The Damnation of Theron Ware, by Harold Frederic

Chapter ix

Jeremiah Madden was supposed to be probably the richest man in Octavius. There was no doubt at all about his being its least pretentious citizen.

The huge and ornate modern mansion which he had built, putting to shame every other house in the place, gave an effect of ostentation to the Maddens as a family; it seemed only to accentuate the air of humility which enveloped Jeremiah as with a garment. Everybody knew some version of the many tales afloat which, in a kindly spirit, illustrated the incongruity between him and his splendid habitation. Some had it that he slept in the shed. Others told whimsical stories of his sitting alone in the kitchen evenings, smoking his old clay pipe, and sorrowing because the second Mrs. Madden would not suffer the pigs and chickens to come in and bear him company. But no matter how comic the exaggeration, these legends were invariably amiable. It lay in no man’s mouth to speak harshly of Jeremiah Madden.

He had been born a Connemara peasant, and he would die one. When he was ten years old he had seen some of his own family, and most of his neighbors, starve to death. He could remember looking at the stiffened figure of a woman stretched on the stones by the roadside, with the green stain of nettles on her white lips. A girl five years or so older than himself, also a Madden and distantly related, had started in despair off across the mountains to the town where it was said the poor-law officers were dealing out food. He could recall her coming back next day, wild-eyed with hunger and the fever; the officers had refused her relief because her bare legs were not wholly shrunken to the bone. “While there’s a calf on the shank, there’s no starvation,” they had explained to her. The girl died without profiting by this official apothegm. The boy found it burned ineffaceably upon his brain. Now, after a lapse of more than forty years, it seemed the thing that he remembered best about Ireland.

He had drifted westward as an unconsidered, unresisting item in that vast flight of the famine years. Others whom he rubbed against in that melancholy exodus, and deemed of much greater promise than himself, had done badly. Somehow he did well. He learned the wheelwright’s trade, and really that seemed all there was to tell. The rest had been calm and sequent progression — steady employment as a journeyman first; then marriage and a house and lot; the modest start as a master; the move to Octavius and cheap lumber; the growth of his business, always marked of late years stupendous — all following naturally, easily, one thing out of another. Jeremiah encountered the idea among his fellows, now and again, that he was entitled to feel proud of all this. He smiled to himself at the thought, and then sent a sigh after the smile. What was it all but empty and transient vanity? The score of other Connemara boys he had known — none very fortunate, several broken tragically in prison or the gutter, nearly all now gone the way of flesh — were as good as he. He could not have it in his heart to take credit for his success; it would have been like sneering over their poor graves.

Jeremiah Madden was now fifty-three — a little man of a reddened, weather-worn skin and a meditative, almost saddened, aspect. He had blue eyes, but his scanty iron-gray hair showed raven black in its shadows. The width and prominence of his cheek-bones dominated all one’s recollections of his face. The long vertical upper-lip and irregular teeth made, in repose, an unshapely mouth; its smile, though, sweetened the whole countenance. He wore a fringe of stiff, steel-colored beard, passing from ear to ear under his chin. His week-day clothes were as simple as his workaday manners, fitting his short black pipe and his steadfast devotion to his business. On Sundays he dressed with a certain rigor of respectability, all in black, and laid aside tobacco, at least to the public view. He never missed going to the early Low Mass, quite alone. His family always came later, at the ten o’clock High Mass.

There had been, at one time or another, a good many members of this family. Two wives had borne Jeremiah Madden a total of over a dozen children. Of these there survived now only two of the first Mrs. Madden’s offspring — Michael and Celia — and a son of the present wife, who had been baptized Terence, but called himself Theodore. This minority of the family inhabited the great new house on Main Street. Jeremiah went every Sunday afternoon by himself to kneel in the presence of the majority, there where they lay in Saint Agnes’ consecrated ground. If the weather was good, he generally extended his walk through the fields to an old deserted Catholic burial-field, which had been used only in the first years after the famine invasion, and now was clean forgotten. The old wagon-maker liked to look over the primitive, neglected stones which marked the graves of these earlier exiles. Fully half of the inscriptions mentioned his County Galway — there were two naming the very parish adjoining his. The latest date on any stone was of the remoter ‘fifties. They had all been stricken down, here in this strange land with its bitter winters, while the memory of their own soft, humid, gentle west-coast air was fresh within them. Musing upon the clumsy sculpture, with its “R.I.P.,” or “Pray for the Soul of,” half to be guessed under the stain and moss of a generation, there would seem to him but a step from this present to that heart-rending, awful past. What had happened between was a meaningless vision — as impersonal as the passing of the planets overhead. He rarely had an impulse to tears in the new cemetery, where his ten children were. He never left this weed-grown, forsaken old God’s-acre dry-eyed.

