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The Tyranny of Weakness, a novel by Charles Neville Buck

Chapter 10

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After awhile her lashes trembled and rose flickeringly upon the vague perplexity of returning consciousness. Her head ached and her muscles were cramped, because she had crumpled down as she stood, so that she regained her feet falteringly and went with difficulty over to a chair before the mirror of her dressing-table. For awhile she sat gazing dully into her own reflected eyes. Under them were dark rings. Her cheeks were pale and her whole face was stricken with the bleak hopelessness of heartbreak. Her gaze fell on a framed photograph, just before her, and she flinched. It was an enlarged snapshot of Stuart Farquaharson. But other pictures more vitally near to her recent past were passing also before her. She felt again the muscles of his forearms snap into tautness as he stood silent under her father's insults. She felt the strength of his embrace calming the panic of her own heart; the touch of the kisses that had brought her both peace and ecstasy and wakened in her latent fires. Surely if, at last, the hot temper had broken through and blinded him with its glare of passion, it had not--could not--have burned to ashes all the chivalric record of these trying months. Surely it was a thing she could forgive. The man upon whom she had leaned so long and whom she had known so well must be more real than this alien revealed in an ungenerous half hour. The pale sunset died into the ashes of twilight. Her bureau clock ticked out a full hour--and a second hour while she sat almost immovable. She argued with herself that this conflict which had so impalpably gathered and so suddenly burst in storm was a nightmare coming out of the shadows and had no substance of reality.

At last she lighted a lamp and moved wearily to her writing desk. Her pen developed a mutinous trick of balking, and her eyes of staring, unseeing, at the wall. But at last when she had torn up sheet after sheet, she finished her task.

"Dear Stuart," she had written. "You told me once that no one should send you away--not even I--unless I proved myself stronger than you. To-day you accused me of being the dupe of your enemies--and you are going--not because I am strong enough to banish you, but because you think me too weak to be trusted with your love. Without absolute trust we could never hope for happiness. So this isn't a plea, Stuart. It's not even an apology--except that I freely acknowledge a large share of fault--but I can't let you go without thanking you for all the gallant sacrifices you have made and for all the ways in which you have sought to stand between me and distress. Until to-day you have, under fire, proven true to your code of knighthood, and to-day I could forget--but could you? Of all the things I have ever said to you, of love, I have no syllable to retract. Even now I repeat it. I love you absolutely. When I suggested your leaving for a time I did a desperately hard thing--and you misunderstood it. Unless you can understand it, dear, it would do no good to come back, it would only mean other humiliating memories. This is not an easy letter to write and it's not well done. If your attitude of this afternoon is anything more than the delusion of anger--in other words, if your love is not one of complete trust, it's better that we shouldn't see each other again. If you can come in the spirit that I can receive you, to-day can be erased as if it had never happened--but until I have your answer (given after you have searched your heart) I shall be--but that is neither here nor there."

Tollman, who was taking supper at the manse that evening, noted the pallor of her face, but made no comment. He had, in fact, already divined a lover's quarrel and that was a thing into which even the most friendly interference might well bring rebuff. But he was not surprised, on leaving, to find Conscience waylaying him at the front door with an envelope in her hand, which she asked him to post without fail in the morning when after his invariable custom he drove to the village post office. Within the last few days the invalid's irritability had taken the form of intense dislike for the jingle of the telephone and in deference to his whim it had been disconnected. Consequently the family friend had of late both mailed and delivered notes between the lovers and knew the handwriting of each.

That night Stuart slept not at all. For hours after he reached his room in the hotel he paced it frantically. First cumulative anger, long held in leash, swept him like a forest fire, charring his reason into unreason. He had fought for Conscience and lost her. She had thrown her lot with the narrow minds and cast him adrift. He had placed all his trust in her and she had failed to rise above her heritage. But as the night wore on a nauseating reaction of self-indictment followed. He saw that he had grossly affronted her and brutally accused her. The generosity and fairness he worshiped had had no part in his conduct. He, too, spent hours writing, destroying and rewriting letters.

At last he let one stand.

"But, dearest," he said at its end, "if you _do_ let me come back, you must still let me fight--not with temper and accusation, but patiently--against the strangling of your life. After this afternoon there can be no middle ground. I stand before you so discredited that unless you love me enough to forgive me you must hate me wholly and completely. If it's hate, I have earned it--and more, but if it _can_ still be love, I have a life to spend in contradiction of to-day. I shall remain here twenty-four hours waiting for my answer, and each hour until it comes will be a purgatory. I've forfeited my right to come to you without permission. I must wait for your verdict. I don't even claim the right to expect an answer--but I know you will give one. Not to do so would be to brand me, for life, not only with bitter hatred but bitter contempt as well."

