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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 4

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Stuart Farquaharson had that habit of self-analysis which often compelled him to take his own life into the laboratory of reflection and study its reactions with an almost impersonal directness. That analysis told him that Conscience Williams, had she chosen to do so, might have imposed upon him the thrall of infatuation, even had there been no powerful appeal to his mentality. Every fiery element that had lain dormant in his nature was ready to leap into action, in response to a challenge of which she was herself unconscious--a challenge to the senses. And yet he recognized with an almost prayerful gratitude that it was something paramount to physical lure, which beckoned him along the path of love. Into the more genuine and intimate recesses of her life, where the soul keeps its aloofness, she had given him only keyhole glimpses, but they had been such glimpses as kindled his eagerness and awakened his hunger for exploration. There had been candid indications reenforced by a dozen subtler things that her liking for him was more than casual, and yet she denied him any chance to avow himself, and sometimes, when he came suddenly upon her, he discovered a troubled wistfulness in her face which clouded her eyes and brought a droop to the corners of her lips.

On one such occasion as he was passing an old house with a yard in which the grass was tall and ragged and the fruit trees as unkempt and overgrown as a hermit's beard he saw her standing alone by one of the tilting veranda posts. The sunshine was gone from her dark eyes, so that they seemed darker than ever--and haunted with an almost tragic wistfulness. She had the manner of one facing a ghost which she had vainly sought to lay. He came so close before he spoke her name that she turned toward him with a start, as though he wakened her suddenly out of somnambulism, but even as she wheeled, her face brightened and a bantering merriment sounded in her voice, countering all his solicitous inquiries with gay retorts.

When a week of charming but unsatisfying association had passed Stuart Farquaharson felt that the time had come when he must talk with her less superficially. It was as if they had only waded in the shallows of conversation--and he wanted to strike out and swim in deeper waters. The opportunity, when it came, was not of his own making. It was an evening when there was dancing in the large lounge of The Arms. Farquaharson and Conscience had gone, between dances, to the tiled veranda overlooking the sea. The moon was spilling showers of radiance from horizon to shore, and making of the beach a foreground of pale silver. The veranda itself was a place of blue shadows between the yellow splotches of the window lights. After a little she laid a hand lightly on Stuart's arm.

"Don't you want to take me for a stroll on the beach?" she asked a shade wearily. "I'm tired of so many people."

They followed the twisting line of the wet sands and at last halted by the prow of a beached row-boat, where the girl enthroned herself, gazing meditatively off to sea.

"Conscience," he asked slowly, "you have used a diplomacy worthy of a better cause, in devising ways to keep me from talking with you alone--why?"

"Have I done that?" she countered.

"You know you have. Of course you've known I wanted to make love to you. Why wouldn't you let me?"

"Because," she answered gravely, meeting his eyes with full candor, "I didn't want you to--make love to me. I'm not ready for that."

"I haven't said I wasn't willing to wait, have I?" he suggested quietly. "You don't appear to throw barriers of silence between yourself and Billy."

"No. That's different.... I'm not--" Suddenly she broke off and laughed at herself.

Then a little startled, at her own frankness, she admitted in a low voice, "I'm not afraid of Billy's unsettling me."

The man felt his temples throb with a sudden and intoxicating elation. He steadied himself against its agitation to demand,

"And you are--afraid that I might?"

She was sitting with the moonlight waking her dark hair into a somber luster and a gossamer shimmer on the white of her evening gown. Her hands lay unmoving in her lap and she slowly nodded her confession.

"You see," she told him, after another long pause, "it's a thing--falling in love--that I should do rather riotously--if I did it at all. I shouldn't be able to think of much else."

Stuart Farquaharson wanted to seize her in his arms and protest that she could never love him too riotously, but he instead schooled his voice to a level almost monotonous.

"I fell in love with you--back there in the days of our childhood," he said slowly. "Maybe it was only a boy's dream--then--but now it's a man's dream--a life dream. You will have to be won out of battle, every wonderful reward does--but victory will come to me." His voice rose vibrantly. "Because winning it is the one inflexible purpose of my life, dominating every other purpose."

