The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter vi

On the following morning young Mr. Ware anticipated events by inscribing in his diary for the day, immediately after breakfast, these remarks: “Arranged about piano. Began work upon book.”

The date indeed deserved to be distinguished from its fellows. Theron was so conscious of its importance that he not only prophesied in the little morocco-bound diary which Alice had given him for Christmas, but returned after he had got out upon the front steps of the parsonage to have his hat brushed afresh by her.

“Wonders will never cease,” she said jocosely. “With you getting particular about your clothes, there isn’t anything in this wide world that can’t happen now!”

“One doesn’t go out to bring home a piano every day,” he made answer. “Besides, I want to make such an impression upon the man that he will deal gently with that first cash payment down. Do you know,” he added, watching her turn the felt brim under the wisp-broom’s strokes, “I’m thinking some of getting me a regular silk stove-pipe hat.”

“Why don’t you, then?” she rejoined, but without any ring of glad acquiescence in her tone. He fancied that her face lengthened a little, and he instantly ascribed it to recollections of the way in which the roses had been bullied out of her own headgear.

“You are quite sure, now, pet,” he made haste to change the subject, “that the hired girl can wait just as well as not until fall?”

“Oh, MY, yes!” Alice replied, putting the hat on his head, and smoothing back his hair behind his ears. “She’d only be in the way now. You see, with hot weather coming on, there won’t be much cooking. We’ll take all our meals out here, and that saves so much work that really what remains is hardly more than taking care of a bird-cage. And, besides, not having her will almost half pay for the piano.”

“But when cold weather comes, you’re sure you’ll consent?” he urged.

“Like a shot!” she assured him, and, after a happy little caress, he started out again on his momentous mission.

“Thurston’s” was a place concerning which opinions differed in Octavius. That it typified progress, and helped more than any other feature of the village to bring it up to date, no one indeed disputed. One might move about a great deal, in truth, and hear no other view expressed. But then again one might stumble into conversation with one small storekeeper after another, and learn that they united in resenting the existence of “Thurston’s,” as rival farmers might join to curse a protracted drought. Each had his special flaming grievance. The little dry-goods dealers asked mournfully how they could be expected to compete with an establishment which could buy bankrupt stocks at a hundred different points, and make a profit if only one-third of the articles were sold for more than they would cost from the jobber? The little boot and shoe dealers, clothiers, hatters, and furriers, the small merchants in carpets, crockery, and furniture, the venders of hardware and household utensils, of leathern goods and picture-frames, of wall-paper, musical instruments, and even toys — all had the same pathetically unanswerable question to propound. But mostly they put it to themselves, because the others were at “Thurston’s.”

The Rev. Theron Ware had entertained rather strong views on this subject, and that only a week or two ago. One of his first acquaintances in Octavius had been the owner of the principal book-store in the place — a gentle and bald old man who produced the complete impression of a bibliophile upon what the slightest investigation showed to be only a meagre acquaintance with publishers’ circulars. But at least he had the air of loving his business, and the young minister had enjoyed a long talk with, or rather, at him. Out of this talk had come the information that the store was losing money. Not even the stationery department now showed a profit worth mentioning. When Octavius had contained only five thousand inhabitants, it boasted four book-stores, two of them good ones. Now, with a population more than doubled, only these latter two survived, and they must soon go to the wall. The reason? It was in a nutshell. A book which sold at retail for one dollar and a half cost the bookseller ninety cents. If it was at all a popular book, “Thurston’s” advertised it at eighty-nine cents — and in any case at a profit of only two or three cents. Of course it was done to widen the establishment’s patronage — to bring people into the store. Equally of course, it was destroying the book business and debauching the reading tastes of the community. Without the profits from the light and ephemeral popular literature of the season, the book-store proper could not keep up its stock of more solid works, and indeed could not long keep open at all. On the other hand, “Thurston’s” dealt with nothing save the demand of the moment, and offered only the books which were the talk of the week. Thus, in plain words, the book trade was going to the dogs, and it was the same with pretty nearly every other trade.

