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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 9

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Stuart Farquaharson had tempered a dignified strength with a gracious fortitude. He had endured slanderous charges and stood with the steadiness of a reef-light when Conscience was steering a storm ridden course, but the constant pressure on the dykes of his self-command had strained them until they might break at any moment and let the flood of passion swirl through with destructive power. He was being oppressed and seeing Conscience oppressed by a spirit which he regarded as viciously illiberal--and he accused Conscience, in his own mind, of blind obedience to a distorted sense of duty. Unconsciously he was seeking to coerce her into repudiating it by a form of argument in which the graciousness of his nature gave way to a domineering insistence. Unconsciously, too, that form of attack aroused in her an unyielding quality of opposition.

When he saw her next after the mid-night meeting she had seemed more normally composed and he had seized upon the occasion to open his campaign. They had driven over and stopped the car at a point from which they could look out to sea, and though the summer vividness had died out of wave and sky and the waters had taken on a touch of a leaden grimness, there was still beauty in the picture.

For awhile they talked of unimportant things, but abruptly Stuart said: "Dearest, I told you that I meant to fight for you even if I had to fight with you. That's the hardest form in which the battle could come, but one can't always choose the conditions of war." He paused and, seeing that his eyes were troubled, Conscience smiled encouragingly.

"At least," she laughed, "I believe you will wage war on me humanely."

The man went on hurriedly. "I've been talking with the doctor. He says that your father's condition holds no immediate danger--danger of death, I mean. Unless he suffers another stroke, he may live for years."

The girl nodded her head. "Yes, I know," she said wearily, "and for him life only means continuation of suffering." She did not add that it meant the same for her and Stuart, looking steadily into her face, said with decision, "For awhile you must go away."

"I!" Her eyes widened with an incredulous expression as if she thought she had misunderstood, then she answered slowly and very gently, "You _know_ I can't do that, dear."

"I know that you must," he countered, and because he had keyed himself for this combat of wills he spoke more categorically than he realized. "At first thought, of course, you would feel that you couldn't. But your ability to stand a long siege will depend on conserving your strength. You are human and not indestructible."

She shook her head with a gentle stubbornness. "Stuart, dear, you're trying to make me do a thing you wouldn't do yourself. A sentry placed on duty can't go away until his watch is over--even if it's raw and gloomy where's he's stationed."

"No, but soldiers under intolerable stress are relieved and given breathing space whenever it's possible."

"Yes, whenever it's possible."

"It's possible, now, dearest, and perhaps it won't be later. You could visit some friend for a few weeks and come back the better able to carry on the siege. Otherwise you'll be crushed by the weight of the ordeal."

"Stuart," she began slowly, "who is there to take my place, even for a few weeks?"

"And the whole intolerable situation arises," he broke out with a sudden inflection of wrath, "from inert, thick-skulled bigotry. Thought processes that are moral cramps and mental dyspepsia threaten to ruin your entire life."

"Don't, dear--please!" She leaned toward him and spoke earnestly. "I know it's hard to endure without retort, but please don't make me listen to things like that about Father. It's bad enough without any more recriminations."

Then logic retreated from Stuart Farquaharson. He, the gracious and controlled, gave way to his first moment of ungenerous temper and retorted bitterly.

"Very well, but it seems you can listen to his abuse of me."

Conscience flinched as if lash-stung and for an instant indignation and anger kindled in her eyes only to die as instantly out of them, as she bit her lip. When she spoke it was in an even gentler voice. "You know why I listened to him, Stuart. You know that I didn't listen ... before his stroke. I didn't listen when I told him that if you went, I went, too, did I?"

The man's face paled and with a spasmodic gesture he covered it with his hands. "My God!" he exclaimed, "I don't think I've ever said such a damnably mean and caddish thing before--and to you!"

But Conscience bent over and drew his hands away from his face. "It wasn't you. It was just the strain. You could make allowances for me when I called you out to calm me in the middle of the night. I can make them, too. Neither of us is quite sane."

But having had that warning of Stuart's slipping control, Conscience kept locked in her own bosom certain fresh trials which discussion would have alleviated. She did not tell him how she spent sleepless nights devising plans to meet the grim insistence upon his banishment which she knew the morning would bring. But she felt that the comfort of a complete unburdening of her feelings had been curtailed and with a woman's genius for sacrifice she uncomplainingly assumed that added strain.

One afternoon Eben Tollman came out of the house, as she was walking alone under the bare trees of the driveway, and stopped, hat in hand, at her side.

"Conscience," he began thoughtfully, "Mr. Williams has just told me of his insistence that Mr. Farquaharson shall not only be denied the house, but sent away altogether. You must be carrying a pretty heavy load for young shoulders."