One must not construct from all this the image of a melancholy man, as his fellows met and knew him. Mr. Madden kept his griefs, racial and individual, for his own use. To the men about him in the offices and the shops he presented day after day, year after year, an imperturbable cheeriness of demeanor. He had been always fortunate in the selection of lieutenants and chief helpers. Two of these had grown now into partners, and were almost as much a part of the big enterprise as Jeremiah himself. They spoke often of their inability to remember any unjust or petulant word of his — much less any unworthy deed. Once they had seen him in a great rage, all the more impressive because he said next to nothing. A thoughtless fellow told a dirty story in the presence of some apprentices; and Madden, listening to this, drove the offender implacably from his employ. It was years now since any one who knew him had ventured upon lewd pleasantries in his hearing. Jokes of the sort which women might hear he was very fond of though he had not much humor of his own. Of books he knew nothing whatever, and he made only the most perfunctory pretence now and again of reading the newspapers.

The elder son Michael was very like his father — diligent, unassuming, kindly, and simple — a plain, tall, thin red man of nearly thirty, who toiled in paper cap and rolled-up shirt-sleeves as the superintendent in the saw-mill, and put on no airs whatever as the son of the master. If there was surprise felt at his not being taken into the firm as a partner, he gave no hint of sharing it. He attended to his religious duties with great zeal, and was President of the Sodality as a matter of course. This was regarded as his blind side; and young employees who cultivated it, and made broad their phylacteries under his notice, certainly had an added chance of getting on well in the works. To some few whom he knew specially well, Michael would confess that if he had had the brains for it, he should have wished to be a priest. He displayed no inclination to marry.

The other son, Terence, was some eight years younger, and seemed the product of a wholly different race. The contrast between Michael’s sandy skin and long gaunt visage and this dark boy’s handsome, rounded face, with its prettily curling black hair, large, heavily fringed brown eyes, and delicately modelled features, was not more obvious than their temperamental separation. This second lad had been away for years at school — indeed, at a good many schools, for no one seemed to manage to keep him long. He had been with the Jesuits at Georgetown, with the Christian Brothers at Manhattan; the sectarian Mt. St. Mary’s and the severely secular Annapolis had both been tried, and proved misfits. The young man was home again now, and save that his name had become Theodore, he appeared in no wise changed from the beautiful, wilful, bold, and showy boy who had gone away in his teens. He was still rather small for his years, but so gracefully moulded in form, and so perfectly tailored, that the fact seemed rather an advantage than otherwise. He never dreamed of going near the wagon-works, but he did go a good deal — in fact, most of the time — to the Nedahma Club. His mother spoke often to her friends about her fears for his health. He never spoke to his friends about his mother at all.

The second Mrs. Madden did not, indeed, appeal strongly to the family pride. She had been a Miss Foley, a dress-maker, and an old maid. Jeremiah had married her after a brief widowerhood, principally because she was the sister of his parish priest, and had a considerable reputation for piety. It was at a time when the expansion of his business was promising certain wealth, and suggesting the removal to Octavius. He was conscious of a notion that his obligations to social respectability were increasing; it was certain that the embarrassments of a motherless family were. Miss Foley had shown a good deal of attention to his little children. She was not ill-looking; she bore herself with modesty; she was the priest’s sister — the niece once removed of a vicar-general. And so it came about.

Although those most concerned did not say so, everybody could see from the outset the pity of its ever having come about at all. The pious and stiffly respectable priest’s sister had been harmless enough as a spinster. It made the heart ache to contemplate her as a wife. Incredibly narrow-minded, ignorant, suspicious, vain, and sour-tempered, she must have driven a less equable and well-rooted man than Jeremiah Madden to drink or flight. He may have had his temptations, but they made no mark on the even record of his life. He only worked the harder, concentrating upon his business those extra hours which another sort of home-life would have claimed instead. The end of twenty years found him a rich man, but still toiling pertinaciously day by day, as if he had his wage to earn. In the great house which had been built to please, or rather placate, his wife, he kept to himself as much as possible. The popular story of his smoking alone in the kitchen was more or less true; only Michael as a rule sat with him, too weak-lunged for tobacco himself, but reading stray scraps from the papers to the lonely old man, and talking with him about the works, the while Jeremiah meditatively sucked his clay pipe. One or two evenings in the week the twain spent up in Celia’s part of the house, listening with the awe of simple, honest mechanics to the music she played for them.

