The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxix

The train was at a standstill somewhere, and the dull, ashen beginnings of daylight had made a first feeble start toward effacing the lamps in the car-roof, when the new day opened for Theron. A man who had just come in stopped at the seat upon which he had been stretched through the night, and, tapping him brusquely on the knee, said, “I’m afraid I must trouble you, sir.” After a moment of sleep-burdened confusion, he sat up, and the man took the other half of the seat and opened a newspaper, still damp from the press. It was morning, then.

Theron rubbed a clear space upon the clouded window with his thumb, and looked out. There was nothing to be seen but a broad stretch of tracks, and beyond this the shadowed outlines of wagons and machinery in a yard, with a background of factory buildings.

The atmosphere in the car was vile beyond belief. He thought of opening the window, but feared that the peremptory-looking man with the paper, who had wakened him and made him sit up, might object. They were the only people in the car who were sitting up. Backwards and forwards, on either side of the narrow aisle, the dim light disclosed recumbent forms, curled uncomfortably into corners, or sprawling at difficult angles which involved the least interference with one another. Here and there an upturned face gave a livid patch of surface for the mingled play of the gray dawn and the yellow lamp-light. A ceaseless noise of snoring was in the air.

He got up and walked to the tank of ice-water at the end of the aisle, and took a drink from the most inaccessible portion of the common tin-cup’s rim. The happy idea of going out on the platform struck him, and he acted upon it. The morning air was deliciously cool and fresh by contrast, and he filled his lungs with it again and again. Standing here, he could discern beyond the buildings to the right the faint purplish outlines of great rounded hills. Some workmen, one of them bearing a torch, were crouching along under the side of the train, pounding upon the resonant wheels with small hammers. He recalled having heard the same sound in the watches of the night, during a prolonged halt. Some one had said it was Albany. He smiled in spite of himself at the thought that Bishop Sanderson would never know about the visit he had missed.

Swinging himself to the ground, he bent sidewise and looked forward down the long train. There were five, six, perhaps more, sleeping-cars on in front. Which one of them, he wondered — and then there came the sharp “All aboard!” from the other side, and he bundled up the steps again, and entered the car as the train slowly resumed its progress.

He was wide-awake now, and quite at his ease. He took his seat, and diverted himself by winking gravely at a little child facing him on the next seat but one. There were four other children in the family party, encamped about the tired and still sleeping mother whose back was turned to Theron. He recalled now having noticed this poor woman last night, in the first stage of his journey — how she fed her brood from one of the numerous baskets piled under their feet, and brought water in a tin dish of her own from the tank to use in washing their faces with a rag, and loosened their clothes to dispose them for the night’s sleep. The face of the woman, her manner and slatternly aspect, and the general effect of her belongings, bespoke squalid ignorance and poverty. Watching her, Theron had felt curiously interested in the performance. In one sense, it was scarcely more human than the spectacle of a cat licking her kittens, or a cow giving suck to her calf. Yet, in another, was there anything more human?

The child who had wakened before the rest regarded him with placidity, declining to be amused by his winkings, but exhibiting no other emotion. She had been playing by herself with a couple of buttons tied on a string, and after giving a civil amount of attention to Theron’s grimaces, she turned again to the superior attractions of this toy. Her self-possession, her capacity for self-entertainment, the care she took not to arouse the others, all impressed him very much. He felt in his pocket for a small coin, and, reaching forward, offered it to her. She took it calmly, bestowed a tranquil gaze upon him for a moment, and went back to the buttons. Her indifference produced an unpleasant sensation upon him somehow, and he rubbed the steaming window clear again, and stared out of it.

The wide river lay before him, flanked by a precipitous wall of cliffs which he knew instantly must be the Palisades. There was an advertisement painted on them which he tried in vain to read. He was surprised to find they interested him so slightly. He had heard all his life of the Hudson, and especially of it just at this point. The reality seemed to him almost commonplace. His failure to be thrilled depressed him for the moment.

“I suppose those ARE the Palisades?” he asked his neighbor.

The man glanced up from his paper, nodded, and made as if to resume his reading. But his eye had caught something in the prospect through the window which arrested his attention. “By George!” he exclaimed, and lifted himself to get a clearer view.

“What is it?” asked Theron, peering forth as well.

“Nothing; only Barclay Wendover’s yacht is still there. There’s been a hitch of some sort. They were to have left yesterday.”

“Is that it — that long black thing?” queried Theron. “That can’t be a yacht, can it?”

