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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 1

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They were types in embryo, but of course they did not know it. No more would a grain of wheat and a poppy seed dropping side-by-side in a fallow place reflect upon their destinies, though one might typify a working world's dependence for bread; the other a dreaming world's reliance for opium.

They were a boy and a girl stepping artlessly into the wide chances of a brand-new and vastly interesting adolescence. Just now her young eyes were provocative with the starry light of mischief. His were smoldering darkly under her badgering because his pride had been touched to the quick. His forefathers had been gentlemen in England before they were gentlemen in the Valley of Virginia and his heritage of knightly blood must not be made a subject of levity. But the girl reflected only that when his dark eyes blazed and his cheeks colored with that dammed-up fury she found him a more diverting vassal than in calmer and duller moods. A zoo is more animated when the beasts are stirred into action.

"What was it that General Breckinridge said, Stuart?" She put the question innocently. "When the Newmarket cadets made their charge?"

"He said--" Suddenly the boy caught the riffled mockery of her eyes and abruptly his inspired recital broke off in exasperation, "May I ask just why you find that such a funny story?" he inquired with ironical dignity. "Most people seem to think it was rather pitiful than comic to send to their slaughter boys almost young enough to be in the nursery."

The eyes of Conscience Williams twinkled. "Maybe it isn't the story itself that's funny," she deigned to admit. "When your father told it, I cried--but when you tell it your face is so furious that--that you seem about to begin the war between the states all over again."

"Of course that makes it perfectly clear." Into the manner of young Mr. Stuart Farquaharson came now the hauteur of dignified rebuke. He enveloped himself in a sudden and sullen silence, brooding as he sat with his eyes fixed on his riding boots.

"What did General Breckinridge say?" She prompted persistently. Such sheer perversity maddened him. He had been reciting to her a story of exalted heroism--the narrative of how the boy cadets had hurled their young bodies against the Northern cannon and of how General Breckinridge had prayed for forgiveness as he gave the command which sent this flowering youth to its fate. And she found it amusing! He could not see how genuinely comic was his own unreconstructed ardor--how exaggerated was his cocksure manner--how thoroughly he spoke as though he himself had bled on the field of honor.

From her hammock she watched him with serene and inscrutable complacency, from under long, half-closed lashes. In his gaze was inarticulate wrath, but back of that--idolatry. He had from birth breathed an atmosphere of traditions in which the word "chivalry" was defined, not as an obsolete term, but as a thing still kept sacredly aflame in the hearts of gentlemen. To the stilted gallantry of his boyhood, ideals had meant more than ideas until Conscience Williams had come from her home on Cape Cod and turned his life topsy-turvy. Since her advent he had dreamed only of dark eyes and darker hair and crimson lips. He had rehearsed eloquent and irresistible speeches, only to have them die on a tongue which swelled painfully and clove to the roof of his mouth when he essayed their utterance. Then had come an inspiration. The stirring narration of how the Newmarket cadets had charged the Northern guns was to have been his cue, carrying him with the momentum of its intrinsic heroism over the ramparts of tongue-tied shyness. That was what he had essayed this morning, aided and abetted by the tuneful fragrance of June in Virginia. The stage had been set--his courage had mounted--and before he had reached his magnificent peroration, she had laughed at him. Ye Gods! She had affronted the erstwhile Confederate States of America and his spirit was galled.

Suddenly Conscience looked up and met his gaze penitently. It was a change from mockery so swift and complete that he should have suspected it, but he saw only a flash of sun through dark clouds.

"Do you like poetry?" she abruptly demanded.

"Like poetry!" Again the boy's countenance needed a twinkle of merriment to redeem it from a too serious acceptance of self. "Not to like poetry--if it's real poetry--is simply to be a plain clod." He spoke with an oracular and pedantic assurance which challenged the girl's mischief afresh.

"Shall I recite you something?" was her mild and seemingly placating suggestion, "just to see if it is real poetry?"

"Will you? I wish you would." He bent forward in eager anticipation. Verse should pave the way with music for the avowal which he had so far failed to force across the barrier between heart and lips.

She rose from the hammock and stood beside one of the broad verandah pillars, very straight and slender and flower-like, with the June sun on her hair. Stuart's heart was conscious of a sudden glow. A boy new to love, like a man new to drink, can recognize from a sip an elation that the jaded taste has forever forfeited. Then in a rich voice with a slightly exaggerated elocution, Conscience began:

"Up from the meadows, rich with corn, clear in the cool September morn,
The clustered spires of Frederick stand, green-walled by the hills of Maryland."

