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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 7

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For a little while the study remained silent, except for the excited panting of the minister, whose face was a mask of fury. The passion in Conscience's eyes was gradually fading into an expression of deep misery. The issue of cruel dilemma had come in spite of every defensive effort and every possible care. It had come of her father's forcing and she knew that he would make no concession. When Williams spoke his voice came chokingly.

"Conscience, leave us alone. What I have to say to this man is a matter between the two of us."

But instead of obeying the girl took her place at Stuart's side and laid her hand on his arm.

"What you have to say to him, Father, is very much my affair," she replied steadily. "My action for the rest of my life depends upon it."

"Dear," suggested the Virginian in a lowered voice, "you can trust me. I'm not going to lose my temper if it's humanly possible to keep it. There's no reason why you should have to listen to things which it will be hard to forget."

"No," she declared with a decisiveness that could not be shaken, "I stay here as long as you stay. When you go, I go, too."

Farquaharson turned to the minister, "I believe you called for me, sir," he repeated, in a tone of even politeness. "You have something to say to me?"

The old man raised a hand that was palsied with rage and his voice shook.

"I fancy you heard what I said of you. I said that you had abused my hospitality and that you are a coward and a sneak. You are worse than that; you are an infamous scoundrel."

Conscience felt the muscles in the forearm upon which her fingers rested grow tense and hard as cables. She saw the face pale to lividness and the lips stiffen, but except for that, the man made no movement, and for some ten seconds he did not speak. They were ten seconds of struggle against an anger as fierce as it was just, but at the end of that time he inquired quietly, "Is that all you meant to say to me?"

"No! There's much more, but for most men that would be enough. To let it go unanswered is a confession of its truth."

"My invariable answer to such words," said Stuart Farquaharson slowly, "is made with a clenched fist. The triple immunity of your cloth, your age and your infirmity denies me even that reply."

"And what immunity makes a denial unnecessary?"

"A denial would dignify a charge which I can afford to ignore as I ignore vulgar talk that I hear in an alley."

The old man bent forward, glaring like a gargoyle, and his first attempts to speak were choked into inarticulate rumblings by his rage. His face reddened with a fever of passion which threw the veins on his temples into purple traceries.

"I repeat with a full responsibility--with the knowledge that the God whom I have tried to serve is listening, that you _are_ what I have called you, because you have come into my house and practiced a continuous and protracted deceit. You have abused the freedom granted you as a guest to try to win my daughter away from everything worth holding to and everything she has been taught. I was a blind fool. I was a watchman fallen asleep at the gate--a sentry unfaithful at his post." The voice of the minister settled into a clearer coherence as he went on in deep bitterness. "You say I have accused you sternly. I am also accusing myself sternly--but now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I recognize my remissness. God grant I am not too late."

He paused for breath and his fingers clenched rigidly at the carvings of his chair arms. "You know that my daughter is young and inexperienced--an impressionable child not sufficiently seasoned in wisdom to repudiate the gauzy lure of dangerous modernisms."

"Father," broke in Conscience during his accusing pause, "you are starting out with statements that are unjust and untrue. I am not a child and no one has corrupted my righteousness. We simply have different ideas of life."

The minister did not take his eyes from the face of the young man and he ignored the interruption of his daughter.

"I could not blame her: it was the natural spirit of unthinking youth. You, however, did know the consequences. Here in my house--which you must never reenter--you have incited my family against me to serve your own covetous and lustful interests." Again he halted while the young man, still standing as rigid as a bronze figure, his flushed face set and his eyes holding those of his accuser with unblinking steadiness, made no attempt to interrupt him.

"What, indeed, to you were mere questions of right or wrong? You had a world of light and frivolous women to choose from, your own kind of women who could dance and fritter life away in following fads that make for license--but you must come into the household of a man who has tried to fight God's battles; standing against these encroachments of Satan which you advocate--and beguile my only daughter into telling me that I must choose between surrender or the wretchedness of ending my life in deserted loneliness."

Farquaharson, despite the storm which raged in his heart, answered with every outward show of calmness, even with dignity.

"You accuse me of having made love to your daughter. For that I have no denial. I have loved her since she was a child. I have told her so at every opportunity, but that love has been honorable and free of deceit and I know of no law which forbids a man of decent character to plead his cause. That I should win her love is a marvelous thing, but, thank God, I have it and hope to hold it till death."