“What do you think it is?” answered the other. They were looking at a slim, narrow hull, lying at anchor, silent and motionless on the drab expanse of water. “If that ain’t a yacht, they haven’t begun building any yet. They’re taking her over to the Mediterranean for a cruise, you know — around India and Japan for the winter, and home by the South Sea islands. Friend o’ mine’s in the party. Wouldn’t mind the trip myself.”

“But do you mean to say,” asked Theron, “that that little shell of a thing can sail across the ocean? Why, how many people would she hold?”

The man laughed. “Well,” he said, “there’s room for two sets of quadrilles in the chief saloon, if the rest keep their legs well up on the sofas. But there’s only ten or a dozen in the party this time. More than that rather get in one another’s way, especially with so many ladies on board.”

Theron asked no more questions, but bent his head to see the last of this wonderful craft. The sight of it, and what he had heard about it, suddenly gave point and focus to his thoughts. He knew at last what it was that had lurked, formless and undesignated, these many days in the background of his dreams. The picture rose in his mind now of Celia as the mistress of a yacht. He could see her reclining in a low easy-chair upon the polished deck, with the big white sails billowing behind her, and the sun shining upon the deep blue waves, and glistening through the splash of spray in the air, and weaving a halo of glowing gold about her fair head. Ah, how the tender visions crowded now upon him! Eternal summer basked round this enchanted yacht of his fancy — summer sought now in Scottish firths or Norwegian fiords, now in quaint old Southern harbors, ablaze with the hues of strange costumes and half-tropical flowers and fruits, now in far-away Oriental bays and lagoons, or among the coral reefs and palm-trees of the luxurious Pacific. He dwelt upon these new imaginings with the fervent longing of an inland-born boy. Every vague yearning he had ever felt toward salt-water stirred again in his blood at the thought of the sea — with Celia.

Why not? She had never visited any foreign land. “Sometime,” she had said, “sometime, no doubt I will.” He could hear again the wistful, musing tone of her voice. The thought had fascinations for her, it was clear. How irresistibly would it not appeal to her, presented with the added charm of a roving, vagrant independence on the high seas, free to speed in her snow-winged chariot wherever she willed over the deep, loitering in this place, or up-helm-and-away to another, with no more care or weight of responsibility than the gulls tossing through the air in her wake!

Theron felt, rather than phrased to himself, that there would not be “ten or a dozen in the party” on that yacht. Without defining anything in his mind, he breathed in fancy the same bold ocean breeze which filled the sails, and toyed with Celia’s hair; he looked with her as she sat by the rail, and saw the same waves racing past, the same vast dome of cloud and ether that were mirrored in her brown eyes, and there was no one else anywhere near them. Even the men in sailors’ clothes, who would be pulling at ropes, or climbing up tarred ladders, kept themselves considerately outside the picture. Only Celia sat there, and at her feet, gazing up again into her face as in the forest, the man whose whole being had been consecrated to her service, her worship, by the kiss.

“You’ve passed it now. I was trying to point out the Jumel house to you — where Aaron Burr lived, you know.”

Theron roused himself from his day-dream, and nodded with a confused smile at his neighbor. “Thanks,” he faltered; “I didn’t hear you. The train makes such a noise, and I must have been dozing.”

He looked about him. The night aspect, as of a tramps’ lodging-house, had quite disappeared from the car. Everybody was sitting up; and the more impatient were beginning to collect their bundles and hand-bags from the racks and floor. An expressman came through, jangling a huge bunch of brass checks on leathern thongs over his arm, and held parley with passengers along the aisle. Outside, citified streets, with stores and factories, were alternating in the moving panorama with open fields; and, even as he looked, these vacant spaces ceased altogether, and successive regular lines of pavement, between two tall rows of houses all alike, began to stretch out, wheel to the right, and swing off out of view, for all the world like the avenues of hop-poles he remembered as a boy. Then was a long tunnel, its darkness broken at stated intervals by brief bursts of daylight from overhead, and out of this all at once the train drew up its full length in some vast, vaguely lighted enclosure, and stopped.

“Yes, this is New York,” said the man, folding up his paper, and springing to his feet. The narrow aisle was filled with many others who had been prompter still; and Theron stood, bag in hand, waiting till this energetic throng should have pushed itself bodily past him forth from the car. Then he himself made his way out, drifting with a sense of helplessness in their resolute wake. There rose in his mind the sudden conviction that he would be too late. All the passengers in the forward sleepers would be gone before he could get there. Yet even this terror gave him no new power to get ahead of anybody else in the tightly packed throng.

