The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter vii

The new Catholic church was the largest and most imposing public building in Octavius. Even in its unfinished condition, with a bald roofing of weather-beaten boards marking on the stunted tower the place where a spire was to begin later on, it dwarfed every other edifice of the sort in the town, just as it put them all to shame in the matter of the throngs it drew, rain or shine, to its services.

These facts had not heretofore been a source of satisfaction to the Rev. Theron Ware. He had even alluded to the subject in terms which gave his wife the impression that he actively deplored the strength and size of the Catholic denomination in this new home of theirs, and was troubled in his mind about Rome generally. But this evening he walked along the extended side of the big structure, which occupied nearly half the block, and then, turning the corner, passed in review its wide-doored, looming front, without any hostile emotions whatever. In the gathering dusk it seemed more massive than ever before, but he found himself only passively considering the odd statement he had heard that all Catholic Church property was deeded absolutely in the name of the Bishop of the diocese.

Only a narrow passage-way separated the church from the pastorate — a fine new brick residence standing flush upon the street. Theron mounted the steps, and looked about for a bell-pull. Search revealed instead a little ivory button set in a ring of metal work. He picked at this for a time with his finger-nail, before he made out the injunction, printed across it, to push. Of course! how stupid of him! This was one of those electric bells he had heard so much of, but which had not as yet made their way to the class of homes he knew. For custodians of a mediaeval superstition and fanaticism, the Catholic clergy seemed very much up to date. This bell made him feel rather more a countryman than ever.

The door was opened by a tall gaunt woman, who stood in black relief against the radiance of the hall-way while Theron, choosing his words with some diffidence, asked if the Rev. Mr. Forbes was in.

“He is” came the hush-voiced answer. “He’s at dinner, though.”

It took the young minister a second or two to bring into association in his mind this evening hour and this midday meal. Then he began to say that he would call again — it was nothing special — but the woman suddenly cut him short by throwing the door wide open.

“It’s Mr. Ware, is it not?” she asked, in a greatly altered tone. “Sure, he’d not have you go away. Come inside — do, sir! — I’ll tell him.”

Theron, with a dumb show of reluctance, crossed the threshold. He noted now that the woman, who had bustled down the hall on her errand, was gray-haired and incredibly ugly, with a dark sour face, glowering black eyes, and a twisted mouth. Then he saw that he was not alone in the hall-way. Three men and two women, all poorly clad and obviously working people, were seated in meek silence on a bench beyond the hat-rack. They glanced up at him for an instant, then resumed their patient study of the linoleum pattern on the floor at their feet.

“And will you kindly step in, sir?” the elderly Gorgon had returned to ask. She led Mr. Ware along the hall-way to a door near the end, and opened it for him to pass before her.

He entered a room in which for the moment he could see nothing but a central glare of dazzling light beating down from a great shaded lamp upon a circular patch of white table linen. Inside this ring of illumination points of fire sparkled from silver and porcelain, and two bars of burning crimson tracked across the cloth in reflection from tall glasses filled with wine. The rest of the room was vague darkness; but the gloom seemed saturated with novel aromatic odors, the appetizing scent of which bore clear relation to what Theron’s blinking eyes rested upon.

He was able now to discern two figures at the table, outside the glowing circle of the lamp. They had both risen, and one came toward him with cordial celerity, holding out a white plump hand in greeting. He took this proffered hand rather limply, not wholly sure in the half-light that this really was Father Forbes, and began once more that everlasting apology to which he seemed doomed in the presence of the priest. It was broken abruptly off by the other’s protesting laughter.

“My dear Mr. Ware, I beg of you,” the priest urged, chuckling with hospitable mirth, “don’t, don’t apologize! I give you my word, nothing in the world could have pleased us better than your joining us here tonight. It was quite dramatic, your coming in as you did. We were speaking of you at that very moment. Oh, I forgot — let me make you acquainted with my friend — my very particular friend, Dr. Ledsmar. Let me take your hat; pray draw up a chair. Maggie will have a place laid for you in a minute.”

