The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxx

At ten o’clock Theron, loitering near the bookstall in the corridor, saw Father Forbes come downstairs, pass out through the big front doors, get into a carriage, and drive away.

This relieved him of a certain sense of responsibility, and he retired to a corner sofa and sat down. The detective side of him being off duty, so to speak, there was leisure at last for reflection upon the other aspects of his mission. Yes; it was high time for him to consider what he should do next.

It was easier to recognize this fact, however, than to act upon it. His mind was full of tricksy devices for eluding this task of serious thought which he sought to impose upon it. It seemed so much pleasanter not to think at all — but just to drift. He found himself watching with envy the men who, as they came out from their breakfast, walked over to the bookstall, and bought cigars from the row of boxes nestling there among the newspaper piles. They had such evident delight in the work of selection; they took off the ends of the cigars so carefully, and lighted them with such meditative attention — he could see that he was wofully handicapped by not knowing how to smoke. He had had the most wonderful breakfast of his life, but even in the consciousness of comfortable repletion which pervaded his being, there was an obstinate sense of something lacking. No doubt a good cigar was the thing needed to round out the perfection of such a breakfast. He half rose once, fired by a sudden resolution to go over and get one. But of course that was nonsense; it would only make him sick. He sat down, and determinedly set himself to thinking.

The effort finally brought fruit — and of a kind which gave him a very unhappy quarter of an hour. The lover part of him was uppermost now, insistently exposing all its raw surfaces to the stings and scalds of jealousy. Up to this moment, his brain had always evaded the direct question of how he and the priest relatively stood in Celia’s estimation. It forced itself remorselessly upon him now; and his thoughts, so far from shirking the subject, seemed to rise up to meet it. It was extremely unpleasant, all this.

But then a calmer view asserted itself. Why go out of his way to invent anguish for himself? The relations between Celia and the priest, whatever they might be, were certainly of old standing. They had begun before his time. His own romance was a more recent affair, and must take its place, of course, subject to existing conditions.

It was all right for him to come to New York, and satisfy his legitimate curiosity as to the exact character and scope of these conditions. But it was foolish to pretend to be amazed or dismayed at the discovery of their existence. They were a part of the situation which he, with his eyes wide open, had accepted. It was his function to triumph over them, to supplant them, to rear the edifice of his own victorious passion upon their ruins. It was to this that Celia’s kiss had invited him. It was for this that he had come to New York. To let his purpose be hampered or thwarted now by childish doubts and jealousies would be ridiculous.

He rose, and holding himself very erect, walked with measured deliberation across the corridor and up the broad staircase. There was an elevator near at hand, he had noticed, but he preferred the stairs. One or two of the colored boys clustered about the foot of the stairs looked at him, and he had a moment of dreadful apprehension lest they should stop his progress. Nothing was said, and he went on. The numbers on the first floor were not what he wanted, and after some wandering about he ascended to the next, and then to the third. Every now and then he encountered attendants, but intuitively he bore himself with an air of knowing what he was about which protected him from inquiry.

Finally he came upon the hall-way he sought. Passing along, he found the doors bearing the numbers he had memorized so well. They were quite close together, and there was nothing to help him guess which belonged to the parlor. He hesitated, gazing wistfully from one to the other. In the instant of indecision, even while his alert ear caught the sound of feet coming along toward the passage in which he stood, a thought came to quicken his resolve. It became apparent to him that his discovery gave him a certain new measure of freedom with Celia, a sort of right to take things more for granted than heretofore. He chose a door at random, and rapped distinctly on the panel.

“Come!”

The voice he knew for Celia’s. The single word, however, recalled the usage of Father Forbes, which he had noted more than once at the pastorate, when Maggie had knocked.

He straightened his shoulders, took his hat off, and pushed open the door. It WAS the parlor — a room of sofas, pianos, big easy-chairs, and luxurious bric-a-brac. A tall woman was walking up and down in it, with bowed head. Her back was at the moment toward him; and he looked at her, saying to himself that this was the lady of his dreams, the enchantress of the kiss, the woman who loved him — but somehow it did not seem to his senses to be Celia.

