The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter viii

When Dr. Ledsmar finally spoke, it was in a kindlier tone than the young minister had looked for. “I had half a notion of going to hear you preach the other evening,” he said; “but at the last minute I backed out. I daresay I shall pluck up the courage, sooner or later, and really go. It must be fully twenty years since I last heard a sermon, and I had supposed that that would suffice for the rest of my life. But they tell me that you are worth while; and, for some reason or other, I find myself curious on the subject.”

Involved and dubious though the compliment might be, Theron felt himself flushing with satisfaction. He nodded his acknowledgment, and changed the topic.

“I was surprised to hear Father Forbes say that he did not preach,” he remarked.

“Why should he?” asked the doctor, indifferently. “I suppose he hasn’t more than fifteen parishioners in a thousand who would understand him if he did, and of these probably twelve would join in a complaint to his Bishop about the heterodox tone of his sermon. There is no point in his going to all that pains, merely to incur that risk. Nobody wants him to preach, and he has reached an age where personal vanity no longer tempts him to do so. What IS wanted of him is that he should be the paternal, ceremonial, authoritative head and centre of his flock, adviser, monitor, overseer, elder brother, friend, patron, seigneur — whatever you like — everything except a bore. They draw the line at that. You see how diametrically opposed this Catholic point of view is to the Protestant.”

“The difference does seem extremely curious to me,” said Theron. “Now, those people in the hall —”

“Go on,” put in the doctor, as the other faltered hesitatingly. “I know what you were going to say. It struck you as odd that he should let them wait on the bench there, while he came up here to smoke.”

Theron smiled faintly. “I WAS thinking that my — my parishioners wouldn’t have taken it so quietly. But of course — it is all so different!”

“As chalk from cheese!” said Dr. Ledsmar, lighting a fresh cigar. “I daresay every one you saw there had come either to take the pledge, or see to it that one of the others took it. That is the chief industry in the hall, so far as I have observed. Now discipline is an important element in the machinery here. Coming to take the pledge implies that you have been drunk and are now ashamed. Both states have their values, but they are opposed. Sitting on that bench tends to develop penitence to the prejudice of alcoholism. But at no stage would it ever occur to the occupant of the bench that he was the best judge of how long he was to sit there, or that his priest should interrupt his dinner or general personal routine, in order to administer that pledge. Now, I daresay you have no people at all coming to ‘swear off.’”

The Rev. Mr. Ware shook his head. “No; if a man with us got as bad as all that, he wouldn’t come near the church at all. He’d simply drop out, and there would be an end to it.”

“Quite so,” interjected the doctor. “That is the voluntary system. But these fellows can’t drop out. There’s no bottom to the Catholic Church. Everything that’s in, stays in. If you don’t mind my saying so — of course I view you all impartially from the outside — but it seems logical to me that a church should exist for those who need its help, and not for those who by their own profession are so good already that it is they who help the church. Now, you turn a man out of your church who behaves badly: that must be on the theory that his remaining in would injure the church, and that in turn involves the idea that it is the excellent character of the parishioners which imparts virtue to the church. The Catholics’ conception, you see, is quite the converse. Such virtue as they keep in stock is on tap, so to speak, here in the church itself, and the parishioners come and get some for themselves according to their need for it. Some come every day, some only once a year, some perhaps never between their baptism and their funeral. But they all have a right here, the professional burglar every whit as much as the speckless saint. The only stipulation is that they oughtn’t to come under false pretences: the burglar is in honor bound not to pass himself off to his priest as the saint. But that is merely a moral obligation, established in the burglar’s own interest. It does him no good to come unless he feels that he is playing the rules of the game, and one of these is confession. If he cheats there, he knows that he is cheating nobody but himself, and might much better have stopped away altogether.”

Theron nodded his head comprehendingly. He had a great many views about the Romanish rite of confession which did not at all square with this statement of the case, but this did not seem a specially fit time for bringing them forth. There was indeed a sense of languid repletion in his mind, as if it had been overfed and wanted to lie down for awhile. He contented himself with nodding again, and murmuring reflectively, “Yes, it is all strangely different.”

His tone was an invitation to silence; and the doctor turned his attention to the cigar, studying its ash for a minute with an air of deep meditation, and then solemnly blowing out a slow series of smoke-rings. Theron watched him with an indolent, placid eye, wondering lazily if it was, after all, so very pleasant to smoke.

There fell upon this silence — with a softness so delicate that it came almost like a progression in the hush — the sound of sweet music. For a little, strain and source were alike indefinite — an impalpable setting to harmony of the mellowed light, the perfumed opalescence of the air, the luxury and charm of the room. Then it rose as by a sweeping curve of beauty, into a firm, calm, severe melody, delicious to the ear, but as cold in the mind’s vision as moonlit sculpture. It went on upward with stately collectedness of power, till the atmosphere seemed all alive with the trembling consciousness of the presence of lofty souls, sternly pure and pitilessly great.

