plunge into unknown material responsibilities gave him a sinking heart. He tried to imagine himself lecturing, canvassing for books or insurance policies, writing for newspapers — and remained frightened. But suddenly one day it occurred to him that these qualms and forebodings were sheer folly. Was not Celia rich? Would she not with lightning swiftness draw forth that check-book, like the flashing sword of a champion from its scabbard, and run to his relief? Why, of course. It was absurd not to have thought of that before.

He recalled her momentary anger with him, that afternoon in the woods, when he had cried out that discovery would mean ruin to him. He saw clearly enough now that she had been grieved at his want of faith in her protection. In his flurry of fright, he had lost sight of the fact that, if exposure and trouble came to him, she would naturally feel that she had been the cause of his martyrdom. It was plain enough now. If he got into hot water, it would be solely on account of his having been seen with her. He had walked into the woods with her —“the further the better” had been her own words — out of pure kindliness, and the desire to lead her away from the scene of her brother’s and her own humiliation. But why amplify arguments? Her own warm heart would tell her, on the instant, how he had been sacrificed for her sake, and would bring her, eager and devoted, to his succor.

That was all right, then. Slowly, from this point, suggestions expanded themselves. The future could be, if he willed it, one long serene triumph of love, and lofty intellectual companionship, and existence softened and enriched at every point by all that wealth could command, and the most exquisite tastes suggest. Should he will it! Ah! the question answered itself. But he could not enter upon this beckoning heaven of a future until he had freed himself. When Celia said to him, “Come!” he must not be in the position to reply, “I should like to, but unfortunately I am tied by the leg.” He should have to leave Octavius, leave the ministry, leave everything. He could not begin too soon to face these contingencies.

Very likely Celia had not thought it out as far as this. With her, it was a mere vague “sometime I may.” But the harder masculine sense, Theron felt, existed for the very purpose of correcting and giving point to these loose feminine notions of time and space. It was for him to clear away the obstacles, and map the plans out with definite decision.

One warm afternoon, as he lolled in his easy-chair under the open window of his study, musing upon the ever-shifting phases of this vast, complicated, urgent problem, some chance words from the sidewalk in front came to his ears, and, coming, remained to clarify his thoughts.

Two ladies whose voices were strange to him had stopped — as so many people almost daily stopped — to admire the garden of the parsonage. One of them expressed her pleasure in general terms. Said the other —

“My husband declares those dahlias alone couldn’t be matched for thirty dollars, and that some of those gladiolus must have cost three or four dollars apiece. I know we’ve spent simply oceans of money on our garden, and it doesn’t begin to compare with this.”

“It seems like a sinful waste to me,” said her companion.

“No-o,” the other hesitated. “No, I don’t think quite that — if you can afford it just as well as not. But it does seem to me that I’d rather live in a little better house, and not spend it ALL on flowers. Just LOOK at that cactus!”

The voices died away. Theron sat up, with a look of arrested thought upon his face, then sprang to his feet and moved hurriedly through the parlor to an open front window. Peering out with caution he saw that the two women receding from view were fashionably dressed and evidently came from homes of means. He stared after them in a blank way until they turned a corner.

He went into the hall then, put on his frock-coat and hat, and stepped out into the garden. He was conscious of having rather avoided it heretofore — not altogether without reasons of his own, lying unexamined somewhere in the recesses of his mind. Now he walked slowly about, and examined the flowers with great attentiveness. The season was advancing, and he saw that many plants had gone out of bloom. But what a magnificent plenitude of blossoms still remained!

Thirty dollars’ worth of dahlias — that was what the stranger had said. Theron hardly brought himself to credit the statement; but all the same it was apparent to even his uninformed eye that these huge, imbricated, flowering masses, with their extraordinary half-colors, must be unusual. He remembered that the boy in Gorringe’s office had spoken of just one lot of plants costing thirty-one dollars and sixty cents, and there had been two other lots as well. The figures remained surprisingly distinct in his memory. It was no good deceiving himself any longer: of course these were the plants that Gorringe had spent his money upon, here all about him.

