The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter iii

When the three trustees had been shown in by the Rev. Mr. Ware, and had taken seats, an awkward little pause ensued. The young minister looked doubtingly from one face to another, the while they glanced with inquiring interest about the room, noting the pictures and appraising the furniture in their minds.

The obvious leader of the party, Loren Pierce, a rich quarryman, was an old man of medium size and mean attire, with a square, beardless face as hard and impassive in expression as one of his blocks of limestone. The irregular, thin-lipped mouth, slightly sunken, and shut with vice-like firmness, the short snub nose, and the little eyes squinting from half-closed lids beneath slightly marked brows, seemed scarcely to attain to the dignity of features, but evaded attention instead, as if feeling that they were only there at all from plain necessity, and ought not to be taken into account. Mr. Pierce’s face did not know how to smile — what was the use of smiles? — but its whole surface radiated secretiveness. Portrayed on canvas by a master brush, with a ruff or a red robe for masquerade, generations of imaginative amateurs would have seen in it vast reaching plots, the skeletons of a dozen dynastic cupboards, the guarded mysteries of half a century’s international diplomacy. The amateurs would have been wrong again. There was nothing behind Mr. Pierce’s juiceless countenance more weighty than a general determination to exact seven per cent for his money, and some specific notions about capturing certain brickyards which were interfering with his quarry-sales. But Octavius watched him shamble along its sidewalks quite as the Vienna of dead and forgotten yesterday might have watched Metternich.

Erastus Winch was of a breezier sort — a florid, stout, and sandy man, who spent most of his life driving over evil country roads in a buggy, securing orders for dairy furniture and certain allied lines of farm utensils. This practice had given him a loud voice and a deceptively hearty manner, to which the other avocation of cheese-buyer, which he pursued at the Board of Trade meetings every Monday afternoon, had added a considerable command of persuasive yet non-committal language. To look at him, still more to hear him, one would have sworn he was a good fellow, a trifle rough and noisy, perhaps, but all right at bottom. But the County Clerk of Dearborn County could have told you of agriculturists who knew Erastus from long and unhappy experience, and who held him to be even a tighter man than Loren Pierce in the matter of a mortgage.

The third trustee, Levi Gorringe, set one wondering at the very first glance what on earth he was doing in that company. Those who had known him longest had the least notion; but it may be added that no one knew him well. He was a lawyer, and had lived in Octavius for upwards of ten years; that is to say, since early manhood. He had an office on the main street, just under the principal photograph gallery. Doubtless he was sometimes in this office; but his fellow-townsmen saw him more often in the street doorway, with the stairs behind him, and the flaring show-cases of the photographer on either side, standing with his hands in his pockets and an unlighted cigar in his mouth, looking at nothing in particular. About every other day he went off after breakfast into the country roundabout, sometimes with a rod, sometimes with a gun, but always alone. He was a bachelor, and slept in a room at the back of his office, cooking some of his meals himself, getting others at a restaurant close by. Though he had little visible practice, he was understood to be well-to-do and even more, and people tacitly inferred that he “shaved notes.” The Methodists of Octavius looked upon him as a queer fish, and through nearly a dozen years had never quite outgrown their hebdomadal tendency to surprise at seeing him enter their church. He had never, it is true, professed religion, but they had elected him as a trustee now for a number of terms, all the same — partly because he was their only lawyer, partly because he, like both his colleagues, held a mortgage on the church edifice and lot. In person, Mr. Gorringe was a slender man, with a skin of a clear, uniform citron tint, black waving hair, and dark gray eyes, and a thin, high-featured face. He wore a mustache and pointed chin-tuft; and, though he was of New England parentage and had never been further south than Ocean Grove, he presented a general effect of old Mississippian traditions and tastes startlingly at variance with the standards of Dearborn County Methodism. Nothing could convince some of the elder sisters that he was not a drinking man.

The three visitors had completed their survey of the room now; and Loren Pierce emitted a dry, harsh little cough, as a signal that business was about to begin. At this sound, Winch drew up his feet, and Gorringe untied a parcel of account-books and papers that he held on his knee. Theron felt that his countenance must be exhibiting to the assembled brethren an unfortunate sense of helplessness in their hands. He tried to look more resolute, and forced his lips into a smile.

“Brother Gorringe allus acts as Seckertary,” said Erastus Winch, beaming broadly upon the minister, as if the mere mention of the fact promoted jollity. “That’s it, Brother Gorringe — take your seat at Brother Ware’s desk. Mind the Dominie’s pen don’t play tricks on you, an’ start off writin’ out sermons instid of figgers.” The humorist turned to Theron as the lawyer walked over to the desk at the window. “I allus have to caution him about that,” he remarked with great joviality. “An’ do YOU look out afterwards, Brother Ware, or else you’ll catch that pen o’ yours scribblin’ lawyer’s lingo in place o’ the Word.”

