The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter v

While Mr. Ware stood thus on the doorstep, through a minute of formless musing, the priest and the girl came out, and, somewhat to his confusion, made him one of their party. He felt himself flushing under the idea that they would think he had waited for them — was thrusting himself upon them. The notion prompted him to bow frigidly in response to Father Forbes’ pleasant “I am glad to meet you, sir,” and his outstretched hand.

“I dropped in by the — the merest accident,” Theron said. “I met them bringing the poor man home, and — and quite without thinking, I obeyed the impulse to follow them in, and didn’t realize —”

He stopped short, annoyed by the reflection that this was his second apology. The girl smiled placidly at him, the while she put up her parasol.

“It did me good to see you there,” she said, quite as if she had known him all her life. “And so it did the rest of us.”

Father Forbes permitted himself a soft little chuckle, approving rather than mirthful, and patted her on the shoulder with the air of being fifty years her senior instead of fifteen. To the minister’s relief, he changed the subject as the three started together toward the road.

“Then, again, no doctor was sent for!” he exclaimed, as if resuming a familiar subject with the girl. Then he turned to Theron. “I dare-say you have no such trouble; but with our poorer people it is very vexing. They will not call in a physician, but hurry off first for the clergyman. I don’t know that it is altogether to avoid doctor’s bills, but it amounts to that in effect. Of course in this case it made no difference; but I have had to make it a rule not to go out at night unless they bring me a physician’s card with his assurance that it is a genuine affair. Why, only last winter, I was routed up after midnight, and brought off in the mud and pelting rain up one of the new streets on the hillside there, simply because a factory girl who was laced too tight had fainted at a dance. I slipped and fell into a puddle in the darkness, ruined a new overcoat, and got drenched to the skin; and when I arrived the girl had recovered and was dancing away again, thirteen to the dozen. It was then that I made the rule. I hope, Mr. Ware, that Octavius is producing a pleasant impression upon you so far?”

“I scarcely know yet,” answered Theron. The genial talk of the priest, with its whimsical anecdote, had in truth passed over his head. His mind still had room for nothing but that novel death-bed scene, with the winged captain of the angelic host, the Baptist, the glorified Fisherman and the Preacher, all being summoned down in the pomp of liturgical Latin to help MacEvoy to die. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” he added hesitatingly, “what I have just seen in there DID make a very powerful impression upon me.”

“It is a very ancient ceremony,” said the priest; “probably Persian, like the baptismal form, although, for that matter, we can never dig deep enough for the roots of these things. They all turn up Turanian if we probe far enough. Our ways separate here, I’m afraid. I am delighted to have made your acquaintance, Mr. Ware. Pray look in upon me, if you can as well as not. We are near neighbors, you know.”

Father Forbes had shaken hands, and moved off up another street some distance, before the voice of the girl recalled Theron to himself.

“Of course you knew HIM by name,” she was saying, “and he knew you by sight, and had talked of you; but MY poor inferior sex has to be introduced. I am Celia Madden. My father has the wagon-shops, and I— I play the organ at the church.”

“I— I am delighted to make your acquaintance,” said Theron, conscious as he spoke that he had slavishly echoed the formula of the priest. He could think of nothing better to add than, “Unfortunately, we have no organ in our church.”

The girl laughed, as they resumed their walk down the street. “I’m afraid I couldn’t undertake two,” she said, and laughed again. Then she spoke more seriously. “That ceremony must have interested you a good deal, never having seen it before. I saw that it was all new to you, and so I made bold to take you under my wing, so to speak.”

“You were very kind,” said the young minister. “It was really a great experience for me. May — may I ask, is it a part of your functions, in the church, I mean, to attend these last rites?”

“Mercy, no!” replied the girl, spinning the parasol on her shoulder and smiling at the thought. “No; it was only because MacEvoy was one of our workmen, and really came by his death through father sending him up to trim a tree. Ann MacEvoy will never forgive us that, the longest day she lives. Did you notice her? She wouldn’t speak to me. After you came out, I tried to tell her that we would look out for her and the children; but all she would say to me was: ‘An’ fwat would a wheelwright, an’ him the father of a family, be doin’ up a tree?’”

They had come now upon the main street of the village, with its flagstone sidewalk overhung by a lofty canopy of elm-boughs. Here, for the space of a block, was concentrated such fashionable elegance of mansions and ornamental lawns as Octavius had to offer; and it was presented with the irregularity so characteristic of our restless civilization. Two or three of the houses survived untouched from the earlier days — prim, decorous structures, each with its gabled centre and lower wings, each with its row of fluted columns supporting the classical roof of a piazza across its whole front, each vying with the others in the whiteness of those wooden walls enveloping its bright green blinds. One had to look over picket fences to see these houses, and in doing so caught the notion that they thus railed themselves off in pride at being able to remember before the railroad came to the village, or the wagon-works were thought of.

