The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter xxxii

Spring fell early upon the pleasant southern slopes of the Susquehanna country. The snow went off as by magic. The trees budded and leaved before their time. The birds came and set up their chorus in the elms, while winter seemed still a thing of yesterday.

Alice, clad gravely in black, stood again upon a kitchen-stoop, and looked across an intervening space of back-yards and fences to where the tall boughs, fresh in their new verdure, were silhouetted against the pure blue sky. The prospect recalled to her irresistibly another sunlit morning, a year ago, when she had stood in the doorway of her own kitchen, and surveyed a scene not unlike this; it might have been with the same carolling robins, the same trees, the same azure segment of the tranquil, speckless dome. Then she was looking out upon surroundings novel and strange to her, among which she must make herself at home as best she could. But at least the ground was secure under her feet; at least she had a home, and a word from her lips could summon her husband out, to stand beside her with his arm about her, and share her buoyant, hopeful joy in the promises of spring.

To think that that was only one little year ago — the mere revolution of four brief seasons! And now —!

Sister Soulsby, wiping her hands on her apron, came briskly out upon the stoop. Some cheerful commonplace was on her tongue, but a glance at Alice’s wistful face kept it back. She passed an arm around her waist instead, and stood in silence, looking at the elms.

“It brings back memories to me — all this,” said Alice, nodding her head, and not seeking to dissemble the tears which sprang to her eyes.

“The men will be down in a minute, dear,” the other reminded her. “They’d nearly finished packing before I put the biscuits in the oven. We mustn’t wear long faces before folks, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” murmured Alice. Then, with a sudden impulse, she turned to her companion. “Candace,” she said fervently, “we’re alone here for the moment; I must tell you that if I don’t talk gratitude to you, it’s simply and solely because I don’t know where to begin, or what to say. I’m just dumfounded at your goodness. It takes my speech away. I only know this, Candace: God will be very good to you.”

“Tut! tut!” replied Sister Soulsby, “that’s all right, you dear thing. I know just how you feel. Don’t dream of being under obligation to explain it to me, or to thank us at all. We’ve had all sorts of comfort out of the thing — Soulsby and I. We used to get downright lonesome, here all by ourselves, and we’ve simply had a winter of pleasant company instead, that s all. Besides, there’s solid satisfaction in knowing that at last, for once in our lives we’ve had a chance to be of some real use to somebody who truly needed it. You can’t imagine how stuck up that makes us in our own conceit. We feel as if we were George Peabody and Lady Burdett–Coutts, and several other philanthropists thrown in. No, seriously, don’t think of it again. We’re glad to have been able to do it all; and if you only go ahead now, and prosper and be happy, why, that will be the only reward we want.”

“I hope we shall do well,” said Alice. “Only tell me this, Candace. You do think I was right, don’t you, in insisting on Theron’s leaving the ministry altogether? He seems convinced enough now that it was the right thing to do; but I grow nervous sometimes lest he should find it harder than he thought to get along in business, and regret the change — and blame me.”

“I think you may rest easy in your mind about that,” the other responded. “Whatever else he does, he will never want to come within gunshot of a pulpit again. It came too near murdering him for that.”

Alice looked at her doubtfully. “Something came near murdering him, I know. But it doesn’t seem to me that I would say it was the ministry. And I guess you know pretty well yourself what it was. Of course, I’ve never asked any questions, and I’ve hushed up everybody at Octavius who tried to quiz me about it — his disappearance and my packing up and leaving, and all that — and I’ve never discussed the question with you — but —”

“No, and there’s no good going into it now,” put in Sister Soulsby, with amiable decisiveness. “It’s all past and gone. In fact, I hardly remember much about it now myself. He simply got into deep water, poor soul, and we’ve floated him out again, safe and sound. That’s all. But all the same, I was right in what I said. He was a mistake in the ministry.”

“But if you’d known him in previous years,” urged Alice, plaintively, “before we were sent to that awful Octavius. He was the very ideal of all a young minister should be. People used to simply worship him, he was such a perfect preacher, and so pure-minded and friendly with everybody, and threw himself into his work so. It was all that miserable, contemptible Octavius that did the mischief.”

Sister Soulsby slowly shook her head. “If there hadn’t been a screw loose somewhere,” she said gently, “Octavius wouldn’t have hurt him. No, take my word for it, he never was the right man for the place. He seemed to be, no doubt, but he wasn’t. When pressure was put on him, it found out his weak spot like a shot, and pushed on it, and — well, it came near smashing him, that’s all.”

“And do you think he’ll always be a — a back-slider,” mourned Alice.

“For mercy’s sake, don’t ever try to have him pretend to be anything else!” exclaimed the other. “The last state of that man would be worse than the first. You must make up your mind to that. And you mustn’t show that you’re nervous about it. You mustn’t get nervous! You mustn’t be afraid of things. Just you keep a stiff upper lip, and say you WILL get along, you WILL be happy. That’s your only chance, Alice. He isn’t going to be an angel of light, or a saint, or anything of that sort, and it’s no good expecting it. But he’ll be just an average kind of man — a little sore about some things, a little wiser than he was about some others. You can get along perfectly with him, if you only keep your courage up, and don’t show the white feather.”