Theron felt bound to exhibit a grin in acknowledgment of this pleasantry. The lawyer’s change of position had involved some shifting of the others’ chairs, and the young minister found himself directly confronted by Brother Pierce’s hard and colorless old visage. Its little eyes were watching him, as through a mask, and under their influence the smile of politeness fled from his lips. The lawyer on his right, the cheese-buyer to the left, seemed to recede into distance as he for the moment returned the gaze of the quarryman. He waited now for him to speak, as if the others were of no importance.

“We are a plain sort o’ folks up in these parts,” said Brother Pierce, after a slight further pause. His voice was as dry and rasping as his cough, and its intonations were those of authority. “We walk here,” he went on, eying the minister with a sour regard, “in a meek an’ humble spirit, in the straight an’ narrow way which leadeth unto life. We ain’t gone traipsin’ after strange gods, like some people that call themselves Methodists in other places. We stick by the Discipline an’ the ways of our fathers in Israel. No new-fangled notions can go down here. Your wife’d better take them flowers out of her bunnit afore next Sunday.”

Silence possessed the room for a few moments, the while Theron, pale-faced and with brows knit, studied the pattern of the ingrain carpet. Then he lifted his head, and nodded it in assent. “Yes,” he said; “we will do nothing by which our ‘brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.’”

Brother Pierce’s parchment face showed no sign of surprise or pleasure at this easy submission. “Another thing: We don’t want no book-learnin’ or dictionary words in our pulpit,” he went on coldly. “Some folks may stomach ’em; we won’t. Them two sermons o’ yours, p’r’aps they’d do down in some city place; but they’re like your wife’s bunnit here, they’re too flowery to suit us. What we want to hear is the plain, old-fashioned Word of God, without any palaver or ‘hems and ha’s. They tell me there’s some parts where hell’s treated as played-out — where our ministers don’t like to talk much about it because people don’t want to hear about it. Such preachers ought to be put out. They ain’t Methodists at all. What we want here, sir, is straight-out, flat-footed hell — the burnin’ lake o’ fire an’ brim-stone. Pour it into ’em, hot an’ strong. We can’t have too much of it. Work in them awful deathbeds of Voltaire an’ Tom Paine, with the Devil right there in the room, reachin’ for ’em, an’ they yellin’ for fright; that’s what fills the anxious seat an’ brings in souls hand over fist.”

Theron’s tongue dallied for an instant with the temptation to comment upon these old-wife fables, which were so dear to the rural religious heart when he and I were boys. But it seemed wiser to only nod again, and let his mentor go on.

“We ain’t had no trouble with the Free Methodists here,” continued Brother Pierce, “jest because we kept to the old paths, an’ seek for salvation in the good old way. Everybody can shout ‘Amen!’ as loud and as long as the Spirit moves him, with us. Some one was sayin’ you thought we ought to have a choir and an organ. No, sirree! No such tom-foolery for us! You’ll only stir up feelin’ agin yourself by hintin’ at such things. And then, too, our folks don’t take no stock in all that pack o’ nonsense about science, such as tellin’ the age of the earth by crackin’ up stones. I’ve b’en in the quarry line all my life, an’ I know it’s all humbug! Why, they say some folks are goin’ round now preachin’ that our grandfathers were all monkeys. That comes from departin’ from the ways of our forefathers, an puttin’ in organs an’ choirs, an’ deckin’ our women-folks out with gewgaws, an’ apin’ the fashions of the worldly. I shouldn’t wonder if them kind did have some monkey blood in ’em. You’ll find we’re a different sort here.”

The young minister preserved silence for a little, until it became apparent that the old trustee had had his say out. Even then he raised his head slowly, and at last made answer in a hesitating and irresolute way.

“You have been very frank,” he said. “I am obliged to you. A clergyman coming to a new charge cannot be better served than by having laid before him a clear statement of the views and — and spiritual tendencies — of his new flock, quite at the outset. I feel it to be of especial value in this case, because I am young in years and in my ministry, and am conscious of a great weakness of the flesh. I can see how daily contact with a people so attached to the old, simple, primitive Methodism of Wesley and Asbury may be a source of much strength to me. I may take it,” he added upon second thought, with an inquiring glance at Mr. Winch, “that Brother Pierce’s description of our charge, and its tastes and needs, meets with your approval?”

Erastus Winch nodded his head and smiled expansively. “Whatever Brother Pierce says, goes!” he declared. The lawyer, sitting behind at the desk by the window, said nothing.