She turned, and moved a step or two in his direction before she mechanically lifted her eyes and saw who was standing in her doorway. She stopped short, and regarded him. Her face was in the shadow, and he could make out nothing of its expression, save that there was a general effect of gravity about it.

“I cannot receive you,” she said. “You must go away. You have no business to come like this without sending up your card.”

Theron smiled at her. The notion of taking in earnest her inhospitable words did not at all occur to him. He could see now that her face had vexed and saddened lines upon it, and the sharpness of her tone remained in his ears. But he smiled again gently, to reassure her.

“I ought to have sent up my name, I know,” he said, “but I couldn’t bear to wait. I just saw your name on the register and — you WILL forgive me, won’t you? — I ran to you at once. I know you won’t have the heart to send me away!”

She stood where she had halted, her arms behind her, looking him fixedly in the face. He had made a movement to advance, and offer his hand in greeting, but her posture checked the impulse. His courage began to falter under her inspection.

“Must I really go down again?” he pleaded. “It’s a crushing penalty to suffer for such little indiscretion. I was so excited to find you were here — I never stopped to think. Don’t send me away; please don’t!”

Celia raised her head. “Well, shut the door, then,” she said, “since you are so anxious to stay. You would have done much better, though, very much better indeed, to have taken the hint and gone away.”

“Will you shake hands with me, Celia?” he asked softly, as he came near her.

“Sit there, please!” she made answer, indicating a chair in the middle of the room. He obeyed her, but to his surprise, instead of seating herself as well, she began walking up and down the length of the floor again. After a turn or two she stopped in front of him, and looked him full in the eye. The light from the windows was on her countenance now, and its revelations vaguely troubled him. It was a Celia he had never seen before who confronted him.

“I am much occupied by other matters,” she said, speaking with cold impassivity, “but still I find myself curious to know just what limits you set to your dishonesty.”

Theron stared up at her. His lips quivered, but no speech came to them. If this was all merely fond playfulness, it was being carried to a heart-aching point.

“I saw you hiding about in the depot at home last evening,” she went on. “You come up here, pretending to have discovered me by accident, but I saw you following me from the Grand Central this morning.”

“Yes, I did both these things,” said Theron, boldly. A fine bravery tingled in his veins all at once. He looked into her face and found the spirit to disregard its frowning aspect. “Yes, I did them,” he repeated defiantly. “That is not the hundredth part, or the thousandth part, of what I would do for your sake. I have got way beyond caring for any consequences. Position, reputation, the good opinion of fools — what are they? Life itself — what does it amount to? Nothing at all — with you in the balance!”

“Yes — but I am not in the balance,” observed Celia, quietly. “That is where you have made your mistake.”

Theron laid aside his hat. Women were curious creatures, he reflected. Some were susceptible to one line of treatment, some to another. His own reading of Celia had always been that she liked opposition, of a smart, rattling, almost cheeky, sort. One got on best with her by saying bright things. He searched his brain now for some clever quip that would strike sparks from the adamantine mood which for the moment it was her whim to assume. To cover the process, he smiled a little. Then her beauty, as she stood before him, her queenly form clad in a more stiffly fashionable dress than he had seen her wearing before, appealed afresh and overwhelmingly to him. He rose to his feet.

“Have you forgotten our talk in the woods?” he murmured with a wooing note. “Have you forgotten the kiss?”

She shook her head calmly. “I have forgotten nothing.”

“Then why play with me so cruelly now?” he went on, in a voice of tender deprecation. “I know you don’t mean it, but all the same it bruises my heart a little. I build myself so wholly upon you, I have made existence itself depend so completely upon your smile, upon a soft glance in your eyes, that when they are not there, why, I suffer, I don’t know how to live at all. So be kinder to me, Celia!”

“I was kinder, as you call it, when you came in,” she replied. “I told you to go away. That was pure kindness — more kindness than you deserved.”

Theron looked at his hat, where it stood on the carpet by his feet. He felt tears coming into his eyes. “You tell me that you remember,” he said, in depressed tones, “and yet you treat me like this! Perhaps I am wrong. No doubt it is my own fault. I suppose I ought not to have come down here at all.”

Celia nodded her head in assent to this view.

