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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 2

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When Stuart presented himself at breakfast the next morning his eyes were black-ringed with sleeplessness, but his riding boots were freshly polished and his scarf tied with extra precision. It was in the mind of the youngest Farquaharson to attain so personable an appearance that the lady who had cast aside his love should be made to realize what she had lost as they passed on the highway.

Then he went to the stables to have Johnny Reb saddled and started away, riding slowly. When he came in view of the house which she sanctified with her presence, a gray saddle mare stood fighting flies and stamping by the stone hitching post in front of the verandah, and each swish of the beast's tail was a flagellation to the boy's soul. The mare belonged to Jimmy Hancock and logically proclaimed Jimmy's presence within. Heretofore between Stuart and Jimmy had existed a cordial amity, but now the aggrieved one remembered many things which tainted Jimmy with villainy and crassness. Stuart turned away, his hand heavy on the bit, so that Johnny Reb, unaccustomed to this style of taking pleasure sadly, tossed his head fretfully and widened his scarlet nostrils in disgust.

Ten minutes later the single and grim-visaged horseman riding north came upon a pair riding south. Johnny Reb's silk coat shone now with sweat, but his pace was sedate. The love-sick Stuart had no wish to travel so fast as would deny the lady opportunity to halt him for conversation. Conscience and Jimmy were also riding slowly and Stuart schooled his features into the grave dignity of nobly sustained suffering. No Marshal of France passing the Emperor's reviewing stand ever rode with a deeper sense of the portentous moment. With his chin high and his face calm in its stricken dignity he felt that no lady with a heart in her soft bosom could fail to extend proffers of conciliation. In a moment more they would meet in the narrow road. His face paled a shade or two under the tension--then they were abreast and his heart broke and the apple of life was dead sea fruit to his palate. She had spoken. She had even smiled and waved her riding crop, but she had done both with so superlative an indifference that it seemed she had not really seen him at all. She was chatting vivaciously with Jimmy and Jimmy had been laughing as raucously as a jackal--and so they had passed him by. The event which had spelled tragedy for him; robbed him of sleep and withered his robust appetite had not even lingered overnight in her memory. The dirk was in Stuart Farquaharson's breast, but it was yet to be twisted. Pride forbade his shaking Johnny Reb into a wild pace until he was out of sight. The funereal grandeur of his measured tread must not be broken, and so he heard with painful distinctness the next remark of Jimmy Hancock.

"What in thunder's eatin' on Stuty--" (sometimes, though not encouraged to do so, young Mr. Farquaharson's intimates called him by that shameful diminutive.) "He looks like a kid that's just been taken back to the barn and spanked."

"Did he?" asked the young lady casually, "I really didn't notice."

Ye Gods! He, wearing his misery like a Caesar's toga, compared by this young buffoon to a kid who had been spanked! _She_ had not noticed it. Ye Gods! Ye Gods!

Ten days passed and the visit of Conscience Williams was drawing to an end. Soon she would go back to those rock-bound shores of New England where in earlier days her ancestors had edified themselves with burning witches. She would pass out of his life but never out of his memory. His heart would go with her, but though it killed him he would never modify the rigors of his self-appointed exile from her presence until an advance came from her.

Each night he secretly stole over to a point of ambuscade from which he could see the shimmery flash of her dress as she moved about the porch, cavaliered by the odious Jimmy and his fellows. On these nocturnal vigils he heard the note of her heedless laughter while he crouched embittered and hidden at a distance. There was in those merry peals no more symptom of a canker at her heart than in the carol of a bird greeting a bright day. She did not care and when the one maiden whom he wished to worship by years of noble deeds did not care--again the only answer was "Ye Gods!"

These were not matters to be alleviated by the comforting support of a confidant and he had no confidant except Cardinal Richelieu. The cardinal was more frequently addressed as Ritchy and his nature was as independent of hampering standards as his origin warranted. The Cardinal's face--a composite portrait of various types of middle-class dog-life--made pretense useless and early in his puppy career he seemed to realize it and to abandon himself to a philosophy of irresponsible pleasure. But Ritchy's eye had taken on a saddened cast since the blight had fallen on his master. He no longer frisked and devised, out of his comedian's soul, mirth-provoking antics. It was as though he understood and his spirit walked in sorrow.