Before the neighboring properties the fences had been swept away, so that one might stroll from the sidewalk straight across the well-trimmed sward to any one of a dozen elaborately modern doorways. Some of the residences, thus frankly proffering friendship to the passer-by, were of wood painted in drabs and dusky reds, with bulging windows which marked the native yearning for the mediaeval, and shingles that strove to be accounted tiles. Others — a prouder, less pretentious sort — were of brick or stone, with terra-cotta mouldings set into the walls, and with real slates covering the riot of turrets and peaks and dormer peepholes overhead.

Celia Madden stopped in front of the largest and most important-looking of these new edifices, and said, holding out her hand: “Here I am, once more. Good-morning, Mr. Ware.”

Theron hoped that his manner did not betray the flash of surprise he felt in discovering that his new acquaintance lived in the biggest house in Octavius. He remembered now that some one had pointed it out as the abode of the owner of the wagon factories; but it had not occurred to him before to associate this girl with that village magnate. It was stupid of him, of course, because she had herself mentioned her father. He looked at her again with an awkward smile, as he formally shook the gloved hand she gave him, and lifted his soft hat. The strong noon sunlight, forcing its way down between the elms, and beating upon her parasol of lace-edged, creamy silk, made a halo about her hair and face at once brilliant and tender. He had not seen before how beautiful she was. She nodded in recognition of his salute, and moved up the lawn walk, spinning the sunshade on her shoulder.

Though the parsonage was only three blocks away, the young minister had time to think about a good many things before he reached home.

First of all, he had to revise in part the arrangement of his notions about the Irish. Save for an occasional isolated and taciturn figure among the nomadic portion of the hired help in the farm country, Theron had scarcely ever spoken to a person of this curiously alien race before. He remembered now that there had been some dozen or more Irish families in Tyre, quartered in the outskirts among the brickyards, but he had never come in contact with any of them, or given to their existence even a passing thought. So far as personal acquaintance went, the Irish had been to him only a name.

But what a sinister and repellent name! His views on this general subject were merely those common to his communion and his environment. He took it for granted, for example, that in the large cities most of the poverty and all the drunkenness, crime, and political corruption were due to the perverse qualities of this foreign people — qualities accentuated and emphasized in every evil direction by the baleful influence of a false and idolatrous religion. It is hardly too much to say that he had never encountered a dissenting opinion on this point. His boyhood had been spent in those bitter days when social, political, and blood prejudices were fused at white heat in the public crucible together. When he went to the Church Seminary, it was a matter of course that every member of the faculty was a Republican, and that every one of his classmates had come from a Republican household. When, later on, he entered the ministry, the rule was still incredulous of exceptions. One might as well have looked in the Nedahma Conference for a divergence of opinion on the Trinity as for a difference in political conviction. Indeed, even among the laity, Theron could not feel sure that he had ever known a Democrat; that is, at all closely. He understood very little about politics, it is true. If he had been driven into a corner, and forced to attempt an explanation of this tremendous partisan unity in which he had a share, he would probably have first mentioned the War — the last shots of which were fired while he was still in petticoats. Certainly his second reason, however, would have been that the Irish were on the other side.

He had never before had occasion to formulate, even in his own thoughts, this tacit race and religious aversion in which he had been bred. It rose now suddenly in front of him, as he sauntered from patch to patch of sunlight under the elms, like some huge, shadowy, and symbolic monument. He looked at it with wondering curiosity, as at something he had heard of all his life, but never seen before — an abhorrent spectacle, truly! The foundations upon which its dark bulk reared itself were ignorance, squalor, brutality and vice. Pigs wallowed in the mire before its base, and burrowing into this base were a myriad of narrow doors, each bearing the hateful sign of a saloon, and giving forth from its recesses of night the sounds of screams and curses. Above were sculptured rows of lowering, ape-like faces from Nast’s and Keppler’s cartoons, and out of these sprang into the vague upper gloom — on the one side, lamp-posts from which negroes hung by the neck, and on the other gibbets for dynamiters and Molly Maguires, and between the two glowed a spectral picture of some black-robed tonsured men, with leering satanic masks, making a bonfire of the Bible in the public schools.

Theron stared this phantasm hard in the face, and recognized it for a very tolerable embodiment of what he had heretofore supposed he thought about the Irish. For an instant, the sight of it made him shiver, as if the sunny May had of a sudden lapsed back into bleak December. Then he smiled, and the bad vision went off into space. He saw instead Father Forbes, in the white and purple vestments, standing by poor MacEvoy’s bedside, with his pale, chiselled, luminous, uplifted face, and he heard only the proud, confident clanging of the girl’s recital — BEATUM MICHAELEM ARCHANGELUM, BEATUM JOANNEM BAPTISTAM, PETRUM ET PAULUM— EM! — AM! — UM! — like strokes on a great resonant alarm-bell, attuned for the hearing of heaven. He caught himself on the very verge of feeling that heaven must have heard.