Theron was indignant at this, and on his return home told Alice that he desired her to make no purchases whatever at “Thurston’s.” He even resolved to preach a sermon on the subject of the modern idea of admiring the great for crushing the small, and sketched out some notes for it which he thought solved the problem of flaying the local abuse without mentioning it by name. They had lain on his desk now for ten days or more, and on only the previous Friday he had speculated upon using them that coming Sunday.

On this bright and cheerful Tuesday morning he walked with a blithe step unhesitatingly down the main street to “Thurston’s,” and entered without any show of repugnance the door next to the window wherein, flanked by dangling banjos and key-bugles built in pyramids, was displayed the sign, “Pianos on the Instalment Plan.”

He was recognized by some responsible persons, and treated with distinguished deference. They were charmed with the intelligence that he desired a piano, and fascinated by his wish to pay for it only a little at a time. They had special terms for clergymen, and made him feel as if these were being extended to him on a silver charger by kneeling admirers.

It was so easy to buy things here that he was a trifle disturbed to find his flowing course interrupted by his own entire ignorance as to what kind of piano he wanted. He looked at all they had in stock, and heard them played upon. They differed greatly in price, and, so he fancied, almost as much in tone. It discouraged him to note, however, that several of those he thought the finest in tone were among the very cheapest in the lot. Pondering this, and staring in hopeless puzzlement from one to another of the big black shiny monsters, he suddenly thought of something.

“I would rather not decide for myself,” he said, “I know so little about it. If you don’t mind, I will have a friend of mine, a skilled musician, step in and make a selection. I have so much confidence in-in her judgment.” He added hurriedly, “It will involve only a day or two’s delay.”

The next moment he was sorry he had spoken. What would they think when they saw the organist of the Catholic church come to pick out a piano for the Methodist parsonage? And how could he decorously prefer the request to her to undertake this task? He might not meet her again for ages, and to his provincial notions writing would have seemed out of the question. And would it not be disagreeable to have her know that he was buying a piano by part payments? Poor Alice’s dread of the washerwoman’s gossip occurred to him, at this, and he smiled in spite of himself. Then all at once the difficulty vanished. Of course it would come all right somehow. Everything did.

He was on firmer ground, buying the materials for the new book, over on the stationery side. His original intention had been to bestow this patronage upon the old bookseller, but these suavely smart people in “Thurston’s” had had the effect of putting him on his honor when they asked, “Would there be anything else?” and he had followed them unresistingly.

He indulged to the full his whim that everything entering into the construction of “Abraham” should be spick-and-span. He watched with his own eyes a whole ream of broad glazed white paper being sliced down by the cutter into single sheets, and thrilled with a novel ecstasy as he laid his hand upon the spotless bulk, so wooingly did it invite him to begin. He tried a score of pens before the right one came to hand. When a box of these had been laid aside, with ink and pen-holders and a little bronze inkstand, he made a sign that the outfit was complete. Or no — there must be some blotting-paper. He had always used those blotting-pads given away by insurance companies — his congregations never failed to contain one or more agents, who had these to bestow by the armful — but the book deserved a virgin blotter.

Theron stood by while all these things were being tied up together in a parcel. The suggestion that they should be sent almost hurt him. Oh, no, he would carry them home himself. So strongly did they appeal to his sanguine imagination that he could not forbear hinting to the man who had shown him the pianos and was now accompanying him to the door that this package under his arm represented potentially the price of the piano he was going to have. He did it in a roundabout way, with one of his droll, hesitating smiles. The man did not understand at all, and Theron had not the temerity to repeat the remark. He strode home with the precious bundle as fast as he could.

“I thought it best, after all, not to commit myself to a selection,” he explained about the piano at dinner-time. “In such a matter as this, the opinion of an expert is everything. I am going to have one of the principal musicians of the town go and try them all, and tell me which we ought to have.”

“And while he’s about it,” said Alice, “you might ask him to make a little list of some of the new music. I’ve got way behind the times, being without a piano so long. Tell him not any VERY difficult pieces, you know.”