At dawn, without having been to bed, he posted the letter and sat down to wait with the anxiety of a defendant who has seen the jury locked into its chamber of fateful decision.

When Eben Tollman came into the post office that morning, he called for his mail and that of the Williams household.

Conscience's note to Stuart he did not mail. Stuart's letter to Conscience he did not deliver, but later in the day he deposited both in a strong-box in which he kept his private papers.

Three days Stuart Farquaharson spent waiting for an answer and while he waited his face became drawn, and the ugly doubt of the first hours settled into a certainty. There would be no answer. He had told her that to ignore his plea would be the superlative form of scorn--and she had chosen it.

Conscience, too, who had humbled herself, was waiting: waiting at first with a trust which refused to entertain doubt, and which withered as the days passed into such an agony that she felt she must go mad. If Stuart had deliberately done _that_--she must make herself forget him because to hold him in her heart would be to disgrace herself. The man, in the hour of ugly passion, had been the real one after all; the other only a pleasing masquerade!

"Did you mail my letter?" she finally demanded of Tollman, and he smilingly responded. "I don't think I ever forgot to post a letter in my life."

In a final investigation she walked to the village and inquired at the hotel desk, "Is Mr. Farquaharson here?"

"No, Miss Conscience," the clerk smilingly responded, "he checked out last night. Said he'd send his address later."

One afternoon several days later a stranger left the train at the village and looked about him with that bored and commiserating expression with which city men are apt to regard the shallow skyline of a small town. He was of medium height and carefully groomed from his well-tailored clothes to the carnation in his buttonhole and manicured polish of his nails. His face, clean-shaven save for a close-cropped and sandy mustache, held a touch of the florid and his figure inclined to stoutness. At the livery stable where he called for a buggy, after learning that no taxis were to be had, he gave the name of Michael Hagan and asked to be directed to the house of Mr. Eben Tollman.

Mr. Tollman was obviously expecting his visitor, and received him upon arrival in his austere study. Yet the fact that there was no element of surprise in Mr. Hagan's coming failed to relieve Mr. Tollman of traces of nervousness as he inquired, "You are Mr. Hagan?"

"Yes, Mr. Tollman, I came up in answer to your letter."

The stranger had no roving eye. He seemed, indeed, steady of hearing to the verge of stolidity, yet in a few seconds he had noted and drawn rapid conclusions from the environment. The cheerlessness of the house had struck him and the somber room, decorated, if one calls it decoration, with faded steel engravings of Landseer hunting dogs guarding dead birds and rabbits, impressed him.

Mr. Tollman bowed coldly.

"The matter I wish to discuss with you is confidential," he began by way of introduction, and Hagan smiled as he replied, "Most matters which clients discuss with me, _are_ confidential."

Even with this reassurance, Mr. Tollman appeared to labor under embarrassment and it was only after some thought that he suggested, "This business is so new to me that I hardly know how to approach it."

"A man should be extremely frank with his physician or his lawyer," volunteered the newcomer. "It's even truer in the case of a detective."

"In this instance," Mr. Tollman proceeded with the wariness of one wading into water of unknown depth, "I am acting for friends whose business interests I represent, and who do not care to appear in the matter. Therefore your dealings will be exclusively with me."

"Certainly, that's quite usual. Now, what's the nature of the case? Your letter didn't indicate."

"Well, the fact is I wish to have a somewhat searching investigation made into the personal character and conduct of a young gentleman, who for reasons unnecessary to state, is of interest to my friends."

"Let me understand you clearly," prompted Mr. Hagan, with a briskness that accentuated the other's air of secretiveness. "Is this man to be shown up? Is that what you mean?"

Mr. Tollman stiffened. "I should suppose," he said with cool dignity, "that would be dependent to a certain extent on the facts."

But Mr. Hagan had in his police-detective days made use of the third degree, and when he next spoke his voice was firm almost to sternness. "I thought," he reminded the other, "we were going to be frank."

Thus encouraged, Tollman proceeded slowly, "I'm not seeking to whitewash the character of the gentleman, if that's what you mean."