Then he smiled again, and laid the matter aside, with a parting admission that it had been undoubtedly picturesque and impressive, and that it had been a valuable experience to him to see it. At least the Irish, with all their faults, must have a poetic strain, or they would not have clung so tenaciously to those curious and ancient forms. He recalled having heard somewhere, or read, it might be, that they were a people much given to songs and music. And the young lady, that very handsome and friendly Miss Madden, had told him that she was a musician! He had a new pleasure in turning this over in his mind. Of all the closed doors which his choice of a career had left along his pathway, no other had for him such a magical fascination as that on which was graven the lute of Orpheus. He knew not even the alphabet of music, and his conceptions of its possibilities ran but little beyond the best of the hymn-singing he had heard at Conferences, yet none the less the longing for it raised on occasion such mutiny in his soul that more than once he had specifically prayed against it as a temptation.

Dangerous though some of its tendencies might be, there was no gainsaying the fact that a love for music was in the main an uplifting influence — an attribute of cultivation. The world was the sweeter and more gentle for it. And this brought him to musing upon the odd chance that the two people of Octavius who had given him the first notion of polish and intellectual culture in the town should be Irish. The Romish priest must have been vastly surprised at his intrusion, yet had been at the greatest pains to act as if it were quite the usual thing to have Methodist ministers assist at Extreme Unction. And the young woman — how gracefully, with what delicacy, had she comprehended his position and robbed it of all its possible embarrassments! It occurred to him that they must have passed, there in front of her home, the very tree from which the luckless wheelwright had fallen some hours before; and the fact that she had forborne to point it out to him took form in his mind as an added proof of her refinement of nature.

The midday dinner was a little more than ready when Theron reached home, and let himself in by the front door. On Mondays, owing to the moisture and “clutter” of the weekly washing in the kitchen, the table was laid in the sitting-room, and as he entered from the hall the partner of his joys bustled in by the other door, bearing the steaming platter of corned beef, dumplings, cabbages, and carrots, with arms bared to the elbows, and a red face. It gave him great comfort, however, to note that there were no signs of the morning’s displeasure remaining on this face; and he immediately remembered again those interrupted projects of his about the piano and the hired girl.

“Well! I’d just about begun to reckon that I was a widow,” said Alice, putting down her fragrant burden. There was such an obvious suggestion of propitiation in her tone that Theron went around and kissed her. He thought of saying something about keeping out of the way because it was “Blue Monday,” but held it back lest it should sound like a reproach.

“Well, what kind of a washerwoman does THIS one turn out to be?” he asked, after they were seated, and he had invoked a blessing and was cutting vigorously into the meat.

“Oh, so-so,” replied Alice; “she seems to be particular, but she’s mortal slow. If I hadn’t stood right over her, we shouldn’t have had the clothes out till goodness knows when. And of course she’s Irish!”

“Well, what of THAT?” asked the minister, with a fine unconcern.

Alice looked up from her plate, with knife and fork suspended in air. “Why, you know we were talking only the other day of what a pity it was that none of our own people went out washing,” she said. “That Welsh woman we heard of couldn’t come, after all; and they say, too, that she presumes dreadfully upon the acquaintance, being a church member, you know. So we simply had to fall back on the Irish. And even if they do go and tell their priest everything they see and hear, why, there’s one comfort, they can tell about US and welcome. Of course I see to it she doesn’t snoop around in here.”

Theron smiled. “That’s all nonsense about their telling such things to their priests,” he said with easy confidence.

“Why, you told me so yourself,” replied Alice, briskly. “And I’ve always understood so, too; they’re bound to tell EVERYTHING in confession. That’s what gives the Catholic Church such a tremendous hold. You’ve spoken of it often.”

“It must have been by way of a figure of speech,” remarked Theron, not with entire directness. “Women are great hands to separate one’s observations from their context, and so give them meanings quite unintended. They are also great hands,” he added genially, “or at least one of them is, at making the most delicious dumplings in the world. I believe these are the best even you ever made.”

Alice was not unmindful of the compliment, but her thoughts were on other things. “I shouldn’t like that woman’s priest, for example,” she said, “to know that we had no piano.”

“But if he comes and stands outside our house every night and listens — as of course he will,” said Theron, with mock gravity, “it is only a question of time when he must reach that conclusion for himself. Our only chance, however, is that there are some sixteen hundred other houses for him to watch, so that he may not get around to us for quite a spell. Why, seriously, Alice, what on earth do you suppose Father Forbes knows or cares about our poor little affairs, or those of any other Protestant household in this whole village? He has his work to do, just as I have mine — only his is ten times as exacting in everything except sermons — and you may be sure he is only too glad when it is over each day, without bothering about things that are none of his business.”

“All the same I’m afraid of them,” said Alice, as if argument were exhausted.

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