Once on the broad platform, the others started off briskly; they all seemed to know just where they wanted to go, and to feel that no instant of time was to be lost in getting there. Theron himself caught some of this urgent spirit, and hurled himself along in the throng with reckless haste, knocking his bag against peoples’ legs, but never pausing for apology or comment until he found himself abreast of the locomotive at the head of the train. He drew aside from the main current here, and began searching the platform, far and near, for those he had travelled so far to find.

The platform emptied itself. Theron lingered on in puzzled hesitation, and looked about him. In the whole immense station, with its acres of tracks and footways, and its incessantly shifting processions of people, there was visible nobody else who seemed also in doubt, or who appeared capable of sympathizing with indecision in any form. Another train came in, some way over to the right, and before it had fairly stopped, swarms of eager men began boiling out of each end of each car, literally precipitating themselves over one another, it seemed to Theron, in their excited dash down the steps. As they caught their footing below, they started racing pell-mell down the platform to its end; there he saw them, looking more than ever like clustered bees in the distance, struggling vehemently in a dense mass up a staircase in the remote corner of the building.

“What are those folks running for? Is there a fire?” he asked an amiable-faced young mulatto, in the uniform of the sleeping-car service, who passed him with some light hand-bags.

“No; they’s Harlem people, I guess — jes’ catchin’ the Elevated — that’s all, sir,” he answered obligingly.

At the moment some passengers emerged slowly from one of the sleeping-cars, and came loitering toward him.

“Why, are there people still in these cars?” he asked eagerly. “Haven’t they all gone?”

“Some has; some ain’t,” the porter replied. “They most generally take their time about it. They ain’t no hurry, so long’s they get out ‘fore we’re drawn round to the drill-yard.”

There was still hope, then. Theron took up his bag and walked forward, intent upon finding some place from which he could watch unobserved the belated stragglers issuing from the sleeping-cars. He started back all at once, confronted by a semi-circle of violent men with whips and badges, who stunned his hearing by a sudden vociferous outburst of shouts and yells. They made furious gestures at him with their whips and fists, to enforce the incoherent babel of their voices; and in these gestures, as in their faces and cries, there seemed a great deal of menace and very little invitation. There was a big policeman sauntering near by, and Theron got the idea that it was his presence alone which protected him from open violence at the hands of these savage hackmen. He tightened his clutch on his valise, and, turning his back on them and their uproar, tried to brave it out and stand where he was. But the policeman came lounging slowly toward him, with such authority in his swaying gait, and such urban omniscience written all over his broad, sandy face, that he lost heart, and beat an abrupt retreat off to the right, where there were a number of doorways, near which other people had ventured to put down baggage on the floor.

Here, somewhat screened from observation, he stood for a long time, watching at odd moments the ceaselessly varying phases of the strange scene about him, but always keeping an eye on the train he had himself arrived in. It was slow and dispiriting work. A dozen times his heart failed him, and he said to himself mournfully that he had had his journey for nothing. Then some new figure would appear, alighting from the steps of a sleeper, and hope revived in his breast.

At last, when over half an hour of expectancy had been marked off by the big clock overhead, his suspense came to an end. He saw Father Forbes’ erect and substantial form, standing on the car platform nearest of all, balancing himself with his white hands on the rails, waiting for something. Then after a little he came down, followed by a black porter, whose arms were burdened by numerous bags and parcels. The two stood a minute or so more in hesitation at the side of the steps. Then Celia descended, and the three advanced.

The importance of not being discovered was uppermost in Theron’s mind, now that he saw them actually coming toward him. He had avoided this the previous evening, in the Octavius depot, with some skill, he flattered himself. It gave him a pleasurable sense of being a man of affairs, almost a detective, to be confronted by the necessity now of baffling observation once again. He was still rather without plans for keeping them in view, once they left the station. He had supposed that he would be able to hear what hotel they directed their driver to take them to, and, failing that, he had fostered a notion, based upon a story he had read when a boy, of throwing himself into another carriage, and bidding his driver to pursue them in hot haste, and on his life not fail to track them down. These devices seemed somewhat empty, now that the urgent moment was at hand; and as he drew back behind some other loiterers, out of view, he sharply racked his wits for some way of coping with this most pressing problem.

