The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter iv

On the following Sunday, young Mrs. Ware sat alone in the preacher’s pew through the morning service, and everybody noted that the roses had been taken from her bonnet. In the evening she was absent, and after the doxology and benediction several people, under the pretence of solicitude for her health, tried to pump her husband as to the reason. He answered their inquiries civilly enough, but with brevity: she had stayed at home because she did not feel like coming out — this and nothing more.

The congregation dispersed under a gossip-laden cloud of consciousness that there must be something queer about Sister Ware. There was a tolerably general agreement, however, that the two sermons of the day had been excellent. Not even Loren Pierce’s railing commentary on the pastor’s introduction of an outlandish word like “epitome”— clearly forbidden by the Discipline’s injunction to plain language understood of the people — availed to sap the satisfaction of the majority.

Theron himself comprehended that he had pleased the bulk of his auditors; the knowledge left him curiously hot and cold. On the one hand, there was joy in the apparent prospect that the congregation would back him up in a stand against the trustees, if worst came to worst. But, on the other hand, the bonnet episode entered his soul. It had been a source of bitter humiliation to him to see his wife sitting there beneath the pulpit, shorn by despotic order of the adornments natural to her pretty head. But he had even greater pain in contemplating the effect it had produced on Alice herself. She had said not a word on the subject, but her every glance and gesture seemed to him eloquent of deep feeling about it. He made sure that she blamed him for having defended his own gas and sidewalk rights with successful vigor, but permitted the sacrifice of her poor little inoffensive roses without a protest. In this view of the matter, indeed, he blamed himself. Was it too late to make the error good? He ventured a hint on this Sunday evening, when he returned to the parsonage and found her reading an old weekly newspaper by the light of the kitchen lamp, to the effect that he fancied there would be no great danger in putting those roses back into her bonnet. Without lifting her eyes from the paper, she answered that she had no earthly desire to wear roses in her bonnet, and went on with her reading.

At breakfast the next morning Theron found himself in command of an unusual fund of humorous good spirits, and was at pains to make the most of it, passing whimsical comments on subjects which the opening day suggested, recalling quaint and comical memories of the past, and striving his best to force Alice into a laugh. Formerly her merry temper had always ignited at the merest spark of gayety. Now she gave his jokes only a dutiful half-smile, and uttered scarcely a word in response to his running fire of talk. When the meal was finished, she went silently to work to clear away the dishes.

Theron turned over in his mind the project of offering to help her, as he had done so often in those dear old days when they laughingly began life together. Something decided this project in the negative for him, and after lingering moments he put on his hat and went out for a walk.

Not even the most doleful and trying hour of his bitter experience in Tyre had depressed him like this. Looking back upon these past troubles, he persuaded himself that he had borne them all with a light and cheerful heart, simply because Alice had been one with him in every thought and emotion. How perfect, how ideally complete, their sympathy had always been! With what absolute unity of mind and soul they had trod that difficult path together! And now — henceforth — was it to be different? The mere suggestion of such a thing chilled his veins. He said aloud to himself as he walked that life would be an intolerable curse if Alice were to cease sharing it with him in every conceivable phase.

He had made his way out of town, and tramped along the country hill-road for a considerable distance, before a merciful light began to lessen the shadows in the picture of gloom with which his mind tortured itself. All at once he stopped short, lifted his head, and looked about him. The broad valley lay warm and tranquil in the May sunshine at his feet. In the thicket up the side-hill above him a gray squirrel was chattering shrilly, and the birds sang in a tireless choral confusion. Theron smiled, and drew a long breath. The gay clamor of the woodland songsters, the placid radiance of the landscape, were suddenly taken in and made a part of his new mood. He listened, smiled once more, and then started in a leisurely way back toward Octavius.

How could he have been so ridiculous as to fancy that Alice — his Alice — had been changed into someone else? He marvelled now at his own perverse folly. She was overworked — tired out — that was all. The task of moving in, of setting the new household to rights, had been too much for her. She must have a rest. They must get in a hired girl.

Once this decision about a servant fixed itself in the young minister’s mind, it drove out the last vestage of discomfort. He strode along now in great content, revolving idly a dozen different plans for gilding and beautifying this new life of leisure into which his sanguine thoughts projected Alice. One of these particularly pleased him, and waxed in definiteness as he turned it over and over. He would get another piano for her, in place of that which had been sacrificed in Tyre. That beneficient modern invention, the instalment plan, made this quite feasible — so easy, in fact, that it almost seemed as if he should find his wife playing on the new instrument when he got home. He would stop in at the music store and see about it that very day.

