The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxvi

Theron spent half an hour in aimless strolling about the streets. From earliest boyhood his mind had always worked most clearly when he walked alone. Every mental process which had left a mark upon his memory and his career — the daydreams of future academic greatness and fame which had fashioned themselves in his brain as a farm lad; the meditations, raptures, and high resolves of his student period at the seminary; the more notable sermons and powerful discourse by which he had revealed the genius that was in him to astonished and delighted assemblages — all were associated in his retrospective thoughts with solitary rambles.

He had a very direct and vivid consciousness now that it was good to be on his legs, and alone. He had never in his life been more sensible of the charm of his own companionship. The encounter with Gorringe seemed to have cleared all the clouds out of his brain, and restored lightness to his heart. After such an object lesson, the impossibility of his continuing to sacrifice himself to a notion of duty to these low-minded and coarse-natured villagers was beyond all argument. There could no longer be any doubt about his moral right to turn his back upon them, to wash his hands of the miserable combination of hypocrisy and hysterics which they called their spiritual life.

And the question of Gorringe and Alice, that too stood precisely where he wanted it. Even in his own thoughts, he preferred to pursue it no further. Between them somewhere an offence of concealment, it might be of conspiracy, had been committed against him. It was no business of his to say more, or to think more. He rested his case simply on the fact, which could not be denied, and which he was not in the least interested to have explained, one way or the other. The recollection of Gorringe’s obvious disturbance of mind was especially pleasant to him. He himself had been magnanimous almost to the point of weakness. He had gone out of his way to call the man “brother,” and to give him an opportunity of behaving like a gentleman; but his kindly forbearance had been wasted. Gorringe was not the man to understand generous feelings, much less rise to their level. He had merely shown that he would be vicious if he knew how. It was more important and satisfactory to recall that he had also shown a complete comprehension of the injured husband’s grievance. The fact that he had recognized it was enough — was, in fact, everything.

In the background of his thoughts Theron had carried along a notion of going and dining with Father Forbes when the time for the evening meal should arrive. The idea in itself attracted him, as a fitting capstone to his resolve not to go home to supper. It gave just the right kind of character to his domestic revolt. But when at last he stood on the doorstep of the pastorate, waiting for an answer to the tinkle of the electric bell he had heard ring inside, his mind contained only the single thought that now he should hear something about Celia. Perhaps he might even find her there; but he put that suggestion aside as slightly unpleasant.

The hag-faced housekeeper led him, as before, into the dining-room. It was still daylight, and he saw on the glance that the priest was alone at the table, with a book beside him to read from as he ate.

Father Forbes rose and came forward, greeting his visitor with profuse urbanity and smiles. If there was a perfunctory note in the invitation to sit down and share the meal, Theron did not catch it. He frankly displayed his pleasure as he laid aside his hat, and took the chair opposite his host.

“It is really only a few months since I was here, in this room, before,” he remarked, as the priest closed his book and tossed it to one side, and the housekeeper came in to lay another place. “Yet it might have been years, many long years, so tremendous is the difference that the lapse of time has wrought in me.”

“I am afraid we have nothing to tempt you very much, Mr. Ware,” remarked Father Forbes, with a gesture of his plump white hand which embraced the dishes in the centre of the table. “May I send you a bit of this boiled mutton? I have very homely tastes when I am by myself.”

“I was saying,” Theron observed, after some moments had passed in silence, “that I date such a tremendous revolution in my thoughts, my beliefs, my whole mind and character, from my first meeting with you, my first coming here. I don’t know how to describe to you the enormous change that has come over me; and I owe it all to you.”

“I can only hope, then, that it is entirely of a satisfactory nature,” said the priest, politely smiling.

“Oh, it is so splendidly satisfactory!” said Theron, with fervor. “I look back at myself now with wonder and pity. It seems incredible that, such a little while ago, I should have been such an ignorant and unimaginative clod of earth, content with such petty ambitions and actually proud of my limitations.”

“And you have larger ambitions now?” asked the other. “Pray let me help you to some potatoes. I am afraid that ambitions only get in our way and trip us up. We clergymen are like street-car horses. The more steadily we jog along between the rails, the better it is for us.”

“Oh, I don’t intend to remain in the ministry,” declared Theron. The statement seemed to him a little bald, now that he had made it; and as his companion lifted his brows in surprise, he added stumblingly: “That is, as I feel now, it seems to me impossible that I should remain much longer. With you, of course, it is different. You have a thousand things to interest and pleasantly occupy you in your work and its ceremonies, so that mere belief or non-belief in the dogma hardly matters. But in our church dogma is everything. If you take that away, or cease to have its support, the rest is intolerable, hideous.”