Theron found himself moved as he had never been before. He almost resented the discovery, when it was presented to him by the prosaic, mechanical side of his brain, that he was listening to organ-music, and that it came through the open window from the church close by. He would fain have reclined in his chair and closed his eyes, and saturated himself with the uttermost fulness of the sensation. Yet, in absurd despite of himself, he rose and moved over to the window.

Only a narrow alley separated the pastorate from the church; Mr. Ware could have touched with a walking-stick the opposite wall. Indirectly facing him was the arched and mullioned top of a great window. A dim light from within shone through the more translucent portions of the glass below, throwing out faint little bars of party-colored radiance upon the blackness of the deep passage-way. He could vaguely trace by these the outlines of some sort of picture on the window. There were human figures in it, and — yes — up here in the centre, nearest him, was a woman’s head. There was a halo about it, engirdling rich, flowing waves of reddish hair, the lights in which glowed like flame. The face itself was barely distinguishable, but its half-suggested form raised a curious sense of resemblance to some other face. He looked at it closely, blankly, the noble music throbbing through his brain meanwhile.

“It’s that Madden girl!” he suddenly heard a voice say by his side. Dr. Ledsmar had followed him to the window, and was close at his shoulder.

Theron’s thoughts were upon the puzzling shadowed lineaments on the stained glass. He saw now in a flash the resemblance which had baffled him. “It IS like her, of course,” he said.

“Yes, unfortunately, it IS just like her,” replied the doctor, with a hostile note in his voice. “Whenever I am dining here, she always goes in and kicks up that racket. She knows I hate it.”

“Oh, you mean that it is she who is playing,” remarked Theron. “I thought you referred to — at least — I was thinking of —”

His sentence died off in inconsequence. He had a feeling that he did not want to talk with the doctor about the stained-glass likeness. The music had sunk away now into fragmentary and unconnected passages, broken here and there by abrupt stops. Dr. Ledsmar stretched an arm out past him and shut the window. “Let’s hear as little of the row as we can,” he said, and the two went back to their chairs.

“Pardon me for the question,” the Rev. Mr. Ware said, after a pause which began to affect him as constrained, “but something you said about dining — you don’t live here, then? In the house, I mean?”

The doctor laughed — a characteristically abrupt, dry little laugh, which struck Theron at once as bearing a sort of black-sheep relationship to the priest’s habitual chuckle. “That must have been puzzling you no end,” he said —“that notion that the pastorate kept a devil’s advocate on the premises. No, Mr. Ware, I don’t live here. I inhabit a house of my own — you may have seen it — an old-fashioned place up beyond the race-course, with a sort of tower at the back, and a big garden. But I dine here three or four times a week. It is an old arrangement of ours. Vincent and I have been friends for many years now. We are quite alone in the world, we two — much to our mutual satisfaction. You must come up and see me some time; come up and have a look over the books we were speaking of.”

“I am much obliged,” said Theron, without enthusiasm. The thought of the doctor by himself did not attract him greatly.

The reservation in his tone seemed to interest the doctor. “I suppose you are the first man I have asked in a dozen years,” he remarked, frankly willing that the young minister should appreciate the favor extended him. “It must be fully that since anybody but Vincent Forbes has been under my roof; that is, of my own species, I mean.”

“You live there quite alone,” commented Theron.

“Quite — with my dogs and cats and lizards — and my Chinaman. I mustn’t forget him.” The doctor noted the inquiry in the other’s lifted brows, and smilingly explained. “He is my solitary servant. Possibly he might not appeal to you much; but I can assure you he used to interest Octavius a great deal when I first brought him here, ten years ago or so. He afforded occupation for all the idle boys in the village for a twelve-month at least. They used to lie in wait for him all day long, with stones or horse-chestnuts or snowballs, according to the season. The Irishmen from the wagon-works nearly killed him once or twice, but he patiently lived it all down. The Chinaman has the patience to live everything down — the Caucasian races included. He will see us all to bed, will that gentleman with the pigtail!”

The music over in the church had lifted itself again into form and sequence, and defied the closed window. If anything, it was louder than before, and the sonorous roar of the bass-pedals seemed to be shaking the very walls. It was something with a big-lunged, exultant, triumphing swing in it — something which ought to have been sung on the battlefield at the close of day by the whole jubilant army of victors. It was impossible to pretend not to be listening to it; but the doctor submitted with an obvious scowl, and bit off the tip of his third cigar with an annoyed air.

“You don’t seem to care much for music,” suggested Mr. Ware, when a lull came.

Dr. Ledsmar looked up, lighted match in hand. “Say musicians!” he growled. “Has it ever occurred to you,” he went on, between puffs at the flame, “that the only animals who make the noises we call music are of the bird family — a debased offshoot of the reptilian creation — the very lowest types of the vertebrata now in existence? I insist upon the parallel among humans. I have in my time, sir, had considerable opportunities for studying close at hand the various orders of mammalia who devote themselves to what they describe as the arts. It may sound a harsh judgement, but I am convinced that musicians stand on the very bottom rung of the ladder in the sub-cellar of human intelligence, even lower than painters and actors.”

