The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxviii

It was early afternoon when Theron walked out of his yard, bestowing no glance upon the withered and tarnished show of the garden, and started with a definite step down the street. The tendency to ruminative loitering, which those who saw him abroad always associated with his tall, spare figure, was not suggested today. He moved forward like a man with a purpose.

All the forenoon in the seclusion of the sitting-room, with a book opened before him, he had been thinking hard. It was not the talk with Alice that occupied his thoughts. That rose in his mind from time to time, only as a disagreeable blur, and he refused to dwell upon it. It was nothing to him, he said to himself, what Gorringe’s motives in lying had been. As for Alice, he hardened his heart against her. Just now it was her mood to try and make up to him. But it had been something different yesterday, and who could say what it would be tomorrow? He really had passed the limit of patience with her shifting emotional vagaries, now lurching in this direction, now in that. She had had her chance to maintain a hold upon his interest and imagination, and had let it slip. These were the accidents of life, the inevitable harsh happenings in the great tragedy of Nature. They could not be helped, and there was nothing more to be said.

He had bestowed much more attention upon what the priest had said the previous evening. He passed in review all the glowing tributes Father Forbes had paid to Celia. They warmed his senses as he recalled them, but they also, in a curious, indefinite way, caused him uneasiness. There had been a personal fervor about them which was something more than priestly. He remembered how the priest had turned pale and faltered when the question whether Celia would escape the general doom of her family came up. It was not a merely pastoral agitation that, he felt sure.

A hundred obscure hints, doubts, stray little suspicions, crowded upward together in his thoughts. It became apparent to him now that from the outset he had been conscious of something queer — yes, from that very first day when he saw the priest and Celia together, and noted their glance of recognition inside the house of death. He realized now, upon reflection, that the tone of other people, his own parishioners and his casual acquaintances in Octavius alike, had always had a certain note of reservation in it when it touched upon Miss Madden. Her running in and out of the pastorate at all hours, the way the priest patted her on the shoulder before others, the obvious dislike the priest’s ugly old housekeeper bore her, the astonishing freedom of their talk with each other — these dark memories loomed forth out of a mass of sinister conjecture.

He could bear the uncertainty no longer. Was it indeed not entirely his own fault that it had existed thus long? No man with the spirit of a mouse would have shilly-shallied in this preposterous fashion, week after week, with the fever of a beautiful woman’s kiss in his blood, and the woman herself living only round the corner. The whole world had been as good as offered to him — a bewildering world of wealth and beauty and spiritual exaltation and love — and he, like a weak fool, had waited for it to be brought to him on a salver, as it were, and actually forced upon his acceptance! “That is my failing,” he reflected; “these miserable ecclesiastical bandages of mine have dwarfed my manly side. The meanest of Thurston’s clerks would have shown a more adventurous spirit and a bolder nerve. If I do not act at once, with courage and resolution, everything will be lost. Already she must think me unworthy of the honor it was in her sweet will to bestow.” Then he remembered that she was now always at home. “Not another hour of foolish indecision!” he whispered to himself. “I will put my destiny to the test. I will see her today!”

A middle-aged, plain-faced servant answered his ring at the door-bell of the Madden mansion. She was palpably Irish, and looked at him with a saddened preoccupation in her gray eyes, holding the door only a little ajar.

Theron had got out one of his cards. “I wish to make inquiry about young Mr. Madden — Mr. Michael Madden,” he said, holding the card forth tentatively. “I have only just heard of his illness, and it has been a great grief to me.”

“He is no better,” answered the woman, briefly.

“I am the Rev. Mr. Ware,” he went on, “and you may say that, if he is well enough, I should be glad to see him.”

The servant peered out at him with a suddenly altered expression, then shook her head. “I don’t think he would be wishing to see YOU,” she replied. It was evident from her tone that she suspected the visitor’s intentions.