“But I swear that I was helpless in the matter,” he burst forth. “I HAD to come! It would have been literally impossible for me to have stayed at home, knowing that you were here, and knowing also that — that —”

“Go on!” said Celia, thrusting forth her under-lip a trifle, and hardening still further the gleam in her eye, as he stumbled over his sentence and left it unfinished. “What was the other thing that you were ‘knowing’?”

“Knowing —” he took up the word hesitatingly —“knowing that life would be insupportable to me if I could not be near you.”

She curled her lip at him. “You skated over the thin spot very well,” she commented. “It was on the tip of your tongue to mention the fact that Father Forbes came with me. Oh, I can read you through and through, Mr. Ware.”

In a misty way Theron felt things slipping from his grasp. The rising moisture blurred his eyes as their gaze clung to Celia.

“Then if you do read me,” he protested, “you must know how utterly my heart and brain are filled with you. No other man in all the world can yield himself so absolutely to the woman he worships as I can. You have taken possession of me so wholly, I am not in the least master of myself any more. I don’t know what I say or what I do. I am not worthy of you, I know. No man alive could be that. But no one else will idolize and reverence you as I do. Believe me when I say that, Celia! And how can you blame me, in your heart, for following you? ‘Whither thou goest, I will go, and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried. The Lord do so to me, and more also, if aught but death part thee and me!’”

Celia shrugged her shoulders, and moved a few steps away from him. Something like despair seized upon him.

“Surely,” he urged with passion, “surely I have a right to remind you of the kiss!”

She turned. “The kiss,” she said meditatively. “Yes, you have a right to remind me of it. Oh, yes, an undoubted right. You have another right too — the right to have the kiss explained to you. It was of the good-bye order. It signified that we weren’t to meet again, and that just for one little moment I permitted myself to be sorry for you. That was all.”

He held himself erect under the incredible words, and gazed blankly at her. The magnitude of what he confronted bewildered him; his mind was incapable of taking it in. “You mean —” he started to say, and then stopped, helplessly staring into her face, with a dropped jaw. It was too much to try to think what she meant.

A little side-thought sprouted in the confusion of his brain. It grew until it spread a bitter smile over his pale face. “I know so little about kisses,” he said; “I am such a greenhorn at that sort of thing. You should have had pity on my inexperience, and told me just what brand of kiss it was I was getting. Probably I ought to have been able to distinguish, but you see I was brought up in the country — on a farm. They don’t have kisses in assorted varieties there.”

She bowed her head slightly. “Yes, you are entitled to say that,” she assented. “I was to blame, and it is quite fair that you should tell me so. You spoke of your inexperience, your innocence. That was why I kissed you in saying good-bye. It was in memory of that innocence of yours, to which you yourself had been busy saying good-bye ever since I first saw you. The idea seemed to me to mean something at the moment. I see now that it was too subtle. I do not usually err on that side.”

Theron kept his hold upon her gaze, as if it afforded him bodily support. He felt that he ought to stoop and take up his hat, but he dared not look away from her. “Do you not err now, on the side of cruelty?” he asked her piteously.

It seemed for the instant as if she were wavering, and he swiftly thrust forth other pleas. “I admit that I did wrong to follow you to New York. I see that now. But it was an offence committed in entire good faith. Think of it, Celia! I have never seen you since that day — that day in the woods. I have waited — and waited — with no sign from you, no chance of seeing you at all. Think what that meant to me! Everything in the world had been altered for me, torn up by the roots. I was a new being, plunged into a new existence. The kiss had done that. But until saw you again, I could not tell whether this vast change in me and my life was for good or for bad — whether the kiss had come to me as a blessing or a curse. The suspense was killing me, Celia! That is why, when I learned that you were coming here, I threw everything to the winds and followed you. You blame me for it, and I bow my head and accept the blame. But are you justified in punishing me so terribly — in going on after I have confessed my error, and cutting my heart into little strips, putting me to death by torture?”