“The place is jest overrun with Irish,” Brother Pierce began again. “They’ve got two Catholic churches here now to our one, and they do jest as they blamed please at the Charter elections. It’d be a good idee to pitch into Catholics in general whenever you can. You could make a hit that way. I say the State ought to make ’em pay taxes on their church property. They’ve no right to be exempted, because they ain’t Christians at all. They’re idolaters, that’s what they are! I know ’em! I’ve had ’em in my quarries for years, an’ they ain’t got no idee of decency or fair dealin’. Every time the price of stone went up, every man of ’em would jine to screw more wages out o’ me. Why, they used to keep account o’ the amount o’ business I done, an’ figger up my profits, an’ have the face to come an’ talk to me about ’em, as if that had anything to do with wages. It’s my belief their priests put ’em up to it. People don’t begin to reelize — that church of idolatry’ll be the ruin o’ this country, if it ain’t checked in time. Jest you go at ’em hammer ‘n’ tongs! I’ve got Eyetalians in the quarries now. They’re sensible fellows: they know when they’re well off — a dollar a day, an’ they’re satisfied, an’ everything goes smooth.”

“But they’re Catholics, the same as the Irish,” suddenly interjected the lawyer, from his place by the window. Theron pricked up his ears at the sound of his voice. There was an anti-Pierce note in it, so to speak, which it did him good to hear. The consciousness of sympathy began on the instant to inspire him with courage.

“I know some people SAY they are,” Brother Pierce guardedly retorted “but I’ve summered an’ wintered both kinds, an’ I hold to it they’re different. I grant ye, the Eyetalians ARE some given to jabbin’ knives into each other, but they never git up strikes, an’ they don’t grumble about wages. Why, look at the way they live — jest some weeds an’ yarbs dug up on the roadside, an’ stewed in a kettle with a piece o’ fat the size o’ your finger, an’ a loaf o’ bread, an’ they’re happy as a king. There’s some sense in THAT; but the Irish, they’ve got to have meat an’ potatoes an’ butter jest as if — as if —”

“As if they’d b’en used to ’em at home,” put in Mr. Winch, to help his colleague out.

The lawyer ostentatiously drew up his chair to the desk, and began turning over the leaves of his biggest book. “It’s getting on toward noon, gentlemen,” he said, in an impatient voice.

The business meeting which followed was for a considerable time confined to hearing extracts from the books and papers read in a swift and formal fashion by Mr. Gorringe. If this was intended to inform the new pastor of the exact financial situation in Octavius, it lamentably failed of its purpose. Theron had little knowledge of figures; and though he tried hard to listen, and to assume an air of comprehension, he did not understand much of what he heard. In a general way he gathered that the church property was put down at $12,000, on which there was a debt of $4,800. The annual expenses were $2,250, of which the principal items were $800 for his salary, $170 for the rent of the parsonage, and $319 for interest on the debt. It seemed that last year the receipts had fallen just under $2,000, and they now confronted the necessity of making good this deficit during the coming year, as well as increasing the regular revenues. Without much discussion, it was agreed that they should endeavor to secure the services of a celebrated “debt-raiser,” early in the autumn, and utilize him in the closing days of a revival.

Theron knew this “debt-raiser,” and had seen him at work — a burly, bustling, vulgar man who took possession of the pulpit as if it were an auctioneer’s block, and pursued the task of exciting liberality in the bosoms of the congregation by alternating prayer, anecdote, song, and cheap buffoonery in a manner truly sickening. Would it not be preferable, he feebly suggested, to raise the money by a festival, or fair, or some other form of entertainment which the ladies could manage?

Brother Pierce shook his head with contemptuous emphasis. “Our women-folks ain’t that kind,” he said. “They did try to hold a sociable once, but nobody came, and we didn’t raise more ‘n three or four dollars. It ain’t their line. They lack the worldly arts. As the Discipline commands, they avoid the evil of putting on gold and costly apparel, and taking such diversions as cannot be used in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

“Well — of course — if you prefer the ‘debt-raiser’—” Theron began, and took the itemized account from Gorringe’s knee as an excuse for not finishing the hateful sentence.

He looked down the foolscap sheet, line by line, with no special sense of what it signified, until his eye caught upon this little section of the report, bracketed by itself in the Secretary’s neat hand:

INTEREST CHARGE.
First mortgage (1873).. $1,000 . . . (E. Winch) @7.. $ 70
Second mortgage (1776).. 1,700 . . . (L. Gorringe) @6.. 102
Third mortgage (1878) . . . 2,100 . . . (L. Pierce) @7.. 147
$4,800 $319

It was no news to him that the three mortgages on the church property were held by the three trustees. But as he looked once more, another feature of the thing struck him as curious.

“I notice that the rates of interest vary,” he remarked without thinking, and then wished the words unsaid, for the two trustees in view moved uneasily on their seats.