As he surveyed them with a sour regard, a cool breeze stirred across the garden. The tall, over-laden flower-spikes of gladioli bent and nodded at him; the hollyhocks and flaming alvias, the clustered blossoms on the standard roses, the delicately painted lilies on their stilt-like stems, fluttered in the wind, and seemed all bowing satirically to him. “Yes, Levi Gorringe paid for us!” He almost heard their mocking declaration.

Out in the back-yard, where a longer day of sunshine dwelt, there were many other flowers, and notably a bed of geraniums which literally made the eye ache. Standing at this rear corner of the house, he caught the droning sound of Alice’s voice, humming a hymn to herself as she went about her kitchen work. He saw her through the open window. She was sweeping, and had a sort of cap on her head which did not add to the graces of her appearance. He looked at her with a hard glance, recalling as a fresh grievance the ten days of intolerable boredom he had spent cooped up in a ridiculous little tent with her, at the camp-meeting. She must have realized at the time how odious the enforced companionship was to him. Yes, beyond doubt she did. It came back to him now that they had spoken but rarely to each other. She had not even praised his sermon upon the Sabbath-question, which every one else had been in raptures over. For that matter she no longer praised anything he did, and took obvious pains to preserve toward him a distant demeanor. So much the better, he felt himself thinking. If she chose to behave in that offish and unwifely fashion, she could blame no one but herself for its results.

She had seen him, and came now to the window, watering-pot and broom in hand. She put her head out, to breathe a breath of dustless air, and began as if she would smile on him. Then her face chilled and stiffened, as she caught his look.

“Shall you be home for supper?” she asked, in her iciest tone.

He had not thought of going out before. The question, and the manner of it, gave immediate urgency to the idea of going somewhere. “I may or I may not,” he replied. “It is quite impossible for me to say.” He turned on his heel with this, and walked briskly out of the yard and down the street.

It was the most natural thing that presently he should be strolling past the Madden house, and letting a covert glance stray over its front and the grounds about it, as he loitered along. Every day since his return from the woods he had given the fates this chance of bringing Celia to meet him, without avail. He had hung about in the vicinity of the Catholic church on several evenings as well, but to no purpose. The organ inside was dumb, and he could detect no signs of Celia’s presence on the curtains of the pastorate next door. This day, too, there was no one visible at the home of the Maddens, and he walked on, a little sadly. It was weary work waiting for the signal that never came.

But there were compensations. His mind reverted doggedly to the flowers in his garden, and to Alice’s behavior toward him. They insisted upon connecting themselves in his thoughts. Why should Levi Gorringe, a money-lender, and therefore the last man in the world to incur reckless expenditure, go and buy perhaps a hundred dollars, worth of flowers for his wife’s garden? It was time — high time — to face this question. And his experiencing religion afterward, just when Alice did, and marching down to the rail to kneel beside her — that was a thing to be thought of, too.

Meditation, it is true, hardly threw fresh light upon the matter. It was incredible, of course, that there should be anything wrong. To even shape a thought of Alice in connection with gallantry would be wholly impossible. Nor could it be said that Gorringe, in his new capacity as a professing church-member, had disclosed any sign of ulterior motives, or of insincerity. Yet there the facts were. While Theron pondered them, their mystery, if they involved a mystery, baffled him altogether. But when he had finished, he found himself all the same convinced that neither Alice nor Gorringe would be free to blame him for anything he might do. He had grounds for complaint against them. If he did not himself know just what these grounds were, it was certain enough that THEY knew. Very well, then, let them take the responsibility for what happened.

It was indeed awkward that at the moment, as Theron chanced to emerge temporarily from his brown-study, his eyes fell full upon the spare, well-knit form of Levi Gorringe himself, standing only a few feet away, in the staircase entrance to his law office. His lean face, browned by the summer’s exposure, had a more Arabian aspect than ever. His hands were in his pockets, and he held an unlighted cigar between his teeth. He looked the Rev. Mr. Ware over calmly, and nodded recognition.