Theron smiled in spite of himself. “I have not come as a clergyman,” he explained, “but as a friend of the family. If you will tell Miss Madden that I am here, it will do just as well. Yes, we won’t bother him. If you will kindly hand my card to his sister.”

When the domestic turned at this and went in, Theron felt like throwing his hat in the air, there where he stood. The woman’s churlish sectarian prejudices had played ideally into his hands. In no other imaginable way could he have asked for Celia so naturally. He wondered a little that a servant at such a grand house as this should leave callers standing on the doorstep. Still more he wondered what he should say to the lady of his dream when he came into her presence.

“Will you please to walk this way?” The woman had returned. She closed the door noiselessly behind him, and led the way, not up the sumptuous staircase, as Theron had expected, but along through the broad hall, past several large doors, to a small curtained archway at the end. She pushed aside this curtain, and Theron found himself in a sort of conservatory, full of the hot, vague light of sunshine falling through ground-glass. The air was moist and close, and heavy with the smell of verdure and wet earth. A tall bank of palms, with ferns sprawling at their base, reared itself directly in front of him. The floor was of mosaic, and he saw now that there were rugs upon it, and that there were chairs and sofas, and other signs of habitation. It was, indeed, only half a greenhouse, for the lower part of it was in rosewood panels, with floral paintings on them, like a room.

Moving to one side of the barrier of palms, he discovered, to his great surprise, the figure of Michael, sitting propped up with pillows in a huge easy-chair. The sick man was looking at him with big, gravely intent eyes. His face did not show as much change as Theron had in fancy pictured. It had seemed almost as bony and cadaverous on the day of the picnic. The hands spread out on the chair-arms were very white and thin, though, and the gaze in the blue eyes had a spectral quality which disturbed him.

Michael raised his right hand, and Theron, stepping forward, took it limply in his for an instant. Then he laid it down again. The touch of people about to die had always been repugnant to him. He could feel on his own warm palm the very damp of the grave.

“I only heard from Father Forbes last evening of your — your ill-health,” he said, somewhat hesitatingly. He seated himself on a bench beneath the palms, facing the invalid, but still holding his hat. “I hope very sincerely that you will soon be all right again.”

“My sister is lying down in her room,” answered Michael. He had not once taken his sombre and embarrassing gaze from the other’s face. The voice in which he uttered this uncalled-for remark was thin in fibre, cold and impassive. It fell upon Theron’s ears with a suggestion of hidden meaning. He looked uneasily into Michael’s eyes, and then away again. They seemed to be looking straight through him, and there was no shirking the sensation that they saw and comprehended things with an unnatural prescience.

“I hope she is feeling better,” Theron found himself saying. “Father Forbes mentioned that she was a little under the weather. I dined with him last night.”

“I am glad that you came,” said Michael, after a little pause. His earnest, unblinking eyes seemed to supplement his tongue with speech of their own. “I do be thinking a great deal about you. I have matters to speak of to you, now that you are here.”

Theron bowed his head gently, in token of grateful attention. He tried the experiment of looking away from Michael, but his glance went back again irresistibly, and fastened itself upon the sick man’s gaze, and clung there.

“I am next door to a dead man,” he went on, paying no heed to the other’s deprecatory gesture. “It is not years or months with me, but weeks. Then I go away to stand up for judgment on my sins, and if it is His merciful will, I shall see God. So I say my good-byes now, and so you will let me speak plainly, and not think ill of what I say. You are much changed, Mr. Ware, since you came to Octavius, and it is not a change for the good.”

Theron lifted his brows in unaffected surprise, and put inquiry into his glance.

“I don’t know if Protestants will be saved, in God’s good time, or not,” continued Michael. “I find there are different opinions among the clergy about that, and of course it is not for me, only a plain mechanic, to be sure where learned and pious scholars are in doubt. But I am sure about one thing. Those Protestants, and others too, mind you, who profess and preach good deeds, and themselves do bad deeds — they will never be saved. They will have no chance at all to escape hell-fire.”