The girl stood regarding her father's counselor gravely. He had never appealed to her as a person inviting confidence, and she had thought of his mind as cut to the same austere pattern as the minister's own. Yet now his face wore an expression of kindliness and sympathy to which his manner gave corroboration. Possibly she had misjudged the man and lost his underlying qualities in her careless view of externals. Tollman seemed to expect no answer and went on slowly, "I tried to point out to your father the unwisdom of an insistence which must stir a spirit like yours to natural opposition. I suggested that under the circumstances it was scarcely fair."

"What did he say?" She put the inquiry with a level glance as if reserving her right to accept or reject his volunteered assistance.

"He could only see his own side. He must do his duty, however hard he found it."

Conscience remembered Stuart's warning that Tollman thought he loved her, and smiled to herself. This voluntary championing of another man's cause hardly seemed to comport with such a conception.

"I don't know what to do," she admitted wearily. "Obviously I can't make the promise he asks and no more can I let him fly into a rage that may kill him. I'm between the upper and nether mill-stones."

The man nodded with a grave and courteous comprehension.

"I hesitate to volunteer advice--and yet--" He came to a questioning halt.

"Yes," she prompted eagerly. "Please go on."

"I had thought," he continued, with the diffident manner of a man unaccustomed to proffering counsel before it was asked, "that, if you cared to use me, I might be of some help--as an intermediary of sorts."

"An intermediary?" she repeated. Then more impulsively, because she felt that her attitude had been wanting in graciousness, she added, "I know you're offering to do something very kind, but I'm afraid I don't quite understand."

"I think I am entirely in your father's confidence," he explained, "and because, on many subjects, we hold common opinions, I can discuss--even argue--matters with him without fear of antagonism or excitement to him. Still I hope I am not too old to be in sympathy with your more youthful and more modern outlook on life. If at any time I can help, please call on me."

They had been walking toward his buggy at the hitching post--it was not a new or particularly well-kept vehicle--and there they halted.

"This is good of you," she said, extending her hand cordially, and as he took it he suggested, "Meanwhile an old man is not speedily weaned from an idea which has taken deep root, and that brings me to another suggestion." Once more he paused deferentially as if awaiting permission, "if I may make it."

"I wish you would."

"It is the idea of Mr. Farquaharson's constant proximity and influence which keeps your father's animosity stirred to combat. With a temporary absence it would relax. I think it might even come to an automatic end.... When Farquaharson returned Mr. Williams's mind might have lost its inflammation."

He smiled and shook the reins over the back of the old horse and when he drove away he left Conscience standing with her lips parted and her gaze set.

Send Stuart away for a time! She had told that she could not stand it without him, and now Tollman had expressed the unbiased view of one whose personal desires were not blinding his judgment. She moved over to the side of the road and leaned heavily against a tree. She felt as if she were standing unprotected under the chilling beat of a cold and driving rain, and her lips moved without sound, shaping again the three words "send him away!"

She had been holding her lover at her side until she could see his nerves growing raw under the stress of his worry about herself and the temper which nature had made chivalric giving way to acerbity. Yes, Tollman was right--it required a sacrifice to save a wreck--and because he was right the sun grew dark and the future as black as the floor of the sea.

But the next time she saw Stuart she did not broach the suggestion, nor yet the next time after that. The man gave her no opportunity, so indomitably was he waging his campaign to have her go. And as her equally inflexible refusal stood impregnable against his assaults, he grew desperate and reenforced his arguments with the accusation of indifference to his wishes. In each succeeding discussion, his infectious smile grew rarer and the drawn brow, that bore close kinship to a frown, more habitual. His own talisman of humor was going from him, and two unyielding determinations settled more and more directly at cross odds.

When the breach came it was almost entirely the Virginian's fault, or the fault of the unsuspected Hyde who lurked behind his Jekyll.

"Conscience," he pleaded desperately on the afternoon which neither of them could ever remember afterwards without a sickness of the soul, "you're simply building a funeral pyre for yourself. You're wrecking your life and my life because of an insane idea. You're letting the pettiest and unworthiest thing in you--a twisted instinct--consume all that's vital and fine. You're worshiping the morbid."

"If I'm guilty of all that" she answered with a haunted misery in her eyes which she averted her face to hide, "I'm hardly worth fighting for. The only answer I have is that I'm doing what seems right to me."

"Can't you admit that for the moment your sense of right may be clouded? All I ask is that you go for a while to the home of some friend, where they don't rebuff the sunlight when it comes in at the window."

"Stuart," she told him gently but with conviction, "you have changed, too. Once I could have taken your advice as almost infallible, but I can't now."

The Virginian's face paled, and his question came with an irritable quickness, "In what fashion have I changed?"

"In a way, I think I've recovered my balance," she said with deep seriousness. "I couldn't have done it without you. You've taken my troubles on yourself, but at a heavy price, dear. They've preyed on you until now it's _you_ who can't trust his judgment. All you say influences me, but it's no longer because of its logic, it's because I love you and you're talking to my heart."

Farquaharson paced the frosty path of the woods where they were talking. His face was dark and his movements nervous so Conscience would not let herself look at him. She had something difficult to say and of late she had not felt strong enough to spend vitality with wastefulness.