Celia was to them something indefinably less, indescribably more, than a daughter and sister. They could not think there had ever been anything like her before in the world; the notion of criticising any deed or word of hers would have appeared to them monstrous and unnatural.

She seemed to have come up to this radiant and wise and marvellously talented womanhood of hers, to their minds, quite spontaneously. There had been a little Celia — a red-headed, sulky, mutinous slip of a girl, always at war with her step-mother, and affording no special comfort or hope to the rest of the family. Then there was a long gap, during which the father, four times a year, handed Michael a letter he had received from the superioress of a distant convent, referring with cold formality to the studies and discipline by which Miss Madden might profit more if she had been better brought up, and enclosing a large bill. Then all at once they beheld a big Celia, whom they spoke of as being home again, but who really seemed never to have been there before — a tall, handsome, confident young woman, swift of tongue and apprehension, appearing to know everything there was to be known by the most learned, able to paint pictures, carve wood, speak in divers languages, and make music for the gods, yet with it all a very proud lady, one might say a queen.

The miracle of such a Celia as this impressed itself even upon the step-mother. Mrs. Madden had looked forward with a certain grim tightening of her combative jaws to the home-coming of the “red-head.” She felt herself much more the fine lady now than she had been when the girl went away. She had her carriage now, and the magnificent new house was nearly finished, and she had a greater number of ailments, and spent far more money on doctor’s bills, than any other lady in the whole section. The flush of pride in her greatest achievement up to date — having the most celebrated of New York physicians brought up to Octavius by special train — still prickled in her blood. It was in all the papers, and the admiration of the flatterers and “soft-sawdherers”— wives of Irish merchants and smaller professional men who formed her social circle — was raising visions in her poor head of going next year with Theodore to Saratoga, and fastening the attention of the whole fashionable republic upon the variety and resources of her invalidism. Mrs. Madden’s fancy did not run to the length of seeing her step-daughter also at Saratoga; it pictured her still as the sullen and hated “red-head,” moping defiantly in corners, or courting by her insolence the punishments which leaped against their leash in the step-mother’s mind to get at her.

The real Celia, when she came, fairly took Mrs. Madden’s breath away. The peevish little plans for annoyance and tyranny, the resolutions born of ignorant and jealous egotism, found themselves swept out of sight by the very first swirl of Celia’s dress-train, when she came down from her room robed in peacock blue. The step-mother could only stare.

Now, after two years of it, Mrs. Madden still viewed her step-daughter with round-eyed uncertainty, not unmixed with wrathful fear. She still drove about behind two magnificent horses; the new house had become almost tiresome by familiarity; her preeminence in the interested minds of the Dearborn County Medical Society was as towering as ever, but somehow it was all different. There was a note of unreality nowadays in Mrs. Donnelly’s professions of wonder at her bearing up under her multiplied maladies; there was almost a leer of mockery in the sympathetic smirk with which the Misses Mangan listened to her symptoms. Even the doctors, though they kept their faces turned toward her, obviously did not pay much attention; the people in the street seemed no longer to look at her and her equipage at all. Worst of all, something of the meaning of this managed to penetrate her own mind. She caught now and again a dim glimpse of herself as others must have been seeing her for years — as a stupid, ugly, boastful, and bad-tempered old nuisance. And it was always as if she saw this in a mirror held up by Celia.

Of open discord there had been next to none. Celia would not permit it, and showed this so clearly from the start that there was scarcely need for her saying it. It seemed hardly necessary for her to put into words any of her desires, for that matter. All existing arrangements in the Madden household seemed to shrink automatically and make room for her, whichever way she walked. A whole quarter of the unfinished house set itself apart for her. Partitions altered themselves; door-ways moved across to opposite sides; a recess opened itself, tall and deep, for it knew not what statue — simply because, it seemed, the Lady Celia willed it so.

When the family moved into this mansion, it was with a consciousness that the only one who really belonged there was Celia. She alone could behave like one perfectly at home. It seemed entirely natural to the others that she should do just what she liked, shut them off from her portion of the house, take her meals there if she felt disposed, and keep such hours as pleased her instant whim. If she awakened them at midnight by her piano, or deferred her breakfast to the late afternoon, they felt that it must be all right, since Celia did it. She had one room furnished with only divans and huge, soft cushions, its walls covered with large copies of statuary not too strictly clothed, which she would suffer no one, not even the servants, to enter. Michael fancied sometimes, when he passed the draped entrance to this sacred chamber, that the portiere smelt of tobacco, but he would not have spoken of it, even had he been sure. Old Jeremiah, whose established habit it was to audit minutely the expenses of his household, covered over round sums to Celia’s separate banking account, upon the mere playful hint of her holding her check-book up, without a dream of questioning her.