“Sit down,” said Celia, with a softened weariness in her voice. She seated herself in front of him as he sank into his chair again. “I don’t want to give you unnecessary pain, but you have insisted on forcing yourself into a position where there isn’t anything else but pain. I warned you to go away, but you wouldn’t. No matter how gently I may try to explain things to you, you are bound to get nothing but suffering out of the explanation. Now shall I still go on?”

He inclined his head in token of assent, and did not lift it again, but raised toward her a disconsolate gaze from a pallid, drooping face.

“It is all in a single word, Mr. Ware,” she proceeded, in low tones. “I speak for others as well as myself, mind you — we find that you are a bore.”

Theron’s stiffened countenance remained immovable. He continued to stare unblinkingly up into her eyes.

“We were disposed to like you very much when we first knew you,” Celia went on. “You impressed us as an innocent, simple, genuine young character, full of mother’s milk. It was like the smell of early spring in the country to come in contact with you. Your honesty of nature, your sincerity in that absurd religion of yours, your general NAIVETE of mental and spiritual get-up, all pleased us a great deal. We thought you were going to be a real acquisition.”

“Just a moment — whom do you mean by ‘we’?” He asked the question calmly enough, but in a voice with an effect of distance in it.

“It may not be necessary to enter into that,” she replied. “Let me go on. But then it became apparent, little by little, that we had misjudged you. We liked you, as I have said, because you were unsophisticated and delightfully fresh and natural. Somehow we took it for granted you would stay so. Rut that is just what you didn’t do — just what you hadn’t the sense to try to do. Instead, we found you inflating yourself with all sorts of egotisms and vanities. We found you presuming upon the friendships which had been mistakenly extended to you. Do you want instances? You went to Dr. Ledsmar’s house that very day after I had been with you to get a piano at Thurston’s, and tried to inveigle him into talking scandal about me. You came to me with tales about him. You went to Father Forbes, and sought to get him to gossip about us both. Neither of those men will ever ask you inside his house again. But that is only one part of it. Your whole mind became an unpleasant thing to contemplate. You thought it would amuse and impress us to hear you ridiculing and reviling the people of your church, whose money supports you, and making a mock of the things they believe in, and which you for your life wouldn’t dare let them know you didn’t believe in. You talked to us slightingly about your wife. What were you thinking of, not to comprehend that that would disgust us? You showed me once — do you remember? — a life of George Sand that you had just bought — bought because you had just discovered that she had an unclean side to her life. You chuckled as you spoke to me about it, and you were for all the world like a little nasty boy, giggling over something dirty that older people had learned not to notice. These are merely random incidents. They are just samples, picked hap-hazard, of the things in you which have been opening our eyes, little by little, to our mistake. I can understand that all the while you really fancied that you were expanding, growing, in all directions. What you took to be improvement was degeneration. When you thought that you were impressing us most by your smart sayings and doings, you were reminding us most of the fable about the donkey trying to play lap-dog. And it wasn’t even an honest, straightforward donkey at that!”

She uttered these last words sorrowfully, her hands clasped in her lap, and her eyes sinking to the floor. A silence ensued. Then Theron reached a groping hand out for his hat, and, rising, walked with a lifeless, automatic step to the door.

He had it half open, when the impossibility of leaving in this way towered suddenly in his path and overwhelmed him. He slammed the door to, and turned as if he had been whirled round by some mighty wind. He came toward her, with something almost menacing in the vigor of his movements, and in the wild look upon his white, set face. Halting before her, he covered the tailor-clad figure, the coiled red hair, the upturned face with its simulated calm, the big brown eyes, the rings upon the clasped fingers, with a sweeping, comprehensive glare of passion.

“This is what you have done to me, then!”

His voice was unrecognizable in his own ears — hoarse and broken, but with a fright-compelling something in it which stimulated his rage. The horrible notion of killing her, there where she sat, spread over the chaos of his mind with an effect of unearthly light — red and abnormally evil. It was like that first devilish radiance ushering in Creation, of which the first-fruit was Cain. Why should he not kill her? In all ages, women had been slain for less. Yes — and men had been hanged. Something rose and stuck in his dry throat; and as he swallowed it down, the sinister flare of murderous fascination died suddenly away into darkness. The world was all black again — plunged in the Egyptian night which lay upon the face of the deep while the earth was yet without form and void. He was alone on it — alone among awful, planetary solitudes which crushed him.