Father Forbes cut another slice of mutton for himself. “It is a pretty serious business to make such a change at your time of life. I take it for granted you will think it all over very carefully before you commit yourself.” He said this with an almost indifferent air, which rather chilled his listener’s enthusiasm.

“Oh, yes,”, Theron made answer; “I shall do nothing rash. But I have a good many plans for the future.”

Father Forbes did not ask what these were, and a brief further period of silence fell upon the table.

“I hope everything went off smoothly at the picnic,” Theron ventured, at last. “I have not seen any of you since then.”

The priest shook his head and sighed. “No,” he said. “It is a bad business. I have had a great deal of unhappiness out of it this past fortnight. That young man who was rude to you — of course it was mere drunken, irresponsible nonsense on his part — has got himself into a serious scrape, I’m afraid. It is being kept quite within the family, and we hope to manage so that it will remain there, but it has terribly upset his father and his sister. But that, after all, is not so hard to bear as the other affliction that has come upon the Maddens. You remember Michael, the other brother? He seems to have taken cold that evening, or perhaps over-exerted himself. He has been seized with quick consumption. He will hardly last till snow flies.”

“Oh, I am GRIEVED to hear that!” Theron spoke with tremulous earnestness. It seemed to him as if Michael were in some way related to him.

“It is very hard upon them all,” the priest went on. “Michael is as sweet and holy a character as it is possible for any one to think of. He is the apple of his father’s eye. They were inseparable, those two. Do you know the father, Mr. Madden?”

Theron shook his head. “I think I have seen him,” he said. “A small man, with gray whiskers.”

“A peasant,” said Father Forbes, “but with a heart of gold. Poor man! he has had little enough out of his riches. Ah, the West Coast people, what tragedies I have seen among them over here! They have rudimentary lung organizations, like a frog’s, to fit the mild, wet soft air they live in. The sharp air here kills them off like flies in a frost. Whole families go. I should think there are a dozen of old Jeremiah’s children in the cemetery. If Michael could have passed his twenty-eighth year, there would have been hope for him, at least till his thirty-fifth. These pulmonary things seem to go by sevens, you know.”

“I didn’t know,” said Theron. “It is very strange — and very sad.” His startled mind was busy, all at once, with conjectures as to Celia’s age.

“The sister — Miss Madden — seems extremely strong,” he remarked tentatively.

“Celia may escape the general doom,” said the priest. His guest noted that he clenched his shapely white hand on the table as he spoke, and that his gentle, carefully modulated voice had a gritty hardness in its tone. “THAT would be too dreadful to think of,” he added.

Theron shuddered in silence, and strove to shut his mind against the thought.

“She has taken Michael’s illness so deeply to heart,” the priest proceeded, “and devoted herself to him so untiringly that I get a little nervous about her. I have been urging her to go away and get a change of air and scene, if only for a few days. She does not sleep well, and that is always a bad thing.”

“I think I remember her telling me once that sometimes she had sleepless spells,” said Theron. “She said that then she banged on her piano at all hours, or dragged the cushions about from room to room, like a wild woman. A very interesting young lady, don’t you find her so?”

Father Forbes let a wan smile play on his lips. “What, our Celia?” he said. “Interesting! Why, Mr. Ware, there is no one like her in the world. She is as unique as — what shall I say? — as the Irish are among races. Her father and mother were both born in mud-cabins, and she — she might be the daughter of a hundred kings, except that they seem mostly rather under-witted than otherwise. She always impresses me as a sort of atavistic idealization of the old Kelt at his finest and best. There in Ireland you got a strange mixture of elementary early peoples, walled off from the outer world by the four seas, and free to work out their own racial amalgam on their own lines. They brought with them at the outset a great inheritance of Eastern mysticism. Others lost it, but the Irish, all alone on their island, kept it alive and brooded on it, and rooted their whole spiritual side in it. Their religion is full of it; their blood is full of it; our Celia is fuller of it than anybody else. The Ireland of two thousand years ago is incarnated in her. They are the merriest people and the saddest, the most turbulent and the most docile, the most talented and the most unproductive, the most practical and the most visionary, the most devout and the most pagan. These impossible contradictions war ceaselessly in their blood. When I look at Celia, I seem to see in my mind’s eye the fair young-ancestral mother of them all.”

Theron gazed at the speaker with open admiration. “I love to hear you talk,” he said simply.

An unbidden memory flitted upward in his mind. Those were the very words that Alice had so often on her lips in their old courtship days. How curious it was! He looked at the priest, and had a quaint sensation of feeling as a romantic woman must feel in the presence of a specially impressive masculine personality. It was indeed strange that this soft-voiced, portly creature in a gown, with his white, fat hands and his feline suavity of manner, should produce such a commanding and unique effect of virility. No doubt this was a part of the great sex mystery which historically surrounded the figure of the celibate priest as with an atmosphere. Women had always been prostrating themselves before it. Theron, watching his companion’s full, pallid face in the lamp-light, tried to fancy himself in the priest’s place, looking down upon these worshipping female forms. He wondered what the celibate’s attitude really was. The enigma fascinated him.