"Good! Now, we're going somewhere. There are very few people who have no skeletons in their closets."

The hand of the employer came up with fastidious distaste. "Let this be understood from the beginning, Mr. Hagan, I have no wish to hear anything but reports of results obtained. In the details of your work I have not the slightest interest."

Mr. Hagan nodded, and inquired, "Is it with a view to criminal prosecution, now, that this case is to be worked or--?" He paused interrogatively.

"It is not. It is only necessary to convince a young lady, whose family disapproves of the man, that their suspicions are based on fact. She is so prejudiced in his favor, however, that the facts must be substantial--and of a character calculated to weigh with a woman."

Hagan drew a cigar-case from his pocket, and proffered it, but his offer being declined with a cold shake of the head, he settled himself as comfortably as possible in his uncomfortable chair and engaged in reflection. After digesting the preliminaries, he began to speak musingly, as though to himself.

"Of course if the lady knew that detectives were working on the case, the force of any disclosure would be discounted."

His eyes were on his employer as he spoke and he saw Tollman start. Tollman's words, too, came with an impulsiveness which had been absent heretofore.

"Neither of them must know, of course, that this investigation is being made. Unless you can assure me on that point you mustn't undertake the business."

With some difficulty the detective repressed a smile. "That goes without saying, Mr. Tollman. Now if it could be shown that this man was mixed up in some sort of a scandal--with a married woman, or a shady one, for instance--that ought to fit the case, oughtn't it?"

"Precisely." Again Tollman's voice was tinged with an unaccustomed quickness of interest, but at once, as though he had made a mistake, he amended with a heavy gravity, "However, we can hardly forecast what you will learn. I understand that he has directed his mail forwarded to an apartment hotel near Washington Square in New York."

The two talked for perhaps forty minutes--though it must be admitted that a portion of that time was devoted to a discussion of the terms of employment. Mr. Tollman had never undertaken having a man shadowed before and he regarded the fees as needlessly large.

Back once more in his office in a building on Forty-second Street, Mr. Hagan cut the end from a cigar and gazed out across the public library and the park at its back. The frosted glass of his hall door bore the legend, "The Searchlight Investigation Bureau. Private."

"Well, what did you find out about this job?" inquired a member of the office force who had entered from a communicating room, and the chief wrinkled his brow a little as he studied his _perfecto_.

"It's a dirty business, Schenk," he replied crisply. "It's the kind of thing that gives knockers a license to put detectives in the same class as blackmailers--and the old Whey-face himself is a tight-wad. He wrangled over the price--but I made him come through."

"What does he want done?"

"He wants a guy framed. You remember what the bulls did for Big Finnerty, when Finnerty was threatening to squeal to the District Attorney's office about police graft?"

Schenk nodded. "They pulled the old stuff on him. Sent him to the Island a year for gun-toting."

"Sure, and he didn't have a gat at that--that is, not until the bulls planted it in his kick on the way to the station house." The dignity of Mr. Hagan's consultation manner had dropped from him, and he had relapsed into the gang argot with which police days had given him an intimate familiarity.

"Sure he didn't. That's the way they frame a man. It's the way they framed--"

"Can the reminiscence stuff," interrupted the head of the Searchlight Investigation Bureau. "The point is that it's just about the deal we're being hired to put over on this Farquaharson person. He wants to marry a girl and we've got to frame him up with a dirty past--or present. Our respected employer is a deacon and a pious hypocrite. He wants results and he wants us to go the limit to get 'em. But he must never know anything that soils the hem of his garment. He has no interest in the petty doings of detectives. His smug face must be saved. He didn't tell me this, but I wised myself to it right away. He's got his eye on that girl, himself."

The winter came close on the heels of a short autumn that year and it came with the bluster and roar of squalls at sea and the lashing of the woods inland. For some weeks Conscience followed the colorless monotony of her life with a stunned and bruised deadness about her heart. She had shed no tears and the feeling was always with her that soon she must awaken to a poignant agony and that then her mind would collapse. Mechanically she read to her father and supervised the duties of the attendant who had been brought on from Boston, but often when he spoke to her he had to repeat his question, and then she would come back to the present with a start.

The invalid had learned from Tollman that Farquaharson had gone away after a quarrel, and he piously told himself that his prayers were answered and his daughter had been snatched as a brand from the burning. But for once an instinct of mercy tinged his dealings with the frailities of humanity. He refrained from talking of Stuart and from the pointing of morals. That would come later. _

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