A night of full-mooned radiance came steeping the souls of the young Knight and the young Cardinal in bitter yet sweet melancholy. Two days more and Conscience would be gone from the Valley of Virginia--returning to Cape Cod. Then Stuart would write over the door of his life "Ichabod, the glory is departed." To-night he would stalk again to his lonely tryst beneath the mock-orange hedge, which gave command of the yard and porch, and when she had gone to her room, he could still gaze upon the lighted window which marked a sacred spot. At a sedate distance in the rear proceeded the Cardinal, who had judiciously made no announcement of his coming. He knew that there was an edict against his participation in these vigils, based on a theory that he might give voice and advertise his master's presence, but it was a theory for which he had contempt and which he resented as a slur upon his discretion.

When Stuart Farquaharson crouched in the lee of heavily shadowed shrubbery the Cardinal sat on his haunches and wrinkled his unlovely brow in contemplative thought. Not far away masses of honeysuckle climbed over a rail fence festooned with blossom. Into the night stole its pervasive sweetness and the old house was like a temple built of blue gray shadows with columns touched into ivory whiteness by the lights of door and window. A low line of hills loomed beyond, painted of silver gray against the backdrop of starry sky and the pallor of moon mists. From the porch came the desultory tinkle of a banjo and the voices of young people singing and in a pause between songs more than once the boy heard a laugh--a laugh which he recognized. He could even make out a scrap of light color which must be her dress. Such were the rewards of his night watch, a melancholy and external gaze upon a Paradise barred to him by a stubbornness which his youth mistook for honorable pride.

At last two buggies rattled down the drive with much shouting of farewells and ten minutes later Jimmy's saddle horse clattered off at a gallop. The visitors were gone silence was left behind them. But Conscience did not at once turn into the house and close the door behind her. She stood by one of the tall pillars and the boy strained his gaze to make out more than the vague outline of a shadow-shape. Then slowly she came down the stairs and out onto the moonlit lawn, walking meditatively in the direction of Stuart Farquaharson's hiding place. The boy's heart leaped into a heightened tattoo and he bent eagerly forward with his lips parted. She moved lightly through the luminance of a world which the moon had burnished into tints of platinum and silver, and she was very lovely, he thought, in her child-beauty and slenderness, the budding and virginal freshness that was only beginning to stir into a realization of something meant by womanhood. He bent, half kneeling, in his ambuscade with that dream of love which was all new and wonderful: a thing of such untarnished romance as only life's morning can give to the young.

Then into the dream welled a futile wave of resentment and poisoned it with bitterness. She had played with him and mocked him and cast him aside and to her he was less than nothing. A few moments ago her voice had drifted to him in an abandonment of merriment though she was going away without seeing him. Night after night he had come here, merely for the sad pleasure of watching her move through the shadows and the distance.

Now, unconscious of his nearness, the girl came on until she halted beyond the fence, not more than ten yards away. Cardinal Richelieu fidgeted on his haunches and silenced, with a difficult self-repression, the puzzled whine which came into his throat. The tempered spot-light of the moon was on Conscience's lashes and lips, and the boy stiffened into a petrified astonishment, for quite abruptly and without warning she carried both slim hands to her face and her body shook with something like a paroxysm of sobs.

In a moment she took her hands away and her eyes were shining with a tearful moisture. A lock of hair fell over her face. She tossed it back, then she moved a few steps nearer and rested both arms on the top rail of the fence. In them she buried her cheeks and began to cry softly. Stuart Farquaharson could almost have touched her but he was quite invisible. He felt himself an eavesdropper, but he could not escape without being seen.

The case was different with Cardinal Richelieu. Repressed emotions have been said to kill strong men. They did not kill the Cardinal, but they conquered him. From his raggedly whiskered lips burst a growl and a yawp which, too late, he regretted.

The girl gave a little scream and started back and Stuart realized it was time to reassure her. He rose up, materializing into a tall shape in the shadows like a jinn conjured from empty blackness.