“Oh, I assure you — I couldn’t think of it — I’ve just eaten my — my — dinner,” expostulated Theron. He murmured more inarticulate remonstrances a moment later, when the grim old domestic appeared with plates, serviette, and tableware for his use, but she went on spreading them before him as if she heard nothing. Thus committed against a decent show of resistance, the young minister did eat a little here and there of what was set before him, and was human enough to regret frankly that he could not eat more. It seemed to him very remarkable cookery, transfiguring so simple a thing as a steak, for example, quite out of recognition, and investing the humble potato with a charm he had never dreamed of. He wondered from time to time if it would be polite to ask how the potatoes were cooked, so that he might tell Alice.

The conversation at the table was not continuous, or even enlivened. After the lapses into silence became marked, Theron began to suspect that his refusal to drink wine had annoyed them — the more so as he had drenched a large section of table-cloth in his efforts to manipulate a siphon instead. He was greatly relieved, therefore, when Father Forbes explained in an incidental way that Dr. Ledsmar and he customarily ate their meals almost without a word.

“It’s a philosophic fad of his,” the priest went on smilingly, “and I have fallen in with it for the sake of a quiet life; so that when we do have company — that is to say, once in a blue moon — we display no manners to speak of.”

“I had always supposed — that is, I’ve always heard — that it was more healthful to talk at meals,” said Theron. “Of course — what I mean — I took it for granted all physicians thought so.”

Dr. Ledsmar laughed. “That depends so much upon the quality of the meals!” he remarked, holding his glass up to the light.

He seemed a man of middle age and an equable disposition. Theron, stealing stray glances at him around the lampshade, saw most distinctly of all a broad, impressive dome of skull, which, though obviously the result of baldness, gave the effect of quite belonging to the face. There were gold-rimmed spectacles, through which shone now and again the vivid sparkle of sharp, alert eyes, and there was a nose of some sort not easy to classify, at once long and thick. The rest was thin hair and short round beard, mouse-colored where the light caught them, but losing their outlines in the shadows of the background. Theron had not heard of him among the physicians of Octavius. He wondered if he might not be a doctor of something else than medicine, and decided upon venturing the question.

“Oh, yes, it is medicine,” replied Ledsmar. “I am a doctor three or four times over, so far as parchments can make one. In some other respects, though, I should think I am probably less of a doctor than anybody else now living. I haven’t practised — that is, regularly — for many years, and I take no interest whatever in keeping abreast of what the profession regards as its progress. I know nothing beyond what was being taught in the sixties, and that I am glad to say I have mostly forgotten.”

“Dear me!” said Theron. “I had always supposed that Science was the most engrossing of pursuits — that once a man took it up he never left it.”

“But that would imply a connection between Science and Medicine!” commented the doctor. “My dear sir, they are not even on speaking terms.”

“Shall we go upstairs?” put in the priest, rising from his chair. “It will be more comfortable to have our coffee there — unless indeed, Mr. Ware, tobacco is unpleasant to you?”

“Oh, my, no!” the young minister exclaimed, eager to free himself from the suggestion of being a kill-joy. “I don’t smoke myself; but I am very fond of the odor, I assure you.”

Father Forbes led the way out. It could be seen now that he wore a long house-gown of black silk, skilfully moulded to his erect, shapely, and rounded form. Though he carried this with the natural grace of a proud and beautiful belle, there was no hint of the feminine in his bearing, or in the contour of his pale, firm-set, handsome face. As he moved through the hall-way, the five people whom Theron had seen waiting rose from their bench, and two of the women began in humble murmurs, “If you please, Father,” and “Good-evening to your Riverence;” but the priest merely nodded and passed on up the staircase, followed by his guests. The people sat down on their bench again.

A few minutes later, reclining at his ease in a huge low chair, and feeling himself unaccountably at home in the most luxuriously appointed and delightful little room he had ever seen, the Rev. Theron Ware sipped his unaccustomed coffee and embarked upon an explanation of his errand. Somehow the very profusion of scholarly symbols about him — the great dark rows of encased and crowded book-shelves rising to the ceiling, the classical engravings upon the wall, the revolving book-case, the reading-stand, the mass of littered magazines, reviews, and papers at either end of the costly and elaborate writing-desk — seemed to make it the easier for him to explain without reproach that he needed information about Abram. He told them quite in detail the story of his book.