“Yes, I know; but I’ve had it pretty well taken out of me,” commented Alice. “It used to come easy to me to be cheerful and resolute and all that; but it’s different now.”

Sister Soulsby stole a swift glance at the unsuspecting face of her companion which was not all admiration, but her voice remained patiently affectionate. “Oh, that’ll all come back to you, right enough. You’ll have your hands full, you know, finding a house, and unpacking all your old furniture, and buying new things, and getting your home settled. It’ll keep you so busy you won’t have time to feel strange or lonesome, one bit. You’ll see how it’ll tone you up. In a year’s time you won’t know yourself in the looking-glass.”

“Oh, my health is good enough,” said Alice; “but I can’t help thinking, suppose Theron should be taken sick again, away out there among strangers. You know he’s never appeared to me to have quite got his strength back. These long illnesses, you know, they always leave a mark on a man.”

“Nonsense! He’s strong as an ox,” insisted Sister Soulsby. “You mark my word, he’ll thrive in Seattle like a green bay-tree.”

“Seattle!” echoed Alice, meditatively. “It sounds like the other end of the world, doesn’t it?”

The noise of feet in the house broke upon the colloquy, and the women went indoors, to join the breakfast party. During the meal, it was Brother Soulsby who bore the burden of the conversation. He was full of the future of Seattle and the magnificent impending development of that Pacific section. He had been out there, years ago, when it was next door to uninhabited. He had visited the district twice since, and the changes discoverable each new time were more wonderful than anything Aladdin’s lamp ever wrought. He had secured for Theron, through some of his friends in Portland, the superintendency of a land and real estate company, which had its headquarters in Seattle, but ambitiously linked its affairs with the future of all Washington Territory. In an hour’s time the hack would come to take the Wares and their baggage to the depot, the first stage in their long journey across the continent to their new home. Brother Soulsby amiably filled the interval with reminiscences of the Oregon of twenty years back, with instructive dissertations upon the soil, climate, and seasons of Puget Sound and the Columbia valley, and, above all, with helpful characterizations of the social life which had begun to take form in this remotest West. He had nothing but confidence, to all appearances, in the success of his young friend, now embarking on this new career. He seemed so sanguine about it that the whole atmosphere of the breakfast room lightened up, and the parting meal, surrounded by so many temptations to distraught broodings and silences as it was, became almost jovial in its spirit.

At last, it was time to look for the carriage. The trunks and hand-bags were ready in the hall, and Sister Soulsby was tying up a package of sandwiches for Alice to keep by her in the train.

Theron, with hat in hand, and overcoat on arm, loitered restlessly into the kitchen, and watched this proceeding for a moment. Then he sauntered out upon the stoop, and, lifting his head and drawing as long a breath as he could, looked over at the elms.

Perhaps the face was older and graver; it was hard to tell. The long winter’s illness, with its recurring crises and sustained confinement, had bleached his skin and reduced his figure to gauntness, but there was none the less an air of restored and secure good health about him. Only in the eyes themselves, as they rested briefly upon the prospect, did a substantial change suggest itself. They did not dwell fondly upon the picture of the lofty, spreading boughs, with their waves of sap-green leafage stirring against the blue. They did not soften and glow this time, at the thought of how wholly one felt sure of God’s goodness in these wonderful new mornings of spring.

They looked instead straight through the fairest and most moving spectacle in nature’s processional, and saw afar off, in conjectural vision, a formless sort of place which was Seattle. They surveyed its impalpable outlines, its undefined dimensions, with a certain cool glitter of hard-and-fast resolve. There rose before his fancy, out of the chaos of these shapeless imaginings, some faces of men, then more behind them, then a great concourse of uplifted countenances, crowded close together as far as the eye could reach. They were attentive faces all, rapt, eager, credulous to a degree. Their eyes were admiringly bent upon a common object of excited interest. They were looking at HIM; they strained their ears to miss no cadence of his voice. Involuntarily he straightened himself, stretched forth his hand with the pale, thin fingers gracefully disposed, and passed it slowly before him from side to side, in a comprehensive, stately gesture. The audience rose at him, as he dropped his hand, and filled his day-dream with a mighty roar of applause, in volume like an ocean tempest, yet pitched for his hearing alone.

He smiled, shook himself with a little delighted tremor, and turned on the stoop to the open door.

“What Soulsby said about politics out there interested me enormously,” he remarked to the two women. “I shouldn’t be surprised if I found myself doing something in that line. I can speak, you know, if I can’t do anything else. Talk is what tells, these days. Who knows? I may turn up in Washington a full-blown senator before I’m forty. Stranger things have happened than that, out West!”

“We’ll come down and visit you then, Soulsby and I,” said Sister Soulsby, cheerfully. “You shall take us to the White House, Alice, and introduce us.”

“Oh, it isn’t likely I would come East,” said Alice, pensively. “Most probably I’d be left to amuse myself in Seattle. But there — I think that’s the carriage driving up to the door.”

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