“Yes, I know,” put in Theron, almost hastily, and began talking of other things. His conversation was of the most rambling and desultory sort, because all the while the two lobes of his brain, as it were, kept up a dispute as to whether Alice ought to have been told that this “principal musician” was of her own sex. It would certainly have been better, at the outset, he decided; but to mention it now would be to invest the fact with undue importance. Yes, that was quite clear; only the clearer it became, from one point of view, the shadier it waxed from the other. The problem really disturbed the young minister’s mind throughout the meal, and his abstraction became so marked at last that his wife commented upon it.

“A penny for your thoughts!” she said, with cheerful briskness. This ancient formula of the farm-land had always rather jarred on Theron. It presented itself now to his mind as a peculiarly aggravating banality.

“I am going to begin my book this afternoon,” he remarked impressively. “There is a great deal to think about.”

It turned out that there was even more to think about than he had imagined. After hours of solitary musing at his desk, or of pacing up and down before his open book-shelves, Theron found the first shadows of a May-day twilight beginning to fall upon that beautiful pile of white paper, still unstained by ink. He saw the book he wanted to write before him, in his mental vision, much more distinctly than ever, but the idea of beginning it impetuously, and hurling it off hot and glowing week by week, had faded away like a dream.

This long afternoon, spent face to face with a project born of his own brain but yesterday, yet already so much bigger than himself, was really a most fruitful time for the young clergyman. The lessons which cut most deeply into our consciousness are those we learn from our children. Theron, in this first day’s contact with the offspring of his fancy, found revealed to him an unsuspected and staggering truth. It was that he was an extremely ignorant and rudely untrained young man, whose pretensions to intellectual authority among any educated people would be laughed at with deserved contempt.

Strangely enough, after he had weathered the first shock, this discovery did not dismay Theron Ware. The very completeness of the conviction it carried with it, saturated his mind with a feeling as if the fact had really been known to him all along. And there came, too, after a little, an almost pleasurable sense of the importance of the revelation. He had been merely drifting in fatuous and conceited blindness. Now all at once his eyes were open; he knew what he had to do. Ignorance was a thing to be remedied, and he would forthwith bend all his energies to cultivating his mind till it should blossom like a garden. In this mood, Theron mentally measured himself against the more conspicuous of his colleagues in the Conference. They also were ignorant, clownishly ignorant: the difference was that they were doomed by native incapacity to go on all their lives without ever finding it out. It was obvious to him that his case was better. There was bright promise in the very fact that he had discovered his shortcomings.

He had begun the afternoon by taking down from their places the various works in his meagre library which bore more or less relation to the task in hand. The threescore books which constituted his printed possessions were almost wholly from the press of the Book Concern; the few exceptions were volumes which, though published elsewhere, had come to him through that giant circulating agency of the General Conference, and wore the stamp of its approval. Perhaps it was the sight of these half-filled shelves which started this day’s great revolution in Theron’s opinions of himself. He had never thought much before about owning books. He had been too poor to buy many, and the conditions of canvassing about among one’s parishioners which the thrifty Book Concern imposes upon those who would have without buying, had always repelled him. Now, suddenly, as he moved along the two shelves, he felt ashamed at their beggarly showing.

“The Land and the Book,” in three portly volumes, was the most pretentious of the aids which he finally culled from his collection. Beside it he laid out “Bible Lands,” “Rivers and Lakes of Scripture,” “Bible Manners and Customs,” the “Genesis and Exodus” volume of Whedon’s Commentary, some old numbers of the “Methodist Quarterly Review,” and a copy of “Josephus” which had belonged to his grandmother, and had seen him through many a weary Sunday afternoon in boyhood. He glanced casually through these, one by one, as he took them down, and began to fear that they were not going to be of so much use as he had thought. Then, seating himself, he read carefully through the thirteen chapters of Genesis which chronicle the story of the founder of Israel.

Of course he had known this story from his earliest years. In almost every chapter he came now upon a phrase or an incident which had served him as the basis for a sermon. He had preached about Hagar in the wilderness, about Lot’s wife, about the visit of the angels, about the intended sacrifice of Isaac, about a dozen other things suggested by the ancient narrative. Somehow this time it all seemed different to him. The people he read about were altered to his vision. Heretofore a poetic light had shone about them, where indeed they had not glowed in a halo of sanctification. Now, by some chance, this light was gone, and he saw them instead as untutored and unwashed barbarians, filled with animal lusts and ferocities, struggling by violence and foul chicanery to secure a foothold in a country which did not belong to them — all rude tramps and robbers of the uncivilized plain.

