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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 5

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Twenty minutes later Stuart Farquaharson swung himself to the driver's seat of his low-hung roadster, and threw on the switch, while Billy Stirling and the others stood at the curb, waving farewells and finding nothing suitable to say.

The car went purring through the quiet streets where gabled houses slept under the moon, but having passed the town limits, leaped into a racing pace along the road for Orleans.

Stuart made no effort to talk and Conscience spoke only at long intervals. She was gazing ahead and her eyes were wide and wet with tears.

Once she leaned over to say: "If any of the things I said seemed disloyal, please try to forget them. Of course, I'm only too glad he wants me, and that I can help."

"I understand," he assured her. "I never doubted that."

The moon had set and it wanted only two hours of dawn when Conscience roused herself from her revery to say, "It's the next gate--on the right."

Wheeling the car into the driveway, he had a shadowy impression of an old and gabled place, inky except for the pallid light of a lamp turned low in an upper window.

As the girl hesitated on the verandah, he caught the complaining creak of an old plank, and while she waited for her bag there came to his ears the whining scrape of a tree branch against the eaves. The little voices of the hermitage were giving their mouselike welcome.

With her key fitted in the door, Conscience turned and held out both hands.

"You've been wonderful, Stuart," she said, with tears in her voice. "You've understood everything and I want to thank you while we're here alone. You'll come in, of course? I'm afraid it will be dismal, but the hotel is worse."

The man shook his head. "No," he answered, as he pressed her hands in his own, "I'll go back to the village and rouse up the hostelry, but I'm coming to-morrow--to inquire."

Many dogs were aroused to a noisy chorus before his hammering on the door of the old house which passed for a hotel received official response, and the east was breaking into a pallid rosiness before his thoughts permitted him to leave his seat by the window and stretch himself wearily on his uninviting bed.

But when the sun had waked him at eight o'clock the landscape framed by his window was a smiling one to which the youth in him responded and he dressed clear-eyed and ready for a new day. In the hope that Conscience had been able to sleep late, he meant to defer his visit of inquiry, and in the meantime he breakfasted at leisure and went out to search for a barber. The quest was not difficult, and while he awaited his turn he sat against the wall, mildly amused at the scraps of local gossip that came to his ears couched in homely vernacular.

"I heard that Eben Tollman cal'lates to jam Lige Heman with a foreclosure on his mortgage. It's move out and trust in Providence for Lige and Lige's." This comment came in piping falsetto from a thin youth who had just been shaven raw, but still lingered in the shop, and it met prompt reply from a grizzled old fellow with a wooden leg.

"Pshaw, Seth, that ain't no news. You can't scace'ly get folks excited by a yarn about a shark's bitin' a cripple--but if you was to give in a yarn about a cripple bitin' a shark--well, there'd be some point to that. If you told where somebody had got a dollar away from Eben, now, we'd call you a liar, I s'pose--and be right at that--but we'd listen."

"If you got a nickel from Tollman," retorted the first speaker, "you couldn't put it in a slot machine. It would be squeezed till it was bent double. Well, you can't blame him, I s'pose. He ain't got more'n a million."

Just at that moment the door was opened by a gentleman entering from the street, and Farquaharson was immensely diverted at the sudden hush in which that particular vein of conversation died. It was an easy guess that this was Eben Tollman himself.

The newcomer bore himself with a cold reserve of conscious superiority. He might have been forty, though the humorless immobility of his face gave him a seeming of greater age. In stature he was above the average height and his eyes were shrewd and piercing. To the salutations of those present, he responded with a slight, stiff inclining of his head--and appeared to withdraw into the shell of self-sufficiency.

When Stuart, later, presented himself at the old manse, he found it a venerable place, whose shingled roof was moss-green and whose gables were honorably gray with age and service. An elderly servant directed him to the garden, and elated at the prospect of a tete-a-tete among the hedge rows, he went with a light step along the mossy path, noting with what a golden light the sun filtered through the fine old trees and flecked the sod. But inside the garden he halted among the flower borders, for a glance told him that Conscience was not alone. She sat leaning toward a wheel-chair, reading aloud from a book which he divined, rather than recognized, to be a Bible. As he hurried forward the girl looked up and rose to meet him with a swift eagerness of welcome.

Because Stuart had catalogued Conscience's father, who was old enough to be her grandfather, as a bigot and an obstructionist standing between her and the sun, he was prepared to dislike him. Yet when he came up he confessed to a sort of astonished admiration. He stood looking at a head which suggested the head of a lion, full maned and white as a snow-cap, shaggy and beetling of brow, and indomitable of eye. Such a man, had he lived in another day, would have gone uncomplaining to the agonies of the Inquisition--or as readily have participated in visiting Inquisitional tortures on another. Yet it was a face capable of kindliness, too, since its wrath was only for sin--or what it regarded as sin.

