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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 6

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In the library at the old manse that afternoon there was less of sunlight and joy. Shadows hung between the walls and there were shadows, too, in the heart of one of the men who sat by a central, paper-littered table.

It was at best a cheerless room; this study where the minister had for decades prepared the messages of his stewardship--and sternly drawn indictments against sin. In the drawers of the old-fashioned desk those sermons lay tightly rolled and dusty. Never had he spared himself--and never had he spared others. What he failed to see was that in all those sheaves upon sheaves of carefully penned teaching, was no single relief of bright optimism, no single touch of sweet and gracious tolerance, not one vibrating echo of Christ's great soul-song of tenderness.

Now it was ended. He had dropped in the harness and younger men were taking up the relay race. They were men, he feared, who were not to be altogether trusted; men beguiled by dangerous novelties of trend. With worldliness of thought pressing always forward; with atheism increasing, they were compromising and, it seemed to him, giving way cravenly, step by step, to encroachment.

But the conversation just now was not of religion, or even dogma which in this room had so often been confused with religion. Eben Tollman was sitting in a stiff-backed chair across from his host. His face wore the immobile expression of a man who never forgets the oppressive fact that he is endowed with dignity.

"Eben," said the minister, "for years you have advised me on all money matters and carried the advice into effect. You have virtually annexed my business to your own and carried a double load."

"You have devoted your life to matters of greater moment, Mr. Williams," unctuously responded the younger man. "Your stewardship has been to God."

"I could have wished," the minister's face clouded with anxiety, "that I might have seen Conscience settled down with a godly husband and a child or two about her before I go. Those are restless days and a girl should have an anchorage."

There was a pause and at its end Tollman said hesitantly, almost tentatively, "There is young Mr. Farquaharson, of course."

"Young Mr. Farquaharson!" The minister's lower jaw shot out pugnaciously and his eyes flashed. "Eben, don't be absurd. The two of them are children. This boy is playing away a vacation. To speak of him as a matrimonial possibility is to talk irresponsibly. You astonish me!"

"Of course, in some respects it seems anomalous." Tollman spoke thoughtfully and with no resentment of his companion's temper. He was quite willing that any objections to Stuart which were projected into the conversation should appear to come from the other. "For example, his people are not our people and the two codes are almost antithetical. Yet his blood is blue blood and, after all, the war is over."

"If I thought that there was even a remote danger of this friendship ever becoming more than a friendship, I'd have Conscience send him away. I'd guard her from it as from a contagion." The announcement came fiercely. "Young Farquaharson's blood is blood that runs to license. His ideas are the ideas of a hard-drinking, hard-gaming aristocracy. But nonsense, Eben, he's a harmless boy just out of college. I like him--but not for my own family. What put such an absurdity into your head?"

"Possibly it is an absurdity." Tollman gave the appearance of a man who, having suggested a stormy topic, is ready to relinquish it. In reality he was making Williams say everything which he wished to have said and was doing it by the simple device of setting up antagonism to play the prompter. "What put it into my head was perhaps nothing more tangible than their constant companionship. They are both young. He has a vital and fascinating personality. There is a touch of Pan and a touch of Bacchus in him that--"

"Those are somewhat pagan advantages," interrupted the minister with a crispness which carried the bite of scorn.

"Pagan perhaps, but worth considering, since it is not upon ourselves that they operate." Tollman rose and went over to the window which gave off across the garden. He presented the seeming of a man whose thought was dispassionate, and because dispassionate impossible to ignore. "This young man has in his blood bold and romantic tendencies which will not be denied. To him much that we revere seems a type of narrowness. His ancestors have made a virtue of the indulgences of sideboard and card table--but the boy is not to blame for that."

Eben Tollman was playing on the prejudices of his host as he might have played on the keys of a piano. He maintained, as he did it, all the semblance of a fair-minded man painting extenuations into his portrait of the absent Farquaharson.

"And you call this predisposition to looseness and license a thing to be condoned, to be mixed with the blood of one's own posterity? Eben, I've never seen you make excuses for ungodliness before." The fierce old face suddenly cleared. "But there--there! This is all an imaginary danger. I'll watch them, but I'm sure that these two have no such reprehensible thought."

Mr. Tollman took up his hat and gloves. "I will see you again to-morrow," he said, as he passed out of the library, leaving the old puritan behind him immersed in a fresh anxiety.

It was not the intention of William Williams to act with unconscientious haste--but he would watch and weigh the evidence. He prided himself on his rigid adherence to justice, and escaped the knowledge that his sense of justice was a crippled thing warped to the shape of casuistry. If he had permitted the affliction, which God had visited upon him, to blind his eyes against duty to his daughter, he must rouse himself and remedy the matter. It was time to put such self-centered sin behind him and make amends. In this self-assumption of the plenary right to regulate the life of his daughter, or any one else, there was no element of self-reproach. He held God's commission and acted for God!

The gradual, almost imperceptible change of manner was observable first to the apprehensive eyes of Stuart Farquaharson himself. The Virginian's standards as to his bearing in the face of hostility were definite and could be summed up in the length of an epigram: Never to fail of courtesy, but never to surrender more than half of any roadway to aggression. Yet here was a situation of intricate bearings and a man whom he could not fight. A brain must be dealt with, too old for plasticity, like sculptor's clay hardened beyond amendment of form. A man whose fighting blood is hot, but whose spirit of sportsmanship is true, can sometimes maintain a difficult peace where another type would fail, and that was the task Stuart set himself. That same spirit of sportsmanship would have meant to Williams only a want of seriousness, a making play out of life. But to Stuart it meant the nearest approach we have to a survival of chivalry's ideals: a readiness to accept punishment without complaint: a willingness to extend every fair advantage to an adversary: a courage to strive to the uttermost without regard to the material value of the prize--and paramount to all the rest, a scorn for any meanly gained advantage, however profitable. If there was any value in his heritage of gentle blood and a sportsman's training, it should stand him in good stead now, for the sake of the girl he loved.