Of course, now that these important resolutions had been taken, it would be a good thing if he could do something to bring in some extra money. This was by no means a new notion. He had mused over the possibility in a formless way ever since that memorable discovery of indebtedness in Tyre, and had long ago recognized the hopelessness of endeavor in every channel save that of literature. Latterly his fancy had been stimulated by reading an account of the profits which Canon Farrar had derived from his “Life of Christ.” If such a book could command such a bewildering multitude of readers, Theron felt there ought to be a chance for him. So clear did constant rumination render this assumption that the young pastor in time had come to regard this prospective book of his as a substantial asset, which could be realized without trouble whenever he got around to it.

He had not, it is true, gone to the length of seriously considering what should be the subject of his book. That had not seemed to him to matter much, so long as it was scriptural. Familiarity with the process of extracting a fixed amount of spiritual and intellectual meat from any casual text, week after week, had given him an idea that any one of many subjects would do, when the time came for him to make a choice. He realized now that the time for a selection had arrived, and almost simultaneously found himself with a ready-made decision in his mind. The book should be about Abraham!

Theron Ware was extremely interested in the mechanism of his own brain, and followed its workings with a lively curiosity. Nothing could be more remarkable, he thought, than to thus discover that, on the instant of his formulating a desire to know what he should write upon, lo, and behold! there his mind, quite on its own initiative, had the answer waiting for him! When he had gone a little further, and the powerful range of possibilities in the son’s revolt against the idolatry of his father, the image-maker, in the exodus from the unholy city of Ur, and in the influence of the new nomadic life upon the little deistic family group, had begun to unfold itself before him, he felt that the hand of Providence was plainly discernible in the matter. The book was to be blessed from its very inception.

Walking homeward briskly now, with his eyes on the sidewalk and his mind all aglow with crowding suggestions for the new work, and impatience to be at it, he came abruptly upon a group of men and boys who occupied the whole path, and were moving forward so noiselessly that he had not heard them coming. He almost ran into the leader of this little procession, and began a stammering apology, the final words of which were left unspoken, so solemnly heedless of him and his talk were all the faces he saw.

In the centre of the group were four working-men, bearing between them an extemporized litter of two poles and a blanket hastily secured across them with spikes. Most of what this litter held was covered by another blanket, rounded in coarse folds over a shapeless bulk. From beneath its farther end protruded a big broom-like black beard, thrown upward at such an angle as to hide everything beyond to those in front. The tall young minister, stepping aside and standing tip-toe, could see sloping downward behind this hedge of beard a pinched and chalk-like face, with wide-open, staring eyes. Its lips, of a dull lilac hue, were moving ceaselessly, and made a dry, clicking sound.

Theron instinctively joined himself to those who followed the litter — a motley dozen of street idlers, chiefly boys. One of these in whispers explained to him that the man was one of Jerry Madden’s workmen in the wagon-shops, who had been deployed to trim an elm-tree in front of his employer’s house, and, being unused to such work, had fallen from the top and broken all his bones. They would have cared for him at Madden’s house, but he had insisted upon being taken home. His name was MacEvoy, and he was Joey MacEvoy’s father, and likewise Jim’s and Hughey’s and Martin’s. After a pause the lad, a bright-eyed, freckled, barefooted wee Irishman, volunteered the further information that his big brother had run to bring “Father Forbess,” on the chance that he might be in time to administer “extry munction.”

The way of the silent little procession led through back streets — where women hanging up clothes in the yards hurried to the gates, their aprons full of clothes-pins, to stare open-mouthed at the passers-by — and came to a halt at last in an irregular and muddy lane, before one of a half dozen shanties reared among the ash-heaps and debris of the town’s most bedraggled outskirts.

A stout, middle-aged, red-armed woman, already warned by some messenger of calamity, stood waiting on the roadside bank. There were whimpering children clinging to her skirts, and a surrounding cluster of women of the neighborhood, some of the more elderly of whom, shrivelled little crones in tidy caps, and with their aprons to their eyes, were beginning in a low-murmured minor the wail which presently should rise into the keen of death. Mrs. MacEvoy herself made no moan, and her broad ruddy face was stern in expression rather than sorrowful. When the litter stopped beside her, she laid a hand for an instant on her husband’s wet brow, and looked — one could have sworn impassively — into his staring eyes. Then, still without a word, she waved the bearers toward the door, and led the way herself.

Theron, somewhat wonderingly, found himself, a minute later, inside a dark and ill-smelling room, the air of which was humid with the steam from a boiler of clothes on the stove, and not in other ways improved by the presence of a jostling score of women, all straining their gaze upon the open door of the only other apartment — the bed-chamber. Through this they could see the workmen laying MacEvoy on the bed, and standing awkwardly about thereafter, getting in the way of the wife and old Maggie Quirk as they strove to remove the garments from his crushed limbs. As the neighbors watched what could be seen of these proceedings, they whispered among themselves eulogies of the injured man’s industry and good temper, his habit of bringing his money home to his wife, and the way he kept his Father Mathew pledge and attended to his religious duties. They admitted freely that, by the light of his example, their own husbands and sons left much to be desired, and from this wandered easily off into domestic digressions of their own. But all the while their eyes were bent upon the bedroom door; and Theron made out, after he had grown accustomed to the gloom and the smell, that many of them were telling their beads even while they kept the muttered conversation alive. None of them paid any attention to him, or seemed to regard his presence there as unusual.

