The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxxi

At the second peal of the door-bell, Brother Soulsby sat up in bed. It was still pitch-dark, and the memory of the first ringing fluttered musically in his awakening consciousness as a part of some dream he had been having.

“Who the deuce can that be?” he mused aloud, in querulous resentment at the interruption.

“Put your head out of the window, and ask,” suggested his wife, drowsily.

The bell-pull scraped violently in its socket, and a third outburst of shrill reverberations clamored through the silent house.

“Whatever you do, I’d do it before he yanked the whole thing to pieces,” added the wife, with more decision.

Brother Soulsby was wide awake now. He sprang to the floor, and, groping about in the obscurity, began drawing on some of his clothes. He rapped on the window during the process, to show that the house was astir, and a minute afterward made his way out of the room and down the stairs, the boards creaking under his stockinged feet as he went.

Nearly a quarter of an hour passed before he returned. Sister Soulsby, lying in sleepy quiescence, heard vague sounds of voices at the front door, and did not feel interested enough to lift her head and listen. A noise of footsteps on the sidewalk followed, first receding from the door, then turning toward it, this second time marking the presence of more than one person. There seemed in this the implication of a guest, and she shook off the dozing impulses which enveloped her faculties, and waited to hear more. There came up, after further muttering of male voices, the undeniable chink of coins striking against one another. Then more footsteps, the resonant slam of a carriage door out in the street, the grinding of wheels turning on the frosty road, and the racket of a vehicle and horses going off at a smart pace into the night. Somebody had come, then. She yawned at the thought, but remained well awake, tracing idly in her mind, as various slight sounds rose from the lower floor, the different things Soulsby was probably doing. Their spare room was down there, directly underneath, but curiously enough no one seemed to enter it. The faint murmur of conversation which from time to time reached her came from the parlor instead. At last she heard her husband’s soft tread coming up the staircase, and still there had been no hint of employing the guest-chamber. What could he be about? she wondered.

Brother Soulsby came in, bearing a small lamp in his hand, the reddish light of which, flaring upward, revealed an unlooked-for display of amusement on his thin, beardless face. He advanced to the bedside, shading the glare from her blinking eyes with his palm, and grinned.

“A thousand guesses, old lady,” he said, with a dry chuckle, “and you wouldn’t have a ghost of a chance. You might guess till Hades froze over seven feet thick, and still you wouldn’t hit it.”

She sat up in turn. “Good gracious, man,” she began, “you don’t mean —” Here the cheerful gleam in his small eyes reassured her, and she sighed relief, then smiled confusedly. “I half thought, just for the minute,” she explained, “it might be some bounder who’d come East to try and blackmail me. But no, who is it — and what on earth have you done with him?”

Brother Soulsby cackled in merriment. “It’s Brother Ware of Octavius, out on a little bat, all by himself. He says he’s been on the loose only two days; but it looks more like a fortnight.”

“OUR Brother Ware?” she regarded him with open-eyed surprise.

“Well, yes, I suppose he’s OUR Brother Ware — some,” returned Soulsby, genially. “He seems to think so, anyway.”

“But tell me about it!” she urged eagerly. “What’s the matter with him? How does he explain it?”

“Well, he explains it pretty badly, if you ask me,” said Soulsby, with a droll, joking eye and a mock-serious voice. He seated himself on the side of the bed, facing her, and still considerately shielding her from the light of the lamp he held. “But don’t think I suggested any explanations. I’ve been a mother myself. He’s merely filled himself up to the neck with rum, in the simple, ordinary, good old-fashioned way. That’s all. What is there to explain about that?”

She looked meditatively at him for a time, shaking her head. “No, Soulsby,” she said gravely, at last. “This isn’t any laughing matter. You may be sure something bad has happened, to set him off like that. I’m going to get up and dress right now. What time is it?”

“Now don’t you do anything of the sort,” he urged persuasively. “It isn’t five o’clock; it’ll be dark for nearly an hour yet. Just you turn over, and have another nap. He’s all right. I put him on the sofa, with the buffalo robe round him. You’ll find him there, safe and sound, when it’s time for white folks to get up. You know how it breaks you up all day, not to get your full sleep.”