“I think we are all agreed upon that, Mr. Madden,” said Theron, with surface suavity.

“Then I say to you, Mr. Ware, you are yourself in a bad path. Take the warning of a dying man, sir, and turn from it!”

The impulse to smile tugged at Theron’s facial muscles. This was really too droll. He looked up at the ceiling, the while he forced his countenance into a polite composure, then turned again to Michael, with some conciliatory commonplace ready for utterance. But he said nothing, and all suggestion of levity left his mind, under the searching inspection bent upon him by the young man’s hollow eyes. What did Michael suspect? What did he know? What was he hinting at, in this strange talk of his?

“I saw you often on the street when first you came here,” continued Michael. “I knew the man who was here before you — that is, by sight — and he was not a good man. But your face, when you came, pleased me. I liked to look at you. I was tormented just then, do you see, that so many decent, kindly people, old school-mates and friends and neighbors of mine — and, for that matter, others all over the country must lose their souls because they were Protestants. At my boyhood and young manhood, that thought took the joy out of me. Sometimes I usen’t to sleep a whole night long, for thinking that some lad I had been playing with, perhaps in his own house, that very day, would be taken when he died, and his mother too, when she died, and thrown into the flames of hell for all eternity. It made me so unhappy that finally I wouldn’t go to any Protestant boy’s house, and have his mother be nice to me, and give me cake and apples — and me thinking all the while that they were bound to be damned, no matter how good they were to me.”

The primitive humanity of this touched Theron, and he nodded approbation with a tender smile in his eyes, forgetting for the moment that a personal application of the monologue had been hinted at.

“But then later, as I grew up,” the sick man went on, “I learned that it was not altogether certain. Some of the authorities, I found, maintained that it was doubtful, and some said openly that there must be salvation possible for good people who lived in ignorance of the truth through no fault of their own. Then I had hope one day, and no hope the next, and as I did my work I thought it over, and in the evenings my father and I talked it over, and we settled nothing of it at all. Of course, how could we?”

“Did you ever discuss the question with your sister?” it occurred suddenly to Theron to interpose. He was conscious of some daring in doing so, and he fancied that Michael’s drawn face clouded a little at his words.

“My sister is no theologian,” he answered briefly. “Women have no call to meddle with such matters. But I was saying — it was in the middle of these doubtings of mine that you came here to Octavius, and I noticed you on the streets, and once in the evening — I made no secret of it to my people — I sat in the back of your church and heard you preach. As I say, I liked you. It was your face, and what I thought it showed of the man underneath it, that helped settle my mind more than anything else. I said to myself: ‘Here is a young man, only about my own age, and he has education and talents, and he does not seek to make money for himself, or a great name, but he is content to live humbly on the salary of a book-keeper, and devote all his time to prayer and the meditation of his religion, and preaching, and visiting the sick and the poor, and comforting them. His very face is a pleasure and a help for those in suffering and trouble to look at. The very sight of it makes one believe in pure thoughts and merciful deeds. I will not credit it that God intends damning such a man as that, or any like him!’”

Theron bowed, with a slow, hesitating gravity of manner, and deep, not wholly complacent, attention on his face. Evidently all this was by way of preparation for something unpleasant.

“That was only last spring,” said Michael. His tired voice sank for a sentence or two into a meditative half-whisper. “And it was MY last spring of all. I shall not be growing weak any more, or drawing hard breaths, when the first warm weather comes. It will be one season to me hereafter, always the same.” He lifted his voice with perceptible effort. “I am talking too much. The rest I can say in a word. Only half a year has gone by, and you have another face on you entirely. I had noticed the small changes before, one by one. I saw the great change, all of a sudden, the day of the picnic. I see it a hundred times more now, as you sit there. If it seemed to me like the face of a saint before, it is more like the face of a bar-keeper now!”

