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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 8

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The days that followed were troubled days and they brought to Conscience's cheeks an accentuated pallor. Under her eyes were smudges that made them seem very large and wistful. The minister was once more in his arm chair, a little more broken, a little more fiercely uncompromising of aspect, but the one normal solution of such a spent and burdensome life: the solution of death, stood off from him. Upon his daughter, whose lips were sealed against any protest by the belief that even a small excitement might kill him, he vented long and bigoted sermons of anathema. In these sermons, possibly, he was guilty of the very heresy of which his daughter had said he was so intolerant. He seemed to doubt himself, these days, that Satan wore a spiked tail and a pair of cloven hoofs. Of late he rather leaned to the belief that the Arch-tempter had returned to walk the earth in the guise of a young Virginian and that he had assumed the incognito of Stuart Farquaharson.

One refrain ran through every waking hour and troubled his sleep with fantastic dreams. God commanded him to strip this tempter of his habiliments of pretense and show the naked wickedness of his soul to the girl's deluded eye. To that fancied command he dedicated himself as whole-heartedly as a bloodhound gives itself to the man hunt.

To Stuart one day, as they walked together in the woods, Conscience confessed her fear that this constant hammering of persecution would eventually batter down her capacity for sane judgment and she ended with a sweeping denunciation of every form of bigotry.

"Dear," he answered with the gravity of deep apprehension, "you say that and you believe it and yet this same instinct of self-martyrdom is the undertow of your life flood. If your given name didn't happen to be Conscience your middle name would be just that."

"I suppose I have a conscience of a sort--but a different, sort, I hope. Is that such a serious fault?" she asked, and because the strain of these days had tired and rubbed her nerves into the sensitiveness of exhaustion, she asked it in a hurt and wounded tone.

"It's an indispensable virtue," he declared. "Your father's conscience was a virtue, too, until it ran amuck and became a savage menace. When you were a child," he went on, speaking so earnestly that his brow was drawn into an expression which she mistook for a frown of disapproval, "your most characteristic quality was an irrepressible sense of humor. It gave both sparkle and sanity to your outlook. It held you immune to all bitterness."

"And now?" She put the query somewhat faintly.

"Now, more than ever, because the life around you is grayer, it's vital that you cling to your golden talisman. To let it go means to be lost in the fog."

They were strolling along a woodland path and she was a few steps in advance of him. He saw her shoulders stiffen, but it was not until he overtook her that he discovered her eyes to be sparkling with tears.

"What is it, dearest?" he contritely demanded, and after a long pause she said:

"Nothing, except that I feel as if you had slapped me in the face."

"I! Slapped you in the face!" He could only reecho her words in bewilderment and distress. "I don't understand."

Laying a hand on her arm, he halted her in a place where the setting sun was spilling streams of yellow light through the woodland aisles and then her lips trembled; her eyes filled and she pressed both hands over her face. After a moment she looked up and dashed the tears contemptuously away.

"No, I know you don't understand, dear. It's my own fault. I'm a weak little fool," she said, "But it's all gotten horribly on my nerves. I can't help it."

"For God's sake," he begged, "tell me what I did or said?" And her words came with a weary resignation.

"I think you had better put me out of your life, Stuart. I've just realized how things really are--you've told me. I can't go because I'm chained to the galley. While Father lives my place is here."

She broke off suddenly and his face took on a stunned amazement.

"Out of my life!" exclaimed the man almost angrily. "Abandon you to all this abysmal bigotry and--to this pharisaical web of ugly dogmas! Conscience, you're falling into a melancholy morbidness."

As she looked at him and saw the old smoldering fire in his eyes that reminded her of his boyhood, a pathetic smile twisted the corners of her lips.

"Yes--I guess that's just it, Stuart," she said slowly, "You see, I may have to stay here until, as you put it, I'm all faded out in the fog. If I've changed so much already there's no telling what years of it will turn me into."

Stuart Farquaharson caught her impulsively in his arms and his words came in tumultuous fervor.

"What I said wasn't criticism," he declared. "God knows I couldn't criticize you. You ought to know that. This is the nearest we've ever come to a quarrel, dear, since the Barbara Freitchie days, and it's closer than I want to come. Besides, it's not just your laughter that I love. It's all of you: heart, mind, body: the whole lovely trinity of yourself. I mean to wage unabated war against all these forces that are trying to stifle your laughter into the pious smirk of the pharisee. There's more of what God wants the world to feel in one peal of your laughter than in all the psalms that this whole people ever whined through their noses. You're one of the rare few who can go through life being yourself--not just a copy and reflection of others. A hundred years ago your own people would probably have burned you as a witch for that. They've discontinued that form of worship now, but the cut of their moral and intellectual jib is, in some essentials, the same. Thank God, you have a different pattern of soul and I want you to keep it."