Theron had halted instinctively. On the instant he would have given a great deal not to have stopped at all. It was stupid of him to have paused, but it would not do now to go on without words of some sort. He moved over to the door-way, and made a half-hearted pretence of looking at the photographs in one of the show-cases at its side. As Mr. Gorringe did not take his hands from his pockets, there was no occasion for any formal greeting.

“I had no idea that they took such good pictures in Octavius,” Theron remarked after a minute’s silence, still bending in examination of the photographs.

“They ought to; they charge New York prices,” observed the lawyer, sententiously.

Theron found in the words confirmation of his feeling that Gorringe was not naturally a lavish or extravagant man. Rather was he a careful and calculating man, who spent money only for a purpose. Though the minister continued gazing at the stiff presentments of local beauties and swains, his eyes seemed to see salmon-hued hollyhocks and spotted lilies instead. Suddenly a resolve came to him. He stood erect, and faced his trustee.

“Speaking of the price of things,” he said, with an effort of arrogance in his measured tone, “I have never had an opportunity before of mentioning the subject of the flowers you have so kindly furnished for my — for MY garden.”

“Why mention it now?” queried Gorringe, with nonchalance. He turned his cigar about with a movement of his lips, and worked it into the corner of his mouth. He did not find it necessary to look at Theron at all.

“Because —” began Mr. Ware, and then hesitated —“because — well, it raises a question of my being under obligation, which I—”

“Oh, no, sir,” said the lawyer; “put that out of your mind. You are no more under obligation to me than I am to you. Oh, no, make yourself easy about that. Neither of us owes the other anything.”

“Not even good-will — I take that to be your meaning,” retorted Theron, with some heat.

“The words are yours, sir,” responded Gorringe, coolly. “I do not object to them.”

“As you like,” put in the other. “If it be so, why, then all the more reason why I should, under the circumstances —”

“Under what circumstances?” interposed the lawyer. “Let us be clear about this thing as we go along. To what circumstances do you refer?”

He had turned his eyes now, and looked Theron in the face. A slight protrusion of his lower jaw had given the cigar an upward tilt under the black mustache.

“The circumstances are that you have brought or sent to my garden a great many very expensive flower-plants and bushes and so on.”

“And you object? I had not supposed that clergymen in general — and you in particular — were so sensitive. Have donation parties, then, gone out of date?”

“I understand your sneer well enough,” retorted Theron, “but that can pass. The main point is, that you did me the honor to send these plants — or to smuggle them in-but never once deigned to hint to me that you had done so. No one told me. Except by mere accident, I should not have known to this day where they came from.”

Mr. Gorringe twisted the cigar at another angle, with lines of grim amusement about the corner of his mouth. “I should have thought,” he said with dry deliberation, “that possibly this fact might have raised in your mind the conceivable hypothesis that the plants might not be intended for you at all.”

“That is precisely it, sir,” said Theron. There were people passing, and he was forced to keep his voice down. It would have been a relief, he felt, to shout. “That is it — they were not intended for me.”

“Well, then, what are you talking about?” The lawyer’s speech had become abrupt almost to incivility.

“I think my remarks have been perfectly clear,” said the minister, with dignity. It was a new experience to be addressed in that fashion. It occurred to him to add, “Please remember that I am not in the witness-box, to be bullied or insulted by a professional.”

Gorringe studied Theron’s face attentively with a cold, searching scrutiny. “You may thank your stars you’re not!” he said, with significance.

What on earth could he mean? The words and the menacing tone greatly impressed Theron. Indeed, upon reflection, he found that they frightened him. The disposition to adopt a high tone with the lawyer was melting away.

“I do not see,” he began, and then deliberately allowed his voice to take on an injured and plaintive inflection —“I do not see why you should adopt this tone toward me — Brother Gorringe.”

The lawyer scowled, and bit sharply into the cigar, but said nothing.