“I don’t care if it makes me look as old as the everlasting hills,” she said. “Can’t you understand, Soulsby? The thing worries me — gets on my nerves. I couldn’t close an eye, if I tried. I took a great fancy to that young man. I told you so at the time.”

Soulsby nodded, and turned down the wick of his lamp a trifle. “Yes, I know you did,” he remarked in placidly non-contentious tones. “I can’t say I saw much in him myself, but I daresay you’re right.” There followed a moment’s silence, during which he experimented in turning the wick up again. “But, anyway,” he went on, “there isn’t anything you can do. He’ll sleep it off, and the longer he’s left alone the better. It isn’t as if we had a hired girl, who’d come down and find him there, and give the whole thing away. He’s fixed up there perfectly comfortable; and when he’s had his sleep out, and wakes up on his own account, he’ll be feeling a heap better.”

The argument might have carried conviction, but on the instant the sound of footsteps came to them from the room below. The subdued noise rose regularly, as of one pacing to and fro.

“No, Soulsby, YOU come back to bed, and get YOUR sleep out. I’m going downstairs. It’s no good talking; I’m going.”

Brother Soulsby offered no further opposition, either by talk or demeanor, but returned contentedly to bed, pulling the comforter over his ears, and falling into the slow, measured respiration of tranquil slumber before his wife was ready to leave the room.

The dim, cold gray of twilight was sifting furtively through the lace curtains of the front windows when Mrs. Soulsby, lamp in hand, entered the parlor. She confronted a figure she would have hardly recognized. The man seemed to have been submerged in a bath of disgrace. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, everything about him was altered, distorted, smeared with an intangible effect of shame. In the vague gloom of the middle distance, between lamp and window, she noticed that his shoulders were crouched, like those of some shambling tramp. The frowsy shadows of a stubble beard lay on his jaw and throat. His clothes were crumpled and hung awry; his boots were stained with mud. The silk hat on the piano told its battered story with dumb eloquence.

Lifting the lamp, she moved forward a step, and threw its light upon his face. A little groan sounded involuntarily upon her lips. Out of a mask of unpleasant features, swollen with drink and weighted by the physical craving for rest and sleep, there stared at her two bloodshot eyes, shining with the wild light of hysteria. The effect of dishevelled hair, relaxed muscles, and rough, half-bearded lower face lent to these eyes, as she caught their first glance, an unnatural glare. The lamp shook in her hand for an instant. Then, ashamed of herself, she held out her other hand fearlessly to him.

“Tell me all about it, Theron,” she said calmly, and with a soothing, motherly intonation in her voice.

He did not take the hand she offered, but suddenly, with a wailing moan, cast himself on his knees at her feet. He was so tall a man that the movement could have no grace. He abased his head awkwardly, to bury it among the folds of the skirts at her ankles. She stood still for a moment, looking down upon him. Then, blowing out the light, she reached over and set the smoking lamp on the piano near by. The daylight made things distinguishable in a wan, uncertain way, throughout the room.

“I have come out of hell, for the sake of hearing some human being speak to me like that!”

The thick utterance proceeded in a muffled fashion from where his face grovelled against her dress. Its despairing accents appealed to her, but even more was she touched by the ungainly figure he made, sprawling on the carpet.

“Well, since you are out, stay out,” she answered, as reassuringly as she could. “But get up and take a seat here beside me, like a sensible man, and tell me all about it. Come! I insist!”

In obedience to her tone, and the sharp tug at his shoulder with which she emphasized it, he got slowly to his feet, and listlessly seated himself on the sofa to which she pointed. He hung his head, and began catching his breath with a periodical gasp, half hiccough, half sob.

“First of all,” she said, in her brisk, matter-of-fact manner, “don’t you want to lie down there again, and have me tuck you up snug with the buffalo robe, and go to sleep? That would be the best thing you could do.”

He shook his head disconsolately, from side to side. “I can’t!” he groaned, with a swifter recurrence of the sob-like convulsions. “I’m dying for sleep, but I’m too — too frightened!”