He held out a hand in greeting.

"Conscience has told me how you rushed her home to me. It was very kind of you. I was hungry to see her, but I hadn't dared to hope for her so soon."

The old man spoke with a smile, but it was unconsciously pathetic. Stuart could see that he was stricken not only in his useless legs but also in his heart, though his eagle-like eyes were steady.

Conscience had been crying, but now she smiled and the two chatted with a forced vivacity, pretending to ignore the thing of which each was thinking and, though vivacity was foreign to his nature, the sufferer joined in their conversation with a grim sort of self-effacement. Soon they saw another figure approaching by the flagged path. It was the figure of Eben Tollman and his manner was full of solicitude--but as he talked with the father, Farquaharson saw him more than once steal covert glances at the daughter. Obviously he bore, here, the relationship of family friend, and though Conscience seemed to regard him as a member of an older generation, he seemed to regard her as a contemporary.

In the days that followed Stuart Farquaharson's car standing at the front of the old manse became a fixture in the landscape. The invalid minister, seeking to accustom himself stoically to a pitiful anticlimax of life, found in the buoyant vitality of this newcomer--of whom he thought rather as a boy than a man--a sort of activity by proxy. He, himself, moved only in a wheel chair, but Stuart could laughingly override his protests and lift him with an easy strength into the seat of the roadster to spin out across the countryside which he had told himself he should hardly see again.

Even the spinster aunt, who had begun by regarding him with suspicion, decided first that he was harmless, then that he was useful and finally that he was charming.

Yet the young Virginian was not altogether beguiled into the hope that this enviable status would be permanent. The talks and drives brought incidental glimpses into the thoughts that had habitation under the white mane and that came militantly out through the unyielding eyes even in silence. Stuart winced often under the sting and irritation of a bigotry which could, without question or doubt, undertake to rule offhand and with absolutism on every question of right or wrong.

He was keeping and meant to keep a constant rein on his speech and conduct, but he foresaw that, with all his restraint, a day might come when the old puritan would divine the wide divergence of their thought and have out upon him for one of the ungodly. Once he voiced something of this to Conscience herself in the question, "How long do you think your father will continue to welcome me here?"

Her eyes widened. "Welcome you? Why shouldn't he? He's leaning on you as if you were a son. He declared his liking for you from the first day."

Stuart shook his head in doubt and his eyes darkened with gravity. "It never pays to blind one's eyes to the chances of the future," he said slowly. "He won't continue to like me, I'm afraid. Just now he thinks of us both as children. I am only your overgrown playmate--but realization will come--and then--"

"You think that he will change?"

"I know it."

"Oh!" she exclaimed, and fell silent, but after a pause she spoke again impulsively, with a note of fear in her voice. "You won't go away and leave me here alone, will you--even if nobody else likes you?"

"No one but you can send me away--" he declared almost fiercely, "and before you can do it you must prove yourself stronger than I."

She gave a little sigh of relief and fell to talking of other things. It was when he rose to go and she walked to his car with him that he asked with seeming irrelevance, "Has this Mr. Tollman ever--made love to you?"

She burst, at that, into a gale of laughter more spontaneous than any he had heard since the telegram had sobered her. It was as though the absurdity of the idea had swept the sky clear of everything but comedy.

"Made love to me!" she mockingly echoed. "Honestly, Stuart, there are times when you are the funniest mortal alive--and it's always when you're most serious. Picture the Sphinx growing garrulous. Picture Napoleon seeking retreat in a monastery--but don't try to visualize Mr. Tollman making love."

"Perhaps I'm premature," announced Farquaharson with conviction. "But I'm not mistaken. If he hasn't made love to you, he will."

"Wherefore this burst of prophecy?"

"I don't have to be prophetic. I saw him look at you--and I didn't like the way he did it. That man thinks he loves you."

"If so, he hasn't mentioned it to me."

"He will--I say 'thinks' he loves you," Stuart persisted in a level and somewhat contemptuous voice, "because I don't believe he can really love anything but himself and his money. But in a grasping, avaricious way he wants you. His eyes betrayed him. He wants you in the fashion that a miser wants gold. He wants you in the way a glutton wants a peach which he has deliberately watched ripen until finally he says to himself, 'It's about ready to pick now.'"