“If I have unconsciously offended you in any way,” Theron went on, “I beg you to tell me how. I liked you from the beginning of my pastorate here, and the thought that latterly we seemed to be drifting apart has given me much pain. But now it is still more distressing to find you actually disposed to quarrel with me. Surely, Brother Gorringe, between a pastor and a probationer who —”

“No,” Gorringe broke in; “quarrel isn’t the word for it. There isn’t any quarrel, Mr. Ware.” He stepped down from the door-stone to the sidewalk as he spoke, and stood face to face with Theron. Working-men with dinner-pails, and factory girls, were passing close to them, and he lowered his voice to a sharp, incisive half-whisper as he added, “It wouldn’t be worth any grown man’s while to quarrel with so poor a creature as you are.”

Theron stood confounded, with an empty stare of bewilderment on his face. It rose in his mind that the right thing to feel was rage, righteous indignation, fury; but for the life of him, he could not muster any manly anger. The character of the insult stupefied him.

“I do not know that I have anything to say to you in reply,” he remarked, after what seemed to him a silence of minutes. His lips framed the words automatically, but they expressed well enough the blank vacancy of his mind. The suggestion that anybody deemed him a “poor creature” grew more astounding, incomprehensible, as it swelled in his brain.

“No, I suppose not,” snapped Gorringe. “You’re not the sort to stand up to men; your form is to go round the corner and take it out of somebody weaker than yourself — a defenceless woman, for instance.”

“Oh — ho!” said Theron. The exclamation had uttered itself. The sound of it seemed to clarify his muddled thoughts; and as they ranged themselves in order, he began to understand. “Oh — ho!” he said again, and nodded his head in token of comprehension.

The lawyer, chewing his cigar with increased activity, glared at him. “What do you mean?” he demanded peremptorily.

“Mean?” said the minister. “Oh, nothing that I feel called upon to explain to you.”

It was passing strange, but his self-possession had all at once returned to him. As it became more apparent that the lawyer was losing his temper, Theron found the courage to turn up the corners of his lips in show of a bitter little smile of confidence. He looked into the other’s dusky face, and flaunted this smile at it in contemptuous defiance. “It is not a subject that I can discuss with propriety — at this stage,” he added.

“Damn you! Are you talking about those flowers?”

“Oh, I am not talking about anything in particular,” returned Theron, “not even the curious choice of language which my latest probationer seems to prefer.”

“Go and strike my name off the list!” said Gorringe, with rising passion. “I was a fool to ever have it there. To think of being a probationer of yours — my God!”

“That will be a pity — from one point of view,” remarked Theron, still with the ironical smile on his lips. “You seemed to enter upon the new life with such deliberation and fixity of purpose, too! I can imagine the regrets your withdrawal will cause, in certain quarters. I only hope that it will not discourage those who accompanied you to the altar, and shared your enthusiasm at the time.” He had spoken throughout with studied slowness and an insolent nicety of utterance.

“You had better go away!” broke forth Gorringe. “If you don’t, I shall forget myself.”

“For the first time?” asked Theron. Then, warned by the flash in the lawyer’s eye, he turned on his heel and sauntered, with a painstaking assumption of a mind quite at ease, up the street.

Gorringe’s own face twitched and his veins tingled as he looked after him. He spat the shapeless cigar out of his mouth into the gutter, and, drawing forth another from his pocket, clenched it between his teeth, his gaze following the tall form of the Methodist minister till it was merged in the crowd.

“Well, I’m damned!” he said aloud to himself.

The photographer had come down to take in his showcases for the night. He looked up from his task at the exclamation, and grinned inquiringly.

“I’ve just been talking to a man,” said the lawyer, “who’s so much meaner than any other man I ever heard of that it takes my breath away. He’s got a wife that’s as pure and good as gold, and he knows it, and she worships the ground he walks on, and he knows that too. And yet the scoundrel is around trying to sniff out some shadow of a pretext for misusing her worse than he’s already done. Yes, sir; he’d be actually tickled to death if he could nose up some hint of a scandal about her — something that he could pretend to believe, and work for his own advantage to levy blackmail, or get rid of her, or whatever suited his book. I didn’t think there was such an out-and-out cur on this whole footstool. I almost wish, by God, I’d thrown him into the canal!”

“Yes, you lawyers must run against some pretty snide specimens,” remarked the photographer, lifting one of the cases from its sockets.

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