This was quite too much. Theron rose, flushed to the temples, and scowled down at the helpless man in the chair. He swallowed the sharp words which came uppermost, and bit and moistened his lips as he forced himself to remember that this was a dying man, and Celia’s brother, to whom she was devoted, and whom he himself felt he wanted to be very fond of. He got the shadow of a smile on to his countenance.

“I fear you HAVE tired yourself unduly,” he said, in as non-contentious a tone as he could manage. He even contrived a little deprecatory laugh. “I am afraid your real quarrel is with the air of Octavius. It agrees with me so wonderfully — I am getting as fat as a seal. But I do hope I am not paying for it by such a wholesale deterioration inside. If my own opinion could be of any value, I should assure you that I feel myself an infinitely better and broader and stronger man than I was when I came here.”

Michael shook his head dogmatically. “That is the greatest pity of all,” he said, with renewed earnestness. “You are entirely deceived about yourself. You do not at all realize how you have altered your direction, or where you are going. It was a great misfortune for you, sir, that you did not keep among your own people. That poor half-brother of mine, though the drink was in him when he said that same to you, never spoke a truer word. Keep among your own people, Mr. Ware! When you go among others — you know what I mean — you have no proper understanding of what their sayings and doings really mean. You do not realize that they are held up by the power of the true Church, as a little child learning to walk is held up with a belt by its nurse. They can say and do things, and no harm at all come to them, which would mean destruction to you, because they have help, and you are walking alone. And so be said by me, Mr. Ware! Go back to the way you were brought up in, and leave alone the people whose ways are different from yours. You are a married man, and you are the preacher of a religion, such as it is. There can be nothing better for you than to go and strive to be a good husband, and to set a good example to the people of your Church, who look up to you — and mix yourself up no more with outside people and outside notions that only do you mischief. And that is what I wanted to say to you.”

Theron took up his hat. “I take in all kindness what you have felt it your duty to say to me, Mr. Madden,” he said. “I am not sure that I have altogether followed you, but I am very sure you mean it well.”

“I mean well by you,” replied Michael, wearily moving his head on the pillow, and speaking in an undertone of languor and pain, “and I mean well by others, that are nearer to me, and that I have a right to care more about. When a man lies by the site of his open grave, he does not be meaning ill to any human soul.”

“Yes — thanks — quite so!” faltered Theron. He dallied for an instant with the temptation to seek some further explanation, but the sight of Michael’s half-closed eyes and worn-out expression decided him against it. It did not seem to be expected, either, that he should shake hands, and with a few perfunctory words of hope for the invalid’s recovery, which fell with a jarring note of falsehood upon his own ears, he turned and left the room. As he did so, Michael touched a bell on the table beside him.

Theron drew a long breath in the hall, as the curtain fell behind him. It was an immense relief to escape from the oppressive humidity and heat of the flower-room, and from that ridiculous bore of a Michael as well.

The middle-aged, grave-faced servant, warned by the bell, stood waiting to conduct him to the door.

“I am sorry to have missed Miss Madden,” he said to her. “She must be quite worn out. Perhaps later in the day —”

“She will not be seeing anybody today,” returned the woman. “She is going to New York this evening, and she is taking some rest against the journey.”

“Will she be away long?” he asked mechanically. The servant’s answer, “I have no idea,” hardly penetrated his consciousness at all.

He moved down the steps, and along the gravel to the street, in a maze of mental confusion. When he reached the sidewalk, under the familiar elms, he paused, and made a definite effort to pull his thoughts together, and take stock of what had happened, of what was going to happen; but the thing baffled him. It was as if some drug had stupefied his faculties.

He began to walk, and gradually saw that what he was thinking about was the fact of Celia’s departure for New York that evening. He stared at this fact, at first in its nakedness, then clothed with reassuring suggestions that this was no doubt a trip she very often made. There was a blind sense of comfort in this idea, and he rested himself upon it. Yes, of course, she travelled a great deal. New York must be as familiar to her as Octavius was to him. Her going there now was quite a matter of course — the most natural thing in the world.