It turned out, however, that there was no difficulty at all. Father Forbes and Celia seemed to have no use for the hackmen, but moved straight forward toward the street, through the doorway next to that in which Theron cowered. He stole round, and followed them at a safe distance, making Celia’s hat, and the portmanteau perched on the shoulder of the porter behind her, his guides. To his surprise, they still kept on their course when they had reached the sidewalk, and went over the pavement across an open square which spread itself directly in front of the station. Hanging as far behind as he dared, he saw them pass to the other sidewalk diagonally opposite, proceed for a block or so along this, and then separate at a corner. Celia and the negro lad went down a side street, and entered the door of a vast, tall red-brick building which occupied the whole block. The priest, turning on his heel, came back again and went boldly up the broad steps of the front entrance to this same structure, which Theron now discovered to be the Murray Hill Hotel.

Fortune had indeed favored him. He not only knew where they were, but he had been himself a witness to the furtive way in which they entered the house by different doors. Nothing in his own limited experience of hotels helped him to comprehend the notion of a separate entrance for ladies and their luggage. He did not feel quite sure about the significance of what he had observed, in his own mind. But it was apparent to him that there was something underhanded about it.

After lingering awhile on the steps of the hotel, and satisfying himself by peeps through the glass doors that the coast was clear, he ventured inside. The great corridor contained many people, coming, going, or standing about, but none of them paid any attention to him. At last he made up his mind, and beckoned a colored boy to him from a group gathered in the shadows of the big central staircase. Explaining that he did not at that moment wish a room, but desired to leave his bag, the boy took him to a cloak-room, and got him a check for the thing. With this in his pocket he felt himself more at his ease, and turned to walk away. Then suddenly he wheeled, and, bending his body over the counter of the cloak-room, astonished the attendant inside by the eagerness with which he scrutinized the piled rows of portmanteaus, trunks, overcoats, and bundles in the little enclosure.

“What is it you want? Here’s your bag, if you’re looking for that,” this man said to him.

“No, thanks; it’s nothing,” replied Theron, straightening himself again. He had had a narrow escape. Father Forbes and Celia, walking side by side, had come down the small passage in which he stood, and had passed him so closely that he had felt her dress brush against him. Fortunately he had seen them in time, and by throwing himself half into the cloak-room, had rendered recognition impossible.

He walked now in the direction they had taken, till he came to the polite colored man at an open door on the left, who was bowing people into the breakfast room. Standing in the doorway, he looked about him till his eye lighted upon his two friends, seated at a small table by a distant window, with a black waiter, card in hand, bending over in consultation with them.

Returning to the corridor, he made bold now to march up to the desk and examine the register. The priest’s name was not there. He found only the brief entry, “Miss Madden, Octavius,” written, not by her, but by Father Forbes. On the line were two numbers in pencil, with an “and” between them. An indirect question to one of the clerks helped him to an explanation of this. When there were two numbers, it meant that the guest in question had a parlor as well as a bedroom.

Here he drew a long, satisfied breath, and turned away. The first half of his quest stood completed — and that much more fully and easily than he had dared to hope. He could not but feel a certain new respect for himself as a man of resource and energy. He had demonstrated that people could not fool with him with impunity.

It remained to decide what he would do with his discovery, now that it had been so satisfactorily made. As yet, he had given this hardly a thought. Even now, it did not thrust itself forward as a thing demanding instant attention. It was much more important, first of all, to get a good breakfast. He had learned that there was another and less formal eating-place, downstairs in the basement by the bar, with an entrance from the street. He walked down by the inner stairway instead, feeling himself already at home in the big hotel. He ordered an ample breakfast, and came out while it was being served to wash and have his boots blacked, and he gave the man a quarter of a dollar. His pockets were filled with silver quarters, half-dollars, and dollars almost to a burdensome point, and in his valise was a bag full of smaller change, including many rolls of copper cents which Alice always counted and packed up on Mondays. In the hurry of leaving he had brought with him the church collections for the past two weeks. It occurred to him that he must keep a strict account of his expenditure. Meanwhile he gave ten cents to another man in a silk-sleeved cardigan jacket, who had merely stood by and looked at him while his boots were being polished. There was a sense of metropolitan affluence in the very atmosphere.

The little table in the adjoining room, on which Theron found his meal in waiting for him, seemed a vision of delicate napery and refined appointments in his eyes. He was wolfishly hungry, and the dishes he looked upon gave him back assurances by sight and smell that he was very happy as well. The servant in attendance had an extremely white apron and a kindly black face. He bowed when Theron looked at him, with the air of a lifelong admirer and humble friend.

“I suppose you’ll have claret with your breakfast, sir?” he remarked, as if it were a matter of course.

“Why, certainly,” answered Theron, stretching his legs contentedly under the table, and tucking the corner of his napkin in his neckband. —“Certainly, my good man.”

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