That the step-mother had joy, or indeed anything but gall and wormwood, out of all this is not to be pretended. There lingered along in the recollection of the family some vague memories of her having tried to assert an authority over Celia’s comings and goings at the outset, but they grouped themselves as only parts of the general disorder of moving and settling, which a fort-night or so quite righted. Mrs. Madden still permitted herself a certain license of hostile comment when her step-daughter was not present, and listened with gratification to what the women of her acquaintance ventured upon saying in the same spirit; but actual interference or remonstrance she never offered nowadays. The two rarely met, for that matter, and exchanged only the baldest and curtest forms of speech.

Celia Madden interested all Octavius deeply. This she must have done in any case, if only because she was the only daughter of its richest citizen. But the bold, luxuriant quality of her beauty, the original and piquant freedom of her manners, the stories told in gossip about her lawlessness at home, her intellectual attainments, and artistic vagaries — these were even more exciting. The unlikelihood of her marrying any one — at least any Octavian — was felt to add a certain romantic zest to the image she made on the local perceptions. There was no visible young Irishman at all approaching the social and financial standard of the Maddens; it was taken for granted that a mixed marriage was quite out of the question in this case. She seemed to have more business about the church than even the priest. She was always playing the organ, or drilling the choir, or decorating the altars with flowers, or looking over the robes of the acolytes for rents and stains, or going in or out of the pastorate. Clearly this was not the sort of girl to take a Protestant husband.

The gossip of the town concerning her was, however, exclusively Protestant. The Irish spoke of her, even among themselves, but seldom. There was no occasion for them to pretend to like her: they did not know her, except in the most distant and formal fashion. Even the members of the choir, of both sexes, had the sense of being held away from her at haughty arm’s length. No single parishioner dreamed of calling her friend. But when they referred to her, it was always with a cautious and respectful reticence. For one thing, she was the daughter of their chief man, the man they most esteemed and loved. For another, reservations they may have had in their souls about her touched close upon a delicately sore spot. It could not escape their notice that their Protestant neighbors were watching her with vigilant curiosity, and with a certain tendency to wink when her name came into conversation along with that of Father Forbes. It had never yet got beyond a tendency — the barest fluttering suggestion of a tempted eyelid — but the whole Irish population of the place felt themselves to be waiting, with clenched fists but sinking hearts, for the wink itself.

The Rev. Theron Ware had not caught even the faintest hint of these overtures to suspicion.

When he had entered the huge, dark, cool vault of the church, he could see nothing at first but a faint light up over the gallery, far at the other end. Then, little by little, his surroundings shaped themselves out of the gloom. To his right was a rail and some broad steps rising toward a softly confused mass of little gray vertical bars and the pale twinkle of tiny spots of gilded reflection, which he made out in the dusk to be the candles and trappings of the altar. Overhead the great arches faded away from foundations of dimly discernible capitals into utter blackness. There was a strange medicinal odor — as of cubeb cigarettes — in the air.

After a little pause, he tiptoed noiselessly up the side aisle toward the end of the church — toward the light above the gallery. This radiance from a single gas-jet expanded as he advanced, and spread itself upward over a burnished row of monster metal pipes, which went towering into the darkness like giants. They were roaring at him now — a sonorous, deafening, angry bellow, which made everything about him vibrate. The gallery balustrade hid the keyboard and the organist from view. There were only these jostling brazen tubes, as big round as trees and as tall, trembling with their own furious thunder. It was for all the world as if he had wandered into some vast tragical, enchanted cave, and was being drawn against his will — like fascinated bird and python — toward fate at the savage hands of these swollen and enraged genii.

He stumbled in the obscure light over a kneeling-bench, making a considerable racket. On the instant the noise from the organ ceased, and he saw the black figure of a woman rise above the gallery-rail and look down.

“Who is it?” the indubitable voice of Miss Madden demanded sharply.

Theron had a sudden sheepish notion of turning and running. With the best grace he could summon, he called out an explanation instead.

“Wait a minute. I’m through now. I’m coming down,” she returned. He thought there was a note of amusement in her tone.

She came to him a moment later, accompanied by a thin, tall man, whom Theron could barely see in the dark, now that the organ-light too was gone. This man lighted a match or two to enable them to make their way out.

When they were on the sidewalk, Celia spoke: “Walk on ahead, Michael!” she said. “I have some matters to speak of with Mr. Ware.”

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