The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxvii

That night brought the first frost of the season worth counting. In the morning, when Theron came downstairs, his casual glance through the window caught a desolate picture of blackened dahlia stalks and shrivelled blooms. The gayety and color of the garden were gone, and in their place was shabby and dishevelled ruin. He flung the sash up and leaned out. The nipping autumn air was good to breathe. He looked about him, surveying the havoc the frost had wrought among the flowers, and smiled.

At breakfast he smiled again — a mirthless and calculated smile. “I see that Brother Gorringe’s flowers have come to grief over night,” he remarked.

Alice looked at him before she spoke, and saw on his face a confirmation of the hostile hint in his voice. She nodded in a constrained way, and said nothing.

“Or rather, I should say,” Theron went on, with deliberate words, “the late Brother Gorringe’s flowers.”

“How do you mean — LATE” asked his wife, swiftly.

“Oh, calm yourself!” replied the husband. “He is not dead. He has only intimated to me his desire to sever his connection. I may add that he did so in a highly offensive manner.”

“I am very sorry,” said Alice, in a low tone, and with her eyes on her plate.

“I took it for granted you would be grieved at his backsliding,” remarked Theron, making his phrases as pointed as he could. “He was such a promising probationer, and you took such a keen interest in his spiritual awakening. But the frost has nipped his zeal — along with the hundred or more dollars’ worth of flowers by which he testified his faith. I find something interesting in their having been blasted simultaneously.”

Alice dropped all pretence of interest in her breakfast. With a flushed face and lips tightly compressed, she made a movement as if to rise from her chair. Then, changing her mind, she sat bolt upright and faced her husband.

“I think we had better have this out right now,” she said, in a voice which Theron hardly recognized. “You have been hinting round the subject long enough — too long. There are some things nobody is obliged to put up with, and this is one of them. You will oblige me by saying out in so many words what it is you are driving at.”

The outburst astounded Theron. He laid down his knife and fork, and gazed at his wife in frank surprise. She had so accustomed him, of late, to a demeanor almost abject in its depressed docility that he had quite forgotten the Alice of the old days, when she had spirit and courage enough for two, and a notable tongue of her own. The flash in her eyes and the lines of resolution about her mouth and chin for a moment daunted him. Then he observed by a flutter of the frill at her wrist that she was trembling.

“I am sure I have nothing to ‘say out in so many words,’ as you put it,” he replied, forcing his voice into cool, impassive tones. “I merely commented upon a coincidence, that was all. If, for any reason under the sun, the subject chances to be unpleasant to you, I have no earthly desire to pursue it.”

“But I insist upon having it pursued!” returned Alice. “I’ve had just all I can stand of your insinuations and innuendoes, and it’s high time we had some plain talk. Ever since the revival, you have been dropping sly, underhand hints about Mr. Gorringe and — and me. Now I ask you what you mean by it.”

Yes, there was a shake in her voice, and he could see how her bosom heaved in a tremor of nervousness. It was easy for him to be very calm.

“It is you who introduce these astonishing suggestions, not I,” he replied coldly. “It is you who couple your name with his — somewhat to my surprise, I admit — but let me suggest that we drop the subject. You are excited just now, and you might say things that you would prefer to leave unsaid. It would surely be better for all concerned to say no more about it.”

Alice, staring across the table at him with knitted brows, emitted a sharp little snort of indignation. “Well, I never! Theron, I wouldn’t have thought it of you!”

“There are so many things you wouldn’t have thought, on such a variety of subjects,” he observed, with a show of resuming his breakfast. “But why continue? We are only angering each other.”

“Never mind that,” she replied, with more control over her speech. “I guess things have come to a pass where a little anger won’t do any harm. I have a right to insist on knowing what you mean by your insinuations.”

Theron sighed. “Why will you keep harping on the thing?” he asked wearily. “I have displayed no curiosity. I don’t ask for any explanations. I think I mentioned that the man had behaved insultingly to me — but that doesn’t matter. I don’t bring it up as a grievance. I am very well able to take care of myself I have no wish to recur to the incident in any way. So far as I am concerned, the topic is dismissed.”

“Listen to me!” broke in Alice, with eager gravity. She hesitated, as he looked up with a nod of attention, and reflected as well as she was able among her thoughts for a minute or two. “This is what I want to say to you. Ever since we came to this hateful Octavius, you and I have been drifting apart — or no, that doesn’t express it — simply rushing away from each other. It only began last spring, and now the space between us is so wide that we are worse than complete strangers. For strangers at least don’t hate each other, and I’ve had a good many occasions lately to see that you positively do hate me —”

“What grotesque absurdity” interposed Theron, impatiently.