Then there burst suddenly uppermost in his mind the other fact — that Father Forbes was also going to New York that evening. The two things spindled upward, side by side, yet separately, in his mental vision; then they twisted and twined themselves together. He followed their convolutions miserably, walking as if his eyes were shut.

In slow fashion matters defined and arranged themselves before him. The process of tracing their sequence was all torture, but there was no possibility, no notion, of shirking any detail of the pain. The priest had spoken of his efforts to persuade Celia to go away for a few days, for rest and change of air and scene. He must have known only too well that she was going, but of that he had been careful to drop no hint. The possibility of accident was too slight to be worth considering. People on such intimate terms as Celia and the priest — people with such facilities for seeing each other whenever they desired — did not find themselves on the same train of cars, with the same long journey in view, by mere chance.

Theron walked until dusk began to close in upon the autumn day. It grew colder, as he turned his face homeward. He wondered if it would freeze again over-night, and then remembered the shrivelled flowers in his wife’s garden. For a moment they shaped themselves in a picture before his mind’s eye; he saw their blackened foliage, their sicklied, drooping stalks, and wilted blooms, and as he looked, they restored themselves to the vigor and grace and richness of color of summer-time, as vividly as if they had been painted on a canvas. Or no, the picture he stared at was not on canvas, but on the glossy, varnished panel of a luxurious sleeping-car. He shook his head angrily and blinked his eyes again and again, to prevent their seeing, seated together in the open window above this panel, the two people he knew were there, gloved and habited for the night’s journey, waiting for the train to start.

“Very much to my surprise,” he found himself saying to Alice, watching her nervously as she laid the supper-table, “I find I must go to Albany tonight. That is, it isn’t absolutely necessary, for that matter, but I think it may easily turn out to be greatly to my advantage to go. Something has arisen — I can’t speak about it as yet — but the sooner I see the Bishop about it the better. Things like that occur in a man’s life, where boldly striking out a line of action, and following it up without an instant’s delay, may make all the difference in the world to him. Tomorrow it might be too late; and, besides, I can be home the sooner again.”

Alice’s face showed surprise, but no trace of suspicion. She spoke with studied amiability during the meal, and deferred with such unexpected tact to his implied desire not to be questioned as to the mysterious motives of the journey, that his mood instinctively softened and warmed toward her, as they finished supper.

He smiled a little. “I do hope I shan’t have to go on tomorrow to New York; but these Bishops of ours are such gad-abouts one never knows where to catch them. As like as not Sanderson may be down in New York, on Book–Concern business or something; and if he is, I shall have to chase him up. But, after all, perhaps the trip will do me good — the change of air and scene, you know.”

“I’m sure I hope so,” said Alice, honestly enough. “If you do go on to New York, I suppose you’ll go by the river-boat. Everybody talks so much of that beautiful sail down the Hudson.”

“That’s an idea!” exclaimed Theron, welcoming it with enthusiasm. “It hadn’t occurred to me. If I do have to go, and it is as lovely as they make out, the next time I promise I won’t go without you, my girl. I HAVE been rather out of sorts lately,” he continued. “When I come back, I daresay I shall be feeling better, more like my old self. Then I’m going to try, Alice, to be nicer to you than I have been of late. I’m afraid there was only too much truth in what you said this morning.”

“Never mind what I said this morning — or any other time,” broke in Alice, softly. “Don’t ever remember it again, Theron, if only — only —”

He rose as she spoke, moved round the table to where she sat, and, bending over her, stopped the faltering sentence with a kiss. When was it, he wondered, that he had last kissed her? It seemed years, ages, ago.

An hour later, with hat and overcoat on, and his valise in his hand, he stood on the doorstep of the parsonage, and kissed her once more before he turned and descended into the darkness. He felt like whistling as his feet sounded firmly on the plank sidewalk beyond the gate. It seemed as if he had never been in such capital good spirits before in his life.

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