"You have filched it! You have it as a thief has another man's purse or another man's wife. You have gained favor by arousing discontent for a Godly home: a home where she is sheltered and where she belongs."

There was a tense silence and Farquaharson's voice was almost gentle when he next spoke.

"There is more than one way of looking at life--and more than one may be right. Conscience wanted the wider scope which college would have given her. She wanted it with all the splendid eagerness of a soul that wishes to grow and fulfill itself. That rightful privilege you denied her--and she has not complained. Why shouldn't she want life's fullness instead of life's meagerness and its breadth instead of its bigotries? Is there greater nobility in the dull existence of a barnacle that hangs to one spot than in the flight of a bird? I have sought no quarrel and I have cruelly set a curb upon my temper, but I have no apologies to make and no intention of giving her up. I should be glad of your consent, but with it or without it I shall continue to urge my love. It would be a pity for you to force a breach."

"There is no question of my forcing a breach." The first words wore spoken sharply, but as they continued they began again to rush and mount into an access of passion. "You are as insolent as your words prove you to be reckless. You have tried to corrupt every idea of righteousness in my daughter's heart. It would almost appear that you have succeeded. But I believe God is stronger than Satan. I believe my prayers and the heritage of Godfearing forefathers will yet save her. As for you, you are to leave my house and henceforth never to cross my threshold."

"Very well," answered Stuart quietly; then he added: "To what extent am I indebted to Mr. Eben Tollman for your sudden discovery that I am a sneak and a coward?"

"That," shouted the invalid, "proves your meanness of spirit. Had Mr. Tollman held a brief for you he could not have defended you more stoutly. He, too, was deceived in you, it seems."

"Stuart," suggested the girl, "it's no use. You can't change him now. Perhaps when he's less angry--"

"Less angry!" screamed the old man. "For almost seventy years my wrath against the machinations of hell has burned hot. If God grants me strength to the end, it will never cool. You, too, have turned to my enemies in my last days. You would leave me for a young wastrel who has sung in your ears the song of a male siren. But before I will surrender my fight for the dictates of the conscience God has given me to be my mentor, I will see you go!"

"Father!" cried the girl. "You don't know what you're saying."

His face had become frenzied and purpled, his hands were shaking. His voice was a thunder, rumbling with its agitation. "I must have sinned deeply--but if the Almighty sees fit to take from me my health, my child, my last days of peace on earth--if He chooses to chastise me as He chastised Job--I shall still fight for His righteous will, and war on the iniquitous chil--"

The last word broke with a choke in his throat. The white head rocked from side to side and the hands clawed the air. Then William Williams hunched forward and lurched from his chair to the floor.

In an instant Farquaharson was at his side and bending over the unconscious form and a few minutes later, still insensible, the figure had been laid on a couch and the roadster was racing for a physician.

When Conscience came out into the yard later, where her lover was awaiting her, her lips were pale and her eyes tortured. She went straight into his outstretched arms and with her head on his shoulder sobbed out a misery that shook her. At last the man asked softly, "What did the doctor say?" And she answered brokenly.

"It seems that--besides the paralysis he has a weak--heart."

The man held her close. "I wish to God it could have been averted. I tried."

"You did all you could," she declared. "But, Stuart, when he came back to consciousness, his eyes were awful! I've never seen such terror in a human face. He couldn't speak at first and when he could ... he whispered in absolute agony, 'Has she gone?' He thought I'd left him lying there--and gone with you."

"Great God!" It was more a groan than an exclamation.

"And when he saw me he stretched out his hands like a child and began crying over me, but even then he said bitterly, 'That man's name must never be mentioned in this house.'... What are we to do?"

"There is only one thing to do," he told her. "We are young enough to wait. You can't desert a dying father."

While they talked the physician came out of the door.

"The patient will pull through this attack," he said briskly. "It's a leaky valve. There is only one rule that I have to lay upon you. It is absolutely vital that he shall not be excited. A blow with an ax would be no more fatal than another such stroke."

Conscience looked desperately about her, as Stuart with the doctor beside him started the car again down the drive. In a front window her eyes lighted on a flaming branch of maple leaves. Only two hours ago she and her lover had been watching the sunlight spill through the gorgeous filter of the painted foliage. They had carried in their hearts the spirit of carnival. Now the storm had broken and swept them.

She walked unsteadily to the veranda of the house and dropped down on the steps. Her head was swimming and her life was in a vortex. _

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