The two others sat watching him through a faint haze of scented smoke, with polite encouragement on their faces. Father Forbes took the added trouble to nod understandingly at the various points of the narrative, and when it was finished gave one of his little approving chuckles.

“This skirts very closely upon sorcery,” he said smilingly. “Do you know, there is perhaps not another man in the country who knows Assyriology so thoroughly as our friend here, Dr. Ledsmar.”

“That’s putting it too strong,” remarked the Doctor. “I only follow at a distance — a year or two behind. But I daresay I can help you. You are quite welcome to anything I have: my books cover the ground pretty well up to last year. Delitzsch is very interesting; but Baudissin’s ‘Studien zur Semitischen Religionsgeschichte’ would come closer to what you need. There are several other important Germans — Schrader, Bunsen, Duncker, Hommel, and so on.”

“Unluckily I— I don’t read German readily,” Theron explained with diffidence.

“That’s a pity,” said the doctor, “because they do the best work — not only in this field, but in most others. And they do so much that the mass defies translation. Well, the best thing outside of German of course is Sayce. I daresay you know him, though.”

The Rev. Mr. Ware shook his head mournfully. “I don’t seem to know any one,” he murmured.

The others exchanged glances.

“But if I may ask, Mr. Ware,” pursued the doctor, regarding their guest with interest through his spectacles, “why do you specially hit upon Abraham? He is full of difficulties — enough, just now, at any rate, to warn off the bravest scholar. Why not take something easier?”

Theron had recovered something of his confidence. “Oh, no,” he said, “that is just what attracts me to Abraham. I like the complexities and contradictions in his character. Take for instance all that strange and picturesque episode of Hagar: see the splendid contrast between the craft and commercial guile of his dealings in Egypt and with Abimelech, and the simple, straightforward godliness of his later years. No, all those difficulties only attract me. Do you happen to know — of course you would know — do those German books, or the others, give anywhere any additional details of the man himself and his sayings and doings — little things which help, you know, to round out one’s conception of the individual?”

Again the priest and the doctor stole a furtive glance across the young minister’s head. It was Father Forbes who replied.

“I fear that you are taking our friend Abraham too literally, Mr. Ware,” he said, in that gentle semblance of paternal tones which seemed to go so well with his gown. “Modern research, you know, quite wipes him out of existence as an individual. The word ‘Abram’ is merely an eponym — it means ‘exalted father.’ Practically all the names in the Genesis chronologies are what we call eponymous. Abram is not a person at all: he is a tribe, a sept, a clan. In the same way, Shem is not intended for a man; it is the name of a great division of the human race. Heber is simply the throwing back into allegorical substance, so to speak, of the Hebrews; Heth of the Hittites; Asshur of Assyria.”

“But this is something very new, this theory, isn’t it?” queried Theron.

The priest smiled and shook his head. “Bless you, no! My dear sir, there is nothing new. Epicurus and Lucretius outlined the whole Darwinian theory more than two thousand years ago. As for this eponym thing, why Saint Augustine called attention to it fifteen hundred years ago. In his ‘De Civitate Dei,’ he expressly says of these genealogical names, ‘GENTES NON HOMINES;’ that is, ‘peoples, not persons.’ It was as obvious to him — as much a commonplace of knowledge — as it was to Ezekiel eight hundred years before him.”

“It seems passing strange that we should not know it now, then,” commented Theron; “I mean, that everybody shouldn’t know it.”

Father Forbes gave a little purring chuckle. “Ah, there we get upon contentious ground,” he remarked. “Why should ‘everybody’ be supposed to know anything at all? What business is it of ‘everybody’s’ to know things? The earth was just as round in the days when people supposed it to be flat, as it is now. So the truth remains always the truth, even though you give a charter to ten hundred thousand separate numskulls to examine it by the light of their private judgment, and report that it is as many different varieties of something else. But of course that whole question of private judgment versus authority is No–Man’s-Land for us. We were speaking of eponyms.”

“Yes,” said Theron; “it is very interesting.”