Father Forbes, after his rhetorical outburst, and been eating. He pushed aside his cheese-plate. “I grow enthusiastic on the subject of my race sometimes,” he remarked, with the suggestion of an apology. “But I make up for it other times — most of the time — by scolding them. If it were not such a noble thing to be an Irishman, it would be ridiculous.”

“Ah,” said Theron, deprecatingly, “who would not be enthusiastic in talking of Miss Madden? What you said about her was perfect. As you spoke, I was thinking how proud and thankful we ought to be for the privilege of knowing her — we who do know her well — although of course your friendship with her is vastly more intimate than mine — than mine could ever hope to be.”

The priest offered no comment, and Theron went on: “I hardly know how to describe the remarkable impression she makes upon me. I can’t imagine to myself any other young woman so brilliant or broad in her views, or so courageous. Of course, her being so rich makes it easier for her to do just what she wants to do, but her bravery is astonishing all the same. We had a long and very sympathetic talk in the woods, that day of the picnic, after we left you. I don’t know whether she spoke to you about it?”

Father Forbes made a movement of the head and eyes which seemed to negative the suggestion.

“Her talk,” continued Theron, “gave me quite new ideas of the range and capacity of the female mind. I wonder that everybody in Octavius isn’t full of praise and admiration for her talents and exceptional character. In such a small town as this, you would think she would be the centre of attention — the pride of the place.”

“I think she has as much praise as is good for her,” remarked the priest, quietly.

“And here’s a thing that puzzles me,” pursued Mr. Ware. “I was immensely surprised to find that Dr. Ledsmar doesn’t even think she is smart — or at least he professes the utmost intellectual contempt for her, and says he dislikes her into the bargain. But of course she dislikes him, too, so that’s only natural. But I can’t understand his denying her great ability.”

The priest smiled in a dubious way. “Don’t borrow unnecessary alarm about that, Mr. Ware,” he said, with studied smoothness of modulated tones. “These two good friends of mine have much enjoyment out of the idea that they are fighting for the mastery over my poor unstable character. It has grown to be a habit with them, and a hobby as well, and they pursue it with tireless zest. There are not many intellectual diversions open to us here, and they make the most of this one. It amuses them, and it is not without its charms for me, in my capacity as an interested observer. It is a part of the game that they should pretend to themselves that they detest each other. In reality I fancy that they like each other very much. At any rate, there is nothing to be disturbed about.”

His mellifluous tones had somehow the effect of suggesting to Theron that he was an outsider and would better mind his own business. Ah, if this purring pussy-cat of a priest only knew how little of an outsider he really was! The thought gave him an easy self-control.

“Of course,” he said, “our warm mutual friendship makes the observation of these little individual vagaries merely a part of a delightful whole. I should not dream of discussing Miss Madden’s confidences to me, or the doctor’s either, outside our own little group.”

Father Forbes reached behind him and took from a chair his black three-cornered cap with the tassel. “Unfortunately I have a sick call waiting me,” he said, gathering up his gown and slowly rising.

“Yes, I saw the man sitting in the hall,” remarked Theron, getting to his feet.

“I would ask you to go upstairs and wait,” the priest went on, “but my return, unhappily, is quite uncertain. Another evening I may be more fortunate. I am leaving town tomorrow for some days, but when I get back —”

The polite sentence did not complete itself. Father Forbes had come out into the hall, giving a cool nod to the working-man, who rose from the bench as they passed, and shook hands with his guest on the doorstep.

When the door had closed upon Mr. Ware, the priest turned to the man. “You have come about those frames,” he said. “If you will come upstairs, I will show you the prints, and you can give me a notion of what can be done with them. I rather fancy the idea of a triptych in carved old English, if you can manage it.”

After the workman had gone away, Father Forbes put on slippers and an old loose soutane, lighted a cigar, and, pushing an easy-chair over to the reading lamp, sat down with a book. Then something occurred to him, and he touched the house-bell at his elbow.

“Maggie,” he said gently, when the housekeeper appeared at the door, “I will have the coffee and FINE CHAMPAGNE up here, if it is no trouble. And — oh, Maggie — I was compelled this evening to turn the blameless visit of the framemaker into a venial sin, and that involves a needless wear and tear of conscience. I think that — hereafter — you understand? — I am not invariably at home when the Rev. Mr. Ware does me the honor to call.”

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