Presently he saw enter through the sunlit street doorway a person of a different class. The bright light shone for a passing instant upon a fashionable, flowered hat, and upon some remarkably brilliant shade of red hair beneath it. In another moment there had edged along through the throng, to almost within touch of him, a tall young woman, the owner of this hat and wonderful hair. She was clad in light and pleasing spring attire, and carried a parasol with a long oxidized silver handle of a quaint pattern. She looked at him, and he saw that her face was of a lengthened oval, with a luminous rose-tinted skin, full red lips, and big brown, frank eyes with heavy auburn lashes. She made a grave little inclination of her head toward him, and he bowed in response. Since her arrival, he noted, the chattering of the others had entirely ceased.

“I followed the others in, in the hope that I might be of some assistance,” he ventured to explain to her in a low murmur, feeling that at last here was some one to whom an explanation of his presence in this Romish house was due. “I hope they won’t feel that I have intruded.”

She nodded her head as if she quite understood. “They’ll take the will for the deed,” she whispered back. “Father Forbes will be here in a minute. Do you know is it too late?”

Even as she spoke, the outer doorway was darkened by the commanding bulk of a newcomer’s figure. The flash of a silk hat, and the deferential way in which the assembled neighbors fell back to clear a passage, made his identity clear. Theron felt his blood tingle in an unaccustomed way as this priest of a strange church advanced across the room — a broad-shouldered, portly man of more than middle height, with a shapely, strong-lined face of almost waxen pallor, and a firm, commanding tread. He carried in his hands, besides his hat, a small leather-bound case. To this and to him the women courtesied and bowed their heads as he passed.

“Come with me,” whispered the tall girl with the parasol to Theron; and he found himself pushing along in her wake until they intercepted the priest just outside the bedroom door. She touched Father Forbes on the arm.

“Just to tell you that I am here,” she said. The priest nodded with a grave face, and passed into the other room. In a minute or two the workmen, Mrs. MacEvoy, and her helper came out, and the door was shut behind them.

“He is making his confession,” explained the young lady. “Stay here for a minute.”

She moved over to where the woman of the house stood, glum-faced and tearless, and whispered something to her. A confused movement among the crowd followed, and out of it presently resulted a small table, covered with a white cloth, and bearing on it two unlighted candles, a basin of water, and a spoon, which was brought forward and placed in readiness before the closed door. Some of those nearest this cleared space were kneeling now, and murmuring a low buzz of prayer to the click of beads on their rosaries.

The door opened, and Theron saw the priest standing in the doorway with an uplifted hand. He wore now a surplice, with a purple band over his shoulders, and on his pale face there shone a tranquil and tender light.

One of the workmen fetched from the stove a brand, lighted the two candles, and bore the table with its contents into the bedroom. The young woman plucked Theron’s sleeve, and he dumbly followed her into the chamber of death, making one of the group of a dozen, headed by Mrs. MacEvoy and her children, which filled the little room, and overflowed now outward to the street door. He found himself bowing with the others to receive the sprinkled holy water from the priest’s white fingers; kneeling with the others for the prayers; following in impressed silence with the others the strange ceremonial by which the priest traced crosses of holy oil with his thumb upon the eyes, ears, nostrils, lips, hands, and feet of the dying man, wiping off the oil with a piece of cotton-batting each time after he had repeated the invocation to forgiveness for that particular sense. But most of all he was moved by the rich, novel sound of the Latin as the priest rolled it forth in the ASPERGES ME, DOMINE, and MISEREATUR VESTRI OMNIPOTENS DEUS, with its soft Continental vowels and liquid R’s. It seemed to him that he had never really heard Latin before. Then the astonishing young woman with the red hair declaimed the CONFITEOR, vigorously and with a resonant distinctness of enunciation. It was a different Latin, harsher and more sonorous; and while it still dominated the murmured undertone of the other’s prayers, the last moment came.

Theron had stood face to face with death at many other bedsides; no other final scene had stirred him like this. It must have been the girl’s Latin chant, with its clanging reiteration of the great names — BEATUM MICHAELEM ARCHANGELUM, BEATUM JOANNEM BAPTISTAM, SANCTOS APOSTOLOS PETRUM ET PAULUM— invoked with such proud confidence in this squalid little shanty, which so strangely affected him.

He came out with the others at last — the candles and the folded hands over the crucifix left behind — and walked as one in a dream. Even by the time that he had gained the outer doorway, and stood blinking at the bright light and filling his lungs with honest air once more, it had begun to seem incredible to him that he had seen and done all this.

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