She drew away from him and slowly her face cleared of its misery and the eyes flashed into their old mischief-loving twinkle. "That's the first real rise I've had out of you," she declared, "since Barbara waved the stars and stripes at you. Then you were only defending Virginia, but now you've assumed the offensive against all New England."

But even in that mild disagreement they had, as he said, come nearer than either liked to a quarrel--and neither could quite forget it. Both felt that the thin edge of what might have been a disrupting wedge had threatened their complete harmony.

Because he could mark the transition of this thing called conscience into an obsession, and because he, too, was worn in patience and stinging with resentment against the injustice of the father, he fought hotly, and his denunciations of various influences were burning and scornful. So slowly but dangerously there crept into their arguments the element of contention. Hitherto Stuart had made no tactical mistakes. He had endured greatly and in patience, but now he was unconsciously yielding to the temptation of assailing an abstract code in a fashion which her troubled judgment might translate into attacks upon her father. Out of that attitude was born for her a hard dilemma of conflicting loyalties. It was all a fabric woven of gossamer threads, but Gulliver was bound into helplessness by just such Lilliputian fetters.

Late one night, when the moon was at two-thirds of fullness and the air touched with frost, Stuart abandoned the bed upon which he had been restlessly tossing for hours. He kindled a pipe and sat meditating, none too cheerfully, by the frail light of a bayberry candle. Through the narrow corridors and boxed-in stair wells of a ramshackle hotel, came no sounds except the minors of the night. Somewhere far off a dog barked and somewhere near at hand a traveling salesman snored. In the flare and sputter of the charring wick and melting wax shadows lengthened and shortened like flapping flags of darkness.

Then the jangle of the telephone bell in the office ripped the stillness with a discordant suddenness which Farquaharson thought must arouse the household, but the snoring beyond the wall went on, unbroken, and there was no sound of a footfall on the creaking stair. At last Stuart, himself, irritated by the strident urgency of its repetitions, reached for his bath robe and went down. The clapper still trembled with the echo of its last vibrations as he put the receiver to his ear and answered.

Then he started and his muscles grew taut, for the other voice was that of Conscience and it shook with terrified unevenness and a tremulous faintness like the leaping and weakening of a fevered pulse. He could tell that she was talking guardedly with her lips close to the transmitter.

"I had to speak to you without waiting for morning," she told him, recognizing his voice, "and yet--yet I don't know what to say."

Recognizing from the wild note that she was laboring under some unnatural strain, he answered soothingly, "I'm glad you called me, dear."

"What time is it?" she demanded next and when he told her it was well after midnight she gave a low half-hysterical laugh. "I couldn't sleep.... Father spent the afternoon exhorting me ... he was trying to make me promise not to see you again ... and I was trying to keep him from exciting himself." Her voice was so tense now as to be hardly recognizable. "Every few minutes it looked as if he were about to fly into a passion.... You know what that would mean ... and of course I--I--couldn't promise."

She paused for breath, but before he could speak, rushed on.

"It's been an absolute reign of terror. Every nerve in my body is jumping and quivering.... I think I'm going mad."

"Listen." The man spoke as one might to a child who has awakened, terrified, out of a nightmare and is afraid to be alone. "I'm coming out there. You need to talk to some one. I'll leave the car out of hearing in the road."

"No, no!" she exclaimed in a wildly fluttering timbre of protest. "If he woke up it would be worse than this afternoon--it might kill him!"

But Stuart answered her with a quiet note of finality. "Wrap up well--it's cool outside--and meet me on the verandah. We can talk more safely that way than by 'phone. I'm going to obey the doctor implicitly--unless you fail to meet me. If you do that--" he paused a moment before hanging up the receiver--"I'll knock on the door."

The moon had not yet set as he started on foot up the driveway of the manse and the bare trees stood out stark and inky against the silver mists. Before he was more than half-way to the house he saw her coming to meet him, casting backward glances of anxiety over her shoulder.

She was running with a ghostlike litheness through the moonlight, her eyes wide and frightened and her whole seeming one of unreasoning panic so that the man, who knew her dauntlessness of spirit, felt his heart sink.

"You shouldn't have done it," she began in a reproachful whisper. "You shouldn't have come!" But he only caught her in his arms and held her so close to his own heart that the wild palpitation of her bosom was calmed against its steadiness. Her arms went gropingly round his neck and clutched him as if he were the one stable thing that stood against an allied ferocity of wind and wave.

"You needed me," he said. "And when you need me I come--even if I have to come like a burglar."

The eyes which she raised to his face were tearless--but hardly sane. She was fear-ridden by ghosts that struck at her normality and she whispered, "Suppose he died by my fault?"

At all costs, the lover resolved, Conscience must leave this place for a time--until she could return with a stabler judgment. But just now he could not argue with her.