A more intimate view of Eben Tollman failed to remove the initial dislike, and yet Farquaharson acknowledged that nothing concrete was added to the evidence of sheer prejudice. In his application to the business affairs of the minister, he was assiduous and untiring, and the invalid depended upon his advice as upon an infallible guidance. Stuart told himself that to attribute this service of friendship to a selfish motive was a meanness unworthy of entertainment, yet the suspicion lingered. When they met, Tollman was always courteous and if this courtesy never warmed into actual cordiality neither was it ever tinctured with any seeming of dislike.

The summer had spent its heat and already there was a hint of autumn in the air, but Stuart had kept his promise. There had been no lovemaking.

He and Conscience walked together one afternoon to a hill where they sat with a vista of green country spread before them, just beginning to kindle under the splendid torch of an incendiary autumn. Off beyond was the sea, gorgeously blue in its main scheme, yet varying into subtle transitions of mood from rich purple to a pale and tender green. The sky was cloudless but there was that smoky, misty, impalpable thing like a dust of dreams on the distance. The girl stood with one hand resting on the gnarled bole of a pine. She wore a blue sweater, and her carmine lips were more vivid because these months of anxiety had given to her checks a creamy pallor. The man, standing at her elbow, was devouring her with his eyes. She was gorgeous and wholly desirable and his heart was flaming with emotions that ran the whole gamut of love's completeness from clean passion to worship.

Yet he held his truce of silence and it was she herself who spoke at last.

"The girls are all meeting on the campus--under the big trees about now," she said, and her eyes held a far-away wistfulness. "They are chattering foolishly and delightfully about their summer adventures ... and the dormitories are being allotted. There'll be several new English readers, I guess."

"Does it hurt as badly as that?" he asked, and her answer was a low, rather hysterical little laugh, coming nearer bitterness than anything he had ever heard from her lips before.

"You've been here. You've seen it all. Haven't you stopped instinctively often when you broke into a sudden laugh with a moldy feeling around your heart as if you'd shouted out in church? Haven't you watched yourself and stultified yourself in every conversation, except when we were alone, to keep from treading on the toes of some inch-wide prejudice?"

"I've felt those things, of course--all of them." His reply was grave. "But then, you see, you've been here, and that made the whole thing lyric. The rest was just a somber background. It only made you stand out the more triumphantly in contrast. It's like a Sorolla picture hung against gray."

"We don't stand out against dull backgrounds--not for long," she declared. "We fade into them." But after a moment she wheeled with a sudden impulsiveness and gazed contritely into his face.

"Forgive me," she pleaded. "It's shameful and petty and mean to wreak all my protests against you. You've been splendid. I couldn't have borne it without you."

Stuart Farquaharson's cheeks paled under an emotion so powerful that instead of exciting him it carried a sense of being tremendously sobered--yet shaken and tried to the limit of endurance.

"You've forbidden me to make love to you," he said desperately, "and I'm trying to obey, but God knows, dear, there are times when--" He broke off with an abrupt choke in his throat.

Then Conscience said in a changed and very gentle voice, "You wouldn't have me until I could be utterly, unmistakably sure of myself, would you?"

"No," he replied uncompromisingly, "the very intensity of my love would make it hell for both of us unless you loved me--that way, too--but I wish you were certain. I wish to God you were!"

Again she turned her eyes seaward, and when she spoke her voice was impersonal, almost dead, so that he thought, with a deep misery, she was trying to make it merciful in tempering her verdict.

"I am certain now," she told him, still looking away.

He came a step nearer and braced himself. He could forecast her words, he thought--deep friendship but no more!

"Your mind is--definitely--made up?"

Very abruptly she wheeled, showing him a face transformed and self-revealing. Against her ivory white cheeks her parted lips were crimson and her eyes dilated and softly black. "I think I've known it from the first," she declared, and her voice thrilled joyously. "Only I didn't know that I knew."

There was no need to ask what she knew. Her eyes were windows flung open and back of them was the message of her heart.

"I don't know how you love me," she went on tensely, "but if you don't love me rather madly, it's all one sided."

As his arms closed about her, he knew that he was violently shaken, but he knew that she was trembling, too, through all the magnificent softness and slenderness of her. He knew that the lips against which he crushed his kisses were responsive.

Later he declared, with a ring of triumph, "I told you when you were a little girl that they might take you to the North Pole and surround you with regiments of soldiers--but that I'd come to claim you. I tell you that again. _He_ wrote our two names in one horoscope and it had to be." _

Read next: Chapter 6

Read previous: Chapter 4

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