"You say I'm wrecking both our lives...." she went on resolutely. "I don't want to wreck either ... but yours I couldn't bear to wreck. I love you enough to make any sacrifice for you ... even enough to give you up."

Stuart wheeled and his attitude stiffened to rigidity. The woods raced about him in crazy circles, and before his eyes swam spots of yellow and orange.

"Do you mean--" he paused to moisten his lips with his tongue and found his tongue, too, suddenly dry--"do you mean that you've let this tyranny of weakness conquer you? Have you promised to exile me?"

She flinched as she had flinched on the one other occasion when he had accused her of a disloyalty which would have been impossible to her, but she was too unhappy to be angry.

"No," she said slowly, "I haven't even considered such a promise. I said just now that you had changed. The other Stuart Farquaharson wouldn't have suspected me of that."

"Then what in Heaven's name do you mean?"

"I mean that you must go away--for awhile. It's only selfishness that has blinded me to that all along. I'm killing all the best in you by keeping you here."

"You are strong enough to bear the direct strain, I suppose," he accused with a bitter smile. "But I'm too weak to endure even its reflection."

"It's always easier to bear trouble oneself," she reminded him with a gracious patience, "than to see the person one loves subjected to it."

"When did you think of this?"

"I didn't think of it myself," she told him with candid directness. "I guess I was too selfish. Mr. Tollman suggested it."

"Mr. Tollman!" The name burst from his lips like an anathema and a sudden gust of fury swept him from all moorings of control. "You love me enough to give me up--on the advice of my enemies! You are deaf to all my pleadings, but to the casual suggestion of this damned pharisee you yield instant obedience. And what he suggests is that I be sent away."

Her twisted fingers clenched themselves more tautly and had passion not enveloped Stuart in a red wreath of fog he must have refrained from adding to the acuteness of her torture just then.

"Why," she asked faintly, "should he be your enemy?"

"Because he wants you himself, because, with me disposed of, he believes he can get what his unclean and avaricious heart covets as a snake charms a bird, because--"

Conscience rose with an effort to her feet. Her knees were trembling under her and her heart seemed to close into a painful strangulation.

"Stuart," she faltered, "if you think that my love can only be held against any outsider by your being at hand to watch it, you don't trust it as it _must_ be trusted--and it isn't worth offering you at all."

"You've fallen under the spell of these Mad Mullah prophets," he retorted hotly, "until you can't trust yourself any longer. You've been inflamed into the Mohammedan's spirit of a holy war and you're ready to make a burnt offering of me and my love."

"Now," she said with a faintness that was almost a whisper, "you _must_ go, whether you agree or not. You distrust me and insult me ... and I don't think ... I can stand many ... interviews like this."

But Farquaharson's curb had slipped. His anger was a frenzied runaway which he, like a madman, was riding in utter recklessness.

"If I go now," he violently protested, "if I am sent into exile at the behest of Tollman, my enemy, I go for all time, knowing that the woman I leave behind is not the woman I thought I knew or the woman I have worshiped."

Their eyes met and engaged in a challenge of wills in which neither would surrender; a challenge which had built an issue out of nothing. His burned with the moment's madness. Hers were clear and unflinching.

"If you _can_ go like that," she said, and the tremor left her voice as she said it, "the man who goes isn't the man to whom I gave all my love and to whom I was ready to give my life."

She straightened, sustained by a temporary strength, and stood clothed in a beauty above any which even he had before acknowledged; a beauty fired with the war spirit of a Valkyrie and of eyes regal in their affronted dignity. "If you can feel about me as your words indicate, we could never know happiness. The man whose love can make such accusations isn't the Stuart Farquaharson that made me willing to die for him. Perhaps after all I only _dreamed_ that man. It was a wonderful dream."

She carried the fingers of one hand to her temple in a bewildered gesture, then shook back her head as one rousing oneself with an effort from sleep. "If it was a dream," she went on with a forced courage, "it's just as well to find it out in time."

"Then--" he made several attempts before he could speak--"then you are sending me away. If that's true--as there's a God in Heaven, I'll never come back until you send for me."

"As there's a God in Heaven," she answered steadily, almost contemptuously, "I'll never send for you. You'll never come back unless you come yourself--and come with a more absolute trust in your heart."

They stood under the leafless branches in a long silence, both white of cheek and supremely shaken, until at last the man said huskily: "I suppose I may take you to your gate?"

She shook her head. "No," she answered firmly, "I'm going across the field. It's only a step." She turned then and walked away and as he looked after her she did not glance backward. An erect and regal carriage covered the misery of her retreat--but when she reached her house she went up the stairs like some creature mortally wounded and as she closed the door of her room, there came from her throat a low and agonized groan. She stood leaning for a space against the panels with her hands stretched out gropingly against the woodwork. Her lips moved vacantly, then her knees gave way and she crumpled down and lay insensible on the floor. _

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