"It's only me--Stuart Farquaharson," he said, and Conscience gave a little outcry of delight in the first moment of surprise. But that she swiftly stifled into a less self-revealing demeanor as she demanded with recovered dignity, "What are you doing here?"

The boy vaulted the fence and stood at her side while the mollified Cardinal waved a stubby tail, as one who would say--"Now you see it took my dog sense to bring you two together. Without me you were quite helpless."

"Why were you crying, Conscience?" Stuart asked, ignoring alike her question and the rebuke in her voice, but she reiterated, "What are you doing here?"

The moon showed a face set with the stamp of tragedy which he imagined to have settled on his life, but his eyes held hers gravely and he was no longer hampered with bashfulness. The sight of her tear-stained faced had freed him of that.

"I come here every night," he acknowledged simply, "to watch you over there on the porch--because--" He balked a moment there, but only a moment, before declaring baldly what he had so often failed to announce gallantly--"Because I'm crazy about you--because I love you."

For a moment she gazed up at him and her breath came fast, then she suggested, a little shaken, "It isn't much farther on to the house. You used to come the whole way."

"You told me not to."

"If you had--had cared very much you would have come any way."

"I've cared enough," he reminded her, "to sit out here every night until you put out your light and went to sleep. If you had wanted me you'd have said so."

Impulsively she laid a trembling hand on his arm and spoke in rushing syllables. "I thought you'd come without being sent for--then when I knew you wouldn't, I couldn't hear it. I wrote you a note to-night.... I was going to send it to-morrow.... I'm going home the next day."

A whippoorwill called plaintively from the hillside. He had spoken and in effect she had answered. All the night's fragrance and cadence merged into a single witchery which was a part of themselves. For the first and most miraculous time, the flood tide of love had lifted them and their feet were no longer on the earth.

"But--but--" stammered the boy, moistening his lips, "you were singing and laughing with Jimmy Hancock and the rest ten minutes ago, and now--"

The girl's delicately rounded chin came up in the tilt of pride.

"Do you think I'd show them how I felt?" she demanded. "Do you think I'd tell anybody--except you."

Stuart Farquaharson had a sensation of hills and woods whirling in glorified riot through an infinity of moon mists and star dust. He felt suddenly mature and strong and catching her in his arms he pressed her close, kissing her hair and temples until she, fluttering with the wildness of her first embrace of love, turned her lips up to his kisses.

But soon Conscience drew away and at once her cheeks grew hot with blushes and maidenly remorse. She had been reared in an uncompromising school of puritanism. Her father would have regarded her behavior as profoundly shocking. She herself, now that it was over, regarded it so, though she wildly and rebelliously told herself that she would not undo it, if she could.

"Oh," she exclaimed in a low voice, "oh, Stuart, what were we thinking about!"

"We were thinking that we belong to each other," he fervently assured her. "As long as I live I belong to you--and to no one else, and you--"

"But we're only children," she demurred, with a sudden outcropping of the practical in the midst of romanticism. "How do we know we won't change our minds?"

"I won't change mine," he said staunchly. "And I won't let you change yours. You will write to me, won't you?" he eagerly demanded, but she shook her head.

"Father doesn't let me write to boys," she told him.

"At least you'll be back--next summer?"

"I'm afraid not. I don't know."

Stuart Farquaharson drew a long breath. His face set itself in rigid resolve.

"If they send you to the North Pole and stop all my letters and put a regiment of soldiers around you, and keep them there, it won't alter matters in the long run," he asseverated, with boyhood assurance, "You belong to me and you are going to marry me."

A voice from the house began calling and the girl answered quickly, "I'm just in the garden. I'll be right in." But before she went she turned to the boy again and her eyes were dancing incorrigibly.

"You won't go out and join any Newmarket cadets or anything and get killed meanwhile, will you?"

"I will not," he promptly replied. "And when we have a house of our own we'll have framed copies of Barbara Freitchie hanging all over the place if you want them."

To Stuart Farquaharson just then the future seemed very sure. He had no way of knowing that after to-morrow years lay between the present and their next meeting--and that after that--but of course he could not read the stars. _

Read next: Chapter 3

Read previous: Chapter 1

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