She had not interrupted him and now she was a little afraid of him--and of herself. Perhaps it was only the moon--but the moon swings the tides.

"Stuart--" Her voice held a tremor of pleading. "If you do love me--like that--you can wait. Just now I need you--but not as a lover. I need you as a friend whom I don't have to fight."

The man straightened and bowed. "Very well," he said, "I can wait--if I must. Your need comes first."

She gave him a grateful smile, then suddenly came to her feet and began speaking with such a passionate earnestness as he had not before heard from her lips.

"I think it's the right of every human being to live fully--not just half live through a soul-cramping routine. I think it's the right of a man or a woman to face all the things that make life, to _think_--even if they make mistakes--to fight for what they believe, even if they're wrong. I'd rather be Joan of Arc than the most sainted nun that ever took the veil!"

The young man's face lighted triumphantly, because that was also his creed. "I knew it!" he exclaimed. "I didn't have to hear your words to know that marking time in an age of marching would never satisfy you."

"And yet every influence that means home and family seems bent on condemning me to the dreariness and mustiness of a life that kills thought. I've thought about it so much that I'm afraid I've grown morbid." Once more her voice rang with passionate insurgency. "I feel as if I were being sent to Siberia."

Stuart answered with forced composure through which the thrill of a minute ago crept like an echo of departing trumpets. "Of course, I came out here to declare my love. I had waited for this chance ... the sea ... the moon--well! It's rather like asking for a field-marshal's baton and a curveting charger--and getting instead a musket and place in the ranks. The man who doesn't serve where he's put isn't much good...." He paused and then went on calmly, "What is this thing that haunts you?"

"When I finished at the preparatory school," she began, "father thought I'd gone far enough and I _knew_ I needed college. At last I won a compromise. I was to have one year by way of trial, and then he was to decide which idea was right--his or mine."

"So now--"

"So now the jury has the case--and I'm terribly afraid I know the verdict in advance. Father is a minister of the old school and the unyielding New England type. I don't remember my mother, but sometimes I think the inflammatory goodness at home killed her. In our house you mustn't question a hell where Satan reigns as a personal god of Damnation. To doubt his spiked tail and cloven hoofs, would almost be heresy. That's our sort of goodness."

"And colleges fail to supply a course in the Chemistry of Brimstone," he suggested.

"They don't even frown on such ungodly things as socialism and suffrage," she supplemented.

He nodded. "They offer, in short, incubation for ideas questionably modern."

Her voice took on a fiery quality of enthusiasm.

"Life was never so gloriously fluid--so luminous--before. Breadth and humanity are being fought for. Men and women are facing things open-eyed, making splendid successes and splendid failures." After a moment's pause she added, wearily, "My father calls them fads."

"And you want to have a part in all that. You don't want only the culture of reading the _Atlantic Monthly_ at a village fireside?"

"I want to play my little part in the game of things. The idea of being shielded from every danger and barred off from every effort, sickens me. If I am to lead a life I can be proud of, it must be because I've come out of the fight unshamed, not just because no one ever let me go into a fight."

She was standing in an attitude of tense, even rapt earnestness, her chin high and her hands clenched. Her voice held the vibrance of a dreamer and her eyes were looking toward the horizon as if they were seeing visions off across the moonlit water.

"I might fail miserably, of course, but I should know that I'd had my chance. The idea at home seems to be that a woman's goodness depends on someone else keeping it for her: that she should stick her head into the sand like an ostrich and, since she sees nothing, be womanly. If I have a soul at all, and it can't sail beyond a harbor's breakwater, I have nothing to lose, but if it can go out and come back safe it has the right to do it. That's what college means to me: the preparation for a real life: the chance to equip myself. That's why the question seems a vital crisis--why _it_ is a vital crisis."

"Conscience," he said thoughtfully, "you have described the exact sort of intolerant piety, which tempts one to admire brilliant wickedness. You can't accept another's belief unless it's your own. That is one of Life's categorical rules. It's not a problem."

"It's so categorical," she retorted quickly, "that there is no answer to it except the facts. My father is old. He has burned out his life in his fierce service of his God and his conscience. To tell him how paltry is the sum of his life's effort, in my eyes, would be like laughing aloud at his sermon."