“Come, I’ll sit beside you till you drop off,” she said, with masterful decision. He suffered himself to be pushed into recumbency on the couch, and put his head with docility on the pillow she brought from the spare room. When she had spread the fur over him, and pushed her chair close to the sofa, she stood by it for a little, looking down in meditation at his demoralized face. Under the painful surface-blur of wretchedness and fatigued debauchery, she traced reflectively the lineaments of the younger and cleanlier countenance she had seen a few months before. Nothing essential had been taken away. There was only this pestiferous overlaying of shame and cowardice to be removed. The face underneath was still all right.

With a soft, maternal touch, she smoothed the hair from his forehead into order. Then she seated herself, and, when he got his hand out from under the robe and thrust it forth timidly, she took it in hers and held it in a warm, sympathetic grasp. He closed his eyes at this, and gradually the paroxysmal catch in his breathing lapsed. The daylight strengthened, until at last tiny flecks of sunshine twinkled in the meshes of the further curtains at the window. She fancied him asleep, and gently sought to disengage her hand, but his fingers clutched at it with vehemence, and his eyes were wide open.

“I can’t sleep at all,” he murmured. “I want to talk.”

“There ‘s nothing in the world to hinder you,” she commented smilingly.

“I tell you the solemn truth,” he said, lifting his voice in dogged assertion: “the best sermon I ever preached in my life, I preached only three weeks ago, at the camp-meeting. It was admitted by everybody to be far and away my finest effort! They will tell you the same!”

“It’s quite likely,” assented Sister Soulsby. “I quite believe it.”

“Then how can anybody say that I’ve degenerated, that I’ve become a fool?” he demanded.

“I haven’t heard anybody hint at such a thing,” she answered quietly.

“No, of course, YOU haven’t heard them!” he cried. “I heard them, though!” Then, forcing himself to a sitting posture, against the restraint of her hand, he flung back the covering. “I’m burning hot already! Yes, those were the identical words: I haven’t improved; I’ve degenerated. People hate me; they won’t have me in their houses. They say I’m a nuisance and a bore. I’m like a little nasty boy. That’s what they say. Even a young man who was dying — lying right on the edge of his open grave — told me solemnly that I reminded him of a saint once, but I was only fit for a barkeeper now. They say I really don’t know anything at all. And I’m not only a fool, they say, I’m a dishonest fool into the bargain!”

“But who says such twaddle as that?” she returned consolingly. The violence of his emotion disturbed her. “You mustn’t imagine such things. You are among friends here. Other people are your friends, too. They have the very highest opinion of you.”

“I haven’t a friend on earth but you!” he declared solemnly. His eyes glowed fiercely, and his voice sank into a grave intensity of tone. “I was going to kill myself. I went on to the big bridge to throw myself off, and a policeman saw me trying to climb over the railing, and he grabbed me and marched me away. Then he threw me out at the entrance, and said he would club my head off if I came there again. And then I went and stood and let the cable-cars pass close by me, and twenty times I thought I had the nerve to throw myself under the next one, and then I waited for the next — and I was afraid! And then I was in a crowd somewhere, and the warning came to me that I was going to die. The fool needn’t go kill himself: God would take care of that. It was my heart, you know. I’ve had that terrible fluttering once before. It seized me this time, and I fell down in the crowd, and some people walked over me, but some one else helped me up, and let me sit down in a big lighted hallway, the entrance to some theatre, and some one brought me some brandy, but somebody else said I was drunk, and they took it away again, and put me out. They could see I was a fool, that I hadn’t a friend on earth. And when I went out, there was a big picture of a woman in tights, and the word ‘Amazons’ overhead — and then I remembered you. I knew you were my friend — the only one I have on earth.”

“It is very flattering — to be remembered like that,” said Sister Soulsby, gently. The disposition to laugh was smothered by a pained perception of the suffering he was undergoing. His face had grown drawn and haggard under the burden of his memories as he rambled on.

“So I came straight to you,” he began again. “I had just money enough left to pay my fare. The rest is in my valise at the hotel — the Murray Hill Hotel. It belongs to the church. I stole it from the church. When I am dead they can get it back again!”

Sister Soulsby forced a smile to her lips. “What nonsense you talk — about dying!” she exclaimed. “Why, man alive, you’ll sleep this all off like a top, if you’ll only lie down and give yourself a chance. Come, now, you must do as you’re told.”