This seemed such unqualified nonsense to the Rev. Mr. Ware that he offered no comment whatever upon it. He tried instead to divert his thoughts to the stormy strains which rolled in through the vibrating brickwork, and to picture to himself the large, capable figure of Miss Madden seated in the half-light at the organ-board, swaying to and fro in a splendid ecstasy of power as she evoked at will this superb and ordered uproar. But the doctor broke insistently in upon his musings.

“All art, so-called, is decay,” he said, raising his voice. “When a race begins to brood on the beautiful — so-called — it is a sign of rot, of getting ready to fall from the tree. Take the Jews — those marvellous old fellows — who were never more than a handful, yet have imposed the rule of their ideas and their gods upon us for fifteen hundred years. Why? They were forbidden by their most fundamental law to make sculptures or pictures. That was at a time when the Egyptians, when the Assyrians, and other Semites, were running to artistic riot. Every great museum in the world now has whole floors devoted to statues from the Nile, and marvellous carvings from the palaces of Sargon and Assurbanipal. You can get the artistic remains of the Jews during that whole period into a child’s wheelbarrow. They had the sense and strength to penalize art; they alone survived. They saw the Egyptians go, the Assyrians go, the Greeks go, the late Romans go, the Moors in Spain go — all the artistic peoples perish. They remained triumphing over all. Now at last their long-belated apogee is here; their decline is at hand. I am told that in this present generation in Europe the Jews are producing a great lot of young painters and sculptors and actors, just as for a century they have been producing famous composers and musicians. That means the end of the Jews!”

“What! have you only got as far as that?” came the welcome interruption of a cheery voice. Father Forbes had entered the room, and stood looking down with a whimsical twinkle in his eye from one to the other of his guests.

“You must have been taken over the ground at a very slow pace, Mr. Ware,” he continued, chuckling softly, “to have arrived merely at the collapse of the New Jerusalem. I fancied I had given him time enough to bring you straight up to the end of all of us, with that Chinaman of his gently slapping our graves with his pigtail. That’s where the doctor always winds up, if he’s allowed to run his course.”

“It has all been very interesting, extremely so, I assure you,” faltered Theron. It had become suddenly apparent to him that he desired nothing so much as to make his escape — that he had indeed only been waiting for the host’s return to do so.

He rose at this, and explained that he must be going. No special effort being put forth to restrain him, he presently made his way out, Father Forbes hospitably following him down to the door, and putting a very gracious cordiality into his adieux.

The night was warm and black. Theron stood still in it the moment the pastorate door had closed; the sudden darkness was so thick that it was as if he had closed his eyes. His dominant sensation was of a deep relief and rest after some undue fatigue. It crossed his mind that drunken men probably felt like that as they leaned against things on their way home. He was affected himself, he saw, by the weariness and half-nausea following a mental intoxication. The conceit pleased him, and he smiled to himself as he turned and took the first homeward steps. It must be growing late, he thought. Alice would be wondering as she waited.

There was a street lamp at the corner, and as he walked toward it he noted all at once that his feet were keeping step to the movement of the music proceeding from the organ within the church — a vaguely processional air, marked enough in measure, but still with a dreamy effect. It became a pleasure to identify his progress with the quaint rhythm of sound as he sauntered along. He discovered, as he neared the light, that he was instinctively stepping over the seams in the flagstone sidewalk as he had done as a boy. He smiled again at this. There was something exceptionally juvenile and buoyant about his mood, now that he examined it. He set it down as a reaction from that doctor’s extravagant and incendiary talk. One thing was certain — he would never be caught up at that house beyond the race-course, with its reptiles and its Chinaman. Should he ever even go to the pastorate again? He decided not to quite definitely answer THAT in the negative, but as he felt now, the chances were all against it.

Turning the corner, and walking off into the shadows along the side of the huge church building, Theron noted, almost at the end of the edifice, a small door — the entrance to a porch coming out to the sidewalk — which stood wide open. A thin, pale, vertical line of light showed that the inner door, too, was ajar.

Through this wee aperture the organ-music, reduced and mellowed by distance, came to him again with that same curious, intimate, personal relation which had so moved him at the start, before the doctor closed the window. It was as if it was being played for him alone.

He paused for a doubting minute or two, with bowed head, listening to the exquisite harmony which floated out to caress and soothe and enfold him. There was no spiritual, or at least pious, effect in it now. He fancied that it must be secular music, or, if not, then something adapted to marriage ceremonies — rich, vivid, passionate, a celebration of beauty and the glory of possession, with its ruling note of joy only heightened by soft, wooing interludes, and here and there the tremor of a fond, timid little sob.

Theron turned away irresolutely, half frightened at the undreamt-of impression this music was making upon him. Then, all at once, he wheeled and stepped boldly into the porch, pushing the inner door open and hearing it rustle against its leathern frame as it swung to behind him.

He had never been inside a Catholic church before.

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