Those schools wherein the last of the Farquaharsons had derived his primary education had not starred or featured the poems of John Greenleaf Whittier. Stuart's eyes dwelt devouringly on the elocutionist--as yet unruffled by suspicion. They were doing their best to say the things at which his lips balked. But as the recitation proceeded their light died from hope to misery and from misery to the anger of hurt pride. He stood very rigid and very attentive, making no effort to interrupt, but holding her gaze defiantly as she went on:

"Up the street came the Rebel tread, Stonewall Jackson riding ahead.
Under his slouch hat left and right, he glanced and the old flag caught his sight."

At these lines the boy flinched, but still he said nothing. Like a soldier who stands at attention under the threat of a firing squad he listened to the end--or rather to the stanzas which recite:

"'Shoot, if you must at this old gray head, but spare your country's flag,' she said.
A flush of manhood, a look of shame, into the face of their leader came...."

That was too much! The man of whom these impious words were spoken was that gallant knight, without reproach, whose name is hallowed in every Southern heart. Very slowly Stuart Farquaharson raised his hand.

"I think," he announced with a shake of repressed fury in his voice, "I'll have to go home now. Good afternoon."

"Then you don't like poetry?"

"I don't consider that poetry," he said with a dignity which an archbishop might have envied. "I consider it slander of a dead hero."

"You mean, then," Conscience seemed a little frightened now and her utterance was hurried and fluttering, "that you are mad and are going? You never go until later than this."

It was difficult to be both courteous and honest, and Stuart's code demanded both.

"I expect there wasn't ever the same reason before."

This time it was the girl's eyes that leaped into flame and she stamped a small foot.

"Did you ever have any _fun_ in your life?" she demanded. "You know perfectly well that I teased you just because you were such a solemn owl that you're not far from being a plain, every-day prig. All right; go if you like and don't come to see me again until you get over the idea that you're a--a--" she halted for a word, then added scornfully--"a combination high priest and Prince of Wales."

Stuart Farquaharson bowed stiffly.

"All right," he said. "I won't forget. Good-by."

* * * * *

At the dinner table that evening Mrs. Farquaharson noted with concern the trance-like abstraction in which her son sat, as one apart. Later as she mixed for the General the night-cap toddy, which was an institution hallowed by long usage, she commented on it.

"I'm afraid Stuart isn't well," she volunteered. "He's not a moody boy by nature, and he doesn't seem himself to-day. Perhaps we had better send him to Doctor Heathergill. It wouldn't do for him to fall ill just when he's starting to college."

The General studied the toddy as though it held the secrets of a seer's crystal. "Your very good health, my dear." He raised the glass and about his gray eyes came the star-point wrinkles of an amused smile, "I noticed that Stuart didn't ride over to see the little Williams girl to-night. Wasn't that unusual?"

Mrs. Farquaharson nodded her head. "He must have been feeling positively ill," she declared. "Nothing less could have kept him away."

But the father, who had never before shown evidence of a hard heart, permitted his quizzical twinkle to broaden into a frank grin, "With every confidence in Dr. Heathergill, I doubt his ability to aid our declining son."

"Then you think--?"

"Precisely so. The little girl from the North has undertaken a portion of the boy's education which is as painful to him as it is essential."

"He's been perfectly lovely to her," defended the mother indignantly. "It's a shame if she's hurt him."

The General's face grew grave.

"It's a God's blessing, I think." He spoke thoughtfully now. "Stuart is a sentimentalist. He lives largely on dreams and poetry and ideals."

"Surely, General--" Sometimes in the moment of serious connubial debate Mrs. Farquaharson gave her husband his title. "Surely you wouldn't have him otherwise. The traditions of his father and grandfathers were the milk on which he fed at my breast."

"By which I set great store, but a child must be weaned. Stuart is living in an age of shifting boundaries in ideas and life.

"I should hate to see him lower his youthful standards, but I should like to see him less in the clouds. I should like to see him leaven the lump with a sense of humor. To be self-consciously dedicated to noble things and yet unable to smile at one's ego is to be censorious, and to be censorious is to be offensive."

"But he's just a child yet," argued Stuart's mother. "For all his height and strength he's hardly more than a boy after all."

"Quite true, yet to-night he's tossing in his bed and breathing like a furnace because his heart is broken for all time. It's all very well to swear:

"To love one maiden only, cleave to her
And worship her by years of noble deeds,

but for him that day is still far off. Meanwhile he's got to have his baptism of fire. It's a mighty good thing for a boy like Stuart to begin taking a little punishment while he's young. Young hearts, not less than young bones, mend quicker and better. He's over intense and if he got the _real_ before he's had his puppy loves it would go hard with him." _

Read next: Chapter 2

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