"And yet you can't possibly take up the life of an outgrown age because he prefers the thought of yesterday."

"I'm afraid I'll have to--and--"

"And what?"

"And I think--it's going to break my heart. I've got to live a lie to keep a man, who regards a lie as a mortal sin, happy in the belief that he has never tolerated a lie."

"My God, Conscience," Stuart broke out, "this is the New England conscience seeking martyrdom. Life runs forward, not back. Rivers don't climb hills."

"I have said that to myself a thousand times," she gravely replied, "but it doesn't answer the question. There's no compulsion in the world so universal as the tyranny of weakness over strength. Haven't you seen it everywhere? Wherever people have to live together you find it. You find the strong submitting to all sorts of petty persecutions, and petty persecutions are the kind that kill, because the weak are nervous or easily wrought up and must have allowances made for them. And the person so considered always thinks himself strong beyond others and never suspects the truth. Only the weak and foolish can strut independently through life."

"And yet to draw the blinds and shut out the light of life because some one else chooses to sit in the dark is unspeakably morbid."

Conscience shrugged her shoulders. "Sitting in the dark or living righteously--there's no difference but point of view. My father has been true to his convictions. The fact that his goodness is no broader than his hymn book doesn't alter that." There was a pause, then suddenly the girl laughed and stretched both arms out to sea. "Oh, well," she said, "I don't often indulge in these jeremiads. Now it's over, and I've at least got the summer ahead of me. I guess we'd better go back. I promised Billy a dance."

She rose, but the Virginian stood resolutely in her path. "Just a moment more," he begged. "It won't be love-making. The day we drove down to Provincetown you were sitting on the sand dunes. For a background you had the sea and sky--and they were gorgeous. But while I looked at it I saw another picture, too. May I try to paint _that_ picture for you?"

"Surely, if you will."

"Well, I'm rather leaving the sunlight now," he admitted. "I'm painting gray. I'm converting it into terms of winter storm and equinox. Last year a ship was pounded to pieces in the bay while the people on Commercial street looked helplessly on. It was the same sea, but it wasn't smiling then. It wore the vindictive scowl of death. That's the mood which has made this strip of coast a grave-yard of dead ships. That's the mood, too, which has given color to the people's thought--or taken the color out of it, leaving it stout and faded like weatherbeaten timbers--making of it the untrustworthy thought of melancholia."

"And am I the spirit of that picture, too?"

"You are the exact antithesis of all that, but you are threatening to fade into its grayness--and to deaden all the glow that was on the palette with which God painted you."

They walked slowly back to the verandah, but paused a space before going into the light and crowds where a waltz had just begun--and as they waited a hotel page came dodging between the smoking, chatting loungers calling her name--"Miss Conscience Williams--Miss Conscience Williams," and waving a yellow telegraph envelope.

The girl's face paled a little as she took the message from the urchin's hand and her eyes widened in an expression of fear. But she tore the covering and drew out the sheet deliberately, reading in the yellow light that flooded through a window. Then an almost inaudible groan came from her lips and she stood holding the paper so loosely that it slipped from her fingers and drifted to the floor. Stuart retrieved it and handed it to her, but she only commanded in a stunned voice, "Read it."

The man stepped from the shadow to the light and read:

"Your father had paralytic stroke. He wants to see you."

It was signed by initials which Stuart inferred to be those of the elderly aunt of whom she spoken. He laid his hand very gently on her arm and turned her a step to the side so that she passed out of the broad band of window-light and stood in the shadow. The blaze from the interior gave too much the effect of a spotlight playing on her eyes and lips and brow, for him to be willing that the idling crowds of strollers should read what he read there. He knew that in a moment she would regain control sufficiently to face even the fuller publicity inside, but during that moment she had the right to the limited privacy afforded by the dark shadow of the tiled veranda.

She stood leaning against the wall for a moment, then she straightened herself with an effort and pressed the tips of her fingers to her temples.

"What can you get out of your car?" she asked. And the man answered quickly, "As much speed as the roads let me--I have done sixty."

"Please take me home." The words came abruptly and with undisguised wretchedness, "and take me _fast_." _

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Read previous: Chapter 3

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