With a resolute hand, she made him lie down again, and once more covered him with the fur. He submitted, and did not even offer to put out his arm this time, but looked in piteous dumbness at her for a long time. While she sat thus in silence, the sound of Brother Soulsby moving about upstairs became audible.

Theron heard it, and the importance of hurrying on some further disclosure seemed to suggest itself. “I can see you think I’m just drunk,” he said, in low, sombre tones. “Of course that’s what HE thought. The hackman thought so, and so did the conductor, and everybody. But I hoped you would know better. I was sure you would see that it was something worse than that. See here, I’ll tell you. Then you’ll understand. I’ve been drinking for two days and one whole night, on my feet all the while, wandering alone in that big strange New York, going through places where they murdered men for ten cents, mixing myself up with the worst people in low bar-rooms and dance-houses, and they saw I had money in my pocket, too, and yet nobody touched me, or offered to lay a finger on me. Do you know why? They understood that I wanted to get drunk, and couldn’t. The Indians won’t harm an idiot, or lunatic, you know. Well, it was the same with these vilest of the vile. They saw that I was a fool whom God had taken hold of, to break his heart first, and then to craze his brain, and then to fling him on a dunghill to die like a dog. They believe in God, those people. They’re the only ones who do, it seems to me. And they wouldn’t interfere when they saw what He was doing to me. But I tell you I wasn’t drunk. I haven’t been drunk. I’m only heart-broken, and crushed out of shape and life — that’s all. And I’ve crawled here just to have a friend by me when — when I come to the end.”

“You’re not talking very sensibly, or very bravely either, Theron Ware,” remarked his companion. “It’s cowardly to give way to notions like that.”

“Oh, I ‘m not afraid to die; don’t think that,” he remonstrated wearily. “If there is a Judgment, it has hit me as hard as it can already. There can’t be any hell worse than that I’ve gone through. Here I am talking about hell,” he continued, with a pained contraction of the muscles about his mouth — a stillborn, malformed smile —“as if I believed in one! I’ve got way through all my beliefs, you know. I tell you that frankly.”

“It’s none of my business,” she reassured him. “I’m not your Bishop, or your confessor. I’m just your friend, your pal, that’s all.”

“Look here!” he broke in, with some animation and a new intensity of glance and voice. “If I was going to live, I’d have some funny things to tell. Six months ago I was a good man. I not only seemed to be good, to others and to myself, but I was good. I had a soul; I had a conscience. I was going along doing my duty, and I was happy in it. We were poor, Alice and I, and people behaved rather hard toward us, and sometimes we were a little down in the mouth about it; but that was all. We really were happy; and I— I really was a good man. Here’s the kind of joke God plays! You see me here six months after. Look at me! I haven’t got an honest hair in my head. I’m a bad man through and through, that’s what I am. I look all around at myself, and there isn’t an atom left anywhere of the good man I used to be. And, mind you, I never lifted a finger to prevent the change. I didn’t resist once; I didn’t make any fight. I just walked deliberately down-hill, with my eyes wide open. I told myself all the while that I was climbing uphill instead, but I knew in my heart that it was a lie. Everything about me was a lie. I wouldn’t be telling the truth, even now, if — if I hadn’t come to the end of my rope. Now, how do you explain that? How can it be explained? Was I really rotten to the core all the time, years ago, when I seemed to everybody, myself and the rest, to be good and straight and sincere? Was it all a sham, or does God take a good man and turn him into an out-and-out bad one, in just a few months — in the time that it takes an ear of corn to form and ripen and go off with the mildew? Or isn’t there any God at all — but only men who live and die like animals? And that would explain my case, wouldn’t it? I got bitten and went vicious and crazy, and they’ve had to chase me out and hunt me to my death like a mad dog! Yes, that makes it all very simple. It isn’t worth while to discuss me at all as if I had a soul, is it? I’m just one more mongrel cur that’s gone mad, and must be put out of the way. That’s all.”

“See here,” said Sister Soulsby, alertly, “I half believe that a good cuffing is what you really stand in need of. Now you stop all this nonsense, and lie quiet and keep still! Do you hear me?”

The jocose sternness which she assumed, in words and manner, seemed to soothe him. He almost smiled up at her in a melancholy way, and sighed profoundly.