“Oh, that’s nothing,” exclaimed Erastus Winch, with a boisterous display of jollity. “It’s only Brother Gorringe’s pleasant little way of making a contribution to our funds. You will notice that, at the date of all these mortgages, the State rate of interest was seven per cent. Since then it’s b’en lowered to six. Well, when that happened, you see, Brother Gorringe, not being a professin’ member, and so not bound by our rules, he could just as well as not let his interest down a cent. But Brother Pierce an’ me, we talked it over, an’ we made up our minds we were tied hand an’ foot by our contract. You know how strong the Discipline lays it down that we must be bound to the letter of our agreements. That bein’ so, we seen it in the light of duty not to change what we’d set our hands to. That’s how it is, Brother Ware.”

“I understand,” said Theron, with an effort at polite calmness of tone. “And — is there anything else?”

“There’s this,” broke in Brother Pierce: “we’re commanded to be law-abiding people, an’ seven per cent WAS the law an’ would be now if them ragamuffins in the Legislation —”

“Surely we needn’t go further into that,” interrupted the minister, conscious of a growing stiffness in his moral spine. “Have we any other business before us?”

Brother Pierce’s little eyes snapped, and the wrinkles in his forehead deepened angrily. “Business?” he demanded. “Yes, plenty of it. We’ve got to reduce expenses. We’re nigh onto $300 behind-hand this minute. Besides your house-rent, you get $800 free an’ clear — that is $15.38 every week, an’ only you an’ your wife to keep out of it. Why, when I was your age, young man, and after that too, I was glad to get $4 a week.”

“I don’t think my salary is under discussion, Mr. Pierce —”

“BROTHER Pierce!” suggested Winch, in a half-shuckling undertone.

“Brother Pierce, then!” echoed Theron, impatiently. “The Quarterly Conference and the Estimating Committee deal with that. The trustees have no more to do with it than the man in the moon.”

“Come, come, Brother Ware,” put in Erastus Winch, “we mustn’t have no hard feelin’s. Brotherly love is what we’re all lookin’ after. Brother Pierce’s meanin’ wasn’t agin your drawin’ your full salary, every cent of it, only — only there are certain little things connected with the parsonage here that we feel you ought to bear. F’r instance, there’s the new sidewalk we had to lay in front of the house here only a month ago. Of course, if the treasury was flush we wouldn’t say a word about it. An’ then there’s the gas bill here. Seein’ as you get your rent for nothin’, it don’t seem much to ask that you should see to lightin’ the place yourself.”

“No, I don’t think that either is a proper charge upon me,” interposed Theron. “I decline to pay them.”

“We can have the gas shut off,” remarked Brother Pierce, coldly.

“As soon as you like,” responded the minister, sitting erect and tapping the carpet nervously with his foot. “Only you must understand that I will take the whole matter to the Quarterly Conference in July. I already see a good many other interesting questions about the financial management of this church which might be appropriately discussed there.”

“Oh, come, Brother Ware!” broke in Trustee Winch, with a somewhat agitated assumption of good-feeling. “Surely these are matters we ought to settle amongst ourselves. We never yet asked outsiders to meddle with our business here. It’s our motto, Brother Ware. I say, if you’ve got a motto, stand by it.”

“Well, my motto,” said Theron, “is to be behaved decently to by those with whom I have to deal; and I also propose to stand by it.”

Brother Pierce rose gingerly to his feet, with the hesitation of an old man not sure about his knees. When he had straightened himself, he put on his hat, and eyed the minister sternly from beneath its brim.

“The Lord gives us crosses grievous to our natur’,” he said, “an’ we’re told to bear ’em cheerfully as long as they’re on our backs; but there ain’t nothin’ said agin our unloadin’ ’em in the ditch the minute we git the chance. I guess you won’t last here more ‘n a twelvemonth.”

He pulled his soft and discolored old hat down over his brows with a significantly hostile nod, and, turning, stumped toward the hall-door without offering to shake hands.

The other trustees had risen likewise, in tacit recognition that the meeting was over. Winch clasped the minister’s hand in his own broad, hard palm, and squeezed it in an exuberant grip. “Don’t mind his little ways, Brother Ware,” he urged in a loud, unctuous whisper, with a grinning backward nod: “he’s a trifle skittish sometimes when you don’t give him free rein; but he’s all wool an’ a yard wide when it comes to right-down hard-pan religion. My love to Sister Ware;” and he followed the senior trustee into the hall.

Mr. Gorringe had been tying up his books and papers. He came now with the bulky parcel under his arm, and his hat and stick in the other hand. He could give little but his thumb to Theron to shake. His face wore a grave expression, and not a line relaxed as, catching the minister’s look, he slowly covered his left eye in a deliberate wink.

“Well? — and how did it go off?” asked Alice, from where she knelt by the oven door, a few minutes later.

For answer, Theron threw himself wearily into the big old farm rocking-chair on the other side of the stove, and shook his head with a lengthened sigh.

“If it wasn’t for that man Gorringe of yours,” he said dejectedly, “I think I should feel like going off — and learning a trade.”

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