The sight of Celia, sitting motionless only a pace in front of him, was plain enough to his eyes. It was an illusion. She was really a star, many millions of miles away. These things were hard to understand; but they were true, none the less. People seemed to be about him, but in fact he was alone. He recalled that even the little child in the car, playing with those two buttons on a string, would have nothing to do with him. Take his money, yes; take all he would give her — but not smile at him, not come within reach of him! Men closed the doors of their houses against him. The universe held him at arm’s length as a nuisance.

He was standing with one knee upon a sofa. Unconsciously he had moved round to the side of Celia; and as he caught the effect of her face now in profile, memory-pictures began at once building themselves in his brain — pictures of her standing in the darkened room of the cottage of death, declaiming the CONFITEOR; of her seated at the piano, under the pure, mellowed candle-light; of her leaning her chin on her hands, and gazing meditatively at the leafy background of the woods they were in; of her lying back, indolently content, in the deck-chair on the yacht of his fancy — that yacht which a few hours before had seemed so brilliantly and bewitchingly real to him, and now — now —!

He sank in a heap upon the couch, and, burying his face among its cushions, wept and groaned aloud. His collapse was absolute. He sobbed with the abandonment of one who, in the veritable presence of death, lets go all sense of relation to life.

Presently some one was touching him on the shoulder — an incisive, pointed touch — and he checked himself, and lifted his face.

“You will have to get up, and present some sort of an appearance, and go away at once,” Celia said to him in low, rapid tones. “Some gentlemen are at the door, whom I have been waiting for.”

As he stupidly sat up and tried to collect his faculties, Celia had opened the door and admitted two visitors. The foremost was Father Forbes; and he, with some whispered, smiling words, presented to her his companion, a tall, robust, florid man of middle-age, with a frock-coat and a gray mustache, sharply waxed. The three spoke for a moment together. Then the priest’s wandering eye suddenly lighted upon the figure on the sofa. He stared, knitted his brows, and then lifted them in inquiry as he turned to Celia.

“Poor man!” she said readily, in tones loud enough to reach Theron. “It is our neighbor, Father, the Rev. Mr. Ware. He hit upon my name in the register quite unexpectedly, and I had him come up. He is in sore distress — a great and sudden bereavement. He is going now. Won’t you speak to him in the hall — a few words, Father? It would please him. He is terribly depressed.”

The words had drawn Theron to his feet, as by some mechanical process. He took up his hat and moved dumbly to the door. It seemed to him that Celia intended offering to shake hands; but he went past her with only some confused exchange of glances and a murmured word or two. The tall stranger, who drew aside to let him pass, had acted as if he expected to be introduced. Theron, emerging into the hall, leaned against the wall and looked dreamily at the priest, who had stepped out with him.

“I am very sorry to learn that you are in trouble, Mr. Ware,” Father Forbes said, gently enough, but in hurried tones. “Miss Madden is also in trouble. I mentioned to you that her brother had got into a serious scrape. I have brought my old friend, General Brady, to consult with her about the matter. He knows all the parties concerned, and he can set things right if anybody can.”

“It’s a mistake about me — I ‘m not in any trouble at all,” said Theron. “I just dropped in to make a friendly call.”

The priest glanced sharply at him, noting with a swift, informed scrutiny how he sprawled against the wall, and what vacuity his eyes and loosened lips expressed.

“Then you have a talent for the inopportune amounting to positive genius,” said Father Forbes, with a stormy smile.

“Tell me this, Father Forbes,” the other demanded, with impulsive suddenness, “is it true that you don’t want me in your house again? Is that the truth or not?”

“The truth is always relative, Mr. Ware,” replied the priest, turning away, and closing the door of the parlor behind him with a decisive sound.

Left alone, Theron started to make his way downstairs. He found his legs wavering under him and making zigzag movements of their own in a bewildering fashion. He referred this at first, in an outburst of fresh despair, to the effects of his great grief. Then, as he held tight to the banister and governed his descent step by step, it occurred to him that it must be the wine he had had for breakfast. Upon examination, he was not so unhappy, after all.

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