The apparent fact that Abram was a Chaldean struck him with peculiar force. How was it, he wondered, that this had never occurred to him before? Examining himself, he found that he had supposed vaguely that there had been Jews from the beginning, or at least, say, from the flood. But, no, Abram was introduced simply as a citizen of the Chaldean town of Ur, and there was no hint of any difference in race between him and his neighbors. It was specially mentioned that his brother, Lot’s father, died in Ur, the city of his nativity. Evidently the family belonged there, and were Chaldeans like the rest.

I do not cite this as at all a striking discovery, but it did have a curious effect upon Theron Ware. Up to that very afternoon, his notion of the kind of book he wanted to write had been founded upon a popular book called “Ruth the Moabitess,” written by a clergyman he knew very well, the Rev. E. Ray Mifflin. This model performance troubled itself not at all with difficult points, but went swimmingly along through scented summer seas of pretty rhetoric, teaching nothing, it is true, but pleasing a good deal and selling like hot cakes. Now, all at once Theron felt that he hated that sort of book. HIS work should be of a vastly different order. He might fairly assume, he thought, that if the fact that Abram was a Chaldean was new to him, it would fall upon the world in general as a novelty. Very well, then, there was his chance. He would write a learned book, showing who the Chaldeans were, and how their manners and beliefs differed from, and influenced —

It was at this psychological instant that the wave of self-condemnation suddenly burst upon and submerged the young clergyman. It passed again, leaving him staring fixedly at the pile of books he had taken down from the shelves, and gasping a little, as if for breath. Then the humorous side of the thing, perversely enough, appealed to him, and he grinned feebly to himself at the joke of his having imagined that he could write learnedly about the Chaldeans, or anything else. But, no, it shouldn’t remain a joke! His long mobile face grew serious under the new resolve. He would learn what there was to be learned about the Chaldeans. He rose and walked up and down the room, gathering fresh strength of purpose as this inviting field of research spread out its vistas before him. Perhaps — yes, he would incidentally explore the mysteries of the Moabitic past as well, and thus put the Rev. E. Ray Mifflin to confusion on his own subject. That would in itself be a useful thing, because Mifflin wore kid gloves at the Conference, and affected an intolerable superiority of dress and demeanor, and there would be general satisfaction among the plainer and worthier brethren at seeing him taken down a peg.

Now for the first time there rose distinctly in Theron’s mind that casual allusion which Father Forbes had made to the Turanians. He recalled, too, his momentary feeling of mortification at not knowing who the Turanians were, at the time. Possibly, if he had probed this matter more deeply, now as he walked and pondered in the little living-room, he might have traced the whole of the afternoon’s mental experiences to that chance remark of the Romish priest. But this speculation did not detain him. He mused instead upon the splendid library Father Forbes must have.

“Well, how does the book come on? Have you got to ‘my Lady Keturah’ yet?’”

It was Alice who spoke, opening the door from the kitchen, and putting in her head with a pretence of great and solemn caution, but with a correcting twinkle in her eyes.

“I haven’t got to anybody yet,” answered Theron, absently. “These big things must be approached slowly.”

“Come out to supper, then, while the beans are hot,” said Alice.

The young minister sat through this other meal, again in deep abstraction. His wife pursued her little pleasantry about Keturah, the second wife, urging him with mock gravity to scold her roundly for daring to usurp Sarah’s place, but Theron scarcely heard her, and said next to nothing. He ate sparingly, and fidgeted in his seat, waiting with obvious impatience for the finish of the meal. At last he rose abruptly.

“I’ve got a call to make — something with reference to the book,” he said. “I’ll run out now, I think, before it gets dark.”

He put on his hat, and strode out of the house as if his errand was of the utmost urgency. Once upon the street, however, his pace slackened. There was still a good deal of daylight outside, and he loitered aimlessly about, walking with bowed head and hands clasped behind him, until dusk fell. Then he squared his shoulders, and started straight as the crow flies toward the residence of Father Forbes.

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