“No, it isn’t absurdity; it’s gospel truth,” retorted Alice. “And — don’t interrupt me — there have been times, too, when I have had to ask myself if I wasn’t getting almost to hate you in return. I tell you this frankly.”

“Yes, you are undoubtedly frank,” commented the husband, toying with his teaspoon. “A hypercritical person might consider, almost too frank.”

Alice scanned his face closely while he spoke, and held her breath as if in expectant suspense. Her countenance clouded once more. “You don’t realize, Theron,” she said gravely; “your voice when you speak to me, your look, your manner, they have all changed. You are like another man — some man who never loved me, and doesn’t even know me, much less like me. I want to know what the end of it is to be. Up to the time of your sickness last summer, until after the Soulsbys went away, I didn’t let myself get downright discouraged. It seemed too monstrous for belief that you should go away out of my life like that. It didn’t seem possible that God could allow such a thing. It came to me that I had been lax in my Christian life, especially in my position as a minister’s wife, and that this was my punishment. I went to the altar, to intercede with Him, and to try to loose my burden at His feet. But nothing has come of it. I got no help from you.”

“Really, Alice,” broke in Theron, “I explained over and over again to you how preoccupied I was — with the book — and affairs generally.”

“I got no assistance from Heaven either,” she went on, declining the diversion he offered. “I don’t want to talk impiously, but if there is a God, he has forgotten me, his poor heart-broken hand-maiden.”

“You are talking impiously, Alice,” observed her husband. “And you are doing me cruel injustice, into the bargain.”

“I only wish I were!” she replied; “I only wish to God I were!”

“Well, then, accept my complete assurance that you ARE— that your whole conception of me, and of what you are pleased to describe as my change toward you, is an entire and utter mistake. Of course, the married state is no more exempt from the universal law of growth, development, alteration, than any other human institution. On its spiritual side, of course, viewed either as a sacrament, or as —”

“Don’t let us go into that,” interposed Alice, abruptly. “In fact, there is no good in talking any more at all. It is as if we didn’t speak the same language. You don’t understand what I say; it makes no impression upon your mind.”

“Quite to the contrary,” he assured her; “I have been deeply interested and concerned in all you have said. I think you are laboring under a great delusion, and I have tried my best to convince you of it; but I have never heard you speak more intelligibly or, I might say, effectively.”

A little gleam of softness stole over Alice’s face. “If you only gave me a little more credit for intelligence,” she said, “you would find that I am not such a blockhead as you think I am.”

“Come, come!” he said, with a smiling show of impatience. “You really mustn’t impute things to me wholesale, like that.”

She was glad to answer the smile in kind. “No; but truly,” she pleaded, “you don’t realize it, but you have grown into a way of treating me as if I had absolutely no mind at all.”

“You have a very admirable mind,” he responded, and took up his teaspoon again. She reached for his cup, and poured out hot coffee for him. An almost cheerful spirit had suddenly descended upon the breakfast table.

“And now let me say the thing I have been aching to say for months,” she began in less burdened voice.

He lifted his brows. “Haven’t things been discussed pretty fully already?” he asked.

The doubtful, harassed expression clouded upon her face at his words, and she paused. “No,” she said resolutely, after an instant’s reflection; “it is my duty to discuss this, too. It is a misunderstanding all round. You remember that I told you Mr. Gorringe had given me some plants, which he got from some garden or other?”

“If you really wish to go on with the subject — yes I have a recollection of that particular falsehood of his.”

“He did it with the kindest and friendliest motives in the world!” protested Alice. “He saw how down-inthe-mouth and moping I was here, among these strangers — and I really was getting quite peaked and run-down — and he said I stayed indoors too much and it would do me all sorts of good to work in the garden, and he would send me some plants. The next I knew, here they were, with a book about mixing soils and planting, and so on. When I saw him next, and thanked him, I suppose I showed some apprehension about his having laid out money on them, and he, just to ease my mind, invented the story about his getting them for nothing. When I found out the truth — I got it out of that boy, Harvey Semple — he admitted it quite frankly — said he was wrong to deceive me.”

“This was in the fine first fervor of his term of probation, I suppose,” put in Theron. He made no effort to dissemble the sneer in his voice.

“Well,” answered Alice, with a touch of acerbity, “I have told you now, and it is off my mind. There never would have been the slightest concealment about it, if you hadn’t begun by keeping me at arm’s length, and making it next door to impossible to speak to you at all, and if —”

“And if he hadn’t lied.” Theron, as he finished her sentence for her, rose from the table. Dallying for a brief moment by his chair, there seemed the magnetic premonition in the air of some further and kindlier word. Then he turned and walked sedately into the next room, and closed the door behind him. The talk was finished; and Alice, left alone, passed the knuckle of her thumb over one swimming eye and then the other, and bit her lips and swallowed down the sob that rose in her throat.

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