“I’ve told you MY religion before,” she went on with gentleness. “The sheep and the goats are to be separated on Judgment Day, but not a minute sooner. In other words, as long as human life lasts, good, bad, and indifferent are all braided up together in every man’s nature, and every woman’s too. You weren’t altogether good a year ago, any more than you’re altogether bad now. You were some of both then; you’re some of both now. If you’ve been making an extra sort of fool of yourself lately, why, now that you recognize it, the only thing to do is to slow steam, pull up, and back engine in the other direction. In that way you’ll find things will even themselves up. It’s a see-saw with all of us, Theron Ware — sometimes up; sometimes down. But nobody is rotten clear to the core.”

He closed his eyes, and lay in silence for a time.

“This is what day of the week?” he asked, at last.

“Friday, the nineteenth.”

“Wednesday — that would be the seventeenth. That was the day ordained for my slaughter. On that morning, I was the happiest man in the world. No king could have been so proud and confident as I was. A wonderful romance had come to me. The most beautiful young woman in the world, the most talented too, was waiting for me. An express train was carrying me to her, and it couldn’t go fast enough to keep up with my eagerness. She was very rich, and she loved me, and we were to live in eternal summer, wherever we liked, on a big, beautiful yacht. No one else had such a life before him as that. It seemed almost too good for me, but I thought I had grown and developed so much that perhaps I would be worthy of it. Oh, how happy I was! I tell you this because — because YOU are not like the others. You will understand.”

“Yes, I understand,” she said patiently. “Well — you were being so happy.”

“That was in the morning — Wednesday the seventeenth — early in the morning. There was a little girl in the car, playing with some buttons, and when I tried to make friends with her, she looked at me, and she saw, right at a glance, that I was a fool. ‘Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings,’ you know. She was the first to find it out. It began like that, early in the morning. But then after that everybody knew it. They had only to look at me and they said: ‘Why, this is a fool — like a little nasty boy; we won’t let him into our houses; we find him a bore.’ That is what they said.”

“Did SHE say it?” Sister Soulsby permitted herself to ask.

For answer Theron bit his lips, and drew his chin under the fur, and pushed his scowling face into the pillow. The spasmodic, sob-like gasps began to shake him again. She laid a compassionate hand upon his hot brow.

“That is why I made my way here to you,” he groaned piteously. “I knew you would sympathize; I could tell it all to you. And it was so awful, to die there alone in the strange city — I couldn’t do it — with nobody near me who liked me, or thought well of me. Alice would hate me. There was no one but you. I wanted to be with you — at the last.”

His quavering voice broke off in a gust of weeping, and his face frankly surrendered itself to the distortions of a crying child’s countenance, wide-mouthed and tragically grotesque in its abandonment of control.

Sister Soulsby, as her husband’s boots were heard descending the stairs, rose, and drew the robe up to half cover his agonized visage. She patted the sufferer softly on the head, and then went to the stair-door.

“I think he’ll go to sleep now,” she said, lifting her voice to the new-comer, and with a backward nod toward the couch. “Come out into the kitchen while I get breakfast, or into the sitting-room, or somewhere, so as not to disturb him. He’s promised me to lie perfectly quiet, and try to sleep.”

When they had passed together out of the room, she turned. “Soulsby,” she said with half-playful asperity, “I’m disappointed in you. For a man who’s knocked about as much as you have, I must say you’ve picked up an astonishingly small outfit of gumption. That poor creature in there is no more drunk than I am. He’s been drinking — yes, drinking like a fish; but it wasn’t able to make him drunk. He’s past being drunk; he’s grief-crazy. It’s a case of ‘woman.’ Some girl has made a fool of him, and decoyed him up in a balloon, and let him drop. He’s been hurt bad, too.”

“We have all been hurt in our day and generation,” responded Brother Soulsby, genially. “Don’t you worry; he’ll sleep that off too. It takes longer than drink, and it doesn’t begin to be so pleasant, but it can be slept off. Take my word for it, he’ll be a different man by noon.”

When noon came, however, Brother Soulsby was on his way to summon one of the village doctors. Toward nightfall, he went out again to telegraph for Alice.

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