“There is a curious phase of the subject which hasn’t been worked out much,” continued the priest. “Probably the Germans will get at that too, sometime. They are doing the best Irish work in other fields, as it is. I spoke of Heber and Heth, in Genesis, as meaning the Hebrews and the Hittites. Now my own people, the Irish, have far more ancient legends and traditions than any other nation west of Athens; and you find in their myth of the Milesian invasion and conquest two principal leaders called Heber and Ith, or Heth. That is supposed to be comparatively modern — about the time of Solomon’s Temple. But these independent Irish myths go back to the fall of the Tower of Babel, and they have there an ancestor, grandson of Japhet, named Fenius Farsa, and they ascribe to him the invention of the alphabet. They took their ancient name of Feine, the modern Fenian, from him. Oddly enough, that is the name which the Romans knew the Phoenicians by, and to them also is ascribed the invention of the alphabet. The Irish have a holy salmon of knowledge, just like the Chaldean man-fish. The Druids’ tree-worship is identical with that of the Chaldeans — those pagan groves, you know, which the Jews were always being punished for building. You see, there is nothing new. Everything is built on the ruins of something else. Just as the material earth is made up of countless billions of dead men’s bones, so the mental world is all alive with the ghosts of dead men’s thoughts and beliefs, the wraiths of dead races’ faiths and imaginings.”

Father Forbes paused, then added with a twinkle in his eye: “That peroration is from an old sermon of mine, in the days when I used to preach. I remember rather liking it, at the time.”

“But you still preach?” asked the Rev. Mr. Ware, with lifted brows.

“No! no more! I only talk now and again,” answered the priest, with what seemed a suggestion of curtness. He made haste to take the conversation back again. “The names of these dead-and-gone things are singularly pertinacious, though. They survive indefinitely. Take the modern name Marmaduke, for example. It strikes one as peculiarly modern, up-to-date, doesn’t it? Well, it is the oldest name on earth — thousands of years older than Adam. It is the ancient Chaldean Meridug, or Merodach. He was the young god who interceded continually between the angry, omnipotent Ea, his father, and the humble and unhappy Damkina, or Earth, who was his mother. This is interesting from another point of view, because this Merodach or Marmaduke is, so far as we can see now, the original prototype of our ‘divine intermediary’ idea. I daresay, though, that if we could go back still other scores of centuries, we should find whole receding series of types of this Christ-myth of ours.”

Theron Ware sat upright at the fall of these words, and flung a swift, startled look about the room — the instinctive glance of a man unexpectedly confronted with peril, and casting desperately about for means of defence and escape. For the instant his mind was aflame with this vivid impression — that he was among sinister enemies, at the mercy of criminals. He half rose under the impelling stress of this feeling, with the sweat standing on his brow, and his jaw dropped in a scared and bewildered stare.

Then, quite as suddenly, the sense of shock was gone; and it was as if nothing at all had happened. He drew a long breath, took another sip of his coffee, and found himself all at once reflecting almost pleasurably upon the charm of contact with really educated people. He leaned back in the big chair again, and smiled to show these men of the world how much at his ease he was. It required an effort, he discovered, but he made it bravely, and hoped he was succeeding.

“It hasn’t been in my power to at all lay hold of what the world keeps on learning nowadays about its babyhood,” he said. “All I have done is to try to preserve an open mind, and to maintain my faith that the more we know, the nearer we shall approach the Throne.”

Dr. Ledsmar abruptly scuffled his feet on the floor, and took out his watch. “I’m afraid —” he began.

“No, no! There’s plenty of time,” remarked the priest, with his soft half-smile and purring tones. “You finish your cigar here with Mr. Ware, and excuse me while I run down and get rid of the people in the hall.”

Father Forbes tossed his cigar-end into the fender. Then he took from the mantel a strange three-cornered black-velvet cap, with a dangling silk tassel at the side, put it on his head, and went out.

Theron, being left alone with the doctor, hardly knew what to do or say. He took up a paper from the floor beside him, but realized that it would be impolite to go farther, and laid it on his knee. Some trace of that earlier momentary feeling that he was in hostile hands came back, and worried him. He lifted himself upright in the chair, and then became conscious that what really disturbed him was the fact that Dr. Ledsmar had turned in his seat, crossed his legs, and was contemplating him with a gravely concentrated scrutiny through his spectacles.

This uncomfortable gaze kept itself up a long way beyond the point of good manners; but the doctor seemed not to mind that at all.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/f/frederic/harold/damnation-of-theron-ware/chapter7.html

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