One evening in the garden Conscience asked him, "Do you think I over-painted the somberness of the picture? But it's a shame for you to have to endure it, too. I think the confinement is making Father more irritable than usual."

The man shook his head and smiled whimsically.

"It's not the confinement. It's me. He's discovered that you and I have grown up, and he's seeking to draw me into a quarrel so that he can tender me my passports."

Conscience laid her hands on his arm and they trembled a little.

"I'm sure it isn't that," she declared, though her words were more confident than her voice. "You've stood a great deal, but please keep it up. It won't"--her voice dropped down the key almost to a whisper--"it won't be for long."

* * * * *

The hills were flaming these days with autumnal splendor. Conscience and Stuart had just returned from a drive, laden with trophies of woodland richness and color. About the cheerless house she had distributed branches of the sugar maple's vermilion and the oak's darker redness, but the fieriest and the brightest clusters of leafage she had saved for the old library where the invalid sat among his cases of old sermons.

"Stuart and I gathered these for you," she told him as she arranged them deftly in a vase.

The old man's face did not brighten with enjoyment. Rather it hardened into a set expression, and after a moment's pause he echoed querulously, "You and Stuart."

His daughter looked up, her attention arrested by his tone. "Why, yes," she smiled. "We went for a drive and got out and foraged in the woods."

"How long has Mr. Farquaharson been here now?"

"Something over six weeks, I believe."

"Isn't it nearer two months?"

The girl turned very slowly from the window and in the dark room her figure and profile were seen, a silhouette against the pane with a nimbus about her hair.

"Perhaps it is. Why?"

For a while the father did not speak, then he said: "Perhaps it's time he was thinking of terminating his visit."

The girl felt her shoulders stiffen, and all the fighting blood which was in her as truly, if less offensively than in himself, leaped in her pulses. Defiant words rushed to her lips, but remained unsaid, because something grotesque about his attempted movement in his chair accentuated his helplessness and made her remember.

"What do you mean?" she asked in a level voice, which since she had suppressed the passion came a little faint and uncertain.

"I had no objection," he replied quietly enough but with that inflexible intonation which automatically arouses antagonism, since it puts into its "I want's" and its "I don't want's" a tyrannical finality, "to this young gentleman visiting us. I extended him hospitality. I even liked him. But it has come rather too much, for my liking, to a thing that can be summed up in your words of a minute ago--'Stuart and I.' It's time to bring it to an end."

"Why should it come to an end, Father?" she asked with a terrific effort to speak calmly.

"Because it might run to silly sentiment--and to such an idea I could never give consent. This young man, though a gentleman by birth, is not our sort of a gentleman. His blood is not the kind of blood with which ours can be mixed: his ideas are the loose ideas that put pleasure above righteousness. In short, while I wish to say good-by to him as agreeably as I said welcome, the time has come to say good-by."

She came over and sat by his chair and let one hand rest on his white hair. "Father," she said in a low voice, tremulously repressed, "you are undertaking to rule offhand on a question which is too vital to my life to be treated with snap judgment. I've tried to meet your wishes and I want to go on trying, but in this you must think well before you take a position so--so absolute that perhaps--"

He shook her hand away and his eyes blazed.

"I _have_ thought well," he vehemently declared. "I have not only thought, but I have prayed. I have waited silently and watched in an effort to be just. I have asked God's guidance."

"God's guidance could hardly have told you that Stuart Farquaharson has loose ideas or that he's unrighteous or that his blood could corrupt our blood--because none of those things are true or akin to the truth."

For an instant the old man gazed at her in an amazement which turned quickly to a wrath of almost crazily blazing eyes, and his utterance came with a violence of fury.

"Do you mean that such an unspeakable idiocy has already come to pass--that you and this--this--young amateur jockey and card-player from the South--" He broke suddenly off with a contempt that made his words seem to curl and snap with flame.

The girl rose from her place on the arm of his chair. She stood lancelike in her straightness and her eyes blazed, too, but her voice lost neither its control nor its dignity.

"I mean," she said, "that this gentleman who needs no apologist and no defense, has honored me by telling me that he loves me--and that I love him."

"And his high courage has prevented him from admitting this to me and facing my just wrath?"

"His courage has been strong enough to concede to my wish that I might tell you myself, and in my own time."

The library door stood open and the hall gave out onto the verandah where Stuart Farquaharson sat waiting for Conscience to return.

The minister attempted to rise from his chair and fell back into it, with a groan, as he remembered his helplessness. That helplessness did not, however, abate his anger, and his voice rose as it was accustomed to rise when, pounding the pulpit pillow, he wished to drive home some impassioned utterance, beyond the chance of missing any sleepy ear.

"If what you say is true, this man has abused my hospitality and used my roof as an ambuscade to attack me. He is not, as you say, a man of honor or of courage, but a coward and a sneak! I have more to say, but it had better be said to him direct. Please send him to me."

The girl hesitated, then she wheeled with flaming face toward the chair. "I have been willing," she said, "to smother my life in an effort to meet your ideas, though I knew them to be little ideas. Now I see that in yielding everything one can no more please you than in yielding nothing. If he goes, I go, too. You may take your choice."

But as her words ended Conscience felt a hand laid gently on her shoulder, and a voice whispered in her ear, "Don't, dear; this will always haunt you. Leave it to me." Stuart turned her gently toward the door, then faced the irate figure in the chair. In a voice entirely quiet and devoid of passion he addressed its occupant. "I thought I heard you call for me, sir. I am here." _

Read next: Chapter 7

Read previous: Chapter 5

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