"We'll be very quiet," he said reassuringly. "If you hear any sound in the house you can go back. You're overwrought, dearest, and I've only come to be near you. Nobody will see me except yourself, but if at any time before daylight you want me, come to your window and raise the blind. I'll be where I can see."

For a while she clung to him silently, her breath coming fast. About them the moon shed a softness of pale silver and old ivory. The silence seemed to carry a wordless hymn of peace and though they stood in shadow there was light enough for lovers' eyes. The driven restlessness that had made Conscience doubt her sanity was slowly yielding to a sense of repose, as the tautened anguish of a mangled body relaxes to the balm of an anesthetic. Slowly the slenderly curved and graciously proportioned modeling of her lithe figure quieted from spasmodic unrest and the wild racing measure of her heart-beat calmed. Then she turned up her face. Her eyes cleared and her lips tilted their corners in a smile.

"I'm a horrid little demon," she declared in a voice freighted with self-scorn, but no longer panic-stricken. "I've always hated a coward, and I'm probably the most amazingly craven one that ever lived. I do nothing but call on you to fight my battles for me when I can't hold my own."

"You're an adorable little saint, with an absurd leaning toward martyrdom," he fervently contradicted. "Why shouldn't you call on me? Aren't you fighting about me?"

Her dark eyes were for a moment serene because she was treasuring this moment of moonlight and the respite of love against the chances of to-morrow.

"Anyhow you came--" she said, "and since you did there's at least one more fight left in me." Then her voice grew again apprehensive. "It was pretty bad before ... just hearing you preached against and being afraid to reply because ... of the warning. Now he wants my promise that I'll dismiss you forever ... and the worst of it is that he'll pound on it to the end. What am I to do?"

"Is there any question?" he gravely asked her. "_Could_ you make that promise?"

"No--no!" He felt the figure in his arms flinch at the words, "There's no question of _that_, but how am I to keep him from raging himself to death?"

"Hasn't the doctor warned him that he mustn't excite himself?"

The dark head nodded and the fingers of the hands about his neck tightened. "Of course," she said. "But there you have the tyranny of weakness again. I must make the fight to keep him alive. He would regard it as going righteously to death for his beliefs. That's just the goodness-gone-wrongness of it all."

"Blessed are the self-righteous," mused Farquaharson half aloud, "for they shall supply their own absolution." To himself he was saying, "The wretched old hellion!"

"And then you see, after all," she added with the martyr's sophistry, "in the fight for you, I'm only fighting for myself and in doing what I can for him I'm trying to be unselfish."

"Listen," the man spoke carefully, "that, too, is the goodness-gone-wrongness as you call it; the sheer perversion of a duty sense. If it were just myself to be thought of, perhaps I couldn't fight you on a point of conscience. But it isn't just me--not if you love me."

"Love you!" He felt the thrilled tremor that ran through her from head to foot, and that made her bosom heave stormily. The moon had sunk a little and the shadow in which they were standing had crawled onward so that on her head fell a gleam of pale light, kindling her eyes and touching her temples under the sooty shadows of her hair. Her lips were parted and her voice trembled with the solemnity of a vow, too sacred to be uttered without the fullest frankness. "In every way that I know how to love, I love you! Everything that a woman can be to a man I want to be to you and all that a woman can give to a man, I want to give to you."

It was he who trembled then and became unsteady with the intoxication of triumph.

"Then I'll fight for you, while I have breath, even if it means fighting with you."

Suddenly she caught at his arm with a spasmodic alarm, and he turned his head as the screeching whine of a window sounded in the stillness. The effort to raise it cautiously was indicated not by any noiselessness but by the long duration of the sound. Then a woman's head with hair in tight pigtails stood out against the pallid light of a bedroom lamp, turned low, and the whispered challenge came out to them. "Who's out there?"

"Ssh!" cautioned the girl, tensely. "It's I, Auntie. Don't wake Father."

Grudgingly the window creaked down and for seconds which lengthened themselves interminably to the anxious ears of the pair in the shadows, they waited with bated breath. Then Stuart whispered, "You must go to sleep now."

The rest of the far-spent night Stuart stood guard outside the house. Once, a half hour after Conscience had gone in, her blind rose and she stood silhouetted against the lamp-light. The man stepped out of his shadow and raised a hand, and she waved back at him. Then the lamp went out, and he surrendered himself to thought and resolves--and mistakes. This submission to the tyranny of weakness had gone too far. She must go away. He must take up the fight aggressively. He did not realize that he who was fighting for her sense of humor had lost his own. He did not foresee that he was preparing to throw the issue on dangerous ground, pitting his stubbornness against her stubbornness, and raising the old duel of temperaments to combat--the immemorial conflict between puritan